Review: “Maniac” Reboot Way More Rabid Than Original

An updated version of a 1980s cult horror movie released seven years ago turned out to be significantly meaner than its violent predecessor. Mark Fraser explores a vile and profane work where unbridled savagery is key.

Maniac - 2012 - Elijah Wood

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Franck Khalfoun’s rehash of the William Lustig 1980 US slasher film Maniac is – in many ways – everything a remake should be.

Released in an era when the sadistic boundaries broken by its predecessor were almost tame by comparison, the updated 2012 version took misogynistic violence to a level undreamed of in mainstream cinema three decades earlier.

Acting upon the torture porn aspirations of the Lustig movie, Khalfoun went quite a few steps further when it came to the brutal hunting, murdering and scalping of women.

His remake is also a much better looking film than the original, switching the grainy and under-lit environs of a claustrophobic and dingy New York for the (sometimes) bright, colourful and open spaces of Los Angeles.

Also, this update has a more attractive lead in the form of Elijah Wood, whose boyish features make him significantly more appealing (at least on a superficial level) than the late Joe Spinell, whose sweaty, lumbering frame and pock-marked face made his maniac look like some kind of ominous pervert from the outset.

In addition, the updated script by Alexandre Aja – the French writer/director of works like Haute Tension (2003) and the remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (2006) – and Gregory Levasseur is a little more sophisticated than the one put together by Spinell (who developed the “story”) and CA Rosenberg, which was fairly rudimentary in a slasher film kind of way.

Moreover, the 2012 version is markedly different insofar as almost all of it is told from a first person point-of-view – it’s like a cinema verite take on the life of a serial murderer from the killer’s perspective, which at times reveals his face when he sees his reflection in a mirror or nearby shiny surface. (If a broad literary comparison was to be made here, it could arguably be with James Ellroy’s 1986 novel Silent Terror.)

There are, however, times when Khalfoun breaks away from this narrative ploy and has the camera adopt a more objective position, with the first noticeable scene being when the psychopathic Frank Zito (Wood) viciously stabs Jessica (Genevieve Alexandra) to death in a parking lot, after – in another particularly distressing moment – slowing her down by slashing her Achilles tendon, before (off screen) scalping her.

Despite its POV gimmickry, the update does not add any real class to the movie’s basic plot which, at the end of the day, is still nothing short of repugnant and brutal nastiness. Whichever way one looks at it, this remains one hell of a pointlessly vile story, wherein the protagonist really deserves nothing more than the shortest of stints on death row before being strapped – with his feet in a bucket of water – to the electric chair.

Events embellished

Maniac - 2012 - Elijah Wood

Like the Lustig film, 2012’s Maniac starts on the prowl. In the original, Frank snuffs out a couple (James Brewster and Linda Lee Walter) on a beach after watching them though a pair of pay binoculars. In the remake, he stalks Judy (Liane Balaban) through a half-lit area of LA in his car before confronting her at her apartment door and sticking a knife up through her jaw and into her mouth. Both end up being unpleasant moments, with each providing reasonable indications of what’s to come.

Although the 1980 Zito lives in a grubby single room apartment with his mannequins, to which he attaches the scalps of his prey, the rebooted one owns his own shop – a model dummy store that was inherited from his late mother Angela (America Olivo). As in the earlier version, Mrs Zito had a penchant for child abuse; in this instance it was bringing strange men home for sex and cocaine when her son was younger, thus providing a basic explanation for his brutal dysfunction.

One morning Frank meets French photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder), who specializes in taking pictures of mannequins. “I try to bring them to life,” she says. Naturally, as a man who nail guns the bloodied scalps of his victims to the heads of dummies, he is immediately attracted to the girl and volunteers to help her organise an upcoming exhibition.

When this show eventually opens, Frank is introduced to Anna’s mentor Rita (Jan Broberg), an older art director who makes her disdain for the event obvious.

“You know, your work might interest another client of mine whose general theme is the destruction of completely useless objects,” she tartly says. “I’m sure he would love to smash up some of your mannequins at your next photoshoot.”

This, of course, doesn’t go down too well with Frank, who follows Rita home, makes his way into her apartment using a set of stolen keys, and renders her unconscious in the bath tub before hog tying her.

Then, as if in some extended state of delusion, he starts chiding the poor woman as though she is his dead mother: “Changing your make-up and hairstyle didn’t fool me. You didn’t think I would recognise you? Why? “Do you think I’m stupid?”

Having got this off his chest, Frank slices and scalps Rita while she is still alive in what must arguably be the vilest moment in both versions of the movie.

Modifications made

Maniac - 2012 - Elijah Wood

As with most remakes, the 2012 take of Maniac deviates from the original plot, albeit not in any counterproductive way.

In the Lustig film, for instance, Anna (Caroline Munro) manages to get away from the killer after she figures out – while visiting his mother’s grave – that he has murdered Rita (Abigail Clayton), who this time is not an art director, but a younger (and friendlier) model.

The rebooted Anna, however, is not so lucky. When the penny drops (this time in her apartment) she and Frank get into a violent scuffle, during which she slashes him with a knife and stabs him through the hand, while in return he throws her through a glass table. A bit of salt is then added to this scene when Anna’s upstairs neighbour Martin (Joshua De la Garza) comes down to help, only to receive a meat cleaver through his mouth.

To get with the times, the writers and director of the update also include a car crash in the proceedings. While not wanting to go into too much detail, it seems they stick it in so the hapless Anna can be hurtled through a windscreen.

Although the original did not have such an extravagant set piece, it’s possible this moment is something of a homage to the 1980 film when Frank murders a couple (Tom Savini and Hyla Marrow) by shooting them with a double barrel shotgun through their parked car’s windshield.

Finally there’s the climactic moment which sees the killer gets his just desserts. In both versions Zito is pulled apart by his mannequins. To beef things up in the 2012 movie, though, the dummies don’t just dismember him – they rip out his innards a la George A Romero before scalping him with their fingernails; an act which reveals that Frank is actually a mannequin himself.

Needless to say the remake again firmly outdoes its predecessor when it comes to the gore stakes.

Strange reference

One interesting aspect about the original Maniac is the fact it was meant to be a starring vehicle for Spinell who, by the time it was released, had already established himself as an interesting character actor across a number of supporting roles in some big name Hollywood movies like the first two installments of The Godfather (1972 and 1974), Taxi Driver (1975) and Rocky (1976).

According to legend, he wasn’t entirely happy with the way the film was promoted; in particular he was upset with the graphic that was used on its poster (and which now appears on the cover of the Shock Entertainment Blu-ray release of the movie).

In it, the bottom half of the titular character’s body is seen holding a bloodied knife and a blond scalp – plus he has an obvious bulge in his pants. Apparently Spinell objected to the fact the killer had a hard on; he didn’t think the protagonist was sexually excited by his murdering and scalping of women. Rather, psychologically confusing mother issues were to blame.

Yet in a nod to this 1980 artwork, Khalfourn recreates the image just after the above-mentioned carpark slaughter, when it is seen (from the murderer’s point of view) in the reflection of a vehicle window.

Maniac - 2012 - Elijah Wood

Given Spinell’s objection to the poster, which also attracted the ire of contemporary feminists, it’s unlikely he would have appreciated this reference. Indeed, it may have even had him turning in his grave.

Taking all this on board, one can only wonder what Joe – who died in 1989 at the age of 52 – might have thought about his original idea being outdone by such a vicious reboot. Obviously Lustig didn’t mind it – along with Aja and Thomas Langmann he co-produced this hideous monstrosity.

Words by Mark Fraser

Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser

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About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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