Franck Khalfoun's MANIAC, a remake of the early 80's classic, has much going for it, and not nearly as much going against it.
I saw the film last night at Hollywood's ARENA CINEMA, a welcome reincarnation of the old Egyptian 2 and 3 theaters, and came out pleased for the most part. Seeing MANIAC, which was shot in LA, in a theater located smack-dab in the killer's actual stomping, cutting, and slashing ground, was a slightly surreal experience, so top marks to the ARENA, and its manager Christian, for a splendid presentation from both a picture and sound perspective. In the tradition of the nearby ARCLIGHT, Christian introduced the movie to a dozen or so apostles of pulp before leaving us to our own devices.
Thankfully, no actual devices were employed during this movie, making it one of the most enjoyable screening experiences for me in months. Whenever I visit a multiplex, the constant flicker of the cell phones of irritating, selfish jerks raises my blood pressure and turns me murderous. At the ARENA, the MANIAC devotees, like good, true horror fans, watched the actual movie (yes, it's possible!), not their cunting cell phone screens. Bravo!
William Lustig's original 'maniac', the great, one and only Joe Spinnell, is replaced here by spindly Elijah Wood, an actor popularly associated with his 'Frodo' character from LORD OF THE RINGS. Although he's done other gigs like GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS and the fine RADIO FLYER, it is his association with Frodo that dogs him, and leads people to believe that he IS the height-challenged hobbit of the popular series.
Well, I'm happy to report that Mr. Wood sheds Frodo very successfully in MANIAC as he launches a rampage of murder, dismemberment, and creative killing. While Spinnel was a gloriously large, sweaty, tragic character with a degree of warmth (recall his dinner date with Caroline Munro), Wood's 'Frank Zito' is cold, awkward, antisocial, and batshit crazy. Wood makes no attempt to ape Spinnel, which is just as well, but he makes his 'Frank Zito' (a name derived from director Joseph Zito) a memorable one, and adds several character tics into the bargain.
As has been broadcast to all and sundry, the film tells its story from Frank's POV; that means we see what Frank sees most of the time, and only see Frank when he's confronting his own image in a mirror. During several killings, the film does break from the POV gimmick (popularized in Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM) to show Frank engaged in a particularly gruesome murder, but the singular POV dominates. The approach mostly works. It doesn't work so well in protracted stalking sequences because the suspense is nullified when we know exactly where the killer is. Traditional suspense is about the victim not knowing when the killer will strike, so it's impossible for that to work when we ARE the killer. A way around this would have been to include a sequence in which Frank has the tables turned on himself and is stalked by someone he was stalking. Unfortunately, director Kalfoun doesn't try anything too out of step with the expected here.
As effective as non-stop POV can be, non-stop chatting from Frank's POV isn't so successful -- especially when that chat is poorly written. Whether Wood is addressing victims-to-be, arrogant boyfriends, or women he fancies, his dialog is juvenile, retarded, and barely at grade school level. Is this because writers Alexandra Aja and Gregory Levasseur intended him to sound like a child, or did they just not have a solid enough grasp of the English language to do Frank justice? Whatever the case, the film's overall effectiveness is diminished by this aspect. All it would have taken to fix it is a rewrite by someone whose first language is English.
My gripes aside, which are legitimate, MANIAC will be graded on its kill scenes and its power as a gore- and suspense-fest. With an exception or two, the kill scenes are strong. We don't have to wait long for the film's first scalping, and the KNB FX team, replacing Tom Savini here, acquit themselves nicely with a terrific tendon slashing, a knife shoved up into a face from beneath, and the expected demise of the maniac himself. The subway chase sequence from Lustig's original is duplicated here, but it's less effective than in the original because its depiction of noctural LA as an empty city stretches credibility to the breaking point. Considering how thickly populated LA really is at night -- especially in the area where the killings take place -- it annoyed me that nobody ever crossed Frank's path during his murders. In the Hollywood Boulevard world of this MANIAC, the streets and parking lots are always empty, giving young Frank plenty of opportunity to exterminate without a care in the world, but giving the audience no sense of suspense that Frank may be busted at any moment.
True to the original, Frank's sad backstory about an abusive mother who locked him in a closet and burnt him with cigarettes is still Norman Bates-like, but it's adjusted here. Now she's someone possessing the traits of Henry Lee Lucas's mother, a woman who fucked several men in front of her son and took drugs in his presence. A number of hallucination sequences depict a young Frank witnessing her sexual escapades and rampant drug use. Reasonably explicit, these sequences do their job of adding a little balance to the narrative. Frank's apartment in this MANIAC shares the wall color (purple) and dressings (bloodied mannequins) of the originals, and the atmosphere, though not as fetid as in the original, is reasonable grimy.
Missing here is the sequence in the first film where Tom Savini's head is blown off by Spinell. There is no equivalent sequence in which a courting couple are stalked and killed Son of Sam-style.
The 'Caroline Munro' love interest in this outing is played by Nora Arnedezer. A photographer of mannequins (very convenient!), she meets Frank while photographing the window of his mannequin restoration business. In a fantasy context, these mannequin parallels would be a quaint touch, but they don't quite gel in a film that has one foot in brutal reality. Arnedezer does her college best with wafts of shabby dialog, but her performance is hampered as a result. Her most realistic interaction with the romantically immature Frank is when she casually mentions her 'boyfriend' to him; this sets off the expected reaction.
Elevating the good and bad in MANIAC is the striking score by Phoenix's Robin Coudert. Echoing the best of John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, and the original film's Jay Chattaway, its dark and resonant cues (soundscapes and standalone pieces) are MANIAC's soul, and the film would be a much lesser work without them.
Kudos also to cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, who does a superb job with the film's visuals and challenging blocking.
Elijah Wood is to be commended for having the balls to take on this classic character, and he rises to the challenge with a sympathetic performance, not a pathetic one. It's just a pity his hard work is handicapped by some questionable dialog choices and a couple of 'credibility crimes'.
If you can see this film in a theater, don't hesitate.
The ARENA THEATER (on Las Palmas off Hollywood Blvd.) is screening MANIAC daily until Thursday the 4th of July. Then, it will screen the film weekly as a late show. I love the sound of that!
Upcoming is Neil Jordan's excellent BYZANTIUM.
There are not enough theaters devoted to genre flicks of this nature. If you can, please support the ARENA THEATER. If you're not in Southern California, patronize your local version of a theater that's made for people of our ilk.