When it was announced in 2011 that Elijah Wood would be the star in an Alexandre Aja penned remake of William Lustig's seminal 1980 exploitation film MANIAC, I was in a state of guffaw-powered disbelief. "Seriously?" I cried aloud, to no-one in particular. That's not to say that Elijah Wood is a bad actor - he's a reliable presence in pretty much everything I've seen him in, be it as a hobbit, a stoner with a talking dog, or a mute avatar of Christian themed destruction - it's just that... well, we're talking about a fucking remake of MANIAC, aren't we?
Bill Lustig's original film was such a nasty and memorable piece of work largely because of Joe Spinell's utterly devastating performance as Frank Zito, a psychologically shattered serial killer that slithers from scene to scene with all the grace of a half-shaven gorilla, staring down his prey like a wildcat and striking with bold, bloody abandon, carving the scalps of his victims free with a straight razor only when he was finished. This may sound like a thankless role filled with countless masked killers, but where Lustig's film differed most from the competition was in its focus on the killer himself. After a night skinning young lovers, he returns home to stew in his squalid apartment, playing dress up with his only friends - generic and bloody mannequins, wearing the scalps he's returned home with, whom he speaks to as if they were living, breathing, feeling people. Spinell's performance was ruthless and as terrifying as any beast to grace the silver screen, but there was a deep sense of sadness and irreparable psychological distress permeating his every action. The film's tag line - "I warned you not to go out tonight!" - is less a threat than a childish plea, the jabber of a madman who's sense of self worth is tied to the trophies he drags home with him. No matter how terrifying, amoral and disgusting Spinell's performance, it was also just vulnerable and real enough that, somehow, you still legitimately felt bad for a man who was murdering strangers in the streets of New York! This was a pretty impressive feat, particularly when - over thirty years ago - the market for "serious" films trying to dissect the mystique and fear of the serial killer was a market that the cheap-o direct to video market had yet to find. You know, the kind LIKE THIS.
The public's first official look at Elijah Wood as "Frank".
To be fair, the far-earlier Ed Gein inspired Deranged had dealt with similar subject matter in a somewhat serious way, but where that film excels as a kitschy 70s character drama it mostly fails as a horror spectacle, wavering somewhere between the surreal and the absurd, only some of it clearly intentional. Maniac had it all, with trendy stalking POV shots, excessive and vivid gore courtesy of Tom Savini, and a unique grimy aesthetic that came from shooting sans-permits in the filth strewn streets of the Big Apple (on 16mm of course). I'd argue that it sits as a comfortable runner-up to the almost accidental masterpiece that is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, perhaps the greatest exploration of that which scares us all the most; the idea that our fellow man might secretly be a legendary monster made flesh... and now they were going to remake it? With Frodo fucking Baggins?!
Now as I'd said, not all hope was lost on this project. The script was written by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur, the pair of young French film-makers that turned their love for Lustig's film into an impressive director debut for the former, Haute Tension (or "Switchblade Romance" or whatever you want to call it). The pair also wrote the minimalist 2007 thriller P2, which was in turn directed by Franck Khalfoun, and while that film was inherently small in scope, I can say it was a lot better than the simplistic material demanded. I won't lie and say that the story of a woman terrorized by a parking attendant for 90 minutes left me certain that he had the chops to take a whack at Frank Zito's legacy, but the staff here clearly has talent, and so while I was still dreading the safe, generic turn this easily could have taken... well, I deserved it to the lot of them to give it a fair chance.
The American premier to the public was at around 9:30 last Wednesday. I was in the audience at The Cinefamily's "Silent Movie Theater", expectations not yet defined. Director Franck Khalfoun, star Elijah Wood, and supporting cutie Megan Duffy were all in attendance, and the entire theater was packed with people just as curious and excited as myself to see what the Alexandre Aja penned "remake" would turn out to be... I won't deny that seeing any film under the circumstances is sure to color one's opinion of it, but with as uncertain as I was going in, I'd like to think I can take the film for what it is, no more, and no less...
So it's with a measured level of surprise - perhaps even shock? - that I say this; Franck Khalfoun's 2012 remake of MANIAC is an excellent film. A wildly different film than Bill Lustig's original, make no mistake, but it springs off from the 1980 film's core in unusual and largely satisfying ways to forge a completely new identity. This is less a trumped-up version of the original than a completely new film loosely inspired by its supposed "original"... think Brian de Palma's Scarface or David Cronenberg's The Fly, largely original films that share a certain level of marquee value and thematic similarities, but little else with their namesakes.
So... is it weird that a guy who restores mannequins for a living
DOESN'T casually wipe off the faces on his personal collection?
Shot (almost) entirely in a first-person POV, we're introduced to 'Frank' through virtually nothing but incidental reflections, and given no choice but to listen to him coo quietly like an excited child, creating an uncomfortable persona that questions a terrified victim as if he were talking to a puppy he was just slightly annoyed by: "Why are you running? Don't you know that I already know where you live?" Unlike Joe Spinell's take on the murderous brute, here we can actually see brief moments of the demons that reside in his mind creeping into what he knows as reality, showing a woman he's falling for bleeding from the scalp and replaying his most recent hunt as a distorted impressionist memory on the big screen, reminding Frank - and in turn, us - that no matter how much he wants to live a normal life and put violence behind him, he's physically unable to control those dark impulses. A bit part of the appeal in MANIAC '80 was the fact that you were forced to stay in the killer's deranged world, even after the killing was through. MANIAC '12 literally puts you inside the killer himself, and gives you absolutely no other point of view to cling to. To watch the film is to experience madness first hand, not just the gory aftermath and an exploration of how we even got there.
Whilst I was skeptical of Wood's physicality working in a role like this - he is, make no mistake, a pocket sized individual with all the visceral terror of a woodchuck - the unique way in which the film was created means that we're essentially feeling the story as felt by Wood, not literally watching him act most of it out. To his credit, Wood was there for every day of filming - even for scenes they realized it would be physically impossible for him to be in - so that he could work out the blocking and pacing in a consistent manner. The result is it becomes all but impossible to tell when Wood is or isn't behind the camera, and is a technical marvel that they could consistently keep the long, unbroken takes and even use reflections as a narrative device without needing to digitally remove anything; while there are a few moments that would have been possible without special effects, the vast majority of the film takes the guerrilla approach and expands it into fine visual art, surpassing the cliche of the stalking point-of-view "killer cam" until it supersedes cinematic reality itself. The only thing that almost betrays it are the intermittent flashbacks to Frank's childhood, showing the extreme dysfunction that's led him to this blood stained spot, and further building a case for why Wood was the right choice; while the original 1980 film had moments and suggestions of developmental infantilism, this one takes it much further, portraying Wood as... well, you'll just have to see it for yourself, I'm afraid.
The complete "Red-Band" trailer.
The film is infused with an 80s synth-pop score that fits the material well enough, and the visuals have a heavy contrast, and turns night into a sickly green wasteland. While CG is rare, it's mostly used to hide the seams of the otherwise mostly-there gore effects provided by the KNB,which are consistently excellent, though anyone expecting the creative, kitschy set pieces Nicotero's been freed to unleash on the set of The Walking Dead or when hanging around Eli Roth might be let down, but the effects are consistently impressive, walking a fine line between being (occasionally) surprising and slightly funny, to downright repulsive and squirm-inducing. With one scene in particular - I'll not spoil it, apart from saying it takes place in a parking lot - if you can watch it unfold and not cringe, congratulations! - you're a robot and clearly do not understand this organic concept called "pain". Still, anyone expecting a rehash of Tom Savini's truly masterful violence from the original film may walk away let down; if Lustig's film was about expanding the impact and using violence as an expression of art, the remake takes the opposite route, showing viewers how visceral and dirty the act of destroying the human body really might be. There is one moment taken from the original film that packs a gristly punch, and it honestly outdoes the Savini version with the inclusion of one final twist... but whether or not you'll take to that probably depends on how seriously you take the symbolism the film has been pushing up to this point. Oh yes, there's a running theme in this one that wasn't ever really explored in the original (not to any degree, at the very least), and it leads to a few utterly bizarre and memorable moments...
I'm not convinced that this replaced Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as the finest filmic study of the All American Psychopath, but it has put us in the shoes of a deranged madman like no other film I can remember. It might have sounded like a glossy snuff film on paper, but in actuality it's a portrait of a man haunted by his own demons, stuck in a state of permanent destructive behavior that inevitably is the undoing of both himself and everyone around him. Films of this nature rarely list "murder" as their addiction of choice, but it works on every level that it should, and the fact that the film still finds brief, clever ways to pays homage to the film that inspired it is nothing short of heart-warming. Every fiber of my being was ready to dislike this film just as hard as I'd disliked drastically overhauled and perhaps even well meaning but inevitably tacky revivals like Marcus Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (the latter of which improved dramatically on its Director's Cut, admittedly)... but I just can't say anything particularly bad about this film. I'd like to watch it again before applying those dangerous words like "masterpiece" or "game changer" or "sugartits", but it'd take me stumbling upon some pretty major as-of-yet unseen faults to change my opinion to anything but enthusiastic. In short, MANIAC '12s transition from the grindhouse to the arthouse is about the craziest change of pace I can think of, but I can't fault anyone for finding a way to make it work regardless.
I'd recommend seeing it, but... I can't tell you how, exactly. As of this writing there is no US distributor for MANIAC '12, and I'm not aware of there being any planned home video release anywhere in the world - not this early on, anyway. The intentionally distorted POV cam lends a certain level of softness and erratic movement to the whole film so it's never really typical eye candy, and anyone expecting any erratic shifts to beat-up 16mm will only get a consolation prize of a brief dream sequence in the vein of 1920s German Expressionism. Even selling the film is going to be difficult, because despite having a big Hollywood star in the central role, cutting together a trailer that showcases Wood's big blue eyes is going to be a challenge... and I can't imagine any sane, sensible way to trim the violence down to an R-rating as it is now. (Hell, even the title card plays on top of... well, you'll see.) With the current dearth of options, I'll keep readers of the Kentai Blog in the loop as to when they can get a copy of their very own, regardless of what form that might take in 2013.
Grindhouse meet Arthouse. Classic meet Remake. Kentai... eat some goddamn crow. I almost hate to say it, but I couldn't be happier to munch on some carrion pie this time. And hey, for those of you who, like yours truly, expected a pile of shit to justify the knee-jerk reactions that announcing a remake of a cult-classic are always sure to bring, we still have this to look forward to!
What's that, Anchor Bay? It comes out on DVD just one week after its theatrical run, and for some unstated reason there's no trailer available, despite the release being just one month away?! None of that sounds like a red flag to me... but, I guess whether my skepticism that this will be tolerable in any way signifies that I've truly learned nothing, or I'm just not a total idiot remains to be seen.
Hope you've had fun at the Modern Grindhouse, friends!