I don't see a lot of horror films that really impress me, which may be why I have so much enthusiasm for Franck Khalfoun's take on William Lustig's notorious Maniac. Both movies follow basically the same story - a creepy crazy guy kills and scalps women - but Khalfoun turns what was a grimy slasher anchored by Joe Spinell's unique lead performance and Tom Savini's gung-ho gore effects into a film that transcends its genre.
Like the original, this Maniac's success also depends on performance and technique, but both are so different from Lustig's film that direct comparisons don't take away from either version. Maniac makes a compelling argument for the largely untapped potential contained within all remakes. It illustrates for us how easily a fresh approach negates material familiarity. A Maniac double feature would reveal two films that are more fun companion pieces than boring redundancies with one obvious champion among them.
You can see this by comparing the original's Joe Spinell with Elijah Wood. Just looking at them solidifies and helps define each film's divergent approach. We already knew Elijah Wood could play a psychopath after Sin City, but with his adorable eyes and adolescent build, there's no way he can compete with the automatically abject Spinell. So he's either in the film for stunt casting purposes or to get at something specific only he could provide. Through the film's novel technique, we discover it's the latter.
In what could easily be mistaken as mere gimmick, Khalfoun presents most of Maniac in the first person. While there are frequent moments when Elijah Wood catches himself in various reflective surfaces (one of which offers a callback to the original that is actually clever rather than too cute or intrusive), his is almost exclusively a vocal performance.
This first person perspective helps the film in a myriad of ways. For one, it brings us sickeningly close to Frank's murders since he never blinks or looks away from his actions. This film is nowhere near as gory as the original, but it's no slouch when it comes to violence either. The first person perspective lends an added layer of naturalism to the murders that often feels similar but narratively superior to the kind of violence people seek from found footage films.
But more importantly, by limiting our perspective to Frank's, we get an unshakable first-hand account of his very real insanity and how much it limits his potential for normalcy. This has the surprising effect of humanizing Frank to the point where you end up empathizing with him more than you'd expect or possibly even feel comfortable with. As he goes through the steps towards his doomed romance with photographer Anna, you feel for him and - regardless of the murders we've already seen him commit - hope he can pull it all together and find happiness.
This is the real reason why Elijah Wood is perfect for this film. Even when you can't see him (which is 99% of the time) you hear the earnest innocence of his voice and can't help but feel at least a little sorry for him. Flashbacks to his awful childhood further cement his stance as a tragic monster. But he can also slip easily into the overly possessive, dangerous killer we're often tempted to forget.
Spinell played this role too, but not quite as well as Wood and certainly not with the aid provided by this film's first person storytelling. I've always looked with a cocked eye at those scenes in the original in which Spinell seems to be a moderately together ladies man by day. Elijah Wood's Frank is always weird and uncomfortable. But because he's such a cutie pie, you can kind of see why ladies would get in his mannequin-mobile.
Maniac comes out in the UK this March. IFC Midnight has the North American distribution rights, but the film still lacks an American release date. Hopefully it comes out sooner than later, preferably on the big screen where it's first person photography will likely achieve its full potency.