Starring – Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, America Olivo.
Remakes are an emotive subject. It is difficult for anyone to limit their emotional response when somebody suddenly imposes their “re-imagining” of a perfectly good or personally treasured movie. But, as remakes are obviously here to stay, it is important to try and stifle that response in order to gain a true and clear impression of the new film. Remember, for every Halloween (2007) there is a Dawn of the Dead (2004), for every Prom Night (2008) there is a The Thing (2011).
And so we come to Maniac (2012), director Frank Khalhoun’s version of one of the 80s’ most revered – and reviled – horror movies. On first viewing, one initially wonders why they bothered calling it “Maniac”; films of this ilk are generally fairly similar anyway (how different can they really be – not a criticism, more a stating of fact) and the “new approach” here could just as easily be a remake of New York Ripper. Certainly in striving for the filth and sleaze of William Lustig’s original, it only manages the cruelty and sadism of Fulci’s notoriously misogynistic “classic”. Of course, we know the reason, really; money, the root of all evil.
Writers Alexandre Aja (he of the excellent Haute Tension, but sadly sidetracked seemingly to remake hell since his move to Hollywood) and Gregory Levasseur try to bring Joe Spinell’s screenplay into the 21st century by introducing internet dating as a fertile hunting ground for the titular Frank Zito, which makes sense. What makes less sense is the apparent move to Los Angeles, which seems to have no point except to distance this movie from the original, which again just begs the question from the previous paragraph (crikey, this is in danger of becoming a particularly vicious circle).
Aja and Levasseur have also given a lot more attention to Frank’s past and his mother fixation, which Khalfoun enthusiastically brings to the screen in the form of lots of salacious sex scenes and shots of boobs. Again we are brought face to face with the delusion which a lot of people who make films seem to suffer from; that single mother crack whores who live in bedsits all look like super models. If they really wanted to capture the essence of what made Maniac, Frank’s mum should have been a toothless old crone with a beer belly and a flick knife hidden up her fanny.
One issue which the film continually struggles with is the central casting. Whilst you can imagine that getting Elijah Wood might seem like a bit of a coup for a horror remake, the reality is that it just becomes a monstrous elephant in the room; it is not possible to accept the diminutive Wood as somebody capable of overpowering and brutally murdering a lot of women (some of whom here are a foot taller than him). Also, the character now is a pretty boy, well turned out “artiste” and owner of a shop where he now displays his mannequins. This makes the appearance of his hands (which get numerous close ups) seem completely incongruous; they are dirty, rough, calloused and surprisingly big. It’s as though this little guy has had a double hand transplant and ended up with the real Frank Zito’s hands – now THAT would be a good movie, he inherits the hands of a maniac and they compel him to kill, kill!
Big and glitzy compared with its source material, Maniac (2012) misses the point of Spinell and Lustig’s collaboration, which is a genuinely effective portrait of madness (in no small part to Spinell’s performance of a lifetime). In 1982, we feel sorry for Zito, not because he has any redeeming features, but because of what he is, what life has made him, in the same way in which you might feel pity for a toad under a rock. In 2012, we are being coerced (unsuccessfully) into having sympathy for him, by the introduction of a palatable appearance and such hackneyed and unsubtle plot tools like the little boy mannequin, which represents Frank as a child and which the adult Frank cherishes and protects.
Bearing that in mind, the only way to watch Maniac (2012) is to embrace its flaws and view it as a straightforward slasher movie. As such, does it pass muster? Well, it’s watchable, which is a compliment these days. It suffers from the same problem as many big budget remakes, in that the star turns, money and glamour just make it seem all the more cynical when compared with its honestly exploitative inspiration.
Since I wrote the original draft of this article, I have since read Mark Kermode’s new book, Hatchet Job, in which he cites a review of this movie which read simply “by dummies, for dummies, about dummies.” So before you dismiss this review as a simple remake bashing, bear that in mind and cut me some slack.
As an interesting aside, my little brother once bumped into Elijah Wood in a nightclub in Prague and the little hobbit was wasted on absinthe. He left a personalised answerphone message on my brother’s mobile, pronouncing (in a terrible cockney accent) “hello, my name is Elijah fucking cunt Wood”, which I thought was a bit harsh. A bit.