Aw, he got raspberry jam all over his shoes
The 1970's and early 80's were a crazy time, especially in New York City. The economy was in the dumps, racial tension was high, crime and drug use was rampant, and disco was popular. It was the perfect setting for plenty of great movies such as Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Death Wish, Raging Bull and Dog Day Afternoon. The grim and gritty backdrop was perfect for movies in need of a “real” setting. It's only natural that a horror movie would use that same setting to create fear and terror.
Maniac is a 1980 horror serial killer film co-written by and starring Joe Spinell (The Godfather Part II, Rocky) as Frank Zito. Frank is a homicidal schizophrenic, killing women, scalping them, and fixing the scalps to the heads of mannequins that he keeps in his tiny apartment. We see him carrying on conversations with his long-dead, abusive mother. The body count rises and police are unable to pinpoint who the killer is. One day, Frank sees a fashion photographre named Anna take his photo in the park. He finds her bag and is able to track her down. He controls himself long enough to appear normal and intelligent, even going out to dinner with Anna. While visiting her on the set of one of her shoots, Frank becomes enamored with one of her models, Rita. He steals her necklace and uses it as a reason to go to her apartment. Once she lets him in, Frank ties her up and speaks to her as if she is his mother and he has finally been reunited with her. He stabs her to death before scalping her and dismembering her body. Frank takes Anna to his mother's grave where his grip on reality completely slips as he tries to attack Anna. She is able to hit Frank with a shovel and runs. Frank weeps at his mother's grave and hallucinates that she is now a zombie and is trying to kill him. Will Anna be able to survive and who, or what, can stop Frank?
I love what I've done with your hair
The biggest problem with Maniac is the story, or lack thereof. Maniac is essentially a combination of real-life killers Ed Gein and Son of Sam. There is no real story to speak of until the last 30 minutes of the movie. Prior to that, we basically watch Frank stalk and murder a few different women. Any female character that is introduced is just killed by Frank, so it's not like we have any connection or feelings towards these characters. What compounds the problem is that these killing scenes are far too long. They all have good suspense because we know what is going to happen and are just waiting. And waiting. And waiting. I actually lost suspense, if that's even possible. There are some jolts, mostly due to the makeup and effects by Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, From Dusk Till Dawn), who even makes an appearance in the movie. That appearance is cut short when Frank blows his head off with a shotgun in a scene that is both gruesome and impressive as Savini's “head” explodes like a paint-filled melon.
The movie mostly focuses on Frank's schizophrenic conversations which, admittedly, are very terrifying. It's like being part of a peepshow, peering in to the cracked psyche of a madman. Joe Spinell does a superb job convincing me that he was insane, especially since many of his scenes are by himself. It also helps that he looks like a sweatier version of Ron Jeremy. His transition from seething lunatic to polite, even charming man is very impressive, but it comes out of nowhere and was unexpected. Why not start the movie with his relationship with Anna instead of waiting until the very end? The movie really goes off the rails in the last 10 minutes with the addition of Frank's mother and victims appearing as zombies. Zombies?! Where did this come from? For a movie that went for gritty and “real”, the ending did a complete 180 and crashed into a cliff made of “Huh?!”
Maniac does fit in with the other dirty New York City movies of the era, but goes more for shock and blood than story or feeling. It focuses far too much on stalking and violence for the first hour, leaving the last act to feel rushed and out of place. It would have been better if this was reversed because for a majority of the movie, there is no plot other than Frank killing women because he's nuts. Joe Spinell puts on a great performance, both visually and emotionally. Tom Savini's makeup and effects are as good as always with lots of blood and gore. Ultimately, Maniac has a few good things about it, but it's not enough to make it a complete watch.