Psycho killers have been a staple of horror movies and thrillers probably as long as the genre has existed, but they were usually kept at a nice safe distance from the public. I'm not enough of a scholarly historian to know when exactly that changed, but I do know the transition was probably fully complete by the time Maniac came out in 1980.
As a result, the experience of watching Maniac can be a little uncomfortable, as you're pretty much spending 88 minutes inside a deeply disturbed individual's head. But for whatever reason Maniac doesn't hit me quite as hard as some other grimy psycho movies like Taxi Driver or The Driller Killer, but it took me a while to figure out exactly why.
But I think I got it - director William Lustig (an exploitation god if there ever was one, if for no other reason than the fact that he gave us Vigilante - oh, and the Blue Underground label) might be working in the scummy world of low-rent exploitation movies, but his instincts are those of an old-fashioned movie-maker. That means that Maniac is layered with suspenseful set-pieces and creepy atmosphere, and in a weird way it makes the whole thing seem a little bit less unhinged.
Maniac's other liability, and I realize this might be a controversial statement, is star/writer Joe Spinell. Don't get me wrong, he gives a totally committed and compulsively watchable powerhouse performance, but I found the scenes depicting his derangement a little lacking. He pretty much sticks to the tried-and-true "crazy" line-readings during these scenes and the result is a lack of texture, at least compared to the other aspects of the movie. As contrast, watch his scenes with Caroline Munro, with whom he has a weird kind of chemistry - they're fascinating, because they are so unexpected and unlikely.
I guess I would be remiss if I didn't mention that today (technically yesterday, as I'm writing this after midnight) marks the passing of Lou Reed, rock god and personal hero to me. I'd be remiss not because Lou had anything to do with this movie (although I'd like to think he watched it), but because it depicts so much of the world that he called his literal and artistic home - dirty, scary, dangerous, sexy, beautiful New York City. I don't know if Lou Reed ever appeared in any horror movies (I'd have to ask Ira Brooker to know for sure), but if he did I don't have access to any of them, and it seems somehow appropriate that this was the horror movie that served as kind of a de facto goodbye. Because I think he'd probably dig the movie, this one is dedicated to Lou Reed. Perhaps he and Joe Spinell are in Heaven right now, freaking everyone out in concert.