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.
by Steve Habrat
I honestly do not think I have ever seen a film that has been as grainy and gritty as Maniac, the splatter film told from the perspective of the pudgy schizophrenic Frank Zito, a man who prowls the shifty streets of early 1980s New York City and kills women. The film, often evocative of the Son of Sam murders from the mid 1970s, out grains films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film that came shortly after Maniac but is far superior. You practically need a tetanus shot and two baths after you have watched this thing. Pretending that is it shining light on a deranged and shadowy mind, Maniac lacks any real depth, acting as just a random string of scenes where Frank stalks, murders, and maims his victims. After each segment, director William Lustig changes the setting, the victims, and then presses the repeat button. Maniac’s case is not helped out by the sneaking suspicion that this slightly seems like a fetish flick.
The premise of Maniac is quite simple. Frank Zito (Played by Joe Spinell) is a sweaty, overweight psycho who stalks women, murders them, and then scalps them. He shacks up in a tiny apartment in an unidentified burough of New York City. His tiny apartment is crammed with an assortment of weapons he uses to dispatch his prey along with countless creepy mannequins. Frank likes to dress the mannequins in clothing, nail the scalps he has collected to their heads, and sleep with them. Frank also engages in conversations with himself, usually acting as both himself and his deceased prostitute mother he is obsessed with. While out on a walk one day, Frank has his picture taken by a beautiful but utterly clueless photographer named Anna (Played by Caroline Munro). Frank tracks her down and instead of simply killing her, the two strike up a bizarre relationship that is unfathomable. When it seems that Frank has found love and may turn himself around, he begins repressing his urges to kill and it is only a matter of time before they break through the charismatic persona he is hiding behind.
One of the two parts that works in Maniac is the odd relationship between Anna and Frank. This adds some desperately needed anxiety to the film, we the viewers finding ourselves on the edge of our seat waiting for Frank to strike. It’s a clever move from writers C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell who play on our fear that something is about to happen. It is also the only thing resembling a budding plot in Maniac, which is more concerned about getting to all the violence. The violence here has to rank as some of the most extreme you will ever see in a motion picture (aside from Cannibal Holocaust, Romero’s zombie flicks, and the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis). Credit should go to make-up and effects guru Tom Savini, who dreams up some truly nasty stuff that makes even the hardened viewers queasy. One scene, a sequence that has to be one of the most memorable moments in horror movie history and the most redolent of the Son of Sam, has Frank blowing the head off one victim at close range with a double barrel shotgun. It goes far beyond graphic, sickening, or shocking. It is downright fucked up in conveniently used slow motion.
The other part that clicks in Maniac is the supernatural finale the film tacks on, making Frank’s last victim himself. He ends up succumbing to his own inner demons that wield his own weapons and giggle while they close in. Frank lacks much profundity and he is fairly simple to figure out. He shows flashes of repentance and scolds his own actions when he kills. While he is on the prowl and stalking his prey, he lets out grunts and growls that sound animal and orgasmic. It is ultimately the path of the paranormal that gets the juices flowing in Maniac, enveloping us completely into Franks distorted and damaged mind, allowing us to see through his eyes rather than just tagging along side while he takes lives. While the real world stuff is unsettling, it is Frank’s world that provides the much needed spooks.
Almost cinema-vérité in execution and shot with what had to be the oldest camera the director could find, Maniac exploits the seedy and decaying look of later 70’s and early 80’s New York City. You never really feel comfortable or truly safe in Maniac. I kept wondering where a police officer was, why that woman was walking alone, and who else was lurking in the shadows waiting to stick me up for my wallet. The film does an excellent job transporting the viewer but the lack of any protagonist trying to catch Frank is Maniac’s demise. Instead of drawing the film out with countless scenes of torture and prolonged death sequences, maybe they could have thrown in a hard-boiled detective racing to find the killer before he claims another life. All we get an out-of-place overhead shot of what is supposed to be a helicopter looking for Frank and quick glimpses of newspaper headlines that declare there is a maniac on the loose. Furthermore, no character outside of Frank is properly developed so when someone meets a messy end, it’s just unpleasant. It doesn’t affect us on any emotional level like it should. For as hard as it tries, Maniac ends up being surprisingly below average but don’t count out the finale, which has a few tricks, decomposing corpses machetes, handguns, shotguns, and switchblades up it’s flannel sleeve.
Maniac is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.