Looking back on most of the slasher movies of the early ‘80s, it’s hard to reconcile their once-infamous reputations with how tame they seem now. At the time the slasher fad was in full swing and movies like Friday the 13th, He Knows You’re Alone and Prom Night were in theaters, critics, women’s groups, religious leaders and various other self-appointed moral watchdogs couldn’t denounce loudly enough what they perceived to be a disturbing new trend in cinema. Slasher movies were considered by many to be sick films that depicted the killing of women with pornographic glee but as infamous as the slasher trend once was, those films look largely innocuous today.
Standing in bold exception to all that is 1980’s Maniac. Directed by William Lustig, starring character actor Joe Spinell (who co-wrote the script with C. A. Rosenberg), and featuring FX by Tom Savini, it’s everything that the slasher movies’ most vehement critics claimed the entire trend was. This tale of a greasy, psychotic loner (Spinell) who spends his spare time killing women, scalping them, and nailing the bloody scalps to his collection of mannequins, was repellant and ugly in 1980 and it remains so today. Time has not softened Maniac at all, which is a testimony to the efforts of Lustig, Spinell, Savini, and co. This was a film meant to appeal to the hardest of the hardcore 42nd Street crowd and it did so without flinching. Even the poster, an illustration depicting a man from the waist down standing in a pool of blood, holding a knife in one hand and a woman’s severed scalp in the other, went further than anything else out there. They even went so far as to give the dude a prominent freaking bulge in his pants dead center stage between the bloody knife and the scalp, so it’s hard to fault women’s groups for picketing the movie.
Given that Maniac is still everything that it was back in ’80; the idea of attempting a remake seemed ill-conceived – especially with Elijah Wood stepping into the shoes of Joe Spinell. I mean, Wood was creepy as shit in Sin City but that didn’t mean he could outdo Spinell when it comes to Maniac. Then there were the rumors that the movie would be entirely shot from Wood’s character’s POV – a move that could easily come off as self-conscious and gimmicky.
It also didn’t inspire confidence that director Franck Ange Khalfoun’s one and only previous stab at the genre was the not-so-impressive tale of a stalker in a parking garage, P2. Even the input of Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension, 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes) as producer and writer wasn’t too reassuring as his identical behind the scenes roles in P2 hadn’t made much difference there.
Somehow, though, their Maniac remake did come together right. It’s an artier affair than the original but while it’s got a glossier sheen, it’s no less grisly. Right from the opening minutes as Wood’s Frank Zito claims his first victim before the title comes on screen, it’s obvious that this movie is ready to live up to its predecessor. This maniac is prowling the streets of Los Angeles rather than that of New York (NYC is too squeaky clean these days to be a fitting stalking ground) but the M.O. is the same. Many scalps are removed and FX supervisor Matt Kutcher and his crew render Frank’s deeds in nigh unwatchable detail. I know that some of what we see in Maniac must be CGI assisted but at least to my eyes, it’s almost impossible to detect where the practical FX ends and where the CGI begins.
Khalfoun and Aja show their affinity for both the original Maniac and the serial killer genre in general through touches like having their Frank be a cab driver, in a nod to the Taxi Driver-esque vibe of the original (Spinell also had a role in the Scorsese film) and having the song that one of Frank’s ill-fated dates puts on in her apartment be “Goodbye Horses,” by Q Lazzarus, the same song that Buffalo Bill dances to in The Silence of the Lambs.
As in the original, a photographer named Anna catches Frank’s eye. In the original, Anna was played by B-movie goddess Caroline Munro, in the remake it’s Nora Arnezeder (seen recently in Safe House). This time around, Anna’s favorite photographic subject is not models but mannequins (kudos to Khalfoun, by the way, for getting as much mileage as possible out of Frank’s creepy mannequin obsession) and with the more delicate Wood as Frank, the idea that Anna would give this sketchy character the time of day isn’t nearly as outlandish as it seemed in the original.
Ultimately, my only gripe with the new Maniac is that the final chase goes on just a few beats too long and starts to cut into a sense of engagement with the film as it gets into the home stretch – but not so much so that it poses a major detriment.
Overall, this new Maniac comes highly recommended, with the caveat that, like the original, it isn’t a movie for everyone. Personally, the original isn’t the kind of movie I’d watch for fun or ever jump to revisit and I think this remake is a one-time deal for me but in both cases I have to acknowledge the skill with which they’re made. If you’re looking for a hardcore horror film, Maniac lives up to the notorious legacy of the original.