FrightFest 2012 Review: Maniac (2012)
Review by Ben Bussey
Remember a time when we didn’t instinctively hate every remake that came along the second it was announced? I’m guessing that’s going to be a stretch for many of us, given it’s been near enough a full decade since some bunch of upstarts thought they could make a bit of money off the title The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and from there on the floodgates were open to revisit almost every major horror hit from the past forty-odd years. Yet for all the fan rage these remakes have inspired, they’ve also raked in the cash, hence there remains no end in sight to the trend. Grrr.
But I ask once more: does anyone remember when that wasn’t the case? When an older film could be remade without fear that it would in some way sully the legacy of the source material? When there still seemed a good chance that it would do what all the best remakes are supposed to: offer a significantly different take on the concept, with a unique and singular vision that makes it truly stand apart? If we can hold back the vitriol we might even admit that a few of the modern remakes have achieved just that, and one filmmaker who has been involved with some of the best of them is of course Alexandre Aja. Whilst this time around it is not him behind the camera but Franck Khalfoun, we can chalk up another victory to Team Aja on the remake scorecard. Better yet, we can almost certainly hold up this new version of William Lustig’s Maniac as the best remake Aja has been involved in to date. (And how awesome is it that a guy with a name so close to that of the protagonist should take the reins of this film, particularly given the unique approach we will soon get into?)
The set-up here is basically identical to that of Lustig’s notoriously grim and grimy slasher. Frank (Elijah Wood, a wonderfully unexpected replacement for Joe Spinnell) is the owner of a vintage mannequin store, inherited from his late mother. Alas, the store and its contents are not the only thing she left her little boy with; there’s the small issue of some monumental mommy issues, which manifest themselves in the worst possible way, driving Frank to stalk, kill and steal the scalps of beautiful women. However, things seem to change when a new woman enters Frank’s life: a photographer named Anna (Nora Amezeder taking the role previously played by Caroline Munro). Whereas most people find Frank’s line of work – and by extension Frank himself – to be very weird and rather pointless, Anna has a deep appreciation for what he does, and this promises to blossom into a warm relationship. Unfortunately, Frank’s just not that good at relationships that don’t end up in him stabbing, choking and/or beating the other person to death. Can this change, or is Anna walking into a world of pain? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question…
So far, so essentially identical to what went before. The thing that really makes Khalfoun’s Maniac stand apart is that it is shot in a really unique way: almost entirely from the point of view of Frank, with Elijah Wood’s face only showing up in reflective surfaces, flashbacks, dream sequences or the occasional moment which I guess we can call out-of-body experiences. On paper, the idea of this motif being maintained for the duration of a full-length film sounds very gimmicky indeed, not to mention dangerously close to that other horror cause célèbre, the found footage genre. The fact that it actually works is a very pleasant surprise.
Well, maybe ‘pleasant’ isn’t the right word to use here; for make no mistake, Khalfoun’s film easily matches Lustig’s for brutality, ugliness and just plain dirty, scummy atmosphere. Moving the action from the mean streets of turn-of-the-80s New York to the back streets of 21st century Los Angeles (at least, I think that’s where it was shot – correct me if I’m wrong), in many respects the film feels like a semi-sequel to Drive given the amount of action seen from a car window, and the emphasis on eerie/soothing synth music. But when the shit hits the fan, it hits hard. The murder scenes are harsh, unrelenting and graphic, and given the perspective the viewer is brought closer into the horror than many films have ever done. I don’t know if it’s been by the MPAA yet, but if the full uncut version which we saw here manages to get an R I will be very taken aback.
The original pushed the boundaries of what slasher audiences were prepared to take pleasure from, and this remake will doubtless do the same. I really do think this will be a ‘hardcore horror fans only’ deal; without being condescending, casual viewers will surely find the overriding bleakness and brutality just too much. It’s for this reason that I’m willing to forgive the few slightly cheesy, tongue-in-cheek nods to the original, notably moments in which the iconic poster is recreated, and when one of Frank’s victims-in-waiting, when describing how she had imagined he would look, basically describes Joe Spinnell. There’s also a famous music cue from another celebrated psycho killer movie that comes up which I was initially put off by. However, these few moments of relative levity are most definitely needed to keep things from winding up just too grim. Once again, let there be no mistake that this film is every bit as grisly, unpleasant and devoid of any redemptive overtones as its predecessor was. But if you’re prepared for that, it’ll take you on quite a ride.
Maniac will be released in France on December 26th, and Germany the following week; no US or UK distribution plans have been announced yet.