Maniac (1980)

FEBRUARY 20, 2011


One of the several thousand bonus features on the two disc blu-ray for Maniac is the full Q&A session from a screening at the New Beverly, conducted in March of 2008. For the life of me I can’t remember why I didn’t go, but I assume I was stuck at work – same as I was a few months ago when it played at the Nuart (both times with director Bill Lustig in person). As for why I hadn’t already seen it before those screenings happened anyway, well I have no excuse. It’s just one of those movies that I never put my foot down and finally saw. Until now!

Unfortunately, I HAD seen the trailer a couple times, and that shows pretty much every kill in the movie, which would be fine for something like Scream, because there’s still a lot of story and plot twists to enjoy. But Maniac? There’s really not a lot to it beyond the death scenes. The story is thinner than even Halloween’s, the heroine doesn’t really enter the movie until the 3rd act, and worse, it’s cripplingly repetitive at times. Perhaps if Caroline Munro’s character was introduced earlier, there could be some fun at the idea of him trying to have a normal relationship with her in between scenes of him killing folks, but that isn’t the case. Instead, her scenes come so late, and their friendship so out of nowhere, it just seems like you’re watching a different movie all of a sudden. Even Joe Spinell’s performance changes; throughout the movie we have seen that he doesn’t really have the ability to converse normally with anyone (especially women), but all of a sudden he’s a charmer, making self-deprecating jokes, buying stuffed animals... it’s just really jarring.

But it’s also the best part of the movie. Until she arrives, it’s just an endless series of scenes where he kills someone, and then talks to himself/their “corpse” (a mannequin with their clothes and, in at least one case, their scalp) for a while, before heading out to kill again. He doesn’t seem to have any sort of job, no clueless friends, nothing. And it’s padded as all hell; at one point he chases a girl into a bathroom, and there’s a full THREE minutes of her just sitting in the stall hoping he will give up. There’s a difference between stretching out the tension and simply stalling, and this movie’s scare scenes often fall into the latter category. And, like I’ve said a million times, when you introduce a character right before they are killed, there’s not a lot of suspense there for me (even without the trailer having ruined it anyway), and with the exception of Munro, I don’t think a single character in this movie besides Spinell appears in two non-consecutive scenes. But unlike say, Friday the 13th Part V, the murders are too cold and gruesome for any of it to be any fun, so they don’t have that going for them either.

The craftsmanship seen on the kills is great, obviously, thanks to the efforts of Tom Savini in his prime. He recycled a lot of stuff from his other shows (look for Mrs. Voorhees’ bloody stump in the finale), but so what? They were great FX, why not reuse them? I particularly loved the opening kill with the guy on the beach, with loads of blood splashing over the sand (plus a nice throat garroting), and Savini’s head being blown apart is terrific as well. On that note, I won’t get into it too much, but it’s kind of ironic that all these women’s group protested the movie saying Maniac’s existence was simply an excuse to kill women, but the most iconic kill in the movie is that of a man.

I also dug the old-school New York vibe, as I did with Basket Case and some other indie horror films of the period. It’s not as prominent as in some of those other films, more or less confined to the first few scenes, when Maniac picks up a hooker, but it still makes me wish I had a time machine so I could go visit the city when it wasn’t as overrun with hipsters. The rest of my enjoyment largely stemmed from things that probably weren’t meant to be funny, like when Spinell tells Munro that she’s the most beautiful woman he has seen since his mother. The two cops at the end of the movie killed me too; they rush in, see him lying in a pool of blood on his bed, and simply shrug and leave without checking the body, looking around for any potential victims, or even calling it in.

Whether you love or hate the movie (or just think it’s OK and a bit overrated, like me), you have to be impressed with the supplemental package that Blue Underground put together here. Even the first disc is pretty impressive; the 2nd disc is just icing on the cake (and maybe a bit of overkill). The main draw on disc 1 is probably the pair of commentaries, one recorded in 1995, another recorded last year. Lustig appears on both, he’s joined by Savini and some others on the 1995 track but the other two guys don’t say much, and one of the co-producers on the new track. He repeats a lot of the same information, so overall I’d say the older track is more essential since Savini’s comments are far more valuable than the producer’s on the newer track. However, on the newer track, he points out that the end credits style was stolen (font, layout, even crew order) from Halloween! Other than the sting-heavy score, this is one of the few post-Halloween slasher films that doesn’t really seem influenced by that film in any way, so it’s kind of funny that they copied the credits instead of the structure or setting or whatever.

Then there are four new featurettes; one with Munro (who doesn’t think much of the film, but loves Spinell), one with Savini (where he tells a pretty funny story about two young kids asking him to watch some footage from the movie they were working on – the kids were Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert; the movie was The Evil Dead), one with the composer (where even HE chimes in about the film’s controversy with women’s groups), and a goofy little piece where Lustig goes to talk to the songwriters behind the song “Maniac” (from Flashdance) and gets the real story on the myth that their song was based on the film. All told, this stuff, plus a promo reel for Maniac 2 (which, as far as I know, was an in-name only sequel, with Spinell playing another guy), totals about an hour. Add in the commentaries, plus the usual trailers and TV spots, and you’re looking at nearly five hours of bonus material on the disc.

And then there’s disc 2! The big draw is “The Joe Spinell Story”, a 50 minute doc about Joe’s life, featuring anecdotes from a ton of folks – his sister, Lustig, Robert Forster, Exorcist star Jason Miller, etc. Don’t look for a lot of “dirt” here, because everyone seems to have the same opinion of Joe – he was a great, extremely loyal guy. At least three times on the set we hear how the “set” for Maniac’s apartment was built by a Russian guy that Joe was trying to help out, and there’s also a story about how he turned down a well paying role in one movie because he promised Stallone he’d do Rocky (for free). Then there’s about two hour’s worth of archive material from the film’s release, including Lustig’s appearance on something called Movie Madness (48 minutes), a cable call-in show (inexplicably in black & white) that is prone to feedback noise and other technical glitches, not to mention some morons calling in that proves that “talkbacking” always attracted trolls. I was most entertained by a selection of news broadcasts from the time of the film’s release, with footage of protesters and even Gene Siskel weighing in, claiming that all slasher movies are intended to tell women to “stay in their place, don’t go outside or a man will kill you”, and also ponders whether or not showing scenes from the movie can be considered disturbing the peace. There’s also an Easter Egg of Spinell doing standup, which... well, Joe sure was a nice guy, huh? Anyway, all in, disc 2 will take you about another 3-4 hours to go through. Again, some of it is overkill (the news broadcasts are all pretty much the same; the trailers don’t really differ much), but you gotta respect the effort here, and with the exception of maybe deleted footage or makeup tests (if any exist), there really isn’t anything else you could want from this package.

Ultimately, I appreciate the movie more than I enjoy it. Grats to everyone involved for putting something so extreme (and yet relatively well made) into mainstream theaters, when many films of this extreme nature (i.e. Henry) more or less went straight to video, but it’s hardly a great film. If anything, I enjoyed the bonus material more than the movie, which is kind of ironic – the movie’s only worth a rental but the wealth of bonus material makes it worth a purchase.

What say you?


  1. I saw this about two months ago, so it's still pretty fresh. I think you pretty much summed up the way I felt about it. The kills would have been a lot more fun if not surrounded by such a serious tone. Spinell was pretty creepy but not in a way that freaked me out or anything. I'm glad I saw it but I'm in no hurry to see it again.

    I think I laughed out loud at the comment about his pretty mother. That was about it. What's with Joe Spinell being able charm that chick into liking him? Yeah, right.

  2. I've been seeing this movie on instat view on netfilx for a while...I may have to check it out now so I can give my MUCH needed opinion! lol...

  3. Ahhh, the good ol' days of checking out films just for Savini. What a legend. Truly one of a kind.

    It appears as though we have the same love of commentaries and bonus features. It can really make the difference with an average film.

  4. I saw this flick in the theater when it came out back in 1980 and it scared the hell out of me. I can't remember much about it now. I guess I'll have to see it again.

  5. It alternates between being very boring and then very distasteful. An awful movie.

  6. "at one point he chases a girl into a bathroom, and there’s a full THREE minutes of her just sitting in the stall hoping he will give up."
    I loved that scene. It was so intense, even though we knew how it was going to end...

  7. I disagree with your opinions completely. There is something inherently creepy about this film that seems to have been lost on you. I guess if you enjoy cookie cutter crap like F13th Part V, then this wouldn't be for you, but this movie deserves far more than a simple pat on the back for "Good effort."

  8. For me, this movie elevates itself above the majority of slashes. I was blown away by it the first time I saw it. Spinell steals the show and is hypnotic to watch. And the soundtrack to the model shoot is one of the catchiest songs I've ever heard.


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