[22 July 2013]
When an announcement was made in early 2011 that the acclaimed French genre revisionist Alexandre Aja intended to produce a Franck Khalfoun-directed remake of William Lustig’s infamous 1980 exploitation film Maniac, the initial signs weren’t too promising, even with Lustig on board as co-producer. To offer some context for the uninitiated, Lustig’s original is, for better or worse, the apotheosis of the kind of gruelling subgeneric horror film that provokes a strong post-viewing urge to jump into the shower and scrub away any lingering residue that may have somehow permeated from screen to skin. (Watching Lustig’s film at home on VHS or DVD is an experience enough, so I can’t begin to imagine what a theatrical screening in a sticky-floored 42nd Street grindhouse cinema must have been like 30 or so years ago).
For the purposes of comparison, the original film’s protagonist, Frank Zito, is played with an unnerving intensity by the heavy set and pockmarked character actor Joe Spinell, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Living alone in a small, grubby apartment, Frank is a truly repulsive figure, an obese serial killer with crippling matriarchy issues and a propensity for hideous hallucinations, which often feature his victims coming back to life. Frank’s attempts to resist the ever-present nocturnal urge to trawl the city for new victims are largely unsuccessful too, and so his murderous behaviour continues unabated.
Lustig’s film has often been referred to as one of the sleaziest of all time, and it’s hard to disagree with such an assessment. Throw into the violent mix the authentic and grimy New York City locations (Maniac was made at a time when the great city was still suffering major urban degradation, despite what Woody Allen’s beautifully poetic Manhattan would have us believe), and the unsettlingly visceral work of the renowned special effects make-up artist Tom Savini (his over-cranked shotgun-to-the-head sequence ranks as one of most unpleasant ever committed to film) and the dark nightmare reaches totality. Make no mistake, the threadbare Maniac is a very effective film, but it is not a “fun” genre experience on any level whatsoever.
So, on to director Khalfoun’s “reimagining” (reimagining seems to have become a contemporary term to supersede remake, and the go-to terminology for producers attempting to pre-emptively exercise damage limitation should fans of the original be unhappy with any major structural and stylistic alterations). Khalfoun and Aja certainly had quite a task on their hands: how do you draw in a new audience for such unpalatable and repellent subject matter? Commercially, there was potential, because though the era when the fledgling video rental market represented a kind of illicit domestic grindhouse experience is long gone, remakes (sorry, reimaginings) of the cheap indie exploitation films that were its backbone are nevertheless big business now; when even Wes Craven’s hugely controversial Last House on the Left is given mainstream studio treatment, you know there is hope for Maniac in the market place.
That said, before production of Khalfoun’s version even began, eyebrows were raised when news of the baffling main casting choice emerged. Who had been chosen to portray the huge and insane murderer so well-rendered by the original’s frightening hulk Spinell? Elijah Wood. To be fair to Wood, despite being slight of presence, he is a solid performer when given appropriate material, but nevertheless, I couldn’t really imagine a role less suited for the doe-eyed poppet than a violent, powerful and relentless predator. (Perhaps Khalfoun has been taking wonky casting advice from fellow director Lexi Alexander, who herself cast Wood against type in the Brit film Green Street, in which he played a violent football thug who was, quite naturally, also a brilliant Harvard graduate).
Additionally, much of the aesthetic effectiveness of Lustig’s film is down to factors that can’t really be replicated in a contemporary context. The original’s low budget gives the film a cheap, shot-from-the-hip-quality (it was produced in Super 16mm and blown-up to 35mm for release prints), and this helps to create a palpable sense of doom-laden documentary realism. Moreover, many of the urban locations used by the production are either no longer there, or have been gentrified or sanitised by the corporate giants. (Appropriately, the compulsory New York City filming permits were not acquired by Lustig and his team, so the film crew often moved in-and-out at night to do their surreptitious business - much like Frank himself).
It comes as a surprise to find, therefore, that Khalfoun’s Maniac is actually a fairly coherent, stylish and effective piece of work—albeit predictably gruesome—and perhaps even more surprisingly, Wood is excellent as Frank. Rather than launching an ill-advised attempt to duplicate the nostalgic essence of Lustig’s film, irritating diehards in the process (and let’s face it, just as with Fede Alvarez’s recent Evil Dead remake, it’ll be curious and loyal fans of the original that’ll represent the largest proportion of Maniac’s ticket sales), the director has cleverly re-contextualised the original’s narrative into a sort of contemporary, minimalist, urban synth-pop nightmare, with the film stylistically reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s excellent and oblique Drive rather more than the iconic piece of cheap exploitation it was actually based on. If one forgets about Lustig’s tawdry template – which is fairly easy to do considering the significant visual differences between both versions—the new elements of Khalfoun’s glossy, neon-inflected film click into place rather more naturally than they have any right to.
Although thematically Maniac has nothing in common with the highly innovative British TV comedy Peep Show, both productions are perhaps the only ones ever to rely almost exclusively on first-person POV shots throughout; in Maniac, this means we really only ever see Frank physically, either in part or whole, in reflections and in mirrors (one excellent shot shows Frank grimacing into a badly cracked mirror, the distorted vision before us representative of his warped, multifaceted and fractured psyche). Not only does this audacious and complicated narrative device work very well and increase tension to unbearable levels, but it also forces the viewer to become more complicit in Frank’s awful activities, because he is never truly objectified as a totally separate person to us - we see as he sees, through his eyes, and we witness his misdeeds in such graphic detail that the film’s more unpleasant scenes make for extremely uncomfortable viewing indeed.
In keeping with the bloodthirsty requirements propagated by the contemporary “torture porn” subgenre (of which producer Aja has, unsurprisingly, been something of a figurehead), Maniac is unflinchingly violent, in fact breathtakingly so in certain scenes. What the filmmakers have lost in authentic period sleaze they have more than made up for in graphic, first-person POV gore, if that’s the kind of thing you’re after. Khalfoun’s Maniac certainly isn’t any less effective than its predecessor, although it’s a great deal slicker, thanks to its name actor and far higher budget, but despite the film’s undeniable power, Khalfoun’s version, like Lustig’s, is hard to love, and I’m sure even some keen fans of the genre will be turned off by the film’s graphic violence and relentlessness. Maniac also has a tendency to embody the misogynistic generic baggage of an earlier age too, such as the objectification of the lone-female-in-peril that marked almost all slasher films produced during the genre’s peak in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (look to the great Mario Bava for good examples of creative proto-slasher films that also manage to eschew such lazy and controversial gender issues).
Still, if you’re seeking the kind of thrills that Maniac offers, it won’t disappoint, and it certainly has more substance to it than the unnecessarily violent and empty cinematic exercises that Eli Roth used to specialise in, before his association with Quentin Tarantino led to better artistic opportunities. Overall, at least the twitchy and rat-like Wood and his bold director manage to elevate the material way beyond the original source by imbuing Maniac with a kind of sterile, art house claustrophobia.
The disc’s extras are basic, and consist of just a trailer and selected interviews.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/173780-maniac/