Retro Review: MANIAC (2012){0}

William Lustig’s 1980 horror flick Maniac has enjoyed a long and healthy shelf life as a cult favorite among horror geeks, be they curious youths or nostalgic old coots, so it should come as no surprise to learn that, yep, someone went and remade the damn thing. The original was a grungy, sweaty, and virtually plotless excursion into the mind of a madman who savages women and takes their scalps home to his harem of mannequins. While the film is very effective at delivering the garish visual display it is plainly going for, it’s simply not that good of a horror flick on a visceral or psychological level. As a framework on which to hang some truly amazing special effects from a young Tom Savini, Maniac deserves a place of honorable mention, but beyond that it’s little more than a nasty little grindhouse relic.

So yes: obviously there’s a remake, but here’s the good news: not only is Franck Khalfoun’s new Maniac an improvement over the original movie, and the best film he’s directed so far (apologies to the fans of P2 and Wrong Turn at Tahoe, if there are any), but it employs a very basic — and very disturbing — device to bring the viewer into the mind of a raving lunatic. Basically, we see everything the maniac sees, and I do mean everything. Whether or not you want to take such a trip is your call, obviously, but those who appreciate horror films that deliver the “surface goods” while delving into some deeper, darker, and morally murky waters may find a good deal to appreciate here.   

Like the original Maniac, the remake is an exceedingly plot-deficient affair: Frank is a man who restores antique mannequins (weird, I know) and Anna is a lovely artist who needs some mannequins for her swanky new exhibit. The two strike up an odd friendship, but Anna is obviously unaware that her new pal is actually a ravenous lunatic who stalks and scalps young women whenever possible. We all know where this is headed, of course, but it’s what’s offered along the way that makes or breaks a familiar premise, and for the most part Maniac does a fine job of balancing some legitimately smart ideas with its requisite moments of pain, suffering, and horror. 

Shot almost entirely from the first-person perspective of the titular character (lead actor Elijah Wood’s face is seen only through various reflections, dream sequences, and photographs, although he has no problem convincing a viewer that this is one fractured young man), this rather audacious rendition of a rather controversial horror film gives the viewer some roughage to process: why would we want to see a brutal piece of horror fiction told from the perspective of the murderer? Doesn’t this potentially off-putting approach ask us to enjoy the killer’s most vile exploits? In the case of certain horror films, perhaps, but in the case of the new Maniac, the gimmick offers a rather novel new wrinkle to the horrific display: the normal side of the viewer wants the maniac’s victims to escape, but the more adventurous side may want to somehow relate to the story’s anti-protagonist. As I said, it’s a nasty little journey, but kudos to Khalfoun, Wood, and their producers (they also made High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes) for acknowledging that a killer is also a human being … to one degree or another.   

Packed with sly little in-jokes for the horror fans and powered by a simply fantastic musical score by “Rob,” the new version of Maniac is a hard-ass horror film that also has some disconcertingly beautiful components. It’s a grimly in-depth character study of a man who nobody should get to know, and (if looked at from a certain angle) it sort of plays like a sly but insightful satire on romantic comedies. I won’t elaborate on that theory, but I swear I saw it in there. Needless to say, a horror film this visually, tonally, and psychologically confrontational is not for all tastes, but I’d call it a strange little experiment that somehow yielded some very compelling results.