MANIAC: West Coast Edition

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Horror fans whine a lot. I’m not saying “every horror fan but me” whines a lot. I whine plenty, too. It’s just one of the things we do as a fanbase, and nothing sends us into a whining-tizzy quite like remakes.

But this has been the year where cinema effectively asked us if we’d like a little cheese with that whine and given us not one, but now TWO, remakes that are exciting, original films in their own right.

Ignoring the buzz/backlash/apathy-cycle that seems to have occurred, I quite enjoyed Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead. It was a film that made smart decisions with its source material, even if it didn’t follow all those decisions to their most satisfying end.

Now we’ve got a remake of Willam Lustig’s 1980 grime-caked classic, Maniac, and once again, the success of this film is all about smart decisions.

I have an interesting relationship to Lustig’s original. It’s one of those films I come back to, even when every viewing it makes me feel pretty terrible.

That’s the kind of movie it is, though. You need twelve showers and a handful of steel-wool to get Joe Spinell’s sweaty visage out of your mind. Freshman year of college, when I was challenged by my roommate to show him a “real scary movie”, I screened it for a group of friends. I know, probably no better way to get the girls in the dorm to take notice.

A few years later I got to see it projected at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, with Lustig in attendance. Seeing it on the big screen only enhanced the film’s “is it pure, meritless exploitation or isn’t it?” vibe.

Even before the first drop of blood is spilled in the remake, director Franck Khalfoun and co-writer/producer Alexandre Aja have already made a great change to their version: this Maniac is set in Los Angeles.

It may not be a flattering representation, but the original Maniac is one of the most quintessentially New York movies lensed this side of Woody Allen. It’s not only a “grindhouse” film itself, but an invaluable document of midtown Manhattan sleaze.

A modern day Maniac set in post-Guliani New York would not work. A Maniac set on the neon-soaked streets of L.A.? Yeah, that’ll work. And it does, the Drive-ish color palette lends a real beauty to the first-person cinematography.

Speaking of first-person…

Ever since Hitchcock’s camera pushed into Janet Leigh’s window at the beginning of Psycho, the serial killer subgenre has been inextricably tinged with voyeurism. Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac exploits this to the fullest, presenting the majority of the film in first person from Frank’s perspective. The choice not only makes us complicit in Frank’s crimes (this feeling is as close as we come to the deliberate unpleasantness of the original), but offers a great vantage-point from which to witness the protagonist’s psychological decay, hallucinations and all.

Let’s talk about our new Frank, then. The first words out of any horror fan’s mouth when confronted with a remake of Maniac will invariably something like “But no one can replace Joe Spinell!” Which is where the new version succeeds again: it doesn’t try. Young, bright-eyed and unimposing, Elijah Wood is basically the anti-Spinell. One of his first victims even comments that he’s not what she expected, then goes on to describe the sweaty, pockmarked Spinell.

Although Wood spends much of the film off-screen, glimpsed mostly in reflection, his performance is strong. The character and plot remain mostly unchanged, but when Wood’s Frank voices his pathetic invocations to his mommy, there’s something new brought to the character. The perspective even changes the most familiar aspects of the film, as the subway stalking sequence is now made even more uncomfortable by following Wood’s gaze as it goes from innocuously inquisitive to openly hostile to violent killer.

This time around the “psychologically real” aspects of the plot are downplayed, which is smart because Khalfoun lets the metaphor-dense imagery of Frank’s mannequin’s speak for itself. The soundtrack (from single-name composer Rob) also helps here, as the synth-heavy score and ingenious use of the serial killer standard “Goodbye Horses” (Buffalo Bill’s jam from Silence of the Lambs) cuts away some of the grime without trivializing (or romanticizing) the impact of the violence.

The new Maniac is just as downbeat, gory and confrontationally problematic as the original (Do the filmmakers intend Frank or Ana as hero? Why do we find ourselves invested in the love story subplot? Why is every woman Frank encounters centerfold-gorgeous?), but it is filmed with enough originality, verve and intelligence to not only justify its existence, but make it a strong film that can stand alone.

We’ve entered a new age in horror fandom: the age of the palatable remake built on good intentions and wise decisions. Maybe we’ll have to whine about something different.

It should also be mentioned that this blog has effectively turned into me writing up thoughts on movies I rent on VOD (movies are streeting months earlier in this format), but I’m still a physical media guy until the day I die. Hey, IFC Midnight, how about figuring out a way to give early-adopters who rent your films on VOD a discount on the disc when it eventually comes out? I want some commentaries and other extras, but paying for something twice is usually more than I can swing.

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