Given that most Hollywood horror remakes are such brazen hack jobs, it is a pleasant surprise that Frank Khalfoun’s Maniac proves itself as a decent work against every reasonable expectation. This may be an accidental result of the brains behind it coming from France, and of course the final and not-so-accidental outcome has been a limited and dismal theatrical release in the U.S. That’s too bad, as this is a worthy update and retelling of William Lustig’s sleazy classic (and it is a classic) about the adventures of some dude with a penchant for scalping women and chaining himself to mannequins. The remake omits the notorious shotgun killing (the scene that allegedly prompted an appalled Gene Siskel to get up and leave the theater), but that is an understandable elision, plot-wise, as the only purpose of that sequence was tapping the still recent Son of Sam murders; and also because watching Tom Savini’s head blown off in blurry super slow-motion is one of those cinematic memories best left untouched. Trust the frogs to show some artistic respect.
The “story” of the original film is transferred here from late 70s New York grime to a contemporary Los Angeles hipsterish milieus. Other than that, Khalfoun and the screenwriters have wisely retained the direct approach of the original, amounting to a bare succession of incidents. The outraged critical backlash that welcomed the 1980 Maniac, as well as the vile reputation that to this day still follows it, stemmed not so much from its (supposedly) exploitative leanings or its (admittedly) awesome displays of viscera, but from Lustig’s refusal to frame its disreputable kicks within the bullshit plot mechanics of a conventional slasher. Frank Zito, played by respected character actor of The godfather I & II fame Joe Spinell, was a bulgy guy that went out at night to murder whatever woman crossed his path, nailed her still bloody mane of hair to one of his mannequins, and spent the remainder of the night hugging it while addressing deranged tirades to a photograph of his deceased mother. Nothing more, nothing less: a lot of stalking and grunting through trash-strewn alleys and vacated subway stations, nasty killings and hideous mutilations, and the sight of a pitiful and abhorrent failure man unraveling in the privacy of his garish lair. Among movie psychos, even after Henry: Portrait of a serial killer and Angst, Frank still seems uncomfortably close to the real deal… that is, if we choose to ignore the scene in which, after meeting and tracking down a beautiful fashion photographer, Frank suddenly dons a beige suit and an open-necked maroon shirt and proceeds to date her. It’s a subplot so preposterous as to threaten to sink the entire film, were it not so amusing to watch the pointless show of Spinell charming his way with a huckster’s confidence, completely out of character. This scenario is more comprehensible if we remember that Lustig’s previous filmography consisted in a couple of pornos.
Filling Frank’s shoes in the remake is Elijah Wood. This may seem an odd, if not outright suicidal choice, but it serves nicely to steer the film into exploring a different dimension of its protagonist. Quite apart from the rotund and frightening presence of Spinell’s Frank, Wood’s is the kind of shy, introverted, ostensibly harmless young man that seems perpetually concerned with covering his arousal at womanly forms with various degrees of shame, is intimidated by any male who makes the merest display of cockiness, and predictably feels incensed beyond belief whenever someone mistakes his timidity for queerness. Within the dim security of his household, however, he can shake loose the reins on his obsessions and anonymously seek his prey on dating websites. While those of us unfortunate enough to fill a similar description content ourselves with devising hopeless schemes to avoid being friendzoned on the first date, or at the very least with using a visual aid to jerk off for the night, this fella Frank holds designs in his mind that are a little bit different. He’s is a well known type, so for once I’m grateful that Khalfoun eschews doing a character study and sticks instead to taking us for the ride, keeping the inevitable Freudian notions to the minimum necessary. Yeah, Frank’s mom was an slutty cokehead, and she used to get it from behind while her infant son was looking: that’s why he remains so confused about generous racks and shapely legs. Now move on.
Between dispatching several beautiful young things he deems flirty (knife to the neck for a partygoer, strangling for an “alternative” chick, frenzied stabs for a ballerina…) and suffering the onslaught of migraines and childhood flashbacks, Frank meets Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a cute photographer with an interest in his mannequin collection. What was the aforementioned travesty in the original is reworked here to fit into a somewhat believable development, as Anna’s curiosity is sincere and Frank seeks to befriend her with no ill intentions, surely because she appears to favor jeans over short skirts. When going out for a walk in the park or to watch The cabinet of Dr. Caligari at an art-house cinema, Anna seems to take Frank for granted, that is, treats him with the carefree and cheerful demeanor that can only mean she doesn’t find the guy sexually appealing or threatening in the slightest. This is, of course, the perfect state of affairs for Frank, as it allows him to revel in fantasies of sharing with this woman a “pure” connection untainted by gross animal instincts, just like the way it was with his mother when she wasn’t entertaining two gentlemen at the same time. Even if we hadn’t witnessed any gruesome business by now, his twisted wish for Platonic friendship would be evidence enough to certify that he’s a truly sick fuck. Tough luck there’s nobody around to tell Frank that this will only end well.
The major shift in the new version is the decision to shoot most of the film from the POV of the main character. Like in the otherwise idiotic REC movies, this stylistic approach provides the film with an enviable sense of momentum, except this time it works consistently well through the entire running time. The cinematography is gorgeous rather than murky, and the cameraman and set designer have a field day exploiting every possible mirror and reflection to give Wood something to do for his paycheck. But most important of all is the fact that, by rendering the viewpoint of a vicious killer, Khalfoun provides a distinctly disturbing edge to the proceedings. I’ve read several interviews with the filmmakers explaining that the first-person aesthetic is borrowed from the beginning of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, intended to convey the moral implication of the viewer taking in the misogynistic carnage, thus leaving a harsher impression than could be achieved by any amount of blood and guts. I think they are right for the most part, but I also feel that a more likely explanation is that no actor could possibly compete with the cosmic tragedy implicit in Spinell’s misshapen bulk in the original. When not concealed under a jacket barely disguising it as part of a “robust” complexion, that sagging torso was all we needed to accept the murderous and deviant urges of its inhabitant; the definitive expression made flesh of a lifetime of tormented disgust at the self, and the inescapable reminder that any sexual activity Frank could engage in would turn unspeakably repulsive the moment he dared to envision his likeness from the outside. I think Siskel lied about what it was that truly revolted him.
So… as the film advances Frank is increasingly disturbed by his secret deeds and yearns to leave them behind by playing some sort of emasculated white knight figure to Anna, but that simply won’t do. A slip of the tongue alerts Anna as to who scalped alive her wealthy benefactor the night before, and in the ensuing awkward exchange she tries to retreat to her room while Frank feigns outrage over her barefaced ungratefulness (after all, didn’t he heroically rush to console her because she was so distressed over the murder of the very woman he had murd-…? oh, wait…) Soon, he finds himself fighting for his life against both Anna and her gay Latino friend (watch out for the meat cleaver) and in succession getting kicked, stabbed and rammed with a car in a set piece ingeniously staged to milk the most out of the first-person view, but which, regrettably, I couldn’t help but find overlong and distracting. This is not a movie that aims to exhilarate, but one meant to leave you feeling disgusted and grateful for a shower afterwards; such a humble ambition shouldn’t be ruined by overreaching.
Luckily, the film arrives at last the proverbial fireworks factory and ends on the same high note that Lustig and Savini hit three decades ago: Frank manages to get home in his dying gasps, only to hallucinate with the sight of his victims’ bodies coming back to life for the sole purpose of eviscerating him with the fury and gusto of an enraged Brazilian soccer gang. In the end, what goes around comes around, payback is a motherfucker. And the check-your-privilege crowd should learn once and for all that, while we’ll never pay attention to snooty lectures on Youtube, we will be appreciative of seeing Frodo deservedly torn to pieces by ghoulish females like a Gucci purse on discount day. It may be that only this ultimate fantasy can bring our positions together.