Back in 1980, William Lustig’s “Maniac” became one of the original and notorious video nasties. It was a really dirty, scummy and disgusting film with some incredible gore scenes from the master of effects, Tom Savini. Definitely a product of its time, it has never been one of my real favourites, but it is alright and it succeeds in what it sets out to do. With the remake craze still going strong these days, I was still surprised by the fact that “Maniac” was going to be remade. It isn’t as if people were screaming for a new version of the film, but upon thinking about it some more, I think that it is actually a perfect candidate for a remake. It isn’t a terribly well known film (except amongst horror fans) and it isn’t what you would call a classic, so there is room for improvement here. When I heard that Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur were involved in writing the screenplay, it piqued my interest a little bit because they have had great success with remakes of both “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Piranha” (both of which Aja directed himself), however once I heard that Franck Khalfoun was tapped to direct the project, my hopes faded for “Maniac”. Khalfoun’s previous film, “P2”, was a terrible and bland horror film that I did not like at all. Then the news of Elijah Wood’s casting in the main role of the maniac was announced and I thought that it was a stroke of genius. Anyone who has seen the original “Maniac” knows that Joe Spinell owned that role, he completely embodied it, and for any actor to try and replicate exactly what Spinell did was destined to fail. That is why I thought the against-type casting of Wood was perfect because no-one would be expecting it and it would automatically make it a different film from the original. Ironically, though, it is the casting of Elijah Wood that ultimately hurts the remake of “Maniac”.
The remake stays pretty close to the original and is about a guy named Frank Zito (Wood) who works in the restoration of vintage mannequins. Frank also has a bad habit of murdering and scalping beautiful young women in his time off, and then attaching their removed hair to his mannequins in his bedroom. Obviously Frank is a very sick boy and has a lot of mummy issues he is dealing with which started when he was just a kid and had to witness his mother’s constant sexual exploits. The girls he stalks and kills all remind him of his mother in one way or another. Frank appears unable to control his murderous urges at all, so when a young woman named Anna (Nora Arnezeder) comes into his store to photograph his mannequins and the two end up becoming friends, will he be able to stop himself from delivering the same fate all of the women that enter his life suffer?
I was so surprised by just how great “Maniac” turned out to be, I seriously liked this film. Right from the opening frame, the grimy and dirty atmosphere that Khalfoun created just seemed perfect. The entire story is demented, but in a good way, and I especially loved all the images of the bloody mannequins that come to life (in Frank’s mind) once he places the scalped hair on to them. Just seeing Frodo lying in a room full of bloodied mannequins all around him, complete with flies buzzing around the scalps, was something pretty special.
The practical gore effects (with some minor CGI tweaking) from KNB were probably the best I had seen in a horror film all year. The scalpings all look incredibly real and painful, not to mention bloody, and there is an absolutely brutal Achilles tendon slash that takes place in a car park that could be the film’s highlight. Another moment of full on gore that made us horror fans cheer was a butcher’s cleaver being violently pounded into a poor guy’s open mouth. The suspense that is coupled with these gore scenes is actually really well done which makes the violent payoffs all the more satisfying. In fact the inaugural murder of “Maniac” is so good that it rivals some of Dario Argento’s work back when he was still in his prime.
Contributing to the 1980’s atmosphere of the film (even though “Maniac” is set in the present) is a truly fantastic electronic score by somebody or some band credited as just “Rob” that is reminiscent of those great John Carpenter scores of that era. As soon as the music kicked in for the first time, my heart started pumping, I was just with “Maniac” and I knew that the filmmakers got the film.
However for a film that I love so much, “Maniac” has one of the biggest flaws in it that had the potential to destroy the whole film. The giant miscalculation is from director Franck Khalfoun who decided to shoot the entirety of the film from Frank’s eyes. Therefore every camera movement is meant to represent the eyes of a killer. The problem with this visual gimmick is that it is actually very hard to pull off properly and make it interesting, as well as make it feel real. My main problem with it isn’t actually the camera work, as this is done pretty well, it is the other decisions it forces onto the film that causes it some problems. Because of the fact they have hired a name actor in Elijah Wood in the role of Franck, there is a need to show him on screen regularly which is a problem if the film is meant to be seen through his eyes. To rectify this, Frank is forever passing by and looking into mirrors and any reflective surface he can find, just so we get glimpses of Wood, however it always feels forced and never organic to the scene. It also reeks of showing off on behalf of the filmmakers too. A couple of times Khalfoun also cheats with the style by slowly zooming in on objects which is something the human eye does not do, and even a couple of the murder scenes he abandons the point of view style altogether so we witness Elijah Wood actually performing the brutal crime (however because I assume it is as if he is having an outer body experience when he kills, I didn’t mind these cheats as much). The other problem that the point of view style causes is that all of Wood’s line readings are done off camera and it has definitely affected his performance because he sounds terrible. It just isn’t a natural performance at all, his delivery sounds stilted and forced.
It is amazing how much I still loved “Maniac” even with this (in my opinion) massive flaw. It was mean, bloody, nasty, politically incorrect and it had a creepy atmosphere to it all. I keep thinking that it could’ve been a horror classic if Khalfoun had just done a normal or straight adaptation, although as it is, it is already a bloody good film. I must reiterate that “Maniac” is incredibly bloody and gory, so buyer beware. My lovely wife, who unfortunately for her saw “Maniac” with me, watched the majority of the film with her hands over her eyes and she says it has scarred her for life. For me though, it was like horror candy, and was a rare horror remake that actually worked.