In the early 1970s a bit part actor with some cult successes wrote a screenplay that he refused to sell to any studio until he could play the lead. At long last that film was sold. The man's name was Sylvester Stallone, and his film was called Rocky. It won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing, and it was nominated for many others.
In the late 1970's another bit part actor with some cult successes wrote a screenplay that he demanded to star in. That man's name was Joe Spinell, and he made… this thing.
It's called Maniac. Ever hear of it? Ever hear of Joe Spinell? Chances are you'd recognize him if you saw him. He was in Rocky and Rocky II, maybe that's where he got the idea. He was also in a number of high and low profile gigs up until his death in 1989. Maniac is no Rocky, and it's no Rocky II, but as far as slasher movies go, it's not the worst thing to come out of the genre either. Unlike A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th or Halloween, Maniac never gained a big cult following, nor did it have any sequels. But then, it never got a chance to become a comical parody of itself either, did it?
Actually, that's kind of a good idea! It could have been a comedy.
Toward the beginning, Spinell (as the Maniac of the title, Frank Zito) runs up upon Tom Savini and his date, jumps onto the hood of his car and blows Savini's head apart in a torrent of day-glow blood. I'd have given real money if his date (Hyla Marrow) had turned to the camera and said “Hmmm… Must not be a Dawn of the Dead fan! Zip Zang!” And then either the theme from The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle or The Benny Hill Show could play real loud and Marrow and Spinell could chase each other around the car! No? Okay, then, moving on!
The truth is, this film worked based on the special Makeup effects of Tom Savini himself (way to show your appreciation, Joe!), and it's got some pretty startling blood and gore moments. There are also some moments of true (almost Hitchcockian) suspense during which the spellbound audience just might be tied up in knots with butterflies. On the other hand, this is just another slasher flick at core and it comes off a lot like a secondary remake of Psycho with Brian De Palma at the helm or something. But De Palma isn't at the helm. Instead we get William Lustig, who successfully diversified his resume by later directing Maniac Cop and Maniac Cop II.
But, like Spinell, I kid Lustig. Moving on. Like Norman Bates from Psycho and Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well as Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs, Frank Zito is ever-so-loosely based upon the real Ed Gein. Franky-boy was abused by his nightmare of a mother as a child, and therefore grows up to stalk beautiful women as revenge. Even though Revenge is hardly the case as he channels his poor departed mother and enshrines her with mannequins he puts the scalps of his victims on.
Then one day, Frank runs afoul of a hot young photographer named Anna (Caroline Munro), with whom he falls into mutual love. This is surprising to me, as he dresses like Mr. Furley, has the hair care of Dave Hess and has a face that lives up to the title of this film. The results of this relationship are hard to predict… although the minor plot points linking these events are as typical as a slasher film can get. The similarities to (read: inspirations from [read: rip offs of]) Psycho never really end. From the Killer holding creepy dialogue with himself (in the absence of his dear departed momma), to the quiet, innocent act of our main character, to his meeting up with the girl who changes it all for him, to a very familiar moment involving a shower.
In truth, and to be fair, there is enough originality and surprise here to keep Maniac watchable, but it's hardly a classic. The special effects could have been a little more convincing (Frank drags a knife over the flesh each time and the knife squirts out orange blood instead of ever touching her). A lot of the time it just feels cheap and pilfered. However there are some legitimate frights here, as well as more than a few successful moments of suspense. It won't ever be much more than a B-Movie that never quite took off, but those in the mood for some Fulci-esque violence, blood and gore all to the tune of a soundtrack so garish it makes The Hearse sound like Beethoven, this is your flick!
Two Stars out of Five for Maniac. Some of the acting isn't so bad, scenes such as the living mannequins, or the cemetery chase are worth a glance. Not to mention the fact that Maniac features a veritable who's-who of porn actresses in mainstream roles (most notably Gail Lawrence AKA Abigail Clayton). I wonder why Serial Killers focus on hot babes so often. One would think they'd be happy to have the company, once they get it, especially when you look like Tony Clifton. Damn! Kill a guy! Damn! Ah, hell. See you in the next reel!
PORN CHICKS! WHAT A GREAT IDEA!!!
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