Warning: This review contains (mildish) plot spoilers from the movie. The original has been out since 1980 tho, so there’s that.
If you’re any fan of ours, you are already aware that Gores Truly welcomes most remakes. Being multi-generational and multi-cultural makes us a wee bit more accepting than some other horror outlets might be. So, we were both excited and nervous about a remake of the infamous 1980 “video nasty” Maniac. Nervous for many reasons – not the least of which is the original was an uncomfortably misogynist piece of cinema. If it weren’t for a creepily sympathetic performance by character-actor Joe Spinell as the “maniac” killer Frank Zito, and a memorably lurid (and oft-edited) poster – Maniac probably would have been regarded in the same time-capsule way as most other exploitation flicks. But it didn’t go away – it lingered . . . like a bad virus.
So why were we excited then? Seven words: Elijah Fucking Wood and Alexandre Holy-Shit Aja. That’s why.
By casting Frodo Baggins in the title role as Frank, producer Aja signaled loud & clear that he wasn’t re-making the same picture. Aja’s involvement alone informed fans that this take would treat the source material respectfully, but it was the casting of Wood that made the horror fanbase sit up and take notice. Frank Zito – as played by Spinell – was someone you would avoid if you saw him on the street. He was greasy and perpetually sweaty. He had bugged-out eyes. His face was littered with pockmarks & acne scars, his hair was a unkempt, stringy mess, and his clothing dirty and disheveled. Elijah Wood is – of course – the exact opposite. With an angelic face and a reputation for being one of the nicest people in show-biz, it was hard to wrap one’s mind around the concept of him playing this sleazebag murderer who scalps his female victims.
Except that Aja is a damn genius.
The thing that was so uncomfortable about the original (besides the offensive objectification and notable grue) was the way in which Spinell and his director (William Lustig) worked together to make Frankie so sympathetic. Through movie magic, viewers got into his head and experienced many of the murders and scalpings from his unhinged, abused, hurt, and endlessly longing perspective. Aja (along with creative partner Grégory Levasseur), Wood, and their director (Franck Khalfoun) manage the same thing, but make it so much worse via more movie magic: first person point-of-view camera-work.
That’s right, this Maniac is told nearly entirely through Wood’s visual point-of-view. Occasionally we glimpse his face ingeniously in reflections, but for most of the film we the viewers are Wood; we are Zito; we are the unhinged, abused, hurt, and endlessly longing. We hear his voice around us and we see through his eyes, experiencing each moment with him as he loses his already-tenuous grip on reality. The look and sound of Khalfoun’s vision only serves to amp everything up to an 11.
The total effect is intoxicating and unsettling, but what kind of art does this make the new Maniac? It’s difficult to say, because this remake is going to upset people; it’s going to be controversial. The more misandry-prone members of feminism may cry foul once more (and maybe they’d have a point . . . or three). On the flipside, as someone who never liked the original (respect somewhat – maybe; like – certainly not), I noticed many changes between the two, presumably made in an attempt to mitigate at least some of the negative treatment of women. Changes to the character of Anna (a terrific, three-dimensional Nora Arnezeder), her interest in Frank, and Frank’s memories of his troubled upbringing are all important changes. Gone are the hyper-sexualized, drawn-out murder scenes – while still retaining all of their actual sexuality, visceral shock, and edge. This Maniac is vile without being vulgar, and for this extreme horror aficionado, that’s a good thing!