As an avid movie renter, first on Beta then later on VHS, I noticed that there were three films called “Maniac” available to me. The one that I’d heard of and read about, and was super excited to see, was of course Maniac (1980). This was one of the holy grails of the slasher genre, with groundbreaking, eye-popping special make up effects by Tom Savini. The other two movies were Maniac (1934) and Maniac (1963). When I was a kid, these two Maniacs looked old – I mean, really old. They were black and white for crap’s sake! There was no possible way that they were going to feature groundbreaking, eye-popping special make up effects (I.e. gore). I made it a mission to make sure I didn’t accidentally rent one of them.
Fast forward a few years and I realized that Maniac (1963) was a Hammer movie. This made it somewhat more interesting, although it somehow didn’t look as exciting as any of the Dracula or Frankenstein movies. And it was still in black and white.
Don’t get me wrong. I had loved old black and white monster movies since I was a kid. My dad had also introduced me to movies like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) when I was young, so I had an appreciation for all kinds of black and white films. Not to mention the fact that our first TV was black and white so everything I watched for the first few years was black and white.
Still, when it came to paying money to rent movies – horror movies, in particular – I wanted to see something that I couldn’t see on TV. Something a little more extreme, or R-rated. And I believed that any movie called Maniac should be in blood red colour.
So, I didn’t rent Maniac (1963) until much, much later. And I think my first impression was that it was one of a handful of Hammer films that came out in the wake of Psycho (1960), trying to emulate that black and white, low budget, psychological horror-thriller style. It wasn’t as good as Psycho, and it wasn’t as good as Scream of Fear (1961), another Hammer film in that style which I had seen years earlier. So, I think I more or less dismissed it and went back to watching my VHS copy of Maniac (1980).
Watching Maniac (1963) again now, for the first time in more than twenty years, I can honestly say that I didn’t remember anything about it. I found myself doubting that I had ever watched it before – but I know that I did. I guess this is just another sign of old age creeping up on me. I’ve noticed that a lot of the movies that I only watched once back in the 1990s or early 2000s are completely new to me now. Movies that I watched more than once, I tend to remember. And movies I saw in the 1970s and 80s are far more likely to remain burned into my brain – even if I only saw them once.
I suppose this phenomenon could party be due to the sheer volume of movies that I watch now, which is a trend that started back in the ’90s. I watch at least one movie a day. Some days I watch two or three. Back in the ’80s I probably only saw one or two movies a week.
This could be the old man in me talking, but I also feel that the average level of quality was much higher in the movies that I was watching back in the ’70s and ’80s. So many of them are now certified classics – or #NotQuiteClassics as the case might be. I can’t imagine that very many of the recent movies I watch (and by recent I mean anything made in the past 20 years or so), will be remembered with the same reverence as Halloween (1978), Dawn of the Dead (1978), or even Maniac (1980).
I’m not saying that there aren’t great movies being made today (or within the past 20 years). There are, of course. But there are just so many MORE movies in general, and sometimes the truly great ones get lost among all of the mediocrity. It will be interesting to see which current films get remembered and talked about in thirty or forty years (not that I will be around to find out).
So what does this have to do with Maniac (1963)? Well, it’s an older movie (that was already older when I first came across it) that doesn’t get talked about very much. When people think of Hammer Horror, or Hammer movies in general, I don’t think this is one of the top ten movies that pops into their minds. It’s part of a sub-genre, or sub-category of Hammer films, that includes movies like Scream of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963), Nightmare (1964) and maybe Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960). Maniac (1963) is probably the weakest of all of these movies. However…
Watching it again after all these years, I found that quite enjoyed it. Maniac (1963) has enough of the good qualities that make movies like Scream of Fear great, to make it a pretty decent little noirish psychological thriller. It’s a slow burn, for sure, spending a lot of time building up characters and relationships. It’s almost more of a drama in the first half, so hardcore horror fans will need a bit of patience as they wait for the payoff. And that payoff likely won’t be big enough for those, like 12 year old me, who might be looking for some blood red gore.
But if you like black and white suspense thrillers, with likeable characters and a growing sense of creepy dread, you might just find Maniac (1963) to be a pleasant addition to your next #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. While not the best example of its kind, it’s somewhat forgotten #NotQuiteClassicCinema that’s worthy of rediscovery.