When it comes to the toxicity that’s commonly associated with fandom, we can all be guilty of it from time to time. Lending an objective and critical voice can be challenging in this aspect. This is especially true when a remake of something we hold dear is announced. What follows is either a frothing at the mouth of rage or outright dismissal. We quickly forget that we have the option of not watching, and that certainly doesn’t stop us from voicing our contempt and displeasure of an artistic work being replicated with new actors and the vision of someone else. The passionate arguments that come from those who gravitate towards various forms of art are certainly understandable. Emotions run high.

Among the titles that have been remade in the past several years, there was one in particular that received an unfair amount of adulation from the masses, with some even elevating it high above the source material in what can only be described as complete nepotism. 2012, the same year that was said to be the end of civilization, brought forth the remake of Maniac. Franck Khalfoun’s effort was described as everything from a psychological slasher to arthouse. It was neither. A more fitting description would be “complete bastardization of the source material” and “completely missing the focus of what made the original so jarring.” The discourse I offer here today isn’t going to consist of an endless diatribe of my contempt. Instead, I offer a look at what makes the original the ideal time capsule of a time period marred with trauma and urban blight. I shall dismiss the 2012 version altogether, as it has no right to be mentioned with any sort of distinction.

Our examination begins with the film’s main focal point, the character of Frank Zito, portrayed by the late Joe Spinell. Properly describing Zito is itself a complex task, as he’s a character who exists within two separate realities. The first is one that’s based on the reality in which we live, the very real city of New York. The other is the world that exists within the tormented mind of psychosis and compulsion to murder. This world exists between the audience and the film itself. It’s a performance that harkens back to the likes of Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). That is, madness and vulnerability with the specter of maternal trauma looming over him (a la Ed Gein). The helplessness at which we see the assailant suffer incites pathos, yet his actions force upon us the reality which takes place in the back alleys of New York–the soulless killer who stalks his prey and introduces them to the business end of a knife or the blast of a shotgun.

It’s the performance from Spinell that serves as not only the quintessential portrayal of a psychopath somehow managing to fit in with society while suffering from the psychosis that necessitates isolation, it’s the finest moment of an actor who was, for the lack of a better term, often relegated to supporting roles for much of his career. Many of the films that defined a generation feature him, but in a much smaller capacity than the leading men who would walk away with glory and recognition. Taxi Driver (1976), Rocky (1976), The Godfather (1972), and Nighthawks (1981) all wouldn’t have been the same without him. The link between Zito and Spinell is not simply one of portrayal but of creation, as Spinell helped write the film with director Bill Lustig. Unlike so many of the knife-wielding slasher icons who would dominate the decade, Zito has depth and complexity, much of which comes out not only in his moments of psychosis and isolation but in the natural chemistry between him and co-star Caroline Munro. In the scenes they share with one another, Zito comes across less like the psychopath we see in the film and more along the lines of a charming, insightful individual.

Spinell’s portrayal set amidst the backdrop of New York City is too perfect in its presentation. To say that Joe Spinell was an actor from New York would be a great disservice to the man. Joe Spinell WAS New York. In many regards, the setting in which the film takes place is less of a location and more of one of the main characters. Alongside Spinell, the appearance of New York City elevates Maniac to the level of not being simply a showcase for murder and a descent into madness but a time capsule of a city reeling from the scars of trauma.

To fully comprehend this aspect of the film, we need to travel back a few years to 1976, a mere four years before Lustig’s film materialized. The year in which America celebrated its Bicentennial anniversary also coincided with a series of killings now known as the “Son of Sam Murders.” New York City was gripped with an incontrollable fear as a mysterious gunman prowled the streets, almost choosing victims at random, eliciting fear and helplessness among New Yorkers everywhere. If there exists one moment in the film where this carnage comes full circle, it’s one that had the involvement of special effects maestro Tom Savini, himself a witness to the harsh realities of death due to a stint of service during the Viet Nam War.

Police officials surround David Berkowitz, 24, of Yonkers outside Brooklyn’s 84th Precinct after his arrest as the “Son of Sam” killer early Thursday, Aug. 11, 1977.

David Berkowitz would later be convicted of the string of killings, despite the allegations from author Maury Terry who insisted it was a group effort from a dog-butchering Satanic cult. The moment of excess in the film that I’m referring to involves Spinell attacking a couple (one of which was portrayed by Savini, who also orchestrated his own gory demise via shotgun) and is dispatched as they sit in their car. This incident is “ripped from the headlines” as Christine Freund and John Diet were attacked by the gunman as they sat in their car in January of 1977. While the scene is grandiose in its presentation, it echoes the aspect of art imitating life.

This is what lies at the core of Maniac. It single-handedly manages to capture something that cannot be created with crafty camera tricks or the imagination of a screenwriter. Lustig’s cameras capture the aftereffects of a city still reeling from trauma and the blight of an urban environment that simply can’t be replicated. That is what the remake completely missed. Many times, art has the ability to hold a mirror and reflect the world in which we exist. And, as Bill Lustig and Joe Spinell did in 1980, the reflection isn’t always one that’s easy to gaze upon.