In 1980, William Lustig unleashed the unflinching splatter epic Maniac, much to the dismay of yuppie mothers everywhere. The downbeat subject matter and scenes of intense gore done by maestro Tom Savini gave the film a sense of realism that most slasher films didn’t have. For it’s time it was unprecedented. Last year, remake king Alexandre Aja put into works a remake to be directed by his friend Franck Khalfoun and starring Elijah Wood in the titular role made famous by Joe Spinell. And you know what? They did something that really stays true to the original, while updating it enough for modern times.
Part of the reason why it works is just like the original film it follows a disjointed narrative that is basically Frank’s day to day life. Again, the character is given an emotional backstory about his mother’s abuse, but both play them out differently. In the original Frank kept mannequins and put the scalps of his victims on. In this one, Franks work with the mannequins becomes an actual plot point as his late mother owned a mannequin factory which has now fallen unto his hands. He develops a strange love story with art student Anna (Nora Arnezeder, Safe House) who is interested in using his mannequins as models in a show she has going on. In between meetings with he, he slashes his way across town in several very brutal kills that would make Savini proud. They didn’t try for the infamous shotgun blast of the original, but that’s ok. We do have some rather nasty stabbings and scalping sequences.
Elijah Wood is a perfect choice for the role. Yeah, he’s not as fat or sleazy as Joe, but he’s just as good (if not better) character actor who can turn from sweet and innocent to a vicious killer at the drop of a hat and make each personality trait completely believable. He looks like a weirdo loser and dresses like one to for the majority of the film. This is not a “sexy” killer or someone you can look at and say “hey this guy is so cool, I wanna be just like him!”. He’s aloof, scared of sex, has panic attacks in public, and is unable to truly connect with people which is why he prefers his mannequins. Joe Spinell’s version was more a beast; Woods is more sad and pathetic. It’s a risky role for an actor of Wood’s caliber to take and he of course does a fantastic job with it.
There is also a pretty gnarly synth score in the film as well for us to groove on while Frank does his thing. It has a throw-back 80’s feel to it. And as much as technology surfaces in the film it still maintains a feeling of being made in another time period. The film lingers on it’s female victims during it’s stalking and killing with a leering male gaze that works well with the synth score that makes it feel just as seedy as the original.
One of the things that bothered me about the original isn’t the subject matter or gore but rather the pacing. It’s a very dry experience when the maniac Frank isn’t stalking or killing someone. I’m not saying this is the better film, but it is more entertaining. Yeah, it moves at a slow pace but not enough to make you fall asleep betwixt scenes of violence.
The remake isn’t just interested in showing you Frank’s life, it wants you to BE Frank’s life. The entire film, except for a couple flashbacks and visions, are shot in the first person. I’ve seen movies where the director/writer tries to put you in the same frame of mind as a killer, but usually it’s just for point of view shots during a murder; I’ve never see a film use a first person perspective for the entirety of a film. And it works without getting old.
I find the first to be a more troubling and disturbing film due to it’s unpolished nature and completely unapologetic tone of violence. Both films will be called misogynistic trash and those who do so miss the point; they are character studies of a certain type of person whom you probably wouldn’t ever want to meet. Yes, there are monsters and things like this do happen and the films put you in their shoes for about an hour and a half and then drop you off safely in reality knowing the character got what they deserved. People who think that these films are too much need to watch August Underground flicks to discern the difference between art and trash. People watch Maniac movies for a cheap thrill-ride hosted by veteran character actors whereas the August Underground series are flicks for potential serial killers to masturbate to in their parents basements. But I digress.
Maniac is currently streaming on Netflix instant.