Director: William Lustig
Writers: CA Rosenberg and Joe Spinell
Like the previously reviewed "The New York Ripper", "Maniac" is one of those banned eighties horror films that doesn't quite fit into the Video Nasty category, having been banned by the BBFC on release rather than caught up in the 1984 scare. It's a gruesome, effective serial killer study that slathers on the gore and sets up some engaging and tense set pieces. With a purity that rarely deviates from a formula of pursuit and murder and wastes no time on boring detective work, "Maniac" is thankfully bereft of the filler that makes so many giallo-style horror films of its era a chore to watch.
Frank is the maniac, a lonely man living in a New York apartment, obsessed with his dead mother and murdering young women who remind him of her. He scalps his victims and uses their hair as wigs for a collection of dummies who stand in for his mother, but his character isn't just a Norman Bates rip-off - more interestingly, the killings themselves and the media panic around them take obvious inspiration from the "Son of Sam" murders that terrorised New York a couple of years before the film was released, grounding the film in real-life history. The seedy New York location work contributes to this, and as in "The New York Ripper" the city is one of the stars of the film, a tense pursuit through a run-down, empty subway station being a particularly effective scene.
The crude stabs at psychology that underwrite Frank's character are heavy-handed and played for effect rather than meaning, but a great final scene reminiscent of Polanski's 1960s obsession with madness (via some full-on Day of the Dead-style gore) is a reminder that more respected directors don't have that great a track record when it comes to understanding portrayals of mental illness either. "Maniac" is anyway a piece of exploitation horror that despite an intelligent edge makes no claims to be otherwise, and one that in its pared-down, action-packed approach succeeds rather well.