“MANIAC” (Movie Review)
The two things that set 1981’s MANIAC apart from its murder-movie brethren—Joe Spinell’s performance, and the way William Lustig captured late-’70s Manhattan at its seedy worst—can literally never be duplicated, which posed a challenge to anyone attempting an honorable remake. So it’s one of the new film’s achievements that it showcases a very different lead actor and setting while still feeling like MANIAC.
Star Elijah Wood reveals a whole new side of his talents as the 21st-century Frank, and does so with very limited screen time. The gambit here is to present almost the entire story through Frank’s eyes—an extension of the killer’s-point-of-view gimmick excoriated by critics of the slasher-movie trend of the early ’80s. Putting the audience in a murderer’s shoes risks fostering identification with his horrible acts, but the approach is defensible in MANIAC (on VOD today from IFC Midnight, and also opening theatrically at Manhattan’s IFC Center, with Wood on hand for Friday- and Saturday-night shows) because we see everything its antihero experiences, not just the moments in which he stalks and slays his prey—which become just part of an overall subjective experience, rather than the only moments in which we’re asked to step into the madman’s mind. From start to finish, it’s a portrait of a serial killer told from the inside, not the outside.
That said, watching the almost exclusively female victims panic, plead and scream before being horribly dispatched is certainly unnerving, and the payoffs are as grisly as they were back in ’81, with graphically extreme special makeup by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger and an abundance of wet, crunchy sound FX. The explicitness of the gore is all of a piece with the overall presentation—certainly, Frank wouldn’t look away as he perpetrated his foul acts—and crucially, one of the few times the camera detaches from his line of sight to take an objective view is during his most savage act of butchery. If MANIAC dares you to keep watching at times, it is well-made enough to make you want to stick with it.
With Manhattan no longer the danger zone it was back in Lustig’s day, director Franck Khalfoun and scripters Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur (who previously did a fine job updating THE HILLS HAVE EYES) shift the setting to an unnamed city represented by the danker sides of Los Angeles. Skilled cinematographer and regular Aja collaborator Maxime Alexandre turns the City of Angels into an urban hell, where the nighttime streets, subway, parking areas etc. are believably deserted and threatening. Though the location is recognizably American, Khalfoun and Alexandre grace the movie with a bleak European veneer, an atmosphere furthered by the terrific, vintage-sounding synthesizer score by French composer Rob.
Moving through it all is Wood, whose brief self-glimpses in mirrors and other reflective surfaces and running voiceovers are more than enough to imprint Frank’s disturbed psyche on our own minds. As unbalanced as we know he is, Wood’s unimposing stature and big blue eyes make it plausible that his soon-to-be victims don’t initially perceive him as a threat, and one area in which this MANIAC significantly improves on its predecessor is that it’s a lot more credible that this Frank could forge the tentative beginnings of a relationship with a woman—in this case eccentric photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder), who’s fascinated by the mannequins that Frank makes a living restoring. (The unlikeliness of Spinell’s Frank as a suitor is referenced in a cheeky line of dialogue that’s one of a few direct in-references to Lustig’s movie; an image explicitly homaging its memorable poster is another.) Their courtship even allows for a couple of moments of genuine humor (“Give me a hand”) that leaven the uneasy certainty that it can’t come to a good end.
While adding such modern wrinkles as the computer-dating service Frank uses, this MANIAC still feels very much in the rough, gritty tradition of horror films past. There are places when a little more reinvention might have been welcome—situating the roots of Frank’s mania in his mother’s bad behavior is too familiar and convenient a trope by now—yet MANIAC is one of those rare genre remakes that stands as its own movie while recapturing the original’s spirit.