BY TONY FRAME
Maniac was one of the films in the video nasty era that I unfortunately never saw until very recently. I guess the film would have had a more profound effect on me had I seen it then, back in the day. It’s hard to judge the film now when it’s main strength lies in the schlock factor and ultra-violence against women which, back in 1981, would have hit a nerve and gotten it the notoriety which ultimately followed.
As a low budget independent film it has its merits; Joe Spinell, who is uncharacteristically the lead, manages to pull off a convincing enough performance as the brutal killer terrorising New York city. The street shots, filmed without permits, on the fly, give it a gritty edge and a slight documentary style. The graphic murders, which involves Spinell scalping his female victims, as well as a particularly infamous shotgun blast to the head, are orchestrated by effects legend Tom Savini.
One of the more bizarre elements in the film—that adds to its uniqueness—is Spinell’s apartment which is filled with mannequins that he talks to and which are adorned with the bloody scalps of his victims.
The film teeters on being a repetitive B-movie slasher but manages to redeem itself with its themes of child abuse and Spinell’s low-key performance, portraying what would be classed as a paranoid schizophrenic in today’s climate. Jay Chattaway’s haunting score adds some major gravitas to the film which climaxes with a memorable and shocking ending.
I can envisage the shock-waves the film would have caused back in the early eighties and certainly its influence can be found in films throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century. The director, William Lustig, would go on to hone his film-making skills from this with his Maniac Cop trilogy.
Spinell, who was already an establish actor, although never really considered a leading man, would continue working throughout the eighties. He was only cast in a lead role one more time before his untimely death time in 1989 at the age of 52. His filmography included roles in The Godfather, Rocky, Cruising and Taxi Driver to name a few. But it will probably be his role in Maniac that he will be remembered for the most.