Maniac (2012) Review
“You will not go out tonight. Is that clear? You will stay home … WITH ME!!!!”
When it was announced that there was going to be a remake of Bill Lustig’s original 1980 cause célèbre, Maniac, genre-fans and slasher-devotees were initially angered and confused. “Oh no, not another one,” we thought. The history of horror remakes, barring one or two exceptions, has been littered with toned-down embarrassments and desultory cash-grabs, so why would this one be any different? Plus, the original story, about a socially and emotionally adrift nutjob scalping New York women to help create bring his harem of mannequins to life, was such a nihilistic, grim and grimy saga of relentless depravity and death that it hardly cried out for spick ‘n’ span updating.
Yet, with Lustig on board as a producer, the fantastic Alexandre (Haute Tension) Aja helping Gregory Levasseur provide the screenplay and, best of all, Frodo, himself, Elijah Wood, taking on the maniacal lead role, and the promise given that the punishing story would not be diluted and that it would take the seedy narrative through a stylish LA neon-fugue, and put us, the audience, in Frank’s bloodied shoes with a first-person perspective, it really seemed as though this could be one of the few remakes actually worth the time and effort.
And, for the most part, Maniac 2012-style, is right on the bloody money.
Mannequin collector and repairman Frank Zito is deeply disturbed. Having been psychologically and emotionally (and, potentially, sexually) abused as a child with a wayward slut of a mother, he has tried to carry on with the family business as best he can. A social misfit, he exists in his own world of obsession, guilt and rage. He suffers from terrible migraines and he is haunted by visions and memories of his mother taking cocaine and indulging in all manner of sexual antics before his innocent eyes. His search for female company is, thus, hampered by extreme urges to kill women in surrogate revenge for the blighted childhood he suffered. He then scalps his victims and tacks their stolen hair to the heads of the mannequins he keeps in a hidden part of the store in which he also lives. He is fashioning his own companions, yet is constantly aware of the looming presence of his mother – a figure that seemingly both goads him to kill and could, potentially, provide him with the impetus to break the ferocious cycle if he could only procure for himself a sufficient replacement for his tortured affections.
When classy French student and photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) stumbles upon his store and is captivated by his work at restoring all these antique dummies, Frank strikes up an unlikely friendship that threatens to break him out of his shell. But the ghosts of his past will not let go of him so easily for another woman… and Frank’s primal urges are never far from the surface. Will Anna provide him with an escape valve, or will she, too, become an object for twisted revenge?
In a perverse sort of way, this Maniac is like the dark and twisted version of Notting Hill!
Jobbing stiff meets up-market beauty totally out of his reach. There are sparks, a glint of chemistry, and in this interpretation … blood.
Shot with a similar sort of appreciation for LA nocturne to that of Michael Mann and captured with a dreamily surreal neon gloss that makes the City of Angels look alien, spacious and otherworldly, the film has a conscious feel of Winding-Refn’s entrancing Drive about its gliding movement and measured pace. Even the score, from Rob, and the songs that occur, have a deliberately fuzzy 80’s synth appeal that, by turns, excites and hypnotises in the dense, repetitive tonal incandescence that we’ve heard from Tangerine Dream and Georgio Moroder. The use of cult-loved track Good-Bye Horses, by Q. Lazzarus, is already invested in serial-killer lore as it was also heard in Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, as Buffalo Bill tried to make a butterfly woman out of himself. One memorably horrendous sequence actually benefits from the quasi grace bestowed it by a rendition of Ave Maria, although you are sure to remember the bloodcurdling scream far more. The various set-pieces are violent, savage and eerily soulless, Frank’s journey a sickening slide through despair, misguided hope and complete tragedy. But where the original Maniac spoke directly to us of the time, the place and the callous, uncaring underbelly of a corrupt metropolis, such societal observations are in short supply here. The shift in location and time has altered everything except the fierce genre misogyny that fuels it, so we should be thankful that the direction and the intent of slasher-flick genesis has not been lost or jettisoned to more moralistic times and sophisticated tastes.
But where the great Joe Spinell was a sniveling, sweat-caked wreck, a real loser whom we had no trouble believing existed, Wood’s nutter is a heightened, comic-book variation. Going along with the film’s gleaming, sterile, smooth allure, he is far more refined and elfin. He probably smells of fly-spray though, owing to how much he is forced to use to keep the bugs at bay in his rotting-scalp-filled boudoir.
The harsh reality and brutal fact is that we are not afraid of Frank. Having doe-eyed and diminutive Elijah Wood playing the maniac obviously helps to throw us off-guard, because he simply does not look like our woefully mistaken preconceptions of how a sadistic, psychotic sexual predator should. Now we know that such fiends don’t tend have a scarred visage, or a hook for a hand, or stand well over six feet tall and possess the build of a quarterback. They would never get close enough to a woman to make a victim out of her, if they did. But Wood’s Frank is so unimposing and of such a meek and fragile disposition that even the merest surfeit of menace is cut loose. When I think back to the likes of Hammer’s Straight On Till Morning in which the extremely effete Shane Briant played a jealous psycho, it was his total lack of intimidation that actually made him all the more frightening once the mask had slipped. Thankfully, Wood is not just stunt casting. There is something inherently creepy about him, although you would still never suspect his Frank of being a murderer. A sad, lonely perv, yes. But a stealthy butcher of women? Come on.
But with his vacant, rabbit/headlights stare, blatantly apparent insecurity and aching physical vulnerability, Wood fairly perfects the anonymity of the serial killer and his effortless “grey man” abilities for not drawing attention to himself. It may be a touch heavy-handed to suggest, or to imply that women could fall so easily for the “timid man”, as Frank refers to himself on internet dating sites, because this, in itself, would seem to say that they are predators in their own way. Though this would seem to come across with the lively Lucie, the very girl that Frank meets early on in the film, a flame-headed, tattooed and pierced vixen who swiftly eschews any pretense at polite slow-moving and gets him back to her place for unabashed seduction. She isn’t the flipside of his desires as much as she is the fully functioning hunter that he aspires to be, albeit unwittingly.
Spinell’s Frank was a character borne out of the period and his attitude was a cross between Norman Bates, the Yorkshire Ripper and Travis Bickle. Wood’s iteration is a distinct evolution from this. His social displacement is no less valid than that of his slobbish predecessor, but his campaign exists within much more of a state of class divide than it was previously perceived. The 80’s Frank was surrounded by whores, druggies, pimps and down-and-outs … and he belonged. Our Frank is sheltered in the realm of luxury apartments, artists’ loft studios and boho exhibitions. In some ways he has more in common with the well-heeled American Psycho than with Ed Gein. His world gleams, although he does his diseased best to sully it. The women that he sees are attractive and shallow but they are definitely all achievers, unlike Spinell’s, who were hungry losers, too desperate to listen to their instincts, and too gullible to see the Devil when he came calling. Wood’s killer is cuttingly referred to as being gay by Anna’s arrogant New York boyfriend, his eccentric skills and artistry immediately flagged-up as being something to mock. Yet, just like the former Frank, who it is implied was a Vietnam veteran, it is difficult to believe that he was ever actually bullied by anyone beforehand. The chip on the shoulder of Wood’s version of Frank is much smaller. In Lustig’s film, the mother fixation seems to be a symptom of something far more deep-rooted. Here, it is definitely the primary force that drives him. Strangely though, despite the more explicit flashbacks to his mother, this version still falls short of developing his backstory any further than simple thumbnails of neglect. Her death “last summer” isn’t awarded much detail, though this is possibly a good thing as it blurs the whole relationship that Frank had with her. Here, we don’t even know if Frank’s dark memories are actually real, or whether he has simply conjured them up as a cover-story for something far more disturbing.
It really is as though Elijah Wood has made continued efforts to distance himself from the Hobbit that made his name. There was Green Street in which his displaced Yank became seduced by the “glamour” of English football hooliganism. Then, magnificently, there was the repulsively monstrous paedophile/kidnapper Kevin in Sin City. Now, he takes on the mantel of one of the genre’s most reviled slashers. I certainly admire his gumption, but methinks the Shireling protests too much. All we need from him next is a performance of Adolf Hitler – though even then the world will still see him as one half of the fawning Ring-bearing couple of Sam and Frodo.
Of the two Maniacal performances, it is Spinell’s that is the best, and the most rounded, most convincing. Spinell was acting very naturalistically, and he delivered a tremendous amount of spontaneity and was truly unpredictable in his approach to the role. Wood’s personification of Frank is far more stylized, meticulous and self-aware. It is not a credible characterization at all. Putting yourself in his shoes – which should not be hard to do, given the filming and narrative techniques involved – you should clearly begin to wonder why anybody interacts with him for more than a moment or so. His lack of humanity and his immense speech pattern pauses would cause concern in anybody who isn’t … well … acting off the same script page. Wood is juggling the evidence too overtly. He downplays everything to suggest passivity, but his very dislocation and studied fragility screams “CRAY-ZEEEE!”
While the world has obviously been dismissive of him, the mannequins are his friends, his lovers, his family. They are his guiding hand and the burning rod of his conscience. If he cannot get a girlfriend for real, then he’ll make one. And that way they won’t abandon him. The mannequins are partly a metaphor for Frank’s own sexual inadequacy. In one image we see that Frank’s groin is made out of molded plastic and, like Action Man, sans any dangly bits. Again, the symbolism is as subtle as a smack round the head with a hammer, but neither Aja nor Khalhoun have any desire to be subtle. Their film is too cool, too precision-built to capture the raw terror of a true psychotic breakdown. Lustig adopted a gritty, semi-documentary style that felt edgy and volatile. The tone this time around is detached and uninvolving, which is a big surprise given the first-person narrative. Thus, it seems that the very device that sets this film apart also acts as its handicap.
Of course, the voyeuristic stance is straight out of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, and it is not in the least bit original, although it is a great hook for a remake of this story. Killer’s POV was also standard operating procedure for the slasher pics of old, from Argento to Michael Myers and far beyond and, even if it is a cool diversion, I have to say that it isn’t particularly brilliantly done here. I mean we never genuinely feel as though we are in Frank’s skin, and are seeing things with his eyes. The camera movements are either too smooth or just too static. But, then again, I would argue that the unconvincing distances of reflections and the dislocated proximity to his hands when they move in front of the lens may even work in the film’s favour, further enforcing our comprehension of what must be termed as Frank’s own self-alienation. He views himself with stunned removal, an element that is sharply and distressingly revealed when the camera steps outside from his psyche during one horrific murder to view him and his stricken victim from yards away. Frank also has garbled visions of a romantic, rose-tinted future with Anna that he sees in the third-person, tying-in with his own terrible memories of watching his mother and her men, the sly camera pivoting to show his younger self as a void-faced observer on the periphery. Frank, therefore, is not a reliable witness to his own life.
Which means that we can never be sure about anything we see, as Frank gels fact with fantasy with every breath he takes. Even the police captain speaking on the TV about the murders could be just a figment of his own guilt trip.
To be fair, this forced perspective is a fresh slant on the overwrought performance of Spinell, who wore his angst plainly upon his face and openly wept in misery at his depravities, and one that is quite ambitious. Before this, we’d had Gaspar Noe’s Tokyo odyssey Enter The Void, but the notion is very rarely carried on for a full feature, such as it is here. Although I never once slipped into Frank’s gore-spattered shoes, I appreciate the efforts made to transport the viewer. Personally, I find the gliding camerawork of Dean Cundey infinitely more adept at placing me in the position of a character in a film. But at least Khalfoun had the guts to try and, to his credit, there is a terrific retaliatory backhand slap that feels superbly immediate, vital and reflexive – really as though you, yourself, had just unleashed it.
Importantly, the film does not cheat audiences and it does not disrespect the original. Some changes are made, which is essential because there would be absolutely no point in simply rehashing what has gone before. The subtext doesn’t alter, but it is modified and streamlined for today’s attitudes and sensibilities. Although Wood infers otherwise, this Frank is lot more sophisticated than Spinell’s, having inadvertently attempted to pursue the family business and make some inroads into finding love, however disastrous these efforts may be.
He definitely understands the value of his repair-work and the beauty of artistry.
What does change is the murderous drive that Frank feels. Spinell’s character was way more adventurous. You only have to look at the opening double-murder to the original, in which he slays a lovemaking couple on the beach in daylight, to see that his own personal scope is much broader. Plus, there is the notorious moment when he blows the head off Tom Savini’s bit-playing Romeo (actually it is Savini blowing his own head off, but that’s a creative story that I covered in the original’s review) through the windscreen of a parked car. His methods and his impulses were altogether more ruthless and cruel back then. Wood’s Frank is insulated from the real world. He doesn’t hate it as much as Spinell’s did and really isn’t as wretchedly determined. There are times when the new maniac encounters heartless people and proceeds to withdraw into himself, unsure how to properly respond, but we know that the old maniac would probably have simply carved them up as well. Bill Lustig, of course, was also very fond of the whole vigilante thing that was rife in movies back then, and some of this filtered inevitably into Frank’s character. Khalfoun doesn’t much care for such asides, choosing to keep his killer rather more single-minded and focused. Wood plays him as damaged goods, of course, but we never really get the impression that we could brush shoulders with this guy on the street or on the subway. Spinell was the lumbering oaf you could bump into absolutely anywhere and, unwittingly, get on the wrong side of.
Reprising the role originally played by screen goddess Caroline Munro is Nora Arnezeder. Now this is where I would say that the new film is more convincing. As much as I love the team-up of Munro and Spinell, who were real-life friends and would star in three cult films together, the characters of greasy, pockmarked Frank and glamorous, uber-sexy fashion pap Anna just would never go together in a million years. But the quirky indie-freak bond that is generated between this revamped couple is much more credible. She is frustrated and artistic, and through Frank’s docile creativity she locates somebody who could be a kindred spirit. The marvelously sad trick is that Frank actually takes this relationship at face-value. He doesn’t see that she is friendly with him only as a by-product of needing his mannequins for her own enterprises. It is not quite as cut ‘n’ dried as that, however, but then nobody will be surprised when this deluded and one-sided romance ultimately goes belly-up. Arnezeder brings a lot more depth to the character than Munro was able to, that’s for sure. Not quite as sexy, though.
But don’t go thinking that this reimagining equips its female protagonists with more gumption or dimensionality. All the women here are merely knife-fodder. They parade and taunt, then they scream and run … and, finally, they bleed and die. The more things in the slasher genre change, the more they stay the same.
With the films Manhunter, Silence and Peeping Tom – all quite related in terms of their killers’ voyeuristic traits – recalled, it is interesting to note how genre referential Khalfoun allows his exercise in urban annihilation to be. Frank even takes Anna to see the magnificent silent chiller, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which, to be blunt, is a little bit too obvious a roll-call for his story’s metaphor. It’s great to see the startling somnambulist killer, Cesare, floating across the screen, but the striving for thematic parallels is all rather unnecessary. Cesare is like a mannequin come to life, himself. He is also a reluctant slave to atrocity, a puppet bent to evil by a higher power. Does Frank view himself as being held in the same trap? Is this his own silent plea for love to come rescue him? I am always a little dubious about films that employ other films to get their point across in such a way, no matter how pretty and enigmatic the footage utilized might be. Anna is a photographer and she captures still life. By projecting an image of her own face onto his array of mannequins during an arty-farty exhibition, the metaphorical parallels are already drawn between the two, making them less mismatched than we may have thought. Perhaps Khalfoun should trust his material a bit more, without resorting to glaring Mickey Mouse examples, and then splicing-in Frank’s imaginary footage to compound things even more.
But homage is still paid to the splatter classic in a great little visual conceit that sees the distorted reflection of Frank appear in the side of a car as he stands there, knife in one hand and bloody scalp in the other, his shabby clothes and fattened shape allowing him to perfectly mimic the original’s famous poster and the slovenly appearance of its star. In the same scene, the poster for another classic 80’s gorefest is recalled. As his victim tries to crawl away, she becomes the artwork for Lucio Fulci’s seriously nasty and closely related The New York Ripper.
A couple of gory gags are quite decently manipulated, too – Anna asking if Frank needs a hand with his dummy patching-up is neatly revisited quite literally later on with another dummy-hand, and her neighbour’s bragging about his appearance in a national TV commercial for Sparkle Toothpaste also gains a finely poetic payoff.
The gore, itself, is well handled and whilst certainly pretty graphic and sick is not at all as grim or as nasty as the stuff that Tom Savini supplied for the original. Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger are unmistakably up to the task, and their scalpings are probably a lot more convincing in terms of anatomical constitution and the realism of the gristly bits, but they are also very clean, very clinically swift and hardly dwelled-upon … and, therefore, less shocking than they were first time around. (And still remain.) Plus, whilst it is commendable that the effects are frequently practical, there is no denying that CG has sadly been used to augment them as well. During the first murder it seems to me that the skin of the girl’s forehead clearly changes from her own to the slick, smooth veneer of pixel perfect pores, and the resulting slicing is rendered much less powerful as a consequence. You go back to Savini’s hands and scalpel (like Dario Argento, he preferred to perform the onscreen “kills”, himself), replete with hidden blood-tubing and you’ll find a far more agonising, more protracted and disturbing approach undertaken.
It is also worth mentioning that the actual violence never feels as squirmingly hideous as it did before.
The original had a strangulation that was severely unpleasantly realized and seemed to go on for ages. Khalfoun stages one as well … but it is completely bereft of the gasp-inducing and skin-crawling brutality that you would expect and, as a result, comes across as more of a TV strangulation than the reworking of a once-vilified Video Nasty’s throttling. Kudos, though, for an icky little touch of gruesome finesse comes when the eye of the first victim, skewered up through chin with a large Bowie knife, brims over with blood. This is quite a vivid shot that could so easily have been overplayed and rendered luridly comic-book but, with restraint, it looks disturbingly beautiful. Crimson tears.
VerdictI can’t help thinking that this would have been much more powerful and shocking, and grimly effective if Aja, himself, had directed it. He has already proved himself as capable of remaking classic modern horror without betraying it, or selling out, with his vigorous retelling of The Hills Have Eyes. As things stand, the film is totally impersonal and coldly aloof which, at first, I believed was the right way to go. I’d seen it twice on the big screen, and been mightily impressed. But now I am having second thoughts. As an observational piece, this has nerve and vigour. Yet, it cannot deliver any proper scares or any decent shock value if we don’t care about anybody, and you are going to be hard-pressed to give a damn about anybody in this.
Still, as remakes go, this one works far better than it had any right to. It takes what is, in all honesty, very flimsy but formidable original material and gives it a genuine polish, both visually and thematically. Without ditching any of the core elements, and staying surprisingly faithful to the source, the new Maniac serves to remind us that it is still a dangerous place out there.
Grindhouse meets Art-house and, for many fans, the resulting collision will be a surprisingly welcome one.
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