Director: Franck Khalfoun
Screenplay: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur
Starring: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, Megan Duffy, America Olivo
Producers: Alexandre Aja, William Lustig, Thomas Langmann
Running Time: 89 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
We all love to slag off remakes (film critics/bloggers especially). And largely for good reason. Nothing smacks of laziness and 'easy money' like a remake or 're-imagining' of a classic film that is still remembered fondly by anyone with even a vague memory of films more than 15 years old. The horror genre in particular has proven fertile ground for producers that have run out of imagination, resulting in a seemingly never-ending flow of tepid, glossy modernisations of classic fright-flicks. There have been a couple of decent efforts (Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead was pretty good for instance) but for the large part they've not even been fit to lurk in the shadows of their predecessors.
When you think of the horror genre, slashers in particular, aren't they all kind of similar in construct though? If someone takes the murderous concept behind a known slasher to frame their own film is it really that much worse than just taking a group of teenagers and pitting them against a new madman in a different mask or location? And how about a remake of a film that wasn't all that loved to begin with? William Lustig's Maniac released back in 1980 has its fans, but it's hardly the hands down horror favourite that something like Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street is to many. With this in mind, I approached Franck Khalfoun's remake with an open mind and was even quite excited about it after hearing some positive buzz and watching an impressive trailer for the film.
In Maniac, Elijah Wood plays Frank, a disturbed young man who lives on his own after the death of his mother. He stalks the streets and trawls the internet for attractive young women that he promptly murders, taking their scalps as a reminder. These are used to bring life to his mannequin collection which he has grown overly attached to. His victims become his live-in lovers through the mannequins, fighting for his attention against each other and the visions/flashbacks of his promiscuous mother. Struggling to keep a handle on his psychosis, Frank sees a glimmer of hope though in Anna (Nora Arnezeder), an artist who seems to understand his love for his mannequins, asking to use them for an installation. As he gets closer to her, Frank's repressed desires for murder flare up though and he must channel them somewhere so as not to hurt the one woman who could replace his mother.
I must admit, I've not seen the original Maniac so I have no point of reference to say which film is most successful, but I liked this remake quite a lot. 'Liked' probably isn't the right word though as it's a disturbing watch. This isn't a silly 'who's next' slasher film, it's a grim look at a seriously unhinged individual. Rather than follow the potential victim(s), the film focuses entirely on the killer. If you've not heard already, the film is shot (pretty much) entirely in the first person perspective, so we can never escape Frank. The audience is forced into his mind and must stay there for the duration. This could be seen as a gimmick and I guess I could understand people calling it that, but it does make sense here and works very effectively. Being about a man who lives in his own mind it is a great idea to put the audience there too.
The way I'm describing and praising the film you'd think it were a serious drama about mental illness, but it still has the lacerated heart of a shlock-horror movie. The presentation of Frank's mental state is effective in trapping the audience in it, but it's undeniably simplistic and exploitative. I think this is largely intentional though. Being based on such lurid source material (from what I gather), stylishly shot in dirty neon tones and littered with violence and gore, the film is clearly aiming for the sleazier end of the spectrum. The kills in particular are brutal and the first person perspective adds a nasty uncomfortable edge by preventing the camera from cutting away and making it seem like your hands are doing the killing. The murders in the latter half of the film pull the camera away from the mind of Frank though, creating an 'out-of-body' effect, which works, but made those scenes less disturbing in my eyes (whether that's a good or bad thing is debatable).
On the 'lighter side' of the film (if such a thing exists), the blossoming relationship between the central 'couple' is actually very well portrayed, with the refreshingly open and understanding Anna coming across as someone a troubled man would believably fall madly in love with (no pun intended). Their scenes together give much needed heart to an otherwise unpleasant and potentially soulless film. Wood puts in a decent turn in general, even if he's only seen in reflections. His nervous voiceover keeps us on edge throughout. It can be over the top, but it worked for me in context.
As a whole Maniac may not be all that sensitive to the troubles of its protagonist and it certainly won't be a film everyone will appreciate, but it's one of the best horror films I've seen over the last few years. With an interesting perspective on the slasher movie (technically and narratively), grubbily beautiful cinematography and tight pacing, this is one remake which is definitely worthy of your attention.
Maniac is out on 1st July in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray, released by Metrodome Releasing. I got sent a watermarked screener, so I can't comment on the quality of the true home release.