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Maniac, 1980

Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is a middle-aged man living in New York City, and we meet him in the midst of a brutal killing spree in which he murders and scalps women. Frank's violence stems from a troubled childhood with a mother whose sex work and abuse of Frank have left him with incredibly problematic issues with women.

This is indeed a brutal watch, a la Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, though both the lack of exploitative sexual violence and a relatively sympathetic lead character make it much more palatable than a lot of the 80s grunge films.

The film really rests on Spinell's performance as Frank, and for the most part he does a really good job. Where the character feels most real is in the handful of sequences where he is passing as a "normal guy"---most often in his interactions with photographer Anna (Caroline Munro). He hits the right notes as someone who seems like a guy who is just a little weird.

I'm currently waffling a bit on how I feel about the murders themselves and the way that they are framed. There seem to be two elements at play in what happens. The first, and the actual stated motivation from Frank, is that he wants to "keep" his mother (because he visualizes his female victims as his mother). But there is a cruelty to many of the murders that belies this simple motivation, as he frequently enjoys the fear that he gets from his victims. Obviously this can be read as revenge for the fear that his mother inflicted on him---forcing him into a closet and burning him with cigarettes. I suppose that both things can exist at the same time.

I also suppose that it's realistic that Frank doesn't show much remorse about his actions. It did surprise me a bit, as the film distinguishes between his more lucid moments and his more delusional moments. He obviously realizes that he hasn't actually killed his mother. Heck, he attends the funeral of one of his victims. Though, again, at the point we meet Frank it's pretty clear that he's sunk pretty far into his delusions. I guess I'm grappling a little with the way that his mental state seems to vary quite a bit.

In terms of the look of the film, I thought that it had the good kind of low-budget look. The subway station, dark streets, and Frank's mannequin-occupied room all feel very lived in and gritty. I also liked the parallel of first meeting Frank via his point of view through a beachside telescope, while the introduction of Anna is via her looking at Frank through her camera.

I did have a few moments here and there that didn't feel quite right. Probably the most notable was the woman who decided to take a bath alone in her apartment without locking her door. (Yes, I know that she thought she'd clicked the little thing. You still throw the deadbolt and I really won't hear otherwise unless a woman wants to come in this thread and tell me she's lived in a city and felt comfortable having a bath without making sure the door was locked). But the flow of the film is strong enough that these moments don't make a serious dent in the impact of the film as a whole.

Something that I definitely appreciated was the clear delineation that the film made between the (unseen) character of the mother and the women who are victimized by Frank. The first victim is a sex worker, but rather than the garish caricature we usually get, this is just a weary woman who is struggling to pay her rent and commiserating with a friend about it. The film switches pretty capably between Frank's point of view and that of his victims, and it's a nice way to manage building empathy for the lead character without dismissing the pain, fear, and suffering of his victims.

The movie also gets points for its unexpected and very memorable finale.