I have a confession: as a horror aficionado for most of my remembered life, I am at pains to divulge the sad fact I have never viewed the original 1980’s slasher Maniac. Of course, I can summon the VHS video cover in my mind with vivid recollection (almost as gaudily as I remember the poster for David Cronenberg’s first film Rabid). And yet for some obscure reason eluding me I’ve never sat down and watched the film. Now, many years later I have been given an opportunity twofold: to not only immerse myself in Franck Kahalfoun’s astonishing new remake- but to take a nostalgic trip back in time to the eighties I should have taken years ago as a genre novice.
One thing needs to be stated: this modern retelling of Maniac is shot almost entirely from Frank Zito’s POV ... you will see and hear Elijah Wood talking – you will watch his hand gestures and reflection in the mirror – but watching this film is like being at the controls of a macabre and voyeuristic video game. As a participating viewer, your first instinct is to recoil (do we really need an intimate close-up of personal carnage?). However, one slowly acclimatizes after realizing this unique perspective is the most intriguing thing about the film. Not only is it a monumental achievement from a technical standpoint – but as a collective audience, we delve into a characters motivations through feeling and hearing ... a challenge hitherto attempted (to the best of my knowledge) in film-making before.
Just in case we forget what territory we’re in, the opening is classic slasher: the prey has been spotted and we can hear heavy breathing from a stalkers outlook, bringing to mind an adolescent Michael Myers about to visit one of his siblings. Some credits roll, and a musical score unmistakably 1980's comes into the fray ... a deft touch paying considerable homage to its predecessor. After Frank’s first victim has been dispatched and scalped (a secret I don’t think I’m giving away), we are then escorted back to his mannequin-adorned lair – a dummy shop bequeathed by his promiscuous mother many years before. Although our retro music is still playing, Frank is soon web surfing internet dating sites, discovering in his hunting a smorgasbord of potential scalps to bring home and place atop his bald mannequins.
Nestled at the heart of the chase is Frank’s mental illness; his migraines and panic attacks; his overall malaise as though two separate individuals are competing for dominion. There are also the Norman Bates/Freudien issues. As an actor, there can be little doubt Elijah Wood is a preconceived good guy - but here he pulls off the warring duality effortlessly ... almost with the same amount of creative pizzazz a creature named Gollum once attained. With his previous foray into a dark psyche with Sin City, Elijah continues to step out of his comfort zone and challenge perceptions. Overall, I think this modern incarnation would be much impoverished without his casting.
Eager to share his mannequins (the regular art, away from fly-blown decaying scalps), Frank comes into contact with French photographer Nora – a beautiful and savant young artist eager to collaborate and share her wares. It’s a different kind of relationship, one that could almost spell salvation for Frank. Almost. As the impending climax reaches a steady cohesion - one that will see a close friend of Nora’s hog-tied and butchered for her hide - Frank then becomes Nora’s unwitting counselor, but cannot hold back his second self. It’s a final showdown, a gory splatterfest taking place in bleak and deserted suburbia.
All of which is saying none of this is for the faint of heart. Maniac – although a triumph in terms of a remake – is still peppered with enough disturbing moments to make one ruminate about the legitimacy of the slasher sub-genre in general. Fans of the original will be subtly appeased – after viewing the 1980 version not long after, I did notice more than a few artistic nods to William Lustig’s first film. And although I found that version to be somewhat lackluster and sluggish, there are enough epic moments in this new re-imagining to satisfy all and any devotees.
In reviews, the phrase ‘highly recommended’ is thrown around all too often. But if it’s applicable to any editorial perspective, I’m going to say that particular idiom is suited to Maniac more than any other film I’ve seen this year.