Directed by Franck Khalfoun
Distributed by IFC Midnight
Will it be Carpenter’s brilliant The Thing or Van Sant’s terrible Psycho? Cronenberg’s masterpiece The Fly or Platinum Dunes’ awful A Nightmare on Elm Street? Savini’s surprisingly good Night of the Living Dead or…well, any of the countless shoddy remakes genre fans have had to endure over the past several years?
When faced with the prospect of having to sit through yet another damned retread of a pre-existing property, one shouldn’t be ashamed of any kneejerk trepidation on their part. After all, with the exception of a few golden titles like those mentioned above, there aren’t many remakes to support the idea that redoing past works is a worthwhile artistic endeavor. Nevertheless, money-hungry studios will continue to inundate fans with “reboots” and “reinventions”, whoring out recognizable titles in brand new packages to make a quick buck, no matter the wariness from longtime genre lovers.
For example – this writer had no plan to sit (suffer?) through Maniac, an update of Blue Underground head honcho Bill Lustig’s gory 1980 grindhouser. Being no fan of that sleazy shocker (save for some nifty effects work and lead Joe Spinell’s performance), I had all of zero interest in watching the director of the dreadful P2 retrace Lustig’s tale of madness, murder, and mannequins. And upon hearing that the hulking Spinell had been replaced with former hobbit Elijah Wood – well, strike three and so went my interest.
And yet, like so many a good fanboy, I watched it anyway. And I came away shocked – not only by its harrowing content, but also by its overall quality. Y’see, rather than being punished with yet another Stepfather, When a Stranger Calls, or The Hitcher, this reviewer was rewarded with not only one of the best movies to have come out this year, but also with one of the very best remakes ever.
Much like its predecessor, Maniac introduces us to Frank Zito (Wood), a deranged mama’s boy who spends his nights stalking and slaying poor young women who remind him of both his deceased mother and his traumatic childhood. A bit of light seeps into Frank’s life in the form of Anna (Arnezeder), a beautiful French photographer who happens across the mannequin shop Frank operates and enlists his help in crafting her upcoming exhibition. A friendship forms between the two, with Frank becoming more than a little smitten with the lovely young artist. But even as a potential romance blossoms between the two, Frank’s burgeoning obsession and disintegrating sanity ensure that bloodshed and tragedy will be as inevitable as this sympathetic maniac’s inescapable fate.
I was left stunned at how much I… well, I’m not certain one enjoys watching a movie like Maniac, which is as bleak and brutal as they come. Nevertheless, it is a damned good film – finely crafted by director Khalfoun (whose talent has taken an incalculable leap forward since his last effort), with fantastic lead performances from Wood and Arnezeder. It’s a testament to their skill as performers (and to the wonderful script) that we audience members really invest in the relationship between these two. We want Frank to just put the damn knife down, straighten himself out, and ultimately wind up with this kind, beautiful girl. But, of course, this isn’t that kind of flick. Rather, Maniac is the story of one man’s descent into his own personal hell.
In addition to the gritty, disturbing tale at its heart, Maniac has loads of blood, gore, and violence on display, which might very well turn the stomachs of even the most hardened gorehounds. Some moments are so astonishingly well executed that one can only sit slack-jawed and wonder to themselves, ”Just how the hell did they do that?!”. Scalpings, slashings, stabbings – it all looks so uncomfortably real, which adds immeasurably to the film’s unsettling effect on viewers.
If I had any minor quibbles with Maniac, it’s that the supporting actors aren’t always on par with our leads, and that the main conceit of the film’s presentation doesn’t always work. You see, the film is 95% POV – we see nearly everything through Frank’s eyes. Now, this is a fascinating choice and I applaud the filmmakers for taking the risk and plunking us down into the villain’s head for the duration of their film. This helps to create sympathy for the very damaged Frank, while forcing viewers to witness his horrible handiwork with no option of looking away – making us complicit in his crimes even. However, for as seamless as the gore gags are, the POV effect is noticeably dodgy at times – with camera moves and positions that don’t always match our lead’s movement, which can be quite distracting. However, to be fair, the effect is mostly unnoticeable throughout, which is a pretty impressive feat.
Maniac slashes its way onto Blu-ray courtesy of IFC Midnight, who has given the film a sharp transfer, great audio, and a solid set of bonus features. The frequently dark imagery is occasionally noisy at times, though is mostly inky throughout with nice detail. The 5.1 audio does a great job of setting the audience right down into Frank’s skull, with an immersive track that makes us feel as though we’re hearing everything through the madman’s own ears.
The bonus features include: a commentary with Wood, Khalfoun, and executive producer Alix Taylor (it’s a nicely informative track, even though there are lulls from time to time); an excellent, hour-long documentary on the film’s production featuring all of the creative principals and covering everything from the story, the makeup effects, and even the film’s premiere; a gallery featuring three of Maniac’s theatrical posters (any of which would’ve been preferable to the atrocious Blu-ray artwork – though the mannequin artwork is available as a reversible cover); a set of five deleted scenes, all brief and forgettable; and the film’s excellent theatrical trailer.
Surely by now, folks, you’ve already seen many a glowing review for this film. But don’t take their word for it, or mine. If you’re a fan of unrelenting horror films that take themselves and their audiences seriously, you owe it to yourselves to give this title a shot. It’s a rare retread that betters its predecessor, and now belongs in any discussion concerning the merits of remaking older films.
Carpenter’s The Thing. Cronenberg’s The Fly. Savini’s Night of the Living Dead.
And, yes, Khalfoun’s Maniac.
4 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5