My response to a remake of 1980’s Maniac substituting puppy-eyed Elijah Wood for slimy man-mountain Joe Spinell was, at first, a hearty “Whaaa?” Then I thought it over, and the idea sounded more and more intriguing. If you’re going for a fresh approach to the notoriously vicious grindhouse-horror landmark, you don’t try to compete with Spinell; you cast against him as aggressively as possible. Ergo, Elijah Wood.
Spinell’s Frank Zito, a tormented mama’s boy who scalped women and planted the tattered skullflesh on mannequins in his grubby apartment, left big and probably smelly shoes to fill. The recasting works from one perspective: Elijah Wood can more plausibly lure victims into a false sense of security — aww, lookit that face, he couldn’t hurt a fly! — than Spinell could. Well, Norman Bates didn’t look as if he could hurt a fly either, so that angle’s been done. Which leaves us with the question of whether Wood is plausible as someone who can do what we see his character do in this film. Emotionally, his Frank is as chaotic and filled with misogynistic loathing as his forebear. Physically … I don’t know, he just doesn’t look to have the upper-arm strength to be peeling off scalps with the ease with which he does it. Wood commits himself fully, but the performance seems to be a thoroughgoing, conscious effort to break away from Frodo and all his other good-boy roles. He was creepier, wordlessly, in Sin City, really.
Leave it to the French to conclude that a remake of a quintessentially American (and steadfastly ’70s New York) fleapit horror flick is not only possible but necessary. This Maniac was produced by Alexandre Aja (High Tension), co-written by Aja and Grégory Levasseur (who’s worked on all of Aja’s films), and directed by Aja associate Franck Khalfoun. What these gentlemen bring to the party that original director William Lustig didn’t is a certain cold Gallic pizzazz, which sometimes presents as pretension. The major stylistic difference is that almost the entire movie is filmed from Frank’s (often splintered) perspective, which I guess is a way to pull us into complicity with ghastly murders. At times it’s like a feature-length reiteration of the opening scene in John Carpenter’s Halloween, or maybe Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void crossed with American Psycho.
The you-are-the-killer viewpoint works best in quieter moments, when Frank meets and develops an interest in Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a photographer who likes to take pictures of mannequins. At one point, when the couple attend a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the camera stays stuck on Anna’s lovely face until she turns to Frank (us) and says “Stop staring! You’re missing the movie.” Some similar moments are effective, as when people react to Frank/us as if he/we were gawking at them uncomfortably. There’s enough male-gaze stuff in the movie to keep film theorists contentedly scribbling for years.
Overall, though, the camera eye doesn’t do much for the plot, and in any case it’s applied inconsistently, sometimes leaping out of Frank’s POV right when that POV threatens to disturb us the most — when he’s killing. There’s a protracted murder in a parking lot, and another in a snobby lady’s penthouse, in which the camera moves off to show us Frank and what he’s doing. What it reads like, more than anything, is an excuse to show off the explicit, excruciating gore effects by the legendary KNB team. (Aside: gorehounds will want to seek out the uncut 89-minute version for all the undiminished scalpings, stabbings, and meat-cleaver-to-face action. There’s an 87-minute cut out there that more or less renders it R-rated, and nobody wants an R-rated Maniac.)
The milieu has moved from grimy ’70s NYC to shiny millennial L.A., and, for me, the most disturbing moments seem to capture the City of Angels as a city of demons, or at least a city that turns its back on demons. During the parking-lot murder, Frank’s gaze tilts up to the L.A. skyline at night, with windows glittering in the dark background, full of people oblivious to (or indifferent to) the carnage down below. It’s a fine cold moment, echoed later when Frank, before carving up the snobby lady, stares out at the lights of the city. We wonder if there are similar scenes playing out elsewhere in Los Angeles. Maniac also uses sound to put us in an unsettled mood. The soundscape, with a score credited to someone named “Rob” (no relation), deals in the sort of menacing, rumbling, unearthly ruckus associated with Thomas Bangalter’s work for Gaspar Noe. It’s like being inside someone’s upset stomach — lots of low-register brown-note amplified-heartbeat stuff. It’s effective but occasionally overdone.
Ultimately, though, the flashy style outclasses the plot and the dime-store psychology imported directly from the simpler 1980 film. Frank is still nursing some sort of homicidal fixation on his promiscuous (or possibly straight-up whorish) mother, and he talks to the gory mannequins in his apartment as if they were disloyal girlfriends. He sees his mother in the women he kills, a motive which at this point strikes me as either faithfully retro or significantly played-out. Like a lot of the crimson-soaked French new-wave horror, this Maniac is more of an exercise in style than a genuine expression of insanity. Oddly, too, considering how approachable this Frank appears to be as opposed to Spinell’s Frank, Spinell actually made us feel that meeting the photographer (Caroline Munro) might turn him around from his psychotic extracurriculars, seeking solace in art. We don’t especially feel that way about Wood’s characterization. We just seem to be marking time along with Frank until he goes after Anna. A climactic bit involving a car crash falls into the so-abrupt-it’s-funny category but doesn’t seem meant to be taken that way.
It’s a nice try (very likely the only time “nice” will be used as a descriptive vis-a-vis this thing). These French fear-makers want to bring us back the unapologetic shock-horror and splatter of the old days, but they can’t help wedding it all to avant-garde techniques and sensibilities that end up distancing us from such mundane things as tension and suspense. This Maniac isn’t a hollow travesty — it was obviously made by folks who respect the original, and it’s nobody’s idea of a surefire big hit — but it feels pointless just the same, a gimmicky and sometimes labored retelling of a story that, it turns out, really only worked 33 years ago with an actor who looked like an Easter Island statue slathered in pizza grease.