"He's a maniac, maniac on the floor, and she's dancing like she never danced before... without a scalp!" I'm so very sorry, people, but if you didn't want that, then you shouldn't have read this article, because, come on, you knew it was coming. Well, maybe that reference isn't entirely warranted, because this film came out during the first year of the '80s, too early to be as '80s as that song, but hey, I need something kind of lighthearted after a film this brutal, so play on, Michael Sembello. There's an irony to my seeking out something lighthearted after seeing a film this harsh, seeing as how the film in question came out December 26, 1980, because nothing says, "Merry Christmas" quite like a traumatized New Yorker going around scalping people. Hey, this film did come out a week after "Raging Bull", so maybe William Lustig wanted to wait until Jake LaMotta had his film released so that he could ride off of his uncle's revived name, which I suppose would be a good marketing strategy if it wasn't for the fact that no one knows who Lustig is, let alone who his uncle is. I can see the nepotistic tagline now: "From the creation of the creation of the creator of the guy whose story led to the creation of 'Raging Bull'", which would be fitting, because, again, as harsh as this film, we're going to need something silly, or at least silly in a lighthearted way. Yeah, this film is over-the-top in it's own disturbing way, and I can run with that, because the film is far from a challenge to watch based on quality, which isn't to say that there aren't some repelling aspects beyond the gore.
Really, more-or-less to my surprise, there are a couple of elements to this film that are unique, or at least refreshing, but when conventions hit the scene, they hit relatively hard, or at least seem to, because, really, it's hard to clean out all of the familiar gunk out of a film of this type, yet there's still a good deal of potential for uniqueness that is squandered enough to call your attention more toward the familiar elements, which in turn draw your attention more toward the natural shortcomings within this familiar story concept. There is a plot here, but not much of one, and it's not like there's a wealth of depth to the basic premise, so what you end up with is a drama that really isn't too much more than a simple showcase of the horrible deeds and horrible guilt of a profoundly disturbed individual who cannot control his violent urges, and while a premise like that is milked quite well by William Lustig, juice, or, well, milk, it thin in supply, and it's hard to ignore that when the film really starts to drag its feet. A film this minimalist was always going to be kind of aimless, but it's hard to fully excuse the dragginess within C. A. Rosenberg's and Joe Spinell's script, because if there is a plot, it's all too often pushed to the side for the sake of excess material and filler that, even for a film like this, get to be repetition, then devolve into aimlessness, and perhaps even dip their toes into monotony. Stopping just shy of 90 minutes, this film doesn't have a whole lot of time to waste, yet it does, and that reflects the thinness in this film in a way that would drive less realized projects into mediocrity, if they're lucky, so I give a whole lot of credit to the direction and writing here for saving the final product as engaging more often than not, yet I cannot ignore that dragginess, even when it becomes easy to ignore most other aspects of the draggy drama. On top of being intentionally draggy, the film boasts an intentionally meditative atmospheric that very rarely abates, and while it is effective enough to keep dullness at bay on the whole, before too long, all of the dry, or at least over-intense attention to sparse storytelling wears down on you, leaving resonance to be hurt by the atmosphere more than reinforced, and leaving you to either simply fall out of the film, or find your awareness of natural shortcomings grow deeper. This film could have easily fallen flat, so it's pretty impressive that this film keeps all but consistent with a fair degree of engagement value, but that engagement value is limited, not just by such questionable storytelling moves as conventions or limp pacing, but by this story concept's simply being too limited in dynamicity for a rewarding effort to be crafted. The storytelling mistakes simply pull the final straw that secure the final product as underwhelming, and yet, with that said, the integrity of this effort never truly collapses, because as flawed and naturally limited as this film very much is in a lot of ways, what is done right is done well enough to keep you going, even when the soundtrack is evoked.
Synthesizers were terribly popular in horror films throughout the mid-'70s and '80s, and sure enough, this film, falling right in the middle of the craze, features a score that is heavily driven by electronic instrumentation, yet where score composer Jay Chattaway could have succumb to the tendencies to get too cheesily stylish with the electronica, he combines then-modern scoring sensibilities with more traditionalist touches in order to craft a refreshing and very effective score, whose lighter moments have a certain Italian whimsy to them that is pretty lovely, and whose particularly prominent darker moments play with cleverly intentionally disjointed compositions and very atmospheric instrumental minimalism in order to create a stylish a brood that captures the haunting intensity of this film's tone. Chattaway's score isn't phenomenal, but it's near-piercingly effective, joining cinematography by Robert Lindsay that, while dated in quality, immerses with its intimacy in standing as an impressive aesthetic attribute that draws you into this world, and does so in a stylish fashion that further engages. Style is arguably more impressive than substance, but that's not at all to say that I can't commend the heart of this meditative thriller, for although this story concept is mighty minimalist when you take out of account the somewhat questionable idea of telling the story with little attention to actual plot, the subject matter dealing with an intimate and often harshly realist portrait of a serial killer that primarily focuses on the violence and guilt of a dangerous mind is fairly refreshing and pretty intriguing, and its interpretation into this sparse and often formulaic plot has its own adequately realized and intriguing aspects. Potential is limited here, but it still stands, and when William Lustig does it justice, it's hard to not be engaged, for although the meditative atmosphere that Lustig pretty much drives storytelling with wears you down as bland after a while, especially when there's not a whole lot of meaty material to soak up, its genuinely effective moments - of which there are quite a few - draw on the aforementioned brooding style and an almost respectably audacious attention to graphic violence and disturbing imagery in order to sell a sense of tension, while some cleverly stylish, almost tasteful meditations upon the more dramatic elements of this intimate character study all but resonate, or at least about as much as they can with a film this held back by its own story concept. When I tell you that there's only so much meat to this story concept, I really mean it, because there is so much inspiration to storytelling, yet the final product still falls a fair distance shy of truly rewarding, so I can't promise that Lustig's efforts will sink their teeth all that deeply into you, but I can promise those willing to run with a film like this a fair bit of engagement value that cannot be ignored, especially when it goes anchored by a force like Joe Spinell. Serving as both co-writer and star, Spinell had a lot of heart into this project, and that's reflected in a performance that isn't simply inspired or strong, but just downright outstanding, as the somehow both near-effortless-seeming and pain-staking-seeming commitment that Spinell puts into portraying the look and disposition of a deeply traumatized schizophrenic is remarkable enough, without a complimentary, penetrating emotional intensity that sells the cruel passion and overwhelming anguish of a man who stands guilty of and over terrible deeds. If you see this film for no other reason, see it for Spinell's revelatory lead performance, and stay for some effective thrills, because while neither Spinell's performance nor Lustig's can carry this film past the underwhelmingness that plagues its minimalist story concept, what is done right is done well enough to make an engaging thriller, even if it isn't likely to consistently thrill.
When the bloody affair is finally done, some conventional, draggy and even dryly meditative plotting behind a minimalist story concept with only so much potential for bite and plot in the first place render the final product too scarred to carry on past underwhelming, but some refreshing and effective elements to the story concept that go brought to life by anything from a strong, stylishly brooding score by Jay Chattaway, to a reasonably inspired directorial performance by William Lustig, and an outstanding lead acting performance by Joe Spinell prove to be enough to make the cult thriller "Maniac" a frequently engaging and sometimes resonant effort, in spite of some serious shortcomings.
2.5/5 - Fair