Director: Franck Khalfoun
This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie
The recent spate of mainstream remakes of horror films dictates that the redux will be a slicker and more competently made affair, albeit whilst eschewing any visual and/or scripted tics that defined the original. Maniac fits into that mould, but for once the smoother finish works to the new film’s advantage. A good remake? They come once a blue moon, and deserve savouring.
William Lustig’s original Maniac (1980) was notable only for Joe Spinell’s unhinged turn as the titular maniac, and a scene in which Tom Savini takes a bullet to the brain, resulting in the most memorable headshot the far side of Scanners. The grubby streets of New York, all graffiti and Taxi Driver-esque steam plumes from manholes, added to the luridness, but otherwise there’s little to that version of Maniac beyond grue and a regretful sideline in misogyny.
On paper, Franck Khalfoun’s new version of Maniac is no different. In fact, the plot’s exactly the same; Frank (Elijah Wood) is a loner who owns a mannequin repair shop. His burgeoning relationship with photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) is about the only respite Frank gets from his mother issues. His psychosis drives him to brutally murder and scalp women to place the hair on his dummies. It’s prime video nasty material; the original Maniac, though never officially on the BBFC’s ‘Video Nasties’ blacklist, was banned until 2002, when it was released with over a minute of footage getting cut. Our tolerance has clearly strengthened with time; the new Maniac has been released uncut, with scalps getting lopped and severe misuse of mannequin limbs and cleavers, all painted in deep reds. However, Maniac has a trick (albeit a well-worn one) up its sleeve.
In this version, Frank’s exploits are told almost entirely from his point of view. Wood’s turn is mostly voiceover, his face occassionally glimpsed in mirrors and the shine of a blade. It’s been done before (Think of the video for the Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, but with more blood and less dance-punk), but the effect is intensely claustrophobic and we’re made complicit in Frank’s actions. Despite his warping backstory, we’re not on Frank’s side. His actions are deplorable, and it’s good to see a film that actively makes that clear. When the camera does turn on Frank in a couple of the grisliest scenes, we’re still afraid of him. Even in his loneliest moments, screenwriters Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur (both remake veterans, after The Hills Have Eyes and Mirrors) never allow Frank be considered approachable. Meanwhile, Khalfoun keeps the camera moving and the blood flowing to make a distinctly edgy viewing experience. Despite relocating to the (relatively) clean-cut streets of Los Angeles, and neon-tinged camerawork reminiscent of Drive, Maniac pins the viewer to the back of the seat. Scenes with Arnezeder’s Anna offer just a few moments of respite for both the audience and Wood, who gives one of his best and most committed turns here. With his bug eyes and screaming fits, he could still have the One Ring in his pocket.
Despite its improved window-dressing, anyone who took umbrage at the moral of the original film could still point to Frank’s inherent misogyny, and the lack of a context beyond ‘movie psycho killer’. Maniac isn’t a message movie; it’s unashamedly full-blooded. On its own terms, it’s a decent and distinct horror, but as remakes go it’s a rip-roaring success.