DIRECTOR Franck Khalfoun WRITER Alexandre Aja; Grégory Levasseur; Joe Spinell (original screenplay) STARS Elijah Wood; Nora Arnezeder; America Olivo DVD & BLU-RAY 1 July
As the relentless remake machine continues in a film industry bereft of original ideas and unwilling to take chances, perhaps the last movie anyone would have predicted getting the update treatment is William Lustig’s Maniac. A super-sleazy piece of trash made in 1980 at the height of the slasher phenomenon that followed Halloween, it became notorious for winding up on the BBFC’s Video Nasty list, featuring some brutal effects work from the legendary Tom Savini, a great central performance from Joe Spinell, and not a lot more. Appreciated by hard-core genre fans, ignored by virtually everyone else, it was another B-movie lost to time. So it’s a surprise to see director Franck Khalfoun tackle a far-from-obvious choice; the bigger surprise, however, is just how good a film it is. Dark, brutal and genuinely disturbing, this is a superior telling in every way.
The first shock comes in the casting of Elijah Wood as the unhinged Frank Zito; established Hollywood stars do not take on misogynistic, violent killers in low-budgeted horror movies. This is surely out of Wood’s comfort zone, but he flexes his range here and shows what a fine actor he is. Frank is a tortured soul, and Wood skilfully draws audience sympathy for a deeply unsettling character. Khalfoun takes the somewhat brave decision to film 95 per cent of his film from Frank’s point of view, and it works superbly well, putting us firmly inside the mind and vision of a murderer. This is established early on in a superb restaurant sequence where Frank meets a girl he’s found through an online dating agency. We see and hear the fear and paranoia in his mind, and follow him to the bathroom where vomiting and the popping of pills are followed by the first real glimpse of his face in a mirror. Here Wood excels, his wide-eyed innocent look contrasted with dark stubble and blank expression, made even more unnerving as we have already experienced his psychosis first-hand. When his date takes him home and is then brutally strangled while performing oral sex, we finally realise just how damaged Frank is.
If that sounds nasty, it is. Maniac is far from an easy watch, and like the best of the horror genre, challenges the viewer. While it is gory — the scalpings are graphic and a stabbing in a car park is horrifying — Khalfoun creates an unsettling mood with excellent camera work, lighting, and a particularly effective soundtrack from Rob, which sounds like the greatest John Carpenter score you’ve never heard. It makes sense that it is written and produced by Alexandra Aja; arguably some of the best horror of recent times has come from the Frenchman’s home country, and although this is an American production it has a true European feel.
Fans of the original may find fault with some of the CGI splatter — although it’s extremely well done — and the conclusion is open to interpretation and might alienate some. But these are minor gripes. If Maniac truly has any faults it’s that this might not be an experience you’ll want to take more than once, moments of it cutting as close to the bone as Frank’s scalpel. However, for those willing to enter the heart of darkness, Maniac is not only a surprise, but one of the best horror films of recent years.