Collins’ Crypt: MANIAC - A Remake That Gets It Right

A remake that improves on the original in just about every way. 

Thankfully, the horror remake machine that plagued the '00s has largely died down; there were at least seven major remakes in 2009 alone, but only two in 2012, neither of which were exactly the sort that would send fans screaming for the filmmakers' heads (one was The Woman In Black, based on a novel and only a remake of an '80s TV movie that barely saw release here in the US, the other was an update with the in-name only Silent Night, Deadly Night - and they didn't even do that much as it was just Silent Night). Likewise, this year has seen Evil Dead, and Carrie is on the way - not exactly a glut. The only other major one of note is Maniac, which covers the 1980 grindhouse "classic" directed by William Lustig and starring the late Joe Spinell - and for my money, improves on it in just about every way.

Usually I tend to prefer remakes that retain only the basics from their source material; my go-to example is the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, which kept the "people escape zombies by hording up inside of a shopping mall" plot and almost nothing else - no characters were revived or recycled, the beats were different and (thankfully) the climax kept the focus on the threat of the undead instead of cartoonish bikers. And on paper I could even say that the new Evil Dead (which - SPOILER - is technically more of a spinoff sequel) followed this rule by not having an "Ash" and changing the specifics, but unlike Dawn I found it to be rather lazy and far too fanboy-pleasing, saved only by its practical gore effects and overall dedication to the R rating. But personal opinions are just that, and what matters is that they were still both recognizable as remakes, unlike say Prom Night which didn't even retain the whodunit aspect, let alone anything else that fans of the 1980 film (WHY?) would find familiar - to me that's just as pointless as going the Gus Van Sant route and doing the exact same thing.

But sadly, those are the exceptions instead of the rule, and too many of them that came along over the past five or six years had zero reason to exist other than the fact that the studio (or a production outfit like Platinum Dunes) just wanted to do it without having any new ideas. And that's why we ended up with franchise killers like the 2010 Nightmare On Elm Street, which was creatively bankrupt on every level, directed by someone who turned it down a few times (red flag, maybe?), and pretty much ended any chance we'd see a new Freddy adventures for another ten years or so. Or, you have "now in English!" remakes like Let Me In and The Uninvited, which I don't think are bad movies per se, but leave me wondering why there was any real need for them to be made in the first place - is reading (or dubbing) really that difficult?

Back to Maniac, however - it's the rare exception where they actually stick pretty close to the original's script, but still manage to make their own (and, again, improve on it, as far as I'm concerned). This is nothing new for remake king Alex Aja (every single film he has directed post High Tension has been a remake), as his Hills Have Eyes script (like this one, co-written with Grégory Levasseur) also didn't change all that much, but it still feels like a very different film. The key change is an aesthetic one - rather than film it traditionally, the whole movie unfolds from the POV of its killer, played now by Eiljah Wood. Obviously they wouldn't hire someone that recognizable just for a voice, so every now and then (perhaps a bit too often) we see him as he looks in a mirror before and/or after one of the kills, and on occasion director Franck Khalfoun (who directed the underrated P2) actually breaks the mold and delivers what I assume is supposed to be an out of body experience, showing Wood (sans mirror) as he plunges a knife or mangles one of his fresh corpses. It's remarkable at how well the gimmick holds up throughout the 90 minute runtime without ever feeling like a cheat; the closest cousin would be a found footage movie, and I struggle to think of any recent example in that sub-genre that didn't feel like it was stretching reality a bit too much even before it hit its halfway mark.

The other difference (besides the switch from New York to downtown LA, and no, the movie isn't cheating when a victim runs around the subway and outside without seeing anyone - that's pretty much how certain spots of downtown really are) is the casting of Frank Zito himself. Joe Spinell was a big, not particularly handsome guy - the sort of guy you'd think would play a horror movie serial killer, in other words, and his appearance made some of its plot points (like Caroline Munro being so smitten with him) a bit hard to swallow. But here, Elijah is the sort of guy that would draw the attention of a lovely lady like Anna (played here by Nora Arnezeder), not to mention easily find willing partners on an online dating site (in one of the two overt references to the original, Frank's hookup from the site tells him she was afraid he'd be an overweight, long haired, greasy type - perfectly describing Spinell, in other words). But his smaller size also allows for some wrinkles in the kill scenes that would have been impossible for the other man, such as hiding in a tiny closet in a would-be victim's dressing room.

Also elevating it above the original is the incredible score by the musician Rob. The ghost of Spinell could walk into my room right now humming the original's theme music and I still wouldn't recognize it, but this score had me hooked right off the bat, and I've been listening to it regularly on Spotify ever since I saw it back in May. I've said before that modern horror lacks any real iconic scores and thus fail the "ringtone test" (meaning, apart from Saw, I can't think of any horror theme from the past ten to fifteen years I'd want as a ringtone, unlike Halloween, Jaws, Nightmare on Elm Street, Candyman, etc), but this is an exception - even if you hate the movie you'd probably want to give the score a spin or two. Hell, I liked it so much that I even checked out another of Rob's scores (for a film I've never heard of called Jimmy Riviere; also quite good but much more mellow), something I can't recall having ever done in the past.

Of course, the real reason the remake machine slowed down is because they all but exhausted the possible A-list titles to do, and the ones being done now are a little more obscure. Maniac is a notorious title, but not exactly a must-see for casual horror fans the way Halloween or Friday the 13th are - and no one involved could have possibly thought that their film (which retains the original's ugly violence, with gore here done by KNB, proteges of the original's Tom Savini) would have been met with the same mainstream acceptance of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or any of the other Platinum Dunes films. And it's not even the most obscure; we were recently assaulted by the wholly unnecessary update of the '70s Spanish film Who Can Kill A Child? (retitled Come Out And Play), a movie that would have been my last possible choice for a game of "What will be remade next?". But again, that didn't come from an actual idea - it's a complete copy of the original in every single way, just set today (and in English) and thus given a few minor technological glosses.

And so it's a shame that approaches like the one they took for Maniac will be few and far between - even if someone had a unique, interesting take on an older horror film, chances are it's already been remade by someone who just wanted to make a few bucks on the property, and therefore it'll go to waste (unless they can retrofit it into an original movie, but then they have to overcome the hurdle of getting an original horror movie financed). It's always amused me that the remakes most often name-checked by horror fans as the ones that got it right - The Thing, The Fly, The Blob - not only benefited from an advance in makeup/special effects that wouldn't have been possible in the '50s when their originals were made (meaning, even if those three used the same scripts as their predecessors, they'd probably still have some reason to exist beyond money, and likely improve upon the originals), but were also the product of a filmmaker (particularly The Thing*) with a real passion for the material AND a take that was their own. We can't tell now of course, but I wouldn't be surprised if in ten to twenty years Maniac (and Dawn of the Dead) joins that elite group of respectable remakes.

If you haven't seen it yet to judge for yourself, it's in a handful of theaters right now courtesy of IFC Midnights, and available on iTunes and other VOD platforms as well. Not sure when the Blu-ray will hit, but hopefully it'll have some good bonus features not only on the challenges of doing an all POV film but also how they approached the material (it's worth noting that original director Lustig serves as a producer here). I've seen the film twice now and while it's not exactly something I'd want to watch over and over (it's remarkably disturbing at times), I'd want to buy it just to show my support for a remake that does the job right in a sea of so many I'd rather forget.

*I actually don't consider Carpenter's The Thing (or Cronenberg's The Fly) to be a remake since it's based on a short story rather than the (very different) 1951 film, so to me it'd be like calling Coppola's Dracula a remake of an old Bela Lugosi film, but for the sake of argument I'm including them here.