Short Ends and Leader

Cruel and Unusual...and Good: 'Maniac' (Blu-ray)

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.


Rated: R
Director: Franck Khalfoun
Cast: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder
Extras: 7
Studio: MPI Home Video
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-10-15 (General release)

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 Grégory 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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller

18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr

17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr

16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.