I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
I don’t bother very often with remakes of films I like. When I do watch one of these remakes, I do everything I can to divorce the experience from the memory of the original film. Especially when I know I am going to write about the remake; it’s the only way to be fair to the film. But with Maniac, a remake of the 1980 William Lustig film starring the late Joe Spinell, director Franck Khalfoun and writers Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur do so little—save one major stylistic change—to differentiate their film from the original, it’s hard not to compare the two.
Frank (Elijah Wood) is a restorer of antique mannequins. A natural loner because of his odd occupation and awkward personality, he is also—as the title implies—a psychotic killer. He spends his evenings stalking and killing beautiful young women. He then scalps them and nails the scalps to mannequins he keeps in his bedroom. This, it goes without saying, is very disturbing behavior.
Into Frank’s life comes beautiful artist Anna (Nora Arnezeder). Anna takes photographs of mannequins where she transforms them through makeup and the magic of the camera to look like live fashion models. Frank strikes up a tentative friendship with Anna that he tries to subtly push into the realm of romance. But between the demons that drive him to kill, massive migraines he suffers, and Anna’s obnoxious agent and boyfriend getting in the way, it’s no surprise when things spin out of Frank’s already tenuous control.
The major change from the original film that Khalfoun makes is to show almost the entire film from Frank’s point of view. This decision is a double-edged sword. It does make the scenes of Frank stalking and killing that much more disturbing by putting the audience firmly in Frank’s head. But it takes away from the inspired casting of Wood in the titular role. While he is glimpsed in mirrors and other reflective surfaces and his voice is heard when talking to people—and the mannequins into which his damaged mind has breathed life—for the most part, he is a ghost in the film. This is too bad because Wood’s wide-eyed intensity and small stature go a long way to making him believable as a deranged killer who can hide in plain sight.
There are also little changes made to the story to give it some slight differentiation. The setting is moved from New York to Los Angeles—although Khalfoun takes pains to shoot in the grimiest sections of downtown L.A., largely avoiding the sunshine and glamour that most films highlight. Frank’s issues with his dead mother (America Olivo) are made clearer through flashbacks. When Frank mumbles to himself, instead of talking with his dead mother, he now seems to be speaking with himself as a young boy. Probably the most intriguing change to Frank’s character is making him a restorer of mannequins. There is an irony to the fact that Frank so lovingly spends his time repairing fake women while he goes out and butchers real women. Thankfully, Khalfoun never hits the audience over the head with this point.
There is a polish that Khalfoun brings to his film that Lustig (who produced this remake) could never achieve with his limited budget. From the terrific synth-score by Robin Coudert to the crisp, stylish cinematography of Maxime Alexandre, the film looks and sounds much better than it probably should.
When it comes down to it, I admire what Khalfoun has created. But there is a lack of passion to it that nags at me. There was an intensity to Spinell’s performance that carried the original film over the rough spots and made it honestly scary. I have no doubt that if Wood had been featured more in front of the camera that his performance could have provided the same spark. But the decision to put the audience firmly behind his eyes neuters much of his performance. I am also slightly bothered by the lack of surprises that the remake offers up. There are variations on the original film’s plot, but as far as story beats go, this is a very similar film.
I suppose that is what is both interesting and frustrating about the film. Khalfoun and his writers manage to take the original story and tell it compellingly, but they never show any inclination to break away and make it their own. As homage to the original film, it works fine and stands side by side with it in terms of quality and disturbing imagery. But I’m not sure that justifies its existence.
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