Cruel and Unusual…and Good: ‘Maniac’ (Blu-ray)

[18 October 2013]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Few films have caused the kind of uproar that William Lustig’s Maniac did. Originally lumped in with the growing slasher subgenre, it was soon seen as a pariah both outside and within the industry. Siskel and Ebert rallied against it as a prime example of pointlessly misogynistic moviemaking while the MPAA had fits over trying to find an appropriate rating. Eventually, it became a notorious video “nasty,” banned in many countries and considered a prime example of old school exploitation taken too far. On the other hand, those with an eye beyond their outrage could see something very special in Joe Spinell’s labor of love. A character actor perhaps best known for his work in Rocky and The Godfather, Maniac was supposed to be his big breakthrough. Instead, he was typecast as the twisted psychopath, and the movie would haunt him until his untimely death at age 52.

So when it was announced that Alexandre Aja had targeted this film to be the next in his series of horror remakes (he has tackled The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha previously), fans were either outraged…or curious. They were angry because they couldn’t imagine anyone outdoing Spinell as Frank Zito, nor could they envision anyone amplifying the autopsy level special effects by burgeoning make-up legend Tom Savini. But some were intrigued, wondering what the French auteur saw in the material that made him decide on an update. In this case, he crafted a script (with collaborators GrĂ©gory Levasseur and C.A. Rosenberg) that took a different perspective - literally - on the material, and then handed it over to director Franck Khalfoun, perhaps best known for P2 and Wrong Turn at Tahoe.

The result is one of the most ambitious and artistically creative splatter fests ever fashioned, different enough to give devotees a reason to care but familiar enough to remain Maniac. Elijah Wood (yes, Frodo Baggins) is the new Frank Zito, a quiet, introspective manager of his family’s failing mannequin business. During the day, he has horrible memories of his prostitute mother and her cruel, abusive ways. At night, he stalks the streets of L.A., looking for women to fulfill his delusional desires. All Frank wants to do is seduce, then kill, then scalp his victims, but when he comes across an artist named Anna (Nora Arnezeder), all that changes. She works in old and forgotten showroom displays and Frank finds himself falling for her. When he learns that she has a boyfriend, it fuels further episodes of murder and mayhem.

Shot in a style significantly different from Lustig’s old school scare show, Aja’s take on Maniac is both contemporary and complex. Khalfoun, following the script’s mandates, shot the entire film from the killer’s perspective, using carefully placed mirrors and other reflective surfaces so that we can see Wood working his magic as Frank. Indeed, the actor is so sensational here, so lost in his deep set soulless eyes that, in those rare instances when we do see him, our heart breaks as the hair stands up on the back of our neck. It’s an amazing turn, both delicate and deadly, menacing and melancholy. Wood really works the wounded victim angle, allowing us to see that ever horrific act he commits is in response to his own internalized pain and suffering. Granted, his face is off screen most of the time, but when it’s on, it’s mesmerizing.

Similarly, Khalfoun abandons the original’s slasher film feel to channel another genre favorite. There are times here, as in the first killing where a massive knife enters a woman’s chin, where the giallo of Dario Argento (and others) is referenced. In fact, by using the unique POV approach, it’s like watching the Italian Master of Suspense circa Profondo Rosso or Tenebrae. Don’t confuse this with a found footage or shaky cam effort, however. Khalfoun is interested in more than mere hand held frenzy and “you are there” dynamics. He carefully frames his film to maximize our understanding of Frank and his fetish. Granted, this is a man we can never admire, his psychological damage so great that he can only act out in violence. But thanks to the unique visual element and Wood’s work, we actual start to see Frank as less of a monster and more of a (very, very disturbed) man.

The rest of the movie relies heavily on location and production design. Instead of the grit and grime of a late ‘70s Manhattan, Aja and Khalfoun opt for the phony bright lights of Southern California. This decision brings everything out into the open, offering an occasional noir neon glare to many of the nighttime stalking sequences. There is also a terrific score by the single named French composer Rob and it recalls the best of Reagan era electronica without actually resorting to imitation. It sets the perfect mood for what Frank and his insanity have in mind. On the recently released Blu-ray of Maniac, Wood, Khalfoun, and Executive Producer Alix Taylor discuss the difficulty in making this adaptation. Not only did they have the original to life up to (or down, however you see it), they had the current trends away from “torture porn” to contend with as well.

In this case, the Maniac remake is about as far from Saw and Eli Roth’s Hostel as a Pixar film is from the rest of its animated brethren. This is art as splatter (or visa versa), gore given purpose by being placed within a riveting and quite complex character study. The original movie revolved around Spinell, his take on Zito, and Savini’s carefully considered cruelty. Here, Elijah Wood transforms the killer into a kind of tragic anti-hero. We don’t want to see him succeed, but we don’t want to see him die either. During their courtship, it looks like Anna could actually save her unsettled friend. It’s this sense of hope, no matter how inaccurate or wrong-minded, that makes this Maniac different. Add in the artistic approaches and you have something that’s worthy of approval, not uproar.

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