Beginning last March at the Mad Monster Party con, I had literally no less than half a dozen chances to see the MANIAC remake, and avoided each. With good reason. Forget the whole “remakes are usually awful” argument; from the clips I’d seen and all I’d read, it appeared to be really bad. The choice to make it largely in first person seemed gimmicky, and slender, boyish Elijah Wood was replacing bloated, unkempt Joe Spinell as creepy lead Frank Zito. I knew it would be violent and trashy, and I’ve seen enough violent, poorly made trash on Netflix to know to avoid this one. But a friend had asked me to watch this with him more than once (including at the NYC premiere, where Wood himself came out), and so a few weeks ago, after my shift at the restaurant, I joined him. For 1 hour and 40 minutes I wallowed in stomach-turning gore and nihilism that made me question the art of film, and the human condition. I keep coming back to the same feeling since that night, that I would have done better to avoid MANIAC one last time. It’s vile trash, disturbing and disgusting at every turn. If you enjoy that sort of thing, it’s a remake for you. But it certainly is not a film for me.
You may ask why I would say that, call me a hypocrite if you had read my review of the original MANIAC. I keep coming back to William Lustig’s film and Spinell when I think about the remake, and the conclusions I draw are complicated. I should like this film, because writer/producer Alexandre Aja and director Franck Khalfoun cleave closely to the original, with several scenes directly inspired by it. But therein lies the first major problem. As the new Nine Inch Nails single suggests, the new flick is a “ Copy of a” copy of a. The original was grimy trash. And when copying trash, you produce trash.
Which leads to my second problem with it. Spinell’s MANIAC was brilliant trash, a character study of an abused child that gave both Zito and the film itself some dimensions. Spinell, a character actor in some of Hollywood’s biggest films of the 1970s (including TAXI DRIVER and THE GODFATHER), brings depth both to performance and script that save the film from being merely a disgusting footnote in the slasher cycle. In reinventing Zito for a new age, Khalfoun and Aja create a shallow experience that may be more misogynistic and bloody than the original, offering sound and fury and scalps, and little else. It sure is trash, but it lacks brilliance of any sort.
The film starts off with Zito on the prowl. He’s cruising for a new victim to destroy and scalp. The film follows him through a few of these dark conquests until he meets French photographer Anna. After another bloody night out, Zito finds her at the door of his mannequin refurbishing shop. She’s fascinated by his restorations, and wants to use them in her next show. Even if I hadn’t seen the original, I would’ve known that Frank is far too damaged for any woman to save him. Blood will have blood, as Macbeth said, and Frank’s steeped so far in it that it would be easier to wade to the other side than ever to go back. In true nihilistic form, Frank’s path of destroying others can only lead to his own self-destruction.
We see almost all of this from Zito’s perspective. Herein lies the one thing that distinguishes the film from its source. Interesting choice, or gimmick? Probably both. It certainly makes MANIAC more controversial, as any Puritan who’s ever made the argument that the slasher’s POV makes us vicariously a slasher, need only look here for evidence. It certainly made me queasier to see things as Frank would as he scalped innocent women around the city (and the ample gore was so realistic it made queasy enough to start). Khalfoun uses mirrors and all sorts of reflections so we’re reminded that Wood is indeed the man behind the maniac. It’s crafty, but it’s also carnival sideshow trick.
As for Wood, he gives a serviceable performance. As an actor, he’s always done affected well (check him out as fey Frodo in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS movies), and as Frank he’s a psychological mess. A nightmare of a human being, his internal dialogues are no less than disturbing than Spinell’s in the original. And therein lies another problem with this film. A guy and I once had a discussion about how there’s a difference between disturbing and frightening. Lustig’s movie was disturbing, but Spinell’s performance at the heart of the film made it frightening. Khalfoun’s version is disturbing, but stripped of the psychological depths of Lustig’s film, the experience disturbs without frightening at all.
Both versions do share buckets of gore. Lustig’s film is one of the small handful that actually makes me sick to my stomach as I watch it, and Khalfoun’s version returns the favor. My friend and I were drinking Kraken rum at the time, and I had just swallowed down half of a garbage pie, and the kill scenes made me want to blow chunks. But Lustig is a far superior filmmaker to Khalfoun, and set up great tension in some scenes, especially the subway attack. Khalfoun mimics that scene, but the tension is gone, and when he eventually takes things streetside, it diminishes the claustrophobic atmosphere. Lacking the depth of lead character and the tension, the gore is without any substance.
The original MANIAC is the one title I’m at odds with in my catalogue of horror films. It’s got an outstanding, twisted performance by Joe Spinell, some of Savini’s most grotesque special effects, and Lustig’s grimy image of New York City at the dawn of the 1980s. I watch it probably once a year, and ask myself when the end credits roll why I put it on in the first place. I avoided seeing the MANIAC remake because I feared it would be a disturbing flick that lacked any of the psychological underpinnings of the original, and I was right. I won’t be adding it to my catalogue, and if I never see it again, I’ll regret having seen it once.