Having survived a childhood dominated by his physically abusive prostitute mother, the now fully-grown Frank still struggles emotionally with her death. To deal with his loneliness he surrounds himself with shop window mannequins - fitted out with the clothes and the scalps of young women he has murdered.
The movie is filmed on 16mm, which works really well with the overall grimy, sleazy look of the film. The photography is very interesting, with use of close-ups, or lingering a little longer than expected, increasing the unsettling feeling of some scenes.
Scalping the victims is a particularly gruesome idea, and when combined with the act of nailing the scalps onto the mannequins, creates some very macabre imagery. And the film contains some impressive practical gore effects throughout, provided by horror make-up/effects guru, Tom Savini.
I particularly liked the set dressing in Frank's flat, which contains bizarre and fascinating details. For example, rows of burning candles, nude pin-ups, religious pictures, dolls in birdcages, photos of faces with the eyes and mouths cut out - and of course the creepy mannequins themselves, reminiscent of 1979's Tourist Trap. The score is especially noteworthy, with music well matched to the scenes. But there is also a confident and effective use of silence on occasion, which really builds up the tension when it's needed.
Hearing Frank's inner dialogue gives us an interesting perspective of his delusional state of mind. As his mental state deteriorates, we learn more about his unsettling relationship with his mother. Joe Spinell gives a surprisingly good performance as the socially awkward, lonely, and emotionally messed-up killer of the title. As the story progresses, Frank develops a (slightly unconvincing) romantic relationship with a very attractive photographer called Anna. This provides an interesting glimpse into another part of Frank's personality, which I would have liked the film to explore more. However, Anna may not the be best judge of character here. She is not remotely concerned when the strange man she photographed in the park earlier, turns up at her private address. And she is equally unfazed when he wants to take her to a cemetery on a dark, foggy night.
Stand out scenes are the subway chase - which is handled superbly, and is very tense indeed - and the 'lovers lane' attack featuring a shocking killing. Slasher movie fans and Savini afficianados might spot a cameo of the headless dummy of Mrs Vorhees from Friday the 13th (1980) in a nightmare sequence near the end of the film.
I can understand the criticism the film receives for being misogynistic in its violence towards women, though there is some violence directed towards men here too. I've been aware of this movie since it was listed as a 'video nasty' in the 1980s, and have always expected it to be a cheap, nasty, sleazy exploitation shocker. And while it still is some of those things, I may have underestimated it. It's not a nice film, but in terms of being frightening and shocking, it certainly delivers. 4/5