Remake Rumble: Round 3
Not all remakes are created equal, but sometimes the battle lines between the original film and the so-called “re-imagining” aren’t as clear as they may first appear. In this new, regular feature Joey Keogh pitches a chosen horror film against its remade counterpart, to answer that oft-debated question – is there ever any justification for “rebooting” a horror movie? And, dare we even suggest it, can a remake ever surpass the original?
Although it wasn’t considered vile enough to be one of the infamous “video nasties”, Maniac was banned for cinema in the UK in 1981, and again for video in 1998. It was finally released with 58 seconds cut in 2002, a decade before it would be remade with none other than the nerdy-cute Elijah Wood in the starring role, as the titular maniac.
As stalk-and-slash shockers go, Maniac is something of an acquired taste. Revered by those who defend it, dismissed by those who found it too tough back in the day and too old-fashioned now, the film is still a talking point thanks, in large part, to the remarkable SFX work of the legendary Tom Savini. Helmed by William Lustig, this lurid, very strange depiction of a twisted man, haunted by the death of his mother and struggling with his inner demons, still packs a punch today, not least because of a stunning central turn from Joe Spinell, as Frank.
The film has aged significantly, and it’s unlikely to draw in any new converts, but it’s dark, brutal and loaded with great scares. Those who have seen, and fallen madly in love with, David Fincher’s superb Zodiac will note that the titular killer’s attire here resembles that of the real-life murderer at the heart of that remarkable film. This adds another level of weirdness to what is already a profoundly strange movie.
Lustig takes a production credit on the remake, but that’s where the connection ends. When it was first announced, the biggest discussion point was the casting of Elijah Wood in the lead role. Once we heard the film was shot entirely from his POV, with only glimpses of Wood shown here and there, the conversation turned to confusion over why such a well-known actor was cast only to have his face, seemingly, hidden.
Funnily enough, this is arguably Wood’s strongest performance to date. Let’s not forget, he’d only really played a villain once before, in Sin City – another flick in which his face was covered – so he’s really working outside his comfort zone. Here, Wood is incredibly nuanced in his portrayal of a character torn apart by his past yet still trying desperately to grasp his future – even with the heavy breathing aspect of his POV shots, which, in the original, was annoyingly over-the-top, at times even ruining the tension. Modern Frank is heavily-medicated, and trying his best to keep to himself and live a normal life (when he isn’t scalping unsuspecting women, of course). He even tries to start a relationship in order to move on, while his predecessor simply fell into one because he was caught out after being photographed in public.
Spinell, who co-wrote the screenplay of the original, presents Frank as a bloodthirsty, evil and relentless killer, who stalks and slaughters and admonishes himself afterwards for giving in to the voices in his head. Wood’s Frank, penned by Alexandre Aja of Haute Tension fame, is a far more sympathetic character, albeit just as twisted. His first kill is as vicious, if not more so, than his predecessor’s and although he seems slightly less inept around women, he ultimately cannot resist his own vile intentions towards them.
Director Franck Khalfoun shoots his city – the action is moved to LA instead of New York – as though it’s a dark underworld, with every corner throbbing with danger, and the twisted techno of the soundtrack rumbling along underneath everything. In a lot of ways, the city is a character in itself. Lustig’s nightmare NYC was a horrible, resolutely dark place that Frank treated as a playground. The idea in his film was that there was no escape, but in the remake Frank often hangs back, letting his victims fall into danger themselves instead of luring them. It’s a more modern take that somehow makes the idea scarier, because it’s so easy to put oneself in the position of the victim, trusting life as we think we know it.
Considering how many dumb eighties slashers there are, Maniac is in a league of its own in a lot of ways. It’s not the typical, knife-wielding-killer fare that became so popular during this decade – it has just as much brains as blood. Strangely, the infamous Friday The 13th was released around the same time, and considering how popular it turned out to be, it’s slightly disheartening that Maniac’s effect was dulled as a result. The premise of Maniac, too, is tinged with mother-son weirdness – though Frank is more Norman Bates than Jason Voorhees – but with a cruel twist as the killer believes his mother is still alive, and simply hiding from him.
The film orbits around Frank, so his presence is the most important. A disturbed, twisted, truly damaged villain, he cannot cope with his past and chooses to lash out at women to deal with the pain of his mother’s betrayal. He’s an anti-hero of sorts, who elicits a certain amount of empathy in spite of his viciousness. Wood’s Frank has more of a presence, even though he’s seldom shown. His battered and bruised hands betray how careful he is with the “women” in his life. He has a soft heart, a desire to please others, but he can’t express himself like a normal person. Pathetic and nervous, it’s easy to see why he’d be trusted, as opposed to Spinell whose Frank is just plain creepy.
At first, Wood was considered too handsome to play Frank – in spite of his rather odd features – but, even though he is more conventionally attractive than Spinell, he’s no less terrifying. It seems strange, considering how many cute and cuddly characters he’s played, but Wood utterly becomes Frank, communicating so much with his speech, which is mostly delivered off-camera, meaning his lack of stature and brawn don’t make him any less believable as this horrible character.
When he cracks, it isn’t in a fit of rage. His descent is more gradual – he slips up, and immediately tries to backtrack. Further to this, his relationship with kind-hearted Anna (Nora Arnezeder) is more believable than that of the original film because, not only is he slightly less overtly terrifying than Spinell, but he comes across as shy and lonely, as though he couldn’t possibly be capable of hurting anyone. Watching the 1981 film, it’s bizarre that anyone would want to spend time alone with Frank, as even his interaction with his neighbour seems slightly off.
Although it may be difficult for purists to believe, the gore in the Maniac reboot equals, if not outdoes, that of Savini’s notable work on the original. Of course, this is thanks to better equipment, technology, and the fact that there is much more knowledge now about how best to represent the great and grisly onscreen. Even so, it’s a massive achievement because the film’s depiction of the infamous scalping is of massive significance, and in the remake, it is truly horrifying – in particular, when the camera flips around to catch Wood in the act as his still-breathing victim screams in agony.
The ending is similar in both films, but the remake handles it better. The build-up is slower and, in general, the premise is less heavy-handed so Frank’s journey feels more organic. The remake also takes it up a notch by utilising a memorable final image of Frank as a little boy mannequin after he has been torn apart by his “women”. The symbolism is clear, and it’s not the only time the remake chooses to update, and further his story, to its credit.
The subway sequence, which is a truly terrifying, central part of the original film, is relocated here to a car-park, where the poor girl is stalked and attacked by Frank in full view of absolutely nobody. This is emblematic of what makes the remake so strong – the modern Frank is cool, calculating and destructive, hanging back when his predecessor would’ve lashed out. He’s a believable villain because he’s been updated for, instead of just transported to, the modern day, as has his horrible, yet moving, story.
Therefore, in this battle between a twisted, mannequin-loving, happy-scalping lunatic and the hobbit that came after him, the remake is the clear winner. Maniac 2013 does what so many horror reboots have failed to do – it updates the story, the setting and, crucially, the villain himself for a modern audience. There are some nice nods to the source material, but ultimately it’s its own film, and it creates its own, expertly well-realised world in which to exist also. Brutal, disturbing and strangely moving, this is a remake that makes a case for updating a well-known, even classic, film for a new audience.
And the winner is – Maniac 2013
Winner: Maniac (remake)