Maniac (1980)

The late 70's and early 80's were a fabulous time for horror cinema. The advent of the direct to video feature added a layer to the industry that hadn't existed before. Pictures with limited funding or genre appeal were no longer constrained to midnight showing at grind house cinemas across the countries major metropolitan eras. As videos began to be circulated, certain films from the era, films that were well made, well acted and well produced but represented a certain counter culture in film making began to gain momentum and became part of a wave of underground cinema that made a statement. movies that may appear to be pretty fucked up on the surface, but still said something beneath the gore. "Maniac" is one of the shining examples from this time period.

Counter culture horror can trace itself back to the films of Herschel Gordon Lewis in the 60's. It evolved into films like "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", "Last House on the Left" and "I Spit On Your Grave" in the 70's. The dawn of new decade saw filmmakers looking to push the envelope even further. The backdrop moved from the country to our cities, specifically New York. New York City was a dramatically different place in 1980 than it is now in 2011. Rows of Grind House theaters and XXX movie houses dominated Times Square where over priced TGIFridays and Disney Stores sit today. This seediness sets the perfect atmosphere and background for a film like "Maniac."

The plot to "Maniac"is basically irrelevant. Joe Spinell (Godfather I and II) plays Frank Zito, self professed "abstract" painter and general nutcase. Zito has some serious mommy issues - Norman Bates level mommy issues. He seems to have snapped after he lost his mother in a car accident and is seeking to fill her void in the most gruesome ways possible. He spends his nights stalking and killing women. After killing them, he scalps them and takes the bloody head piece back to his basement apartment. He attaches the scalp to various mannequins he has littered around his place. As he explains he sees the mannequins as some way of "holding on" to his mother. Eventually, as in most of these films, Zito meets his match and one of his victims escapes. Crushed, Zito stumbles home wounded. he cries himself into a stupor and stabs himself in the stomach, killing himself. Or does he? The ambiguous ending to the film certainly lends itself to a sequel. One that unfortunately we never got due to the untimely passing of Spinnel.

Spinnel is great in this film, one of his few starring roles. He conveys such a range of emotion, even while committing horrendously vile acts, that it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for the killer. He is equally sympathetic as menacing.

Equally as menacing are the streets of New york. The film is a throwback to a different time in the city, before Giuliani had all the homeless killed and the hookers sent to Jersey. Times square had flavor. It wasn't just another tourist trap. There is a thin level of grime on the film just because of the setting, making the movie seem all that more real. Shot almost exclusively at night under the artificial lights of neon signs there is a sense of dread in every setting of impending doom with every footstep. It is a trully scary film.

Often credited as one of the first great "slasher films", "Maniac" is so much more than that. From Spinells' nuanced performance to Tom Savini (who was fresh off "Friday the 13th" here) and all his gory goodness, "Maniac" delivers. A must see movie for any horror fan.

**** stars out of 5

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