Written by: Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur (screenplay), Joe Spinell (original screenplay)
Directed by: Franck Khalfoun
Starring: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, and America Olivo
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“You will not go out tonight!"
If one had to pick the poster child of the grindhouse era’s preoccupation with New York City’s seedy underbelly, William Lustig’s Maniac would be near the top of the list. Few films truly crystalized the grit, sleaze, and grime of the age better, as it truly felt like the exact sort of film that Frank Zito himself would catch in a shady 42nd Street theater. Over thirty years later, producer Alexandre Aja (who has seemingly given himself over to remakes) has revived the infamous slasher but has wisely avoided returning to the scene of the crime. By transporting the tale to Los Angeles, Franck Khalfoun’s update taps into the sinister, uneasy notion that appearances can be horrifyingly deceiving.
This is not to say that Lustig didn’t trod upon the same ground, but, let’s be real: this sort of thing is much more effective with Elijah Wood inhabiting the role of Frank. Whereas Joe Spinnell looked exactly like the sort of guy you’d expect to prowl the streets in search of unsuspecting women to murder, there’s a certain dissonance to watching the boyish Wood perform the same actions. Like his predecessor, this Frank is a tortured mama’s boy haunted by the death of his mother (America Olivo); to compensate, he’s continued the family business of restoring mannequins by decorating them with the scalps of the women he stalks on a nightly basis. When fellow artist Anna (Nora Arnezeder) wanders into his life, he must reckon with his psychosexual trauma like never before.
A textbook example of a remake done right, Khalfoun’s Maniac retains the concept of the original film but burnishes it with an entirely different style. Far removed from Lustig’s gritty, raw approach, this film is artful and almost meditative as it hovers from Frank’s point-of-view. Its newfound slickness and first-person lensing don’t serve as a gimmicky, empty aesthetic, either, as it mirrors the thematic dichotomy—the film might be dazzling and alluring, but it conceals an ugly, inexplicable madness, not unlike Frank’s inviting, awkward demeanor. Just as Spinell’s Zito was a symptomatic reflection of the greasy refuse of 80s New York City, Wood’s Frank captures the deceptive, artificial nature of a City of Angels that’s prone to housing devils.
Interestingly enough, Arnezeder described the character as “half-devil, half-angel,” a description that’s so apt that I’ll just repeat it. Spinnell’s Frank had a pathetic, overgrown man-child quality, but Wood is even more pitiful and sympathetic, as his earnest, longing voice combine with fleeting glimpses of his vacant-eyed countenance to create a bizarre protagonist. Relaying the film almost entirely from his perspective expands the voyeuristic implications of previous slashers by having audiences completely inhabit the killer’s body. It’s especially disconcerting because it never feels like Frank is ever quite in control of his own faculties, so it’s almost as if a detached viewer only adds to the psychotic schism.
The film only switches over to an objective lens during the crescendo of Frank’s murders, a jarring shift that forces viewers to confront his actions as he might: as a disconnected observer. When we see Frank during these moments, he's in an orgasmic state of bliss wherein he completely loses himself, so Khalfoun makes brilliant use of his sparse third-person shots. At this point, the director almost feels like an extension of his producer and long-time collaborator, as he and Aja have crafted an immediately recognizable house style (with the assistance of Rob’s haunting electronic score) that manages to be evocative, moody, and atmospheric without sacrificing the visceral quality that’s especially necessary for something like Maniac. This film doesn’t feature an infamous highlight like Savini’s exploding head in the original, but it’s plenty savage, particularly when it does replicate Lustig’s ultra-gory climax.
Khalfoun is careful about retreading the obvious touchstones here, and, even when he can’t resist, the sparse call-backs (such as another subway sequence) are unobtrusive nods rather than cloying winks. One never gathers the sense that this film is coasting on an infamous legacy; instead it feels like a genuine attempt to repurpose the original story into something that’s a little more emotionally gripping. Wood’s Frank and his relationship with Anna feels downright tragic, and Arnezeder is an excellent, sweet-natured counterpart; you’d like to believe that these two could actually be together in a perfect world where Frank didn’t enjoy savagely murdering women. When the film reaches its obvious breaking point, it’s actually a little heartrending to witness both of their reactions.
If Maniac isn’t an improvement over the original (and it arguably is), it at least makes for an effective compliment; one could easily program these two as a double feature and never fully succumb to déjà vu, save for the formless, repetitive structure of both films (Frank’s bizarre courtship is essentially sandwiched between random stalk-and-slash bits in each). It’s easy to knock Aja’s penchant for riding the remake train, but he at least goes after his targets with gusto, and his efforts can hardly be considered lazy retreads like so many other vanilla cash-ins. Maniac is further proof that we don’t need less remakes—we just need more done right. Speaking of which, IFC Midnight has done right by Khalfoun’s film with an excellent Blu-ray release that features a making-of documentary, deleted scenes, a poster gallery, a trailer, reversible cover art, and a commentary with Wood, Khalfoun, and executive producer Alix Taylor. Not only is it a must-own, but you can also go ahead and plop it on your shelf right next to Lustig’s film, which has been done gory justice here. Buy it!
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