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A Unique Twist on the Slasher Narrative || Maniac (1980) Movie Review

This week’s review was chosen via Instagram poll by my lovely audience members. Thank you to everyone who participated in the poll!

Maniac (1980, dir. William Lustig) follows Frank Zito (played by Joe Spinell), a disturbed and mentally unwell man, as he murders women throughout New York City. After each murder, he scalps the women and nails the hair to mannequins posed throughout his apartment. As the film progresses, audiences unlock more information behind Frank’s past as well as witness his short double life with a photographer named Anna D’Antoni (played by Caroline Munro).

Going into this film I had already started my expectations low – Maniac is a film that’s been on my recommended list on Amazon for several years yet I never sat down to watch. In all honesty, I know my taste in horror leans toward the “trashy” side and it can make me skeptical of films that show up on my recommendations because not every “trashy”, low-brow, low-budget horror flick is going to be worth my time. Typically, I like the ones where the audience can tell the film might have been a passion project with little resources. So, several years ago when I first came across Maniac and watched its trailer, I was doubtful how good this movie could be – it read as a quick, cheap, cash grab for a period of time where slasher flicks were all the rage. Maniac looked as if it would have a bare-bones, not much going on, basic slasher plot which could be easily forgotten as time passes. However, like they say about books and covers, Maniac ended up completely surpassing my expectations and was unlike any slasher movie of the time period I’ve ever seen.

While currently it’s not unheard of for a slasher movie to primarily follow the slasher rather than the victims (we saw it a few weeks ago with American Mary), it was much more uncommon to happen in the early years of slasher flicks. Maniac focuses solely on its slasher Frank Zito. Although the antagonist, he is the main character, one of the only named characters, and there’s hardly a moment where he isn’t on screen. The audience gets a lot of time to observe and understand the killer, and right from the start it’s clear that he’s struggling with trauma from a woman he was close to who’s now dead. It’s not until later that the audience discovers the trauma is specifically from his childhood where he was abused and neglected by his prostitute mother. Frank Zito has more character and thorough backstory within this one film than I’ve seen from most slashers whose backstories were written into sequels. While I have no basis for this being true or not, it’s only a thought and a feeling, but in a way it almost feels as if the trend of slashers having tragic backstories could have stemmed from the unique approach Maniac had – especially because Maniac is considered one of the big cult classics. In all my experience with classic slashers and cult classic horror – which, keep in mind, is still a work in progress as I’m just now getting into more niche cinema – I have never seen a slasher like Frank Zito.

Since the focus of the film is on the killer Frank, Maniac doesn’t follow the typical slasher formula. There are no teens in danger, the killer isn’t some unknown, or masked, entity, and every murder isn’t prefaced with a dramatic chase scene. In fact, a lot of what makes Maniac so terrifying is how true to life it is – which I will get to. Most of the scenes are Frank sitting and crying, muttering to himself and his mannequins within his twisted apartment. The audience gets to learn a lot about Frank’s history, including the childhood trauma he endured which causes him to attack “promiscuous” women – the only non-promiscuous woman being a nurse. A part of the narrative that especially stuck out to me was how rather than demonizing Frank, he was written in a way for audiences to empathize with or feel sympathy for him. While a mild spoiler, a lot of the story becomes focused on Frank’s mother who is no longer around but still living within his mind. While Frank talks to himself, audiences learn that his mother regularly locked him in a closet for little to no reason and would put cigarettes out on his skin. Along with this, Frank also seems to display anxiety over his mother leaving him in the evenings to prostitute, which becomes the reason for him attacking women late at night.

Maniac is also unique from most other slashers in the way that it invokes fear into the audience. As stated before, the threat isn’t a clearly masked individual with a menacing aura. Frank looks like an average citizen living in New York City and is also able to change, or groom, his appearance to the role he’s attempting to play in society. I found one of the scariest moments of Maniac was how consciously Frank changed his behavior and appearance in order to gain the trust of Anna, rather than just killing her quickly like many of the other girls. This film examines the monsters walking among us and highlights the cruelty that humans are capable of. I thought it was insane how easily Frank was able to get close to Anna and became emotionally involved, all while knowing he was only doing it to eventually kill her. The psychology behind becoming so invested in a person you’ve already planned on killing is terrifying – more so because it’s realistic as many murder victims are very close to their killers.

Maniac A Tier

I apologize for reviewing another banger this week. There are several layers of this film that are working together to create a complex narrative of a sadistic but tormented man. Along with the unique angle of the slasher narrative, the film is incredibly gorey. There are gallons upon gallons of blood in this movie. Also, the ending is shocking and genuinely startled me. I can’t recommend this movie enough – please watch it if you’re in the mood for something dark, demented, and different.

Thank you for everyone’s involvement in choosing this week’s film review! After watching Maniac, I understand why this movie won the poll. If you’d like to be involved the next time I let the audience choose my next review, consider following me on Instagram. And, if you’d like to be involved with more general horror content, consider following me on Tumblr.

Maniac is available to stream through Tubi, PlutoTV, Vudu, Shudder, Amazon Prime Video, and AMC+


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