Video Nasties: Maniac (1980)

I warned you not to go out tonight…

It’s been a year to the day, and I finally get a chance to sit down and continue with my Video Nasties project. I have to say, despite my recently bitching about watching movies on-demand on my PC, this method actually works quite well for review purposes. Watching a movie like this in a small window while typing alongside it, is in fact rather ideal.

However, it’s actually a common misconception that William Lustig’s Maniac was a Video Nasty at all. While it was banned by the BBFC, it was never in fact on the infamous list itself. This happened to other movies such as The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silent Night Deadly Night – all commonly albeit incorrectly thought to have once been classified as Video Nasties. Nonetheless, due to its banned status (the movie was finally passed in the UK with cuts in 2002), I feel it fits the profile. While not categorically a slasher movie, Maniac contains enough slashy goodness to both entertain and unnerve.

This film reminds me in many ways of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and is almost as unsettling. The plot: our main character kills women around New York, having been traumatised by abuse at the hands of his mother. Joe Spinell, the actor playing the titular maniac, comes across as exhaustedly lecherous and sinister. This is in fact one of the few movies I had to turn off during my first viewing, namely during the hooker strangulation scene. Spinell’s eyes, especially during this early scene, are very frightening.

Unlike most 80s slashers, we meet the killer instantly, mere minutes into the film. Showing us the killer right away really unnerves the audience. While many slashers leave you guessing, the obscurity of the killer’s identity adding to the tension, the mystery of Maniac is simply why he acts the way he does, and what will he do next. I love the juxtaposition of a sad lonely man getting dressed for the day, set against a creepy background of a eerie shrine to his late mother and a blood soaked mannequin in his bed. It almost makes you feel sorry for him until you see the grotesque way in which his bedroom is decorated.

Spinell’s character unceremoniously nails his victims’ scalps to his mannequins. This is a cruel desecration of the corpses, combined with the keeping of a trophy to remember his victims. He also dresses mannequins in his victims’ clothes; perhaps a manifestation of his desire to pretend they are still alive? Few movie murderers come across as literally ‘crazy’ as this guy.

Now, you can’t discuss Maniac without mentioning Tom Savini pulling off one of the greatest death scenes of the decade – exploding his own head! I used to wonder how well this movie would have worked were it not for Savini’s spectacular gore effects – but I do believe the movie has other strengths too, namely the foreboding atmosphere, and the true sense of menace portrayed by the killer. The effects truly give it that extra edge to really frighten you though.

Of course, it’s not all perfect. I do marvel at the stupidity of the nurse who expresses fear at the idea of a murderer stalking the streets of New York city, yet proceeds to turn down a lift home from a friend in favour of taking the underground train alone. The movie is also marred slightly by the synth score, but then what 80s movie isn’t?

Speaking of bad 80s music. Interestingly enough, according to the gospel of Wikipedia, the song “Maniac” from Flashdance was inspired by Lustig’s movie, and originally written about a serial killer. The lyrics were rewritten for the 1983 dance movie, and the song was stripped of its Academy Award nomination when the news emerged that it was not written for the movie (the nomination and subsequent win went to Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling”). The alleged original lyrics include “He’s a maniac, maniac, that’s for sure, he’ll kill your cat and nail him to the door.”



4 Responses

  1. I watched this for the first time this year and loved how there was no real opposition for the killer. Usually there is a cop or someone who is sort of taken it upon himself to find the killer and stop them. here there really isn’t anyone for the audience to really root for to stop this guy so you just have to sort of follow along with the killer and have no respite from it. eventually there is the main woman that sort of is the start of his downfall but I wouldn’t say she was his opponent as it was more about him just unraveling.

  2. There is an almost sticky quality to Maniac. Every time I watch it, I feel the need to shower. In fact, I watch it every Sunday night to motivate myself to take my weakly bath. 🙂

Leave a Reply