United States. 89 minutes. Directed by Franck Khalfoun, 2012. Starring Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezender, America Olivio.
Frank Zito is a Los Angeles-based restorer of vintage mannequins instead of the landlord of a New York slum, and he’s played by Elijah Wood instead of Joe Spinnell, but he’s still a serial killer who scalps the women he murders.
Of all the horror classics to get a slick, star-powered, mid-budget remake, William Lustig’s scummy, sleazy (and I use those adjectives with some degree of affection) Maniac–a film that’s more known by its notorious reputation than actually widely seen–is, perhaps, an unusual choice. But screenwriters Grégory Levasseur and Alexandre Aja–the writer/director team behind the polarizing High Tension and the lame remake of The Hills Have Eyes (yes, I know some people think it’s better than Craven’s original, but those people are just plain wrong)–and their buddy Franck Khalfoun, who’s the one actually sitting in the director’s chair for this outing, have enthusiasm for the project to spare and attack it with gusto.
And, let’s give them credit, they are occasionally up to the task. They shitcan the original’s most problematic element, the romance between the schlubby, greasy, not-particularly-charismatic Frank and the glamorous, sophisticated, ambitious professional photographer Anna. This time around, while there’s still a bit of romantic tension between the two, it’s decidedly one-sided–Anna’s already got a boyfriend, and while it’s clear that her relationship is on the rocks, it’s also pretty clear that Frank’s found his way into the friend-zone rather quickly.
The plot is more consistent and coherent (a huge surprise, considering that the screenwriters are responsible for High Tension, a fact I can’t stress enough), and the hunt for the serial killer is de-emphasized, which is a good thing. The characterization is stronger, and the film’s major visual conceit–98% of the film is shot from Frank’s POV, only switching to third-person during a handful of crucial scenes, and never for very long–helps cover the one-dimensional nature of the victims, a huge problem I had with the original. (Both the original and the remake are poster children for the definition of misogyny as “violence against thinly-characterized women who exist in the story only to be victimized.”) Aja, Levasseur and Khalfoun bring an actual element of emotional resonance to their riff on the original’s ending. The score, by “Rob” (Robin Coudert, of Phoenix), is killer: all pulsy and atmospheric retro analog synths (I gobble shit like that up for breakfast).
Yet the filmmakers aren’t entirely up to the task of updating a classic, and the remake is plagued with flaws. Both film critics and horror nerds have praised Wood’s performance as Frank. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t see it. Wood is fairly good at pulling off the sensitive, introverted scenes, at least most of the time. (The scene where Frank finds himself unexpectedly receiving a blow job from the world’s biggest hipster/emo/candy goth stereotype is a notable exception.) And there’s no doubt that he looks the part of the shy and somewhat creepy loner (although I do have to wonder how much of that was done with makeup). On the other hand, I didn’t buy him in most of the scenes where he had to emote at a level higher than, say, 5 out of 10, and too much of his dialog elicited the wrong kinds of laughs.
The only other actor in the ensemble that has much to do is Nora Arnezender as Anna, and while she’s got a fair amount of chemistry with Wood, her performance is riddled with the limp, flat sort of line-readings typical of non-native-English-speakers without much experience in English-language productions.
But Maniac doesn’t just suffer in comparison to the original; it also doesn’t particularly stand out in comparison to the best of what’s being done in the genre today. It’s nominally set in L.A., but you might never figure that out if you didn’t know it beforehand. There’s no real sense of place here–it could just as easily be Paris or Tokyo or anyplace with a lot of big buildings and bright lights where glamorous people congregate. (I’m not entirely convinced that anything other than the second-unit work was actually done in California.)
Even KNB’s effects work, despite being competent, has an assembly-line look to it.
The real problem with Maniac is not how it compares to the original (and it goes out of its way several times to invite comparison) but how it compares to every other mid-budget “new extremity” (please note the quotes) horror flick being made these days. It’s not a bad film–I enjoyed it enough, and I can see why people would like it–but it’s so typical.