Really funny thing about the horror film Maniac. Just around the time the VHS format was winning the format war (bye bye beta), the movie Flashdance was rushed onto video in the fall of 1983 to cash in on its recent summer success. My high school friend already had a VCR, so we got his dad to take us to the local video store (where I would eventually work!) to rent some movies. The two movies we chose were Flashdance and the 1980 film Maniac. I had no idea at the time that the classic Michael Sembello hit from Flashdance was originally meant to be used in this horror movie, the lyrics then rewritten for the film Flashdance instead. How weird is that? And how predictable that I would immerse myself in such six degrees of 80s trivia without even realizing it? It seems only appropriate to begin the blog with what could have changed the 80s fates of Maniac, Flashdance, and Michael Sembello forever. Here’s the redirected movie soundtrack song being performed by Michael on American Bandstand while he proudly shows off his shoulder fur.
Anyway, Maniac is one of many films that I never liked because it takes us mostly on a journey WITH the killer. I simply can’t relate to a psycho, no matter how “tragic” his back story. A similar film from the same year that I like even less is the brutal Don’t Answer the Phone, and a more modern take on this genre that I never felt the need to watch a second time is 2003’s The Last Horror Movie (not to be confused with Spinell’s other psycho killer flick The Last Horror Film, which I blog about here). I simply don’t find it scary or frightening to be on board with the killer while having no connection to or sympathy for the victims, which is usually the case with these films.
However, Maniac has its 80s charm. For starters, there’s the awesome synthesizer horror soundtrack. And where this film succeeds the most is in the way it shifts away from the killer as a human to the typical slasher perspective—killer stalking victim in isolated location. It also shows us the stereotypical sinister, seedy city streets of New York as it was always portrayed in films back then. The funniest “goof” would be when one victim runs down to the subway platform to get away from the maniac as he chases her. She misses the train as it pulls away and we see that there are at least half a dozen people standing on the platform right across from her…yet she runs away as if she’s all alone with no one to scream to for help, and then corners herself in an empty restroom!
The film is definitely gritty, and actor Joe Spinell is perfect as the kind of total sleazebag perv creep anyone would fear meeting in a dark alley. He’s slovenly, sweaty, greasy-haired, with a pockmarked face and bulging yet beady black eyes. He carries his murder weapons in a violin case. He talks to himself and is delusional when he’s alone in his skanky city apartment, which is filled with bloody mannequins, dolls in cages, freaky masks…you get the picture. This is where I just can’t get into it. I really don’t want to be in the mind—or home— of a dude with an Ed Gein mommy-complex! I don’t want to go on a killing spree with him and then come home with him while he curls up in bed with a mannequin, but that’s exactly what happens here.
There ARE some moments I can really appreciate. First of all, there are several early 80s female porn stars in small roles, which brings back fond memories of my days passing out porn to the customers at that video store I mentioned above. The movie decides it really has to up the horror tone at the very end, so we are dragged with the killer to a foggy graveyard, where he brings beautiful Caroline Munro, who he suddenly becomes sane enough to score and date near the end of the film. REALLY?
This leads to a totally out of place mommy mummy rising from the ground scene! WTF? Cool scene, but really forced, even if it is the killer totally tripping.
The awesome revenge of the “mannequins” scene that takes place soon after back in Spinell’s apartment just keeps piling on the horror, but it’s at least a little more in keeping with his apartment delusions throughout the film.
But the most memorable moment is one of the reasons I think this film is so adored by many horror fans. Special effects master Tom Savini looks hot as always with his gay porn mustache in his cameo (no, that’s not the reason), and creates one of the most…um…brain blowing special effects.
This scene of he and his girl parked in a car at night and being targeted by Spinell with a gun rather than the usual sharp object makes it clear the entire plot of the film is inspired by the Son of Sam killings. It brings back vivid memories for me of the serial killing spree that took place in a borough that was only three blocks away from my home growing up, and was the spot where the Son of Sam shot my fricking babysitter, but that’s a whole other story. You can read it here.