CW: violence against women, child abuse, gore descriptions
Spoiler warning: Maniac, Psycho, & Taxi Driver
Maniac (1980) arrived early in the slasher craze. Its body count of 7 matches the high of its predecessor Black Christmas (1974) and beats out both Halloween (1978) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), though it does fall behind the same year’s more celebrated Friday the 13th. But it’s not the significant body count, or the fantastic gore effects by makeup master Tom Savini, that make Maniac the best slasher. It’s the fact that unlike almost all of its slasher siblings, Maniac focuses on the killer, allowing for a deep dive into the mind of, well, a maniac. In this way, the film bears a closer resemblance to psychological portrait movies than any other slasher. After my first viewing, I semi-jokingly reviewed Maniac on letterboxd as “for anyone who thought Taxi Driver was too subtle and Psycho was too tame,” I stand by that and would like to explore it more fully here. In fact, I’d like to argue that, apart from being the best slasher film, Maniac is better than these films that influenced it as well, precisely because it goes farther than they do in a variety of ways.
Beyond the perhaps obvious mirroring of Psycho’s one word title and the film’s focus on the killer instead of victims, Maniac’s Frank Zito, played by story creator & co-screenwriter Joe Spinell, is also the survivor of child abuse at the hands of his mother, leading him to develop a split personality so that he can (or has to) carry her with him always. Both Norman (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho and Frank in Maniac have conversations and arguments with their internal mothers that lead to the films’ violence. What makes Maniac the more interesting of the two though, is that during the conversations Frank has with his mother, it’s often unclear who is speaking; whether Frank is telling his mother not to leave him or whether his mother is telling Frank that these beautiful young girls will take him away from her. The film blurs the line of the identities in a way that Psycho doesn’t, making it all the more troubling because it’s harder to believe that Frank could free himself of his internal mother in the way that Norman is able to in Psycho’s ’80s sequels (made to capitalize on the slasher craze that Maniac helped usher in).
Despite their violent internal mothers, both Norman and Frank are capable of having normal interactions and relationships with women, and can even be somewhat awkwardly charming. Psycho and Maniac use their scenes of the men interacting with women to highlight themes and the issues that the men struggle with internally, but again Maniac manages to present something more interesting. Where Psycho has Norman deliver the famous “a boy’s best friend is his mother” line when he speaks with Marion (Janet Leigh), Maniac has Frank and photographer Anna (former bond girl Caroline Munro) discuss the (im)possibility of possessing someone forever through their likeness. A discussion that does at least a little to explain the mannequins around Frank’s home to which he has attached (mostly by stapling) the scalps of the women he’s murdered.
Maniac also shows a more significant relationship grow between Anna and Frank, which allows for a perhaps surprisingly modern subplot investigating the way that Frank thinks about and relates to women. After going on a date, Anna invites Frank over to watch her do a photoshoot with some models. When he arrives, he sees her touch and speak with one of the women, Rita (Abigail Clayton), in a way that hints at a more intimate relationship. This implies that Anna may be a bisexual who has had or currently has a relationship with this woman while she is also going on dates with Frank. Frank steals a necklace so that he can later go to Rita’s home under the guise of returning her found jewelry and unlocking her doors.
But when Frank returns, he doesn’t kill Rita, he kidnaps her. He brings her to his home, and when he has her bound and gagged on his bed, he speaks to her as if she is his mother, saying “your hair is different and you look different, but you can’t fool me, I know it’s you.” He talks to Rita about how she left him in the closet as a child, how she made him afraid she’d never come back, and asks why she needed those other men, while emphasizing that now she’s his, all his. When he ungags her, and she begs for her life he says “I’m not going to kill you, I’m going to keep you so you’ll never go away.” As he says this he puts a knife on her chest, before stabbing her as he tells her “I’m just going to keep you so never run away ever again.” He then drops himself on top of her as he begins to cry “mommy, oh mommy” and lightly humps her, then says “you’re not going out tonight” before scalping her.
It’s a remarkably upsetting sequence, but beyond its repulsive power, it offers a glimpse into Frank’s mind. Here he sees his mother in a woman who would take another woman from him; this allows him to both express his desire to possess his mother and to take revenge on her for keeping him from having relationships with other women like Anna. Anna’s bisexuality is never confirmed by the film, but it’s clear that Frank simultaneously fears Rita as a romantic rival and desires to possess her as a mother figure.
These romantic anxieties highlight Maniac’s similarities with Taxi Driver, another film that functions as a portrait of a violent man whose relationships with women are largely based on a desire to possess them. But while Taxi Driver’s ending invites the audience to question and debate whether Travis (Robert De Niro) is a hero, Maniac leaves no room for subtlety, and sometimes that’s a good thing. In recent years, a number of commentators have discussed how Travis is a forerunner of today’s incels, a young man who is disaffected, alienated, and feels entitled to the affection of women he desires. The ambiguity of the ending of Taxi Driver lets some believe that Travis is a hero, and before we think these discussions have been settled in the past, it’s worth noting that there are a number of Reddit threads from recent years discussing the question, albeit some with more nuance than others. Maniac offers no nuance on Frank’s position as a villain. It may offer us a glimpse into his damaged psyche and even encourage us to pity him at times, but it never asks us to consider that he may be a hero as he stalks, kills, and scalps young women, and sometimes their male partners.
It’s worth noting also that Spinell has a brief role in Taxi Driver, and that many of the moody establishing shots of New York City and the use of fog throughout Maniac seem to purposefully evoke the former film. Add to this that when Frank initially asks Anna to dinner, and she asks if he’s asking her on a date, he looks around and behind him before turning back and asking her “are you talking to me?” in what can only be a purposeful reference. All of these factors, external and internal to the film of Maniac, make it feel as though the movie wants to be in a conversation with Taxi Driver, perhaps seeking to answer the question that Taxi Driver left open about what kind of person Travis is.
On top of the ways in which Maniac surpasses two celebrated classics of psychological portraiture, it’s also wildly successful on its merits as a slasher film. The horror sequences, particularly one in which Frank stalks a nurse from her work all the way to a subway bathroom, are brutally tense and shockingly violent. The film offers no fake outs and few jump scares, instead building tension through extended sequences and releasing it in violent bursts that are incredibly effective thanks to Savini’s brilliant make up work throughout. And while it excels in these areas where all slashers seek to succeed (and sadly not all do), Maniac also adds the explicit psycho-sexual horror of Frank’s apparent sexual relationships with his mannequins as well as some of his victims after he has killed them.
Maniac is the best slasher because of the ways it differentiates itself from its slasher brethren while also beating them at their own horror thrills game. And it’s better than its psychological portrait siblings because its firm placement in the slasher genre allows it to push farther into the themes that those films present by asking even more uncomfortable questions and offering some extreme answers.
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