The second murder in Maniac, shot, like the rest of the film, almost entirely from the point of view of the killer, Frank Zito (Elijah Wood), goes like this: we see him meet Lucie, a girl (Megan Duffy) he’s picked up through a dating site. They have dinner, during which he sees everyone in the restaurant turn to stare malevolently at him. Afterwards, they go back to her flat and Lucie attempts to seduce him. We’re watching a pretty, vivacious and likeable young woman, trying to start a relationship with what she thinks is a shy young man. We know what’s going to happen; we don’t want it to, but all we can do is watch. When the murder comes, it’s ugly and unflinchingly shot, all from the killer’s POV, denying him any ersatz glamour. All we’re left with is the spectacle of a human life being snuffed out, followed by the victim being scalped.
Each of the murders in Maniac is almost like a little horror movie in its own right; the first, in the opening credits, is an exercise in suspense. Lucie’s murder is by far the most powerful; sadly, the others are mostly by-the-numbers stalk and slash.
The original 1980 film Maniac, directed by William Lustig (who also co-produced this remake) was a vehicle for the character actor Joe Spinell, who co-wrote the original screenplay. It is best described as a piece of raw, gonzo filmmaking from that era, with all the associated flaws and virtues. Khalfoun’s remake is at its strongest where it departs from the source material. Filming virtually the whole film through Frank’s eyes is an inspired choice, with Wood’s pale, haunted face appearing in reflections and photographs and reality warping to fit with his delusions.
Frank owns a mannequin shop. When he meets a pretty young photographer, Anna (Arnezeder) with an interest in depicting mannequins, he’s attracted to her but, fearing he’ll kill her, seeks out and murders other victims. Steadily his obsession with her grows, and won’t be denied. One of the few holdovers from the original film that has real power is its use of mannequins, crowned with the victims’ scalps, to represent the women in Frank’s life. They’re the closest he can come to having a relationship, and the room’s soon filled with the buzzing of flies, with Frank frantically spraying insect repellent to kill them. His personal world – the one we inhabit for most of the film – is in a state of decay, running down and falling apart. His killings don’t even enable him to achieve a form of equilibrium, however twisted; it’s always a question of not if, but when, he self-destructs. And of how many innocent lives he’ll take with him before the inevitable ending.
Frank’s slide towards madness begins with the death of his mother. This is the first of the film’s big problems: Frank’s rationale basically boils down to, ‘Mummy was a slapper, so I kill pretty girls.’ In an 80s grindhouse flick, that might have passed as profound psychology, but in 2013, especially for a film that claims to put the viewer into the mind of a killer, it’s a frankly piss-poor justification.
It’s not helped by the fact that the flashbacks are fewer and briefer, and actually provide even less motivation, than the original. In the 1980 film, his mother is an abusive prostitute; in this version it’s left unclear whether she’s a prostitute or just a woman with a voracious sex drive. Frank tells Anna that the mannequin shop was hers, which may be true or a white lie, but flashbacks show her copulating in front of him as a boy. Neglectful, yes, but not abusive. To the very limited extent we see any of their relationship, she’s actually quite loving towards him and certainly inflicts no deliberate harm.
Similarly problematic are the sequences where Frank hounds his victims through subway corridors and city streets before catching and killing them, all without attracting the attention of a single passer-by or cop. You can get away with this in 1970s guerilla filmmaking, especially with the death of Kitty Genovese so much in the public consciousness, but in a post 9/11 city-centre with CCTV cameras everywhere it doesn’t ring true. (Admittedly this is the perspective of a Brit, a member of one of the Western world’s most closely surveilled populations.)
Other reviews have touted Wood’s performance as “career-redefining”. Well, in the sense that “Frodo Baggins plays a psycho murderer!”, it can at least be said that the film’s avoided typecasting its leading man. But Wood is adequate in the role, nothing more, although to be fair to him, for much of the film he’s just a disembodied voice. Arnezeder’s smart and sassy yet vulnerable performance – and for that matter, the much smaller role of Duffy – stays with the viewer much more. The real ‘performance’ as Frank is that of the camera and special effects.
Maniac is far from a wholly bad film. What makes the film is Khalfoun’s direction, conjuring up the city by night as a desolate wasteland which Frank stalks, and the haunting, compelling music score by ‘Rob’. Maniac has moments of genuine brilliance, and it marks Khalfoun as a director worth watching. But, ultimately, it’s less than the sum of its parts.
“The Maniac remake is not for everyone, but then neither was the original. Co-written and co-produced by Alexandre Aja of Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D remake fame, this may well be the best film he’s been involved with yet. It’s a film that really should be approached with caution, and I do mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Joe Spinell would be proud.”
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
“William Lustig’s exploitation classic receives a remake of astounding quality courtesy of Alexandre Aja and Franck Khalfoun. Elijah Wood phenomenally busts out of type as the deranged lead character, Frank, and the film’s first-person narrative and visual style are accomplished with such a level of perfection that Maniac becomes not only one of the best horror remakes ever made, but an instant modern classic in its own right. Disturbing, challenging and brutal, this is not to be missed.”
“Maniac made me want to cry, puke and never leave the house again.”
“Simply put this is one of the best remakes in years. Khalfoun has crafted an original take on Lustig’s classic which is on a par with the original. Excellent filmmaking, a thought-provoking and atmospheric soundtrack and a standout performance from Elijah Wood. The only negative is the lingering terror and paranoia days after watching this film.”