March 20, 2013 A Tale of Two Maniacs
by Spank The Monkey
On the left, we have Maniac, directed by William Lustig in 1980. It’s a notorious horror movie, one which got caught up in the UK ‘video nasty’ moral panic of the time. It was banned by the BBFC until 2002, when it finally appeared on DVD with nearly a minute’s worth of cuts. It’s still not possible to buy the uncut version here.
On the right, we have Maniac, directed by Franck Khalfoun in 2012. It’s a remake co-written and produced by French horror director Alexandre Aja, who was also involved in the remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha. It has a bigger budget, a famous lead, and a clean bill of health from the British censor. It’s just disappearing from UK cinemas, after one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it releases that have become so fashionable nowadays – you might be able to catch it at the Prince Charles if you run.
What can we learn from watching both versions of Maniac back-to-back? Apart from ‘all women are evil and must be punished,’ obviously.
One of the most notorious films on the video nasty list was Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer, which is probably more entertaining as a piece of marketing than an actual film. Viewers were attracted by a lurid cover featuring a shot from the one scene featuring on-screen drill-on-human violence, only to find that they’d been suckered into watching a downbeat drama about mental illness. Maniac is cut from similar cloth, but wants to be an actual horror movie at the same time: and that’s where its problems start.
The story, written by the film’s star Joe Spinell, is fairly thin stuff. Spinell plays Frank Zito, a man living alone in a New York apartment strewn with shop mannequins. Every so often, he goes out onto the streets, finds a woman, kills her and cuts off her scalp. He goes back to the apartment, has a talk to himself about what he’s done, and then goes off and does it again. However, a chance encounter with photographer Anna (Caroline Munro) opens up the faintest hope of redemption for him.
How much you buy into the story of Frank’s psychological disintegration depends on how convinced you are by Spinell’s performance: and for me, the answer is ‘not that much’. Director William Lustig uses everything he can to put us inside the mind of Frank (including the irritating sound of his heavy breathing whenever he’s slightly out of shot), but his work’s undone by Spinell’s comical mood swings, and reliance on all the standard clichés of movie madness. There’s no consistency to his character at all: Frank suddenly turns into a normal guy when he’s out with Anna, until the script requires him to not do so. And we’re never given any reason why he treats Anna differently from the other women he encounters, other than her being played by an actress more famous than anyone else involved in the film.
Take away the psychological angle that Spinell was obviously aiming for, and all you’re left with is a standard stalk-and-slash thriller. The stalking scenes are, admittedly, done with a fair degree of tension, although eventually you cotton on to the rhythm of build-build-BUILD-nothing-relax-AAARGH that Lustig is so fond of. And Tom Savini’s slashing effects still hold up 30 years on, in a way that the CGI gore of today’s horror movies barely does now. (Are they realistic, as the DVD sleeve boasts? Probably not: but they’re confident as hell, knowing they’re technically good enough not to need covering up with fast cuts and dim lighting.)
But we’re still dealing with the tired old story of men terrorising and mutilating women for the pleasure of the camera. The two specific scenes cut by the BBFC both involve women being murdered in bed: there isn’t really an erotic component to their deaths, because that doesn’t appear to be something Lustig is interested in. (Hilariously, the TV ads for the film go out of their way to tell you ‘there is no explicit sex in this picture’, because who wants to see that?) Nevertheless, the treatment of all the female characters as just more meat gets dispiriting after a while.
In the end, Maniac doesn’t really know what it wants to be, and its wandering tone stops you from ever getting to grips with it. As a psychological thriller, it’s laughable: as a tragic love story, it fails to give us any sort of context: as a women-in-peril slasher, it’s too focussed on its antihero to be anything other than disturbing. It works well these days as a time capsule of Times Square at its sleaziest – the sort of place where the cinemas would have been showing Maniac, in fact – but there’s not much else there for a 21st century audience to enjoy. So why remake it now?
Back in the golden era of VHS, there was an utterly terrible film called 24 Hours To Midnight. (They could have saved time by just calling it Midnight.) Theoretically, it’s a Cynthia Rothrock movie: her name’s in big letters on the front of the box, and she’s certainly there for the first couple of scenes. But once the vengeance plot has been established, her character chooses to wear a ninja costume complete with mask for the rest of the film, while being conspicuously dubbed by another actress. Gradually, you realise that 24 Hours To Midnight is a masterclass in making a star vehicle with the barest amount of actual input from your star.
The 2012 remake of Maniac pulls more or less the same stunt, attempting to distance itself from the original with a single gimmick: virtually the entire movie is shot from the point of view of Frank, played here by Elijah Wood, largely in voiceover. To remind us that there’s a proper star in the lead, director Franck Khalfoun keeps giving us contrived glimpses of Wood reflected in mirrors, TV screens, shiny shiny knives, and so on. To a British viewer, this has the unfortunate effect of making Maniac feel like an episode of Peep Show based around a character who has a deep-rooted terror of female sexuality. (Oh, you write the punchline to that, I can’t be bothered.)
Point-of-view shooting may be a useful device to give some depth to a comedy, but it’s a lousy idea for a horror movie. You can’t deny that the 1980 version of Maniac has a couple of decently structured fright scenes in it, generally involving Frank suddenly appearing out of nowhere to surprise both us and his victim. When we always know exactly where the killer is – i.e. directly behind the camera – we can’t be surprised any more. The masochistic impulse of identifying with the victim, a common justification for stalk-and-slash cinema, is taken away from us: all that’s left is the pleasure of following women around and then killing them. Yeah, thanks.
Apart from the POV gimmick, the remake sticks largely to the structure of the original, with a couple of tweaks attempting to fix some of the character flaws. For example, Anna (Nora Arnezeder) plays a much more proactive role in establishing the relationship between herself and Frank, thus setting herself apart from his other victims. Meanwhile, Wood portrays his mania on a much less cartoonish scale than Spinell: he’s more of an emotional blank, allowing people to read their own mistaken interpretations into his reactions. But blankness will only get you so far when you’ve got dialogue as ropey as that provided by Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, whose screenplay feels like it’s been translated from a French original using Bing.
Sure, the new version of Maniac is a much higher budget, glossier affair than the original. But if anything, that makes it even worse. Swapping grimy eighties New York for the glitzy anonymity of Los Angeles, the film lashes Hollywood gloss over everything, up to and including Frank’s victims. Considering that much of the UK outcry to the original film was down to the sexualisation of its murders, it’s surprising that the remake has escaped the censor despite ramping up the sex even more. You actually felt grubby after watching the 1980 version: you felt you’d been dragged down into Frank’s moral mire along with him. The 2012 version is just another slick piece of product, which doesn’t have any real reason to exist apart from trading off the name of its predecessor.
The fact that on the surface, Maniac 2012 is trying to look like a more respectable movie than Maniac 1980, just makes it all the more reprehensible. If you’re comparing the two, then I’d have to say that the honest sleaze of the original beats the dishonest posturing of the remake.