When I saw Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead “remake” earlier this year, I couldn’t believe I was actually watching a horror remake. It was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale movement of churning out newer versions of old classics, with little success in the quality department of course. But I thought “surely this instance is a fluke, we couldn’t possibly have more than one good horror remake in the same year, right?” Then Franck Khalfoun came along, sternly pimp-slapped me across the face, and said “Matt, 2013 is the year of the horror remake,” and after watching his revamped version of Maniac (originally by William Lustig) – I absolutely, wholeheartedly f#cking agree.
Lustig’s original film was grimy, revolting, shock-and-awe horror with a slight voyeuristic twist – and Khalfoun keeps every essence of that description intact. Additionally though, Khalfoun’s film departs from Lustig’s straight-forward B-Movie, taking creative liberties that elevate this year’s Maniac far beyond the gore-reliant original.
Quickly explaining the story, Maniac follows Frank (Elijah Wood), a deeply disturbed loner with an emotionally scarred past who kills young women and scalps them, creating mannequin people he sleeps with by attaching the fresh wig. Did I mention he works in the business of mannequin restoration? I’m not quite sure which is creepier, him killing, or him obsessing over mannequins. Either way, he meets a young photographer named Anna (Nora Arnezeder) whom he actually develops feelings for, but obviously still struggles with his serial killing ways and mama drama.
But there was something beautiful about Maniac, and yes, I use the term “beautiful” in the loosest fashion. Khalfoun created something of an abstract masterpiece, taking an already blood-splattered canvas and then restoring it far beyond the original state. How? Well I’m glad you asked…
In an interview, William Lustig mentioned he’d love to see Tom Sizemore play Frank because he believed Sizemore most closely related to original Frank Zito actor Joe Spinell. Sure, Khalfoun could have listened and recreated Frank as the same schlubby degenerate with an actor like Sizemore, but instead he opted for the softer, more innocent, and better looking Elijah Wood, which proved to be a monumentally brilliant decision.
Elijah Wood is obviously best known as Frodo Baggins, but since leaving the Shire (and before The Hobbit‘s trilogy started), Wood has been throwing himself in a wide variety of challenging roles which push the actor to a bevy of new realms, and Maniac is hands down one of his best performances to date. Being smaller in stature, he doesn’t look like a man capable of such acts of grotesque brutality, but Elijah embraces Frank’s deep psychosis and disgusting perversion in a way that had my skin crawling. Even in his speech he projects this awful sense of dark uncertainty, whimpering and yelling, but every little bit of the character Wood creates is brilliantly unnerving. Mix that with the blank “enjoyment” and release he finds in murdering innocent women in the most visibly brutal ways, and Wood delivers a horror-Oscar worthy performance – but he’ll make your stomach churn in discomfort and disapproval the entire way.
Another brilliant tactic of Khalfoun is ditching typical cinematic delivery for a first person view which makes Frank’s vision the camera. We’re forced to live Frank’s life, whether we like it or not, and specifically witness his actions from his exact point of view. We’re not forced to watch the acts of a maniacal stalker – we become the stalker. We’re sitting in a suspicious van, we become nervous when our target spots us from across the road, we feel the pain of loneliness, and then we have a front row seat to the absolute horrors Maniac displays. We even hear the nasally tone of being inside Frank’s head, hearing him talk, along with his sick panting breath while in the heat of his actions. Khalfoun turns his audience into the monster, which brings the horror to an entirely new level.
As for the gore, in 1980’s Maniac there was an extremely graphic scene where Frank Zito jumps on the hood of a car and turns Tom Savini’s head into a pinata filled with bits of skull and brains – a kill so vile critic Gene Siskel walked out of the theater at that point. So how does Franck Khalfoun stack up against such an honor? We’ll there’s an Achilles slashing that rivals the cringe factor of Pet Sematary (if not beats it), a red-head is murdered in such a realistic manner I actually thought I’d somehow come across a snuff film, and the very first kill comes so suddenly and abruptly, my jaw was on the floor. Something about that menacing bowie knife just sent shivers every time I saw it…
Maniac is a gut-wrenching tour-de-force horror film that blends gritty realism with extremely hard to watch “torture porn” type kills, all while putting you in the driver’s seat. Trust me, you’ll hate yourself for acknowledging Khalfoun’s stunning spectacle of a film, right down to that grimy film-noir synthetically-produced soundtrack so many old-school 70s-80s blasted, but it’s impossible to ignore just how phenomenal of a horror film Khalfoun created. Brilliant acting, deranged terror, immersive psychological horror, hardcore effects – Maniac is the real deal. Just don’t go walking around any cities at night for a while and you’ll be fine.
Maniac is perfectly brutal, gritty, in-your-face horror with a film-noir bite, sporting a memorable performance by Elijah Wood that makes me wish horror films had their own Oscars-like event.