Perhaps one of the 1980’s most notorious horror creations, William Lustig’s Maniac is every bit as twisted, gruesomely violent, and depraved as its sordid reputation would have you believe. However, it’s also a very well-acted and slickly-produced piece of post-grindhouse cinema that perfectly captures the seediness, desperation, and all-consuming paranoia of post-Son-of-Sam New York.
Joe Spinell, who served as both executive producer and co-writer of the film, turns in a performance for the ages, here, but, sadly, his heartbreaking and thoroughly disturbing turn has long been eclipsed by the controversial nature of the film itself.
Spinell stars as Frank Zito, a middle-aged loner who was both abused and abandoned by his mother as a child, and, as a result, suffers from an all-consuming fear of abandonment that has begun to manifest itself in violence. We first meet Frank as he stalks a young couple on a beach. Frank brutally murders them, taking souvenirs in the guise of the woman’s clothing, as well as a piece of her scalp. These aren’t trophies as much as they are a means to keep his victim with him forever, as he carefully dresses up a mannequin in the woman’s clothes and scalp. It’s here, laying beside his ideal (a woman who can never leave him), that Frank engages in a conversation with himself, with the voice in his head chastising him for his behavior, and warning him of the consequences were he to venture out again. Both humiliated and devastated, Frank hits the streets once more for a rendezvous with a hooker in Times Square. Here, he plays out what seems like a harmless, fetishistic fantasy, having the prostitute model for him, and engaging in some heavy petting while insisting she keep her clothing on. Frank then strangles the woman, his brutality tinged by a palpable sense of remorse, and then, in keeping with his pattern, scalps her and steals her clothes. The newspapers deem him “The Maniac”, and, as the violence escalates, so, too, does Frank’s need for true human companionship. Enter Anna (Caroline Munro), a beautiful young photographer who catches Frank's fancy, and a potential flesh and blood replacement for the mother he lost so long ago.
On the surface, Maniac is the epitome of late-seventies/early-eighties sleaze, with a grungy low-budget vibe that was the hallmark of exploitation cinema of the era. It’s one of the most violent films of its time, with some truly stomach-turning effects work courtesy of Tom Savini (who also has a very memorable cameo in the film), and a misogynistic streak a mile wide. Banned outright by the BBFC (the film has long been thought to be amongst the first of the “Video Nasties”, but, in reality, it was never on that infamous list), Maniac’s reputation preceded it when it debuted on home video, where it built up a healthy cult-following. Over time, the films rabid fans and cineastes, alike, have looked beyond the buckets of blood and ghastly premise and have lauded Maniac for what it truly is - a compelling, disturbing, and, ultimately, tragic character study of a man in the throes of madness. Fueled by a bravura performance by the late Joe Spinell, Maniac is more of a psychological horror film than a simple slasher, and, in my mind, this critically reviled film offers the most chilling depiction of the mind of a mass murderer this side of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (which, somewhat ironically, was a critical darling despite being no less violent or misogynistic).
Celebrating the film’s 30th Anniversary, Blue Underground have pulled out all the stops with a fantastic, 2 disc set, featuring a remastered print of the film, and hours of extras. The film, itself, looks about as good as one can expect for a movie culled from an original 16mm source print, but, on occasion, one will notice a softness to the image that I can only assume is the result of excess digital noise reduction. There’s a fine cinematic grain, throughout, but anyone who has seen the film in its original DVD incarnation will immediately notice that the grain has been reduced substantially. Personally, I’d rather have the excess grain that the sort of soft focus result of cleaning it up, but, overall, I have to admit that the image looks pretty damned good when compared to previous releases. There’s definitely an improvement in terms of fine detail, most evident in close-ups, while artifacts and print damage have been cleaned up quite nicely. I did notice a bit of “blockiness” in the blacks on occasion, but that’s to be expected in any restoration of a film with such low-resolution source. The bottom line is that this is as good as Maniac will probably ever look, and that’s good enough for me.
The 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is quite impressive, with robust bass and nuanced highs. The surround mix is especially impressive considering the mono source, with nicely immersive assortment of sound effects working all corners of the room. There’s an occasional tininess to the dialogue, but, once again, compare this to your DVD (or VHS!!) and it’s like night and day.
Extras are abundant and scattered over two discs. The Blu-ray, itself, features two commentary tracks - one with Director, William Lusting and Co-Producer Andrew W. Garroni, and the other with Lustig, FX artist, Tom Savini, as well as Editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and Spinell's Assistant Luke Walter. I prefer the first track as Lustig really gets down to the nitty-gritty of making this film, and it’s packed with some fantastic bits of trivia and useful information for budding filmmakers. The second track is a bit more crowded, but enjoyable, nonetheless, and Savini’s always a hoot when discussing his FX work.
Also included on the Blu-ray is an all-new interview with Caroline Munro (HD); interviews with Savini (HD) and composer, Jay Chattaway (HD); Maniac Men: Interviews with Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky (HD), who have long been thought to have originally penned Maniac, their hit song from the Flashdance film, for this film; and Mr. Robbie: Maniac 2 (HD), a short promo piece shot to drum up funds for a quasi-sequel that was abandoned after Spinell’s untimely death.
Rounding out the Blu-ray goodies are trailers, television commercials, and radio spots.
The second disc is a standard definition DVD, and features a huge collection of vintage interviews and promotional appearances, highlighted by the great documentary, The Joe Spinell Story. Also featured is an interview with Spinell from The Joe Franklin Show, footage from a radio call-in show featuring Spinell, Lustig, and Munro, and a hilarious collection of rants against violence in cinema (for which Maniac served as the catalyst) and negative reviews of the film culled from newscasts around the country. It’s a fascinating and highly entertaining time capsule of the era, and really illustrates the effect this film had in its day.
Blue Underground continue to outdo themselves with their Blu-ray releases, and, while not quite as technically successful as some of their other offerings, Maniac is easily the most comprehensive and thoroughly entertaining set the company has produced. This is one of my favorite horror flicks of the eighties, and I’m absolutely floored by the enormous attention to detail that went into putting this 30th Anniversary edition of Maniac together. Needless to say, this one gets my absolute highest possible recommendation.