What’s it About: A beach-going couple is having a fun romp when they’re suddenly Maniac’d to death. There’s a maniac on the loose in New York City, and he has mommy issues!
After the opening credits, two hookers who look like mug shot #5 in a downward spiral of meth poster are talking about giving a guy The Ultimate, which sounds amazing. Count Zarth from Star Crash comes along and purchases The Ultimate for just $75 from the hooker who looks slightly less like a toad that’s been whipped against a rock by a boy with ADHD. The seedy hotel room he takes her to is actually much nicer than the one in Basket Case. He proceeds to pretend like they’re going to make it, but instead he strangles her (while she screams the whole time, so I guess it was a light strangling). Immediately afterward, he throws up and seems remorseful, even when he’s scalping her. I guess he got his $75 worth, but the bad news is we never get to know what The Ultimate is.
Frank then goes back to his house full of mannequins and dolls, and has a maniacal voice-over about how this kind of thing happens every time he goes out. That’s why I stay in and watch movies. He brings home a new mannequin and places the dead hooker’s scalp on it. You would think that wherever he buys these mannequins from may get a little suspicious that some creepoid comes in to buy one mannequin at a time, but maybe mannequin business was slow, and maybe they’re used to weirdos buying mannequins so they can pretend like the mannequins are their girlfriends, like Andrew McCarthy.
Frank goes out again, even though he just told himself that he shouldn’t, and blows the heads off of Tom Savini and a blond with a shotgun that uses some kind of head-exploding shell, which is totally awesome. Fancy girls in their fancy dresses and their lipstick. Then he goes home and tells someone in the room yet again that they’ll never take her away from him. Then he handcuffs himself to a mannequin. I think this guy’s crazy.
From there he stalks a nurse in the subway and plays a game of cat and mouse, in which the cat stabs the mouse through the back with a short sword. Before we know it, Frank goes to the apartment of photographer Anna, whose address he got off her bag earlier. Despite this creepy Ron Jeremy lookalike just showing up at her place, she takes a shine to him for unknown reasons and agrees to date him. Anna is played by Caroline Munro, who was one of the top 5 hottest women on the planet at the time. And my head was exploding with delight at seeing Count Zarth and Stella Starr together again.
Frank just kind of hangs around Anna for a while, showing up at her shoot with a teddy bear, which she finds insanely charming instead of maniacally creepy. Frank busts into the apartment of one of Anna’s models, ties her to the bed and has a heart to heart with her playing the role of his dead mother, who apparently whored around when Frank was a boy while he hid in the closet and watched. So the mannequins represent his mother, and Frank really doesn’t want her to go out tonight. And what do you know, he stabs the model in the chest and takes her scalp.
Frank picks up Anna the next day to take her to a show, and she doesn’t mind a bit that he wants to stop by the cemetery to lay a wreath on his mother’s grave, even though he could have done this at any other time instead of when he’s about to go on a date with a breathtakingly gorgeous woman. Oddly enough, Frank flips out at the cemetery and starts choking Anna. Anna finally decides that maybe Frank isn’t her dream guy after all and runs away after slashing his arm with a shovel. Frank then has a voice-over flashback to his mother locking him in the closet to punish him, then zombie mommy pops out of her grave to attack him! But it’s all in Frank’s head. Lot of stuff going on in there.
Frank goes home to cry over his mommy and his wound, and there’s a totally awesome scene where the mannequins in his apartment come alive and attack him; stabbing him in the gut, chopping his arm off and ripping his head right off his neck.
Two cops, apparently tipped off by Anna, raid Frank’s pad and find him dead on the bed after apparently stabbing himself in the gut. They see all of the mannequins and scalps, but don’t seem very interested in any of it, and just kind of leave. Then we look at Frank again, and his eyes dart open, setting up the sequel, Maniac 2: On the Move.
Is it Actually Scary: Yeah not too bad. Very unsettling and pretty sick, with a lot of good suspense. You’ll think twice before trusting a maniac again.
Scariest Moment: Probably zombie mommy popping out of her grave to choke her ungrateful son.
Gore Level: This picture is all about gore. The first five minutes has some nasty throat slashes, and it just gets gorier from there, from scalpings to head explosions. Really quality stuff.
Dumbest Moments: Probably the subway scene, just for the dumb way they depict that a subway is completely deserted at night, without a soul to be seen. A lot of movies are guilty of this, though.
Best Part: Very close between two: When Frank blows a guy’s head off with a shotgun, which may be the best head explosion ever next to Scanners, and the part where the mannequins come alive and attack Frank is fantastic.
Nudity: Interestingly enough, Frank tells the hooker in the beginning to leave her clothes on. There’s a quick bit of boob about halfway through but that’s it.
Overall: Actually a really great serial killer movie. Joe Spinell is awesome. He has the perfect look to make you think he’s capable of killing people and being a total outcast nutjob. He’s no Robert De Niro, and his scenes with Caroline Munro where he has a lot of dialogue are not what I’d call Oscar-worthy. But Spinell also worked on the story and the screenplay, so this was kind of a pet project for him. I love this piece of trivia from IMDB:
William Lustig and Joe Spinell, say they didn’t always have the necessary permits to film on location in New York City. Certain scenes (including the infamous shotgun through the windshield scene) had to have been filmed quickly and afterwards the crew had to run away before the cops arrived.
Another great thing about Maniac is that it’s rare in that it’s a slasher movie that’s entirely from the point of view of the killer, while most slasher flicks are set in the world of the victim/hero. That’s what raises it to the next level of unsettling.
Tom Savini is just as big a star here as Joe Spinell. Not for his role as Disco Boy, who is the one whose head explodes, but because he did the special effects to make heads explode, scalps cut off, etc. The usual great work by Tom Savini. And FX legend Rob Bottin also worked on the film.
The only real bad thing, and maybe I’m alone in this, is that the music is terrible to the point of distraction. The movie has a lot of music cues that get screechy and annoying during key scenes. This was a staple of a lot of early ‘80s horror films, but it’s pretty overdone here.
But overall, it’s a really good, creepy slasher film that’s worth 87 minutes of your time if you want your nerves rattled and your scalp tingled.
And now for one of the greatest pieces of movie trivia ever:
The film originally had a title song of the same name, but in the end was not used. The lyrics were toned down and the song, “Maniac”, was used in Flashdance.
My Wife’s Observational Quotes:
-”He’s obviously not choking her very well if she can still scream.”
-”Everything you write for this should just say, ‘Awful.’”
-”Are you that stupid? She is that dumb…”Score: 8 (out of 10)