Back in 1980 Maniac was accused of taking both the slasher film and the use of gory effects to unnecessary levels of distaste. I’m pretty sure special effects maestro Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead) is proud of that accolade. In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, Frank Zitto (Joe Spinell) – abused by his mother as a child – takes out his frustration on innocent women by scalping them and using their hair as wigs for his collection of mannequins. Everybody’s got a hobby, right?
Utilising a Carpenter-esque score, Lustig (Maniac Cop) and Savini created a suspenseful, effects ridden cult classic. Maniac was a twisted affair, supported by a memorable lead performance that still resonates today. Talking of twists, even by today’s standards, it’s the twist in the tale that sets Maniac apart from its contemporise. Perverse, contorted and drowning in a sea of gruesome imagery, Maniac is an 80’s classic worthy of its title. Depraved perhaps, but he did warn you not to go out tonight…
From producers/writers Alexander Aja (Switchblade Romance) and Gregory Levasseur (The Hills Have Eyes), and directed by Franck Khalfoun (P2), Maniac is the latest in a long line of inferior remakes, but don’t let that put you off. There’s enough here to warrant your full attention. A strangely vacant L.A. is the setting for Khalfoun’s worthy retelling. Frank (Elijah Wood) is the withdrawn owner of a mannequin store, but his life changes when young artist Anna asks for help with her new photo exhibition.
Maniac premiered at the Cannes Film Festival Official Midnight Screening selection, impressing audiences and critics alike with it’s stylised visuals. Remakes are an easy way to make money because the heart and soul of the movie is already in place, but the only way you’re going to satisfy a built in fan base is if you bring something new to the table. Khalfoun succeeds in doing this by shooting the entire movie from the killer’s perspective. It’s a risky move but one that pays dividends, putting the viewer in Frank’s shoes as he stalks and slays his unsuspecting victims.
Not knowing when the killer is going to strike is a key ingredient in building a sense of fear. By utilising a first person perspective Khalfoun risked losing that edge, but what he’s actually done is maximised the sensation. It’s an uncomfortable position to find yourself in, alone on the couch as you move in for the kill. At times you’ll feel like you’re committing the crime yourself, adding a level of intensity sorely missed by less original efforts. It’s an unsettling predicament but a commendable one all the same, and the ample bloodshed should keep gore hounds happy.
Joe Spinell was perfectly cast in the original movie and man-child Elijah Wood seemed liked an odd choice to take his place. Having said that, he certainly has the look of a deranged killer and lets face it, did anyone really trust him with that blasted ring? Elijah’s Frank is rarely seen on screen, only in reflections and the occasional death scene where Frank becomes the focus. Most of the time, particularly in the first act, we are greeted only by the sound of his voice. Elijah does ‘distant’ well enough but it’s hard to believe anyone would warm to his peculiar ways, which gives the relationship he forms with Anna an air of disbelief.
The opening act is engrossing enough and the novel filmmaking technique has a big part to play, but Wood struggles to hold the film together from behind the camera and after a while – particularly in the scenes between Frank and Anna – the original approach loses it’s jagged edge. Had Khalfoun blended this fresh style of filmmaking with a more traditional blend, Maniac would have proven more engaging. What you’re left with is an unconvincing relationship between the two leads, a faceless perpetrator and a waning interest whenever the killing stops.
That’s only a minor criticism though because the killing rarely stops. Maniac might lack emotional investment at times but it reels you back in with arresting cinematography and a gripping musical soundtrack. Khalfoun’s remake sounds like something Argento would have made in the 80’s, with a feisty electronic score that would make Goblin proud. At the end of the day the pros definitely outweigh the cons, and how often do you get to say that? The original version is still the better picture but Khalfoun should be praised for trying something new.
Putting us in the perpetrator’s shoes enhances Maniac’s charm, even if Elijah doesn’t quite cut it as the barbarous lead. A hypnotic score and gloomy visuals mask the lack of feeling, as do the merciless killings, but the chances of this remake surpassing the original were always slim. The fact that it remains compelling is more than most could hope for. AW