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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

William Lustig’s ‘Maniac’ vs. Franck Khalfoun’s ‘Maniac’ [Revenge of the Remakes]

Welcome to Revenge of the Remakes, where columnist Matt Donato takes us on a journey through the world of horror remakes. We all complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality whenever studios announce new remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, but the reality? Far more positive examples of refurbished classics and updated legacies exist than you’re willing to remember (or admit). The good, the bad, the unnecessary – Matt’s recounting them all.

My first screening of Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac remake, about seven years back, was without the context of William Lustig’s 1980’s slimeball-slasher original. What I witnessed, through “virgin” eyes, was a noxious mutilator that bordered on snuff and made audiences accomplices to murder. In other terms, the purest visualization of horror cinema in its evilest formulation. At the time, “Professional Critic Donato” rated the film 4.5/5 stars. Personal parameters on “5-star” perfection were still in development. Years later, after revisitation and internal quarrels, my own youthful stubbornness proves to be a downfall because Maniac (2012) deserves that 5-star fulfillment.

Now, having digested both Maniac (1980) and Maniac (2012), my appreciation of Khalfoun’s inspired originality (scripted by Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur) only deepens. On a marathon rewatch especially, back-to-back, Maniac (2012) is untouchable. It’s a prime exemplification of how horror remakes (any genre remake, really) should function. All the existing themes of Joe Spinell and C.A. Rosenberg’s depraved screenplay are present but reimagined in a way that’s infinitely viler, and ickier, with added malice. A film that sees even more potential in its original, and achieves said expansion with effortless slasher repugnance. After a few mixed-to-negative “Revenge of the Remakes” posts, this vitality boost injects needed rejuvenation into my veins.

Let’s slice into the meat of my thesis.

The Approach

Modernization. Rebirth. The freedoms of homage married with the sins of Frank Zito’s past (self). Khalfoun oversees a Maniac that’s almost entirely from Frank’s point-of-view, only upping the voyeuristic disgust as we see, hear, and experience everything from Frank’s optical window. Still set in New York City, but retrofitted from the earlier “Son Of Sam” vibes to more common habits like online dating. Viewers are permitted entrance into Frank’s psyche, his complicated derailments, in a way that services character evolution and introduces his romantic photographer foil a bit earlier than expected. Where Lustig’s Maniac stays more grindhouse in its tightly budgeted ambitions, Khalfoun’s update spends more time accentuating the “Nice Guy” aspects of Frank Zito juxtaposed against his deteriorating mental stability while still exploiting gratuitous massacres. For proper dehumanizing effect.

Elijah Wood slithers into the greasy skin of Frank Zito, who’s responsible for a Big Apple serial spree targeting caucasian women. He’s a mannequin restoration expert who lives in the back of his nightmarish storefront, inherited from mother Angela. It turns out that’s not all she passed down as Frank’s traumatic memories motivate his current affinity towards “keeping” his victims. By “keeping,” I mean Frank executes, scalps, and redesigns a mannequin in each slain woman’s likeness. Poor photojournalist Anna (Nora Arnezeder) has no idea the trouble she invites when asking Frank to provide custom mannequins for her latest gallery installation. Maybe Frank’s adoration for Anna will ensure safety where his other pleading marks meet crazy-eyed extermination?

The framework of Maniac (2012) still resembles the structure of Maniac (1980), but there’s no trace of shot-for-shot ambitions. Frank Zito’s henchman-chic exterior softens, hallucinations amplify, and more context “justifies” what’s initially displayed as calculated but senseless violence. Aja and Levasseur answer questions Spinell and Rosenberg handle through anonymity, in ways we cannot unsee.

Does It Work?

I think I may have spoiled this answer for you already, but yes. Maniac (2012) understands trauma, unchecked male aggression, and “Nice Guy” syndrome on levels that Maniac (1980) could never fathom. Wood’s Frank Zito chatters more of an internal monologue where Spinell’s performance favors primal stalking, guttural grunts, and moans versus Wood’s more “compassionate” timidness. Spinell’s kill sequences play into sexual gratification, where Wood spends more time vocalizing his immediate resurfacing of mommy’s casual erotic flings witnessed from a closet. Khalfoun presents more to analyze, more to fear, because we better understand why Wood’s Frank Zito is so poisoned. Some moments explicitly ask us to empathize with a mass murderer who preys upon the opposite gender because of his perverse mommy issues – and sometimes, it works. How mortifying.

Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre wields a camera view from behind Frank’s eyes like this dagger into our hearts. The simple focal flip is present in Maniac (1980), but not with prevalence. Maniac (2012) forces us into a player-observer role or, even worse, a first-person-shooter position (so to phrase) where we’re responsible for Frank’s actions. Even worse, the few moments where cameras then turn on Khalfoun’s “maniac” glaring red-handed into the lens explode with delusion. Alexandre makes masterful use of mirrors as Frank grimaces at the despicable husk staring back, in certain moments scrubbing his knuckles with steel wool until blood dyes sink water. “Perspective” is everything, juxtaposing Frank’s sympathetic pleas against the accurate picture of psychotic mania that we, in terms, allow. Such picturesque brilliance, never forgoing direct brutality.

Anna’s introduction issues more connection and agency to Frank’s “romantic” interest. Spinell’s first face-to-face with Anna (Caroline Munro) happens when he appears at her apartment door, unannounced, a nameless stranger. She graciously and trustingly invites him inside before leaving for dinner at Italian joint Clam Casino. She’s single, more “attainable.” It’s a byproduct of the times, where – alternatively – Wood doesn’t gain entry to Anna’s apartment until the end (when he’s earned her trust) after someone close to Anna ends up one of Frank’s gored victims. More importantly, 2012’s Anna has a boyfriend. The insidiousness behind Wood’s actions, throwing Anna through a table while he screams about how he cares for her, and “did all the right things,” evokes this malevolence behind friend-zoning gone ballistic. Spinell’s arc with Anna feels circumstantial, rushed, and forced into place as a means to advance the plot. Wood’s character arc with his Anna feels more natural; guards lower, then payoffs equate to betrayal and manipulative posturing. “I deserve this,” are words that would leak out of Wood’s mouth as he restrains Anna against her will. Spinell’s characterization is more in-line with goresploitation and male-gaze ugliness where men get whatever they want.

The Result

The singular most unsettling, invasive, and need-an-acid-bath despicable horror movie experience this critic has ever endured.

Through a lens of gender-specific vulnerability, Maniac (2012) stokes the instability of male possessiveness while stripping away sheepish facades. Narrative structures are always about women being hunted and failed by a society that allows wolves like Frank Zito to hide in plain sight. Look no further than Frank’s pursuit of another victim through an empty, after-hours subway platform and station. Hopelessness and isolation permeate the air as another woman screams for rescue, begging anyone to hear. It’s a cat-and-mouse chase, except the mouse has a broken leg, and the cat savors each millisecond of weakness. Maniac (2012) shakes me to the core based on slasher horrors and societal commentary, but for a viewer with different experiences, different chromosomes, Maniac (2012) carries a more reflexive and daunting weight. One that I, myself, will never fully understand based on appearance alone.

It’s with no hyperbole or pause that I claim Frank Zito is Elijah Wood’s crowning performative achievement. I’ve repeatedly waxed poetic about the transformation Wood undergoes, slipping into the flesh suit of a sexually destructive time bomb who conveys so much unrest even through heavy breathing. Wood taps into the mind of a serial killer, continually tampers with emotional wiring, and delivers a conflictingly aching performance from a place of downright disgust. His glances alone tell multiple stories, yet his actions are borderline unwatchable. Elijah Wood disappears when Frank Zito is on-screen. All that’s left is a man covered in blood, slicing at hairlines with a hunting knife, getting into lovers’ quarrels with mannequins covered in flies, and seeing visions of his mother being groped by coked-out clubbers. Frank Zito is broken, and Elijah Wood isn’t here to put the pieces back together. He channels those short-circuits to craft one of his decade’s defining horror antagonists; Frank this guiding hand towards the gates of Hell as he whispers sweet snuff songs with disquieting intent.

Even the visual messiness of Maniac (1980) is outdone, noting Tom Savini’s exploding head at the end of Spinell’s shotgun. Maniac (2012) begins with a knife finisher where Frank plunges his blade into a nightclub vixen’s under-mouth, the metal still visible through her agape lips as her final breath passes outward. Every death in Maniac (2012) feels personal. The Achilles tendon swipe, the live scalping, the suffocation death as you watch Megan Duffy’s character asphyxiate while Frank squeezes and whimpers.

Some audiences may berate Khalfoun’s remake for being unspeakably cruel, but unfortunately, that’s the point. Frank Zito is a demonic bastard hiding behind a sweetheart’s smile. There’s a point towards the end where Anna is crying because she let the scalp victim mentioned above taxi home alone, distraught because she should have ensured her safety. The killer, a man who consoles Anna from the closest sofa cushion, utters something along the lines of, “There’s nothing you could do.” At that instant, Maniac (2012) achieves full-form. A woman, blaming herself for another woman’s death, while the puppeteering sociopathic hopeful boyfriend is still able to hide his unfathomable secret.

In the above moment, everything crystallizes. Worse off, it’s believable. Understood, even. That is why Maniac (2012) is the far superior Maniac title.

The Lesson

Remakes can be more than a pandering shot-for-shot rehash. Remakes don’t need to retrace the same dotted lines as the original. Maniac (2012) graduates from the same class as Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead when it comes to remakes that can waft their source’s essence while still providing a wholly unique, standalone experience. Maniac is the kind of remake other remakes want to grow up to become someday because there’s never a sense of cash-in nostalgia or base-value recreation. Franck Khalfoun does the seemingly impossible in a time of brand-name blandness and delivers a decade-defining horror title by realizing how much better someone else’s (low-budget, rough around the edges) cult classic can become with an uncompromising dedication to craftsmanship.

So what did we learn?

  • Elijah Wood is so convincing he might be a serial killer. (This is a joke. Elijah Wood is not, has never been, nor ever will be a serial killer.)
  • It’s wholly possible to respect an existing property while still making your remake completely independent and individual.
  • Remakes are better when they’re allowed to question the original, digging deeper into the aspects another filmmaker may have neglected.
  • Modernization is not a death sentence. Khalfoun is still able to recreate the sloppy-fluid sleaze of Lustig’s Maniac in today’s techno-advanced world.
  • A remake can be even better than the original. Honestly, that’s the best usage of remake cinema. Taking something that found success within its means and granting it the resources or perspective one production once lacked.

Put Maniac (2012) in the same conversation as The Invisible Man and Swallow in terms of subgenre cinema where society fails women, albeit Maniac (2012) is on a whole other level with that doomed escape sequence. I’d write about how much I appreciate this film for another 20,000 words if I could, but no site’s willing to pay me enough for that endeavor. Maniac (2012) is a perfect remake from its performance upgrades, fresh conceptualization, and, most importantly, that seductive synthwave score from the musical maestro himself, Rob. Never tell me again how all remakes are wastes of time because then you’re just showing your ass about never having seen Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac. You will feel shame. I promise.


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