Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #73
Number of Views: One
Release Date: May 26, 2012 (Cannes), March 15, 2013 (UK)
Sub-Genre: Exploitation/Character Study
Country of Origin: United States/France
Running Time: 89 minutes
Director: Franck Khalfoun
Producers: Alexandre Aja, Thomas Langmann, Grégory Levasseur, William Lustig
Screenplay: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg
Original Screenplay: Joe Spinell
Special Effects: Matt Kutcher
Cinematographer: Maxime Alexandre
Editing: Franck Khalfoun
Studios: La Petite Reine, Studio 37, Canal+, Ciné+, Blue Underground
Distributors: IFC Midnight, Wild Bunch
Stars: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, America Olivo, Liane Balaban, Brian Ames, Sammi Rotibi, Megan Duffy, Genevieve Alexandra, Jan Broberg, Joshua Delagarza
Suggested Audio Candy:
While the recent vogue for remakes has been far-reaching, there are certain movies that one doesn’t expect to be upgraded for a modern-day audience. William Lustig’s notorious 1980 exploitation flick Maniac is one such example as, despite doing decent business first time around, it is hardly what you would consider as high-profile to all but the most dedicated cinephiles. So when news first filtered through that it was being provided with a 2012 overhaul, my primary reaction was to pump my fist defiantly. However, once this fresh intelligence sank in a little, trepidation soon followed. You see, its lead actor Joe Spinell has long since expired and it’s hard to imagine anyone else stepping into his brogues to play tormented New Yorker Frank Zito. He made the character his own and gave it his absolute all with the very best results. Whoever was looking to take on this poison chalice would need to be similarly haggard and downtrodden in appearance. Anything less just wouldn’t be kosher.
So when I dug a little deeper and discovered that Elijah Wood was set to tackle the role of Frank, I’ll be the first to admit that my eyebrows were at full mast and my fears were for no less than the worst. Don’t get me wrong, Wood is a fine actor and I have infinite respect for the manner in which he conducts himself. Not looking to become typecast as a hobbit, he seeks out roles that take him far away from this comfort zone in an effort to be taken seriously and I offer unlimited kudos for that endeavor. That said, it’s hard to imagine a more fresh-faced actor on the circuit and it would take an inhuman stretch of said imagination to picture him waist deep in Manhattan grime and spending his evenings relinquishing the scalps from any female waifs and strays in the vicinity.
My mind was a cauldron of conflicting emotion. On one hand, Zito’s seemed surely too dark and impotent a disposition for Wood to pull off with any sort of conviction. However, on the reverse side of the argument, the fact alone that his services had been procured suggested this was a project to keep a beady eye on. He doesn’t just pick whatever gig is paying at the time as this is a serious credible professional and far more than simply that douche from Middle Earth with fur on his feet. This could be either one of two things: a catastrophic career move that would likely spell the end for his hopes of breaking into the elite or a shrewd move into manhood and the opportinity to shed his boy next door image once and for all. One thing was for certain: Flipper was seeming far, far away now.
Further investigation helped calm my fraying nerves some as 0ther personnel involved could vouch for its authenticity. First up was French horror auteur Alexandre Aja and this alone was a fairly hefty validation. Having already reworked both Joe Dante’s Piranha and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and done a bang up job on both counts, having him on both production and screenwriting duties seemed endorsement enough for starters. Moreover, he is no stranger to the color deep red and bloodletting was one of the most critical aspects to get right, when you consider how unapologetically brutal its forerunner was. Franck Khalfoun was set to direct and, having already brought us the above-par P2 in 2007, there were worse hands to entrust with making the modern-day transition. Suddenly the clouds began to clear some and my next discovery was like a veritable ray of sunshine.
Rob featuring Chloe Alper Juno
Of the handful of studios involved in bringing it to screen, one of these was Blue Underground Films. This production company had been founded by none other than the man responsible for the sleazy and confrontational original, Lustig himself. He visibly had some unfinished business to take care off after Spinell’s parting wish of a sequel named Maniac 2: For Robbie never quite made it into production before his untimely death in 1989 called the whole thing off. This had been a labor of love for Spinell and, with the golden age of slasher nearing its natural end, securing funding proved a constant headache. It felt like Lustig was looking to honor his departed buddy’s burning desire and this time gaining the all important green light wasn’t to be an issue. Considering the original was regarded by many as little more than exploitative trash, a decent remake could help to set the records straight.
Suddenly, the aura around Maniac changed and things began to perk up considerably. It drew favorable comparisons on its official unveiling and the critical response was more than a little encouraging. Anticipation soon began to soar that this may not be the whitewash some were anticipating as it enjoyed a limited theatrical release in the UK and, by the time a review code dropped in my lap, the omens were looking very upbeat indeed.
I’m pleased as punch to report that any niggling fears were promptly laid to rest after a preamble that wastes no time whatsoever in getting to the jugular…and then brow. Lustig’s original gained much of its notoriety on account of Frank’s fascination with hacking off his victim’s scalps and taking them home as trophies to appease his rowdy mannequins. With all manner of technological progression at his disposal, Khalfoun shows this in even more migraine-inducing detail. Crowns are incised and then peeled away like tangerines before our eyes, with none of the precision of a surgeon, more Mongo with a Rubix cube.
The entire movie is shot point of view, imagine ninety minutes of Smack My Bitch Up and you won’t be a million miles from the dizzying method used to narrate Frank’s steady tumble into despair. He hunts his quarry using his timid front to convince them that no hardships will befall them and banks on the fact that they are unfazed by the condition of his hands, which boast more calluses than a colony full of stage three lepers.
His nails look like they’ve never seen a manicure and on the fleeting occasion that we’re shown his face in the mirror, he begins to fit Frank’s skin with disquieting ease. His attire is from Spinell’s wardrobe for sure – mustard polar-necks which have presumably spent perpetuity marinating in some damp suitcase. There is a poignant scene where Frank stands bare in front of a full-length mirror and the camera pans down, revealing that his mid torso has been given the old Kim Cattrall treatment, which reveals his potential impotence and lack of self-belief in his own sexual prowess.
Meanwhile, his brief liaison with photographer muse Anna (Nora Arnezeder) is fleshed out considerably this time around. He actually gets pretty close to bagging his dame and, as his grime-embedded cuticles glance over her exposed shoulder-blade, it appears he may just get to have his wicked way with something not made of perishable plastic. By the time we reach our conclusion, Khalfoun wisely treads the same boards as his predecessor and presents us with an orgy of snapped limbs and peeled away face masks for the ultimate swan song. Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography is exceptional throughout and the score by a mystifying composer who simply wishes to be known as Rob is a work of art in itself, remaining true to the spirit of Maniac and accompanying the debauchery every woozy step of the way.
Is it a better film than its 1980 inspiration? Hard to say for sure but it is certainly a far more accessible piece of art. Khalfoun’s film gets far more right than wrong. One impressive detail is how he depicts the seedy underbelly of The Big Apple after hours. Lustig risked punishment by filming in numerous locations without prior consent; using a risky guerrilla-style approach in evading the necessary permits. This time round it’s all above-board but Khalfoun still manages to retain a similarly downtrodden look with some suitably encrusted locales.
The streets are a breeding ground for degenerates, merely blocks away from the hustle and bustle of uptown New York, and this provides the ideal stomping ground for Frank. If there is a negative then, somewhat surprisingly, it’s the screenplay by Aja and co-writers Grégory Levasseur and C.A. Rosenberg that lets the side down a little. A little needless exposition involving his dead mother and her open displays of depraved sexual indignity is arguably culpable of spelling out the obvious where restraint would have served it better but this is never enough to sink the ship.
Let me make this abundantly clear: Maniac is no date movie. Easily misinterpreted as misogynistic for its merciless depiction of violence against females, it is likely to disgust and appall many thinner-skinned viewers. However, dig beneath the top coat of sludge and it’s impossible not to feel a smidgen of empathy for Frank, given his shameful loss of innocence at such a young age. Khalfoun doesn’t condone his actions and always makes it clear that his detachment from reality is ultimately his own doing.
However, he offers valuable insight into a fragmented mind rapidly descending deeper into madness and, thanks to a committed turn from Wood, gets it pretty much bang on the money. I’m sure that wherever Spinell is now, he’s watching down affectionately with a glass of bourbon and a Cuban cigar and, given the monumental task of telling his tale as effectively in the present day, I’d imagine he would be happy to buy the next round.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 5/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Matt Kutcher has enjoyed a long career, not only in the special effects field, but also as second unit director, stunt coordinator, producer and consultant so it is inevitable that his cosmic awareness will yield some noteworthy results and the effusion of splatter on the platter will satisfy all but the most ardent of Grueheads. Scenes of depraved butchery are expertly handled, with all manner of pitiless demises ranging from the obligatory scalping to splintered limbs, vicious stabbings, strangulation and mutilation plus, in the sole display of male dismissal, a rather impressive Chelsea-smile via well-placed meat cleaver. As for pelt, the sight of painted princess Megan Duffy parading around in just her panties is now my mental screen saver. She looks decidedly more agreeable with scalp in tact though.
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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2016)