Maniac (1980)

For years I’ve suspected the Cannes Film Festival is hardly the shining showcase of the best in world cinema it’d like us to think it is, and Maniac—which made its world debut there in May 1980—is surely sufficient evidence of this by itself. I was watching Mark Gatiss’ excellent History of Horror series the other day (thank you YouTube, no thank you Australian TV), and he talks in that about how the success of Halloween opened the door to loads of other cheap and nasty films about people getting killed, and Maniac is the exact sort of film he meant… Except that, on some level, there’s a kind of perverse sincerity underlying the thing; star Joe Spinell wrote the script and seems to have believed in it strongly as a serious product (it was Spinell who insisted the film played Cannes, according to the commentary). And I think on this repeat viewing I did actually sense something in it I didn’t get from it first time round some years ago, i.e. a feeling that this actually could have been a good, interesting piece of work. Unfortunately what we got instead was, well, Maniac. At this remove, I don’t know that it still has the power to provoke the excoriation it had poured upon it back in the day (the DVD reproduces a magnificent letter from the Philippines film censor amongst other outbursts of moral outrage); it’s a film that’s still hugely unpleasant in various ways (mind you, though the charges of misogyny are hard to deny, I’m not sure it’s any worse in that respect than most other examples of the slasher), but not really well made enough to merit the sort of passionate opposition to it that it scored way back when. Spinell is, I will admit, the chief reason to watch Maniac (other than Tom Savini’s gore effects); as for director Bill Lustig, he’s made a far greater contribution to the cinematic world as chief of Blue Underground than he did with this film…

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