By all logic, Maniac has no right to be as good a film as it is.
A remake of William Lustig’s notoriously sleazy (if grimly effective) 1980 film, Maniac tells the story of Frank Zito (Elijah Wood, taking on a role previously played to repulsive perfection by Joe Spinell). Frank is a twitchy young man who sells mannequins for a living, has frequent conversations with his dead mother, suffers from intense migraines, and relieves stress by scalping strangers. Much like the original Maniac, the remake is largely plotless. Frank stalks women. Frank yells at his mannequins. Frank pursues an unlikely romance with an incredibly naive photographer (played here by the very sympathetic Nora Arnezeder). Much blood is spilled and the film eventually comes to a conclusion that’s even darker than Lustig’s original.
One thing that does distinguish this remake from the original Maniac is that director Franck Khalfoun and producer (and screenwriter) Alexandre Aja attempt to truly put the viewers in Frank’s disturbed mind. With the exception of a few isolated moments, the entire film is a collection of p.o.v. shots. While we hear Frank talk throughout the film, the only time that we actually see him is during the rare moment that Frank takes the time to look at his reflection. That may sound gimmicky (and it is) but, at the same time, it actually works surprisingly well. Much like Frank, the audience spends the film trapped in his disturbed mind and often unsure about whether they’re seeing something real or having another hate-fueled hallucination.
It helps that Elijah Wood gives a surprisingly credible performance in the role of Frank. While we only actually get to see his face a handful of times, Wood makes every one of those moments count. Unlike the original’s Joe Spinell (who gave a performance that was so incredibly sleazy that he almost seemed to be surrounded by a cloud of grime whenever he showed up on screen), Elijah Wood uses his youthful face and his deceptively gentle voice to turn Frank into a disturbingly plausible threat. With his nervous eyes and rather befuddled expression, Wood makes Frank into the murderer next door One reason why serial killers are so scary is because the majority of them look more like Elijah Wood than Joe Spinell. Director Khalfoun uses Wood’s passive screen presence to put the audience at ease, just as surely as Frank uses his innocent face to fool his victims. As a result, the viewers keep expecting Frank to show some shimmer of humanity. That’s make it all the more disturbing to watch as the film reveals just how much of a monster Frank truly is.
Playing the role of Frank’s love interest, Nora Arnezeder also deserves a lot of credit. While the original film definitely suffered because you never believed that Caroline Munro’s classy photographer would actually be attracted to Joe Spinell, the relationship between Wood and Arnezeder is a lot more plausible and hence, it also has the potential to be a lot more tragic. Without Arnezeder’s empathetic performance, Maniac would just be a numbing collection of scenes of people being murdered. However, Arnezeder creates a character that viewers will actually care about. We worry about her as we watch her relationship with Frank develop but, at the same time, we can understand what she thinks she sees in this shy and eccentric man. As opposed to the original film and despite all of the graphic violence (and it is graphic, make no mistake), the remake of Maniac never feels misogynistic and that’s largely due to the work of Nora Arnezeder. Arnezeder gives us something that the original never bothered to do, a character to sympathize with.
Finally, you can’t talk about the remake of Maniac without mentioning the film’s excellent score. Composed by a French composer who goes by the name of Rob, the synth-heavy score has a wonderfully retro feel to it that pays homage to both the old grindhouse films and also adds a propulsive element of menace to every scene. Much like the electronic score of the far different Upstream Color, the score of Maniac becomes a character all of its own. I would even go as far to say that it’s perhaps one of the best horror score that I’ve ever heard.
I wasn’t expecting much of Maniac. In fact, the only reason I saw it was out of curiosity. I was expecting to be a typical horror remake, a cynical film made solely to exploit the notoriety of its source.
Was I ever wrong!
Maniac is not a pleasant film. It’s a dark and gore-filled movie but, in its disturbing way, it’s also oddly effective and compelling. It’s a film that probably has no right to be good and yet, that’s exactly what it is.