by Steve Habrat
Among the many sleazy horror subgenres out there, one of the most popular of the late 1970s and ‘80s was the slasher film. Grindhouse theaters and rundown drive-ins were bombarded with masked psychos wielding a number of assorted kitchen utensils or power tools ranging from machetes, cutting knives, chain saws, meat cleavers, and more. While major Hollywood studios were only responsible for a small number of these slasher films, a good majority of them were released through small independent studios looking to capitalize on the popularity of films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween. Many of these films were artless and depraved, riddled with senseless blood, guts, and gratuitous nudity—things that were not heavily present in any of the films that inspired these knockoffs. Today, a large number of these cheap exploitation slashers are lost in the sands of time, but there are still some that have amassed respectable cult followings. One such cult slasher would be director William Lustig’s 1980 exploitation classic Maniac, an urban nightmare that appealed to 42nd Street crowds due to its unflinching violence and gore. While it may not enjoy the popularity of, say, Halloween, Maniac is still popular enough that it finally earned itself a remake makeover. Now we have director Frank Khalfoun’s Maniac, a surprisingly harrowing, disturbing, and frighteningly vicious horror film produced and written by French horror director Alexandre Aja.
Maniac places us in the shoes of Frank Zito (played by Elijah Wood), a soft-spoken loner who manages a mannequin shop that was left to him by his abusive late mother, Angela (played by America Olivio), who also worked as a prostitute on the side. Traumatized by his mother’s treatment towards him, Frank takes to the streets and stalks down beautiful young women who he murders and scalps with a hunting knife. One day, Frank meets a young upcoming photographer named Anna (played by Nora Arnezeder), who is interested in photographing the mannequins inside Frank’s shop. The two immediately strike up a friendship, but soon, Frank takes a liking to the beautiful artist. One evening, Frank and Anna go on a date to the movies, but after the date, Frank is devastated to learn that Anna has a boyfriend. Frank struggles to maintain the friendship, but after humiliating encounters with Anna’s boyfriend, Jason (played by Sammi Rotibi), and her mentor, Rita (played by Jan Broberg), he snaps and looses his tiny grip on reality, which puts Anna in serious danger.
Where most horror remakes refuse to do anything new or inspired with the material they are updating, Khalfoun’s Maniac dares to get creative with its style. The original Maniac was told in a fairly straightforward manner, although, we were asked to root for the bad guy of the story, something that does indeed make the viewer’s skin crawl. Maniac 2013 asks the same thing of the audience, but it takes it a step further and presents the action from the POV of Frank. The idea that we are peering through Frank’s eyes is undeniably creepy, and since we are inside his head, we are unable to escape from his demons. At times, Khalfoun blurs the picture, distorts sound, or descends into the surreal, offering up rattling hallucinations that really do a fine job of showing off Frank’s unstable condition. This POV presentation also gives the violence a razor-sharp edge that really cuts you deep. Each and every time Frank jabs his knife into one of his victims, you’ll desperately want to close your eyes. The violence is shockingly realistic, and it is shown in all of its revolting glory. It’s so graphic that even Frank looses his lunch after murdering one poor girl. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart.
Since the story is presented from Frank’s point of view, you may wonder why a high-profile star like Elijah Wood is involved with this small project. The few glimpses that we get of Frank are in reflections, where we are exposed to the glazed-over trance that he seems to float around in from day to day. His reflection presents a boyish face, drawn in innocence that suggests that he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Obviously, we know better, but armed with those puppy eyes, we know Frank is capable of fooling a lot of people into thinking he is completely harmless. Wood uses his physical appearance to his advantage, but his performance is wounded by his line delivery, which seems very mechanical and staged. The problem could stem from the dialogue, which is embarrassingly clunky and refuses to roll off the tongue in a natural fashion. As far as the other performers go, Arnezeder’s Anna is the ray of hope that Frank is desperately in need of. When she reveals she has a boyfriend, we certainly feel the dagger driven right into Frank’s heart, but we fear for her when he finally falls off into the abyss. Olivio certainly makes you raise an eyebrow as Frank’s prostitute mother, who forces him to hide in the closet while she has a threesome. Rotibi is spot on as the testy Jason, Anna’s boyfriend who takes an immediate disliking to Frank and viscously accuses him of being gay.
In addition to the impressive POV style and unnervingly realistic violence, Maniac 2013 also benefits from an awesome retro soundtrack that is sure to get stuck on repeat inside your head. Composed by French musician Rob, the soundtrack invokes an early ‘80s aura, sounding like a mash up between the dreamy notes of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, the triumphant synthesizer blasts of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and the urban beats of Nicholas Winding Refn’s throwback thriller Drive. With the soundtrack transporting you back to 1980, Khalfoun uses it to intensify the film’s urban grit. You almost feel like you’re on the grimy midnight streets with the homeless hiding inside camping tents, club kids drunkenly stumbling out of dance clubs in search of a blackout hook-up, and wandering hoods with their faces suspiciously concealed. All of this is sure to scare you away from wandering darkened city streets ever again. Overall, while the film’s dialogue could have used some major attention, Maniac is still an unexpectedly chilling walk in a madman’s shoes. It’s respectful of the original film while also setting itself apart from what Lustig delivered back in 1980. Maniac is stylish, chilling, and wildly grisly horror remake that is sure to disturb even the most hardened horror fan.
Maniac is available on Blu-ray and DVD.