March 30, 2014

Movie Review: Maniac (2013)

The film Maniac is a grimy, gritty, unsettling slice of horror that came out back in 1980. The story was developed by the star, Joe Spinell, and directed by William Lustig (Maniac Cop, Uncle Sam). The movie has stood the test of time, garnering itself something of a cult following. The film stands out from the slasher films it is usually lumped together with, as it centers on the killer, forcing you to follow him down his path of madness, murder, and self destruction. I find it curious that such a dark film was targeted by the remake machine as it never had mainstream appeal and an unsavory approach, unlike the Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Despite the financial outlook, the remake was made and released in 2013. It did not get much of a theatrical release, 12 theaters for a gross just north of $31,000. It is clear that any money this movie makes, it is going to come from the home market. Frankly, I can understand the small release, even if I do not like it. It is a movie that, while being a remake, does not have that desirable large built in audience, is based on a very dark film, and goes to some very dark places itself. In short, I would have liked to have seen this open on a large scale, it is not a movie made for mass consumption. Or maybe it is and we just didn't give it a chance. I don't know, it still took me until now to see it.

The remake was produced by the director of the original, William Lustig, and Alexandre Aja, who is no stranger to horror or to remakes, having delivered such movies as Haute Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, and Piranha 3D. In the director's chair is Franck Khalfoun who also directed the underrated thriller P2 and is currently working on a remake of Amityville. Now, the name that is involved in this movie that made me double take when I first heard it was Elijah Wood. Seriously, I was not convinced that he could step into the shoes left behind by the creepily imposing Joe Spinell. He did play that creep in Sin City, but still....

Let me be the latest to tell you that this remake is one that works. Oh man, does it work. This movie is dark, grimy, violent, depraved, and does a good job of making you think it is 1980 again when there was still a machine in place that allowed for filmmakers to get all gritty. Forget about the mainstream audience, make a movie for the fringe, take us into those dark places the mainstream is scared to take us. Confront us with the dark side of human nature, implicate us in viciousness. Let us get our hands dirty and bloody as we are faced with acts so disgusting they make us ill. No, this is not a depiction of what we aspire to, but a stark reminder that there is nastiness out there. It is a real nastiness born of a sick mind, one that did not have to be, but is. Can you process it?

What is most impressive about this remake is that it actually builds on the ideas of the original and creates its own voice. Sure, the base themes and ideas are still the same, we still have a mother whose actions leave a mark on our killer, we still have his social ineptitude, we still have a potential vehicle for salvation, we still have a fractured mind which is slowly losing its grip on reality.

Wood is Frank, a guy whose mother was a prostitute and resulted in him witnessing things that no one should. As an adult he clearly has issues with women and with trust. He runs a mannequin shop where he specializes in restoring antique mannequins. In his spare time he prowls the streets looking for women who he then stalks, kills, and scalps. He then brings said scalp to his place where he affixes it to one of the mannequins. He then continues his relationship with said woman. Yes, dark, grim, and unsavory.

One day a young woman happens to see the shop. Anna (Nora Arnezeder), an artist, sees the mannequins and wishes to use them in a new photography project. She also happens to like Frank, and Frank likes Anna. You can see Anna as a potential method of salvation for Frank, but his penchant for scalps keeps growing leading to an inevitable conclusion.

One of the things that sets this movie apart, that I found to be very effective, is the perspective. The vast majority of the film is from Frank's perspective. It is a first person POV where Frank's face is mostly seen in mirrors and other reflections. It is an interesting look, and unflinching journey into mental illness and violence. You are challenged to watch as heinous acts are committed. The original confronted you with the killer, this one puts you inside his head. It takes that disturbing fact and just amps it up to the next level.

Of course, we cannot let evil win, but we can also not ignore it. That is a big part of these movies. In the end the bad guy gets what is coming to him, but it is bittersweet as it really is not due to the actions of a “hero”, rather he is consumed by his madness and it is that which ultimately destroys him. That fact makes it even more unsettling, he wasn't caught, he wasn't helped, he was alone and consumed by his sickness.

Elijah Wood does a fantastic job of playing creepy. His Frank certainly lives up to Joe Spinell's legacy. He seems harmless enough, but there is something to his eyes and the way he carries himself in the movie that can be mistaken as shy or quiet, or something, when it is anything but. A murderous creep hiding in plain sight.

Franck Khalfoun does a fine job of directing them, making look suitably grimy and grungy (shot in LA, but the city is not named in the film). He even gets in an homage to the original, in the car park the killer is seen in reflection holding a knife and a scalp, just like the poster for the original film. This is Khalfoun's strongest effort yet, not shying away from the dark material.

There is really no way for this to replicate the original Maniac, that New York is long gone. That film is a product of a bygone era. It's content is still relevant, but the look is something that might be able to be created, but it would not be the organic thing that it used to be. In Lustig and Spinell's Maniac, New York City is another character, it is the grit, the grime, the very atmosphere that is like a visual representation of the grime that is caked inside of Frank's mind.

In the end, what you have are two gritty, unsettling movies that will sit with you. If you watch, really watch, them, it is impossible to ignore what is going on. I recommend them, both of them, pretty much equally. Just be prepared to see some ugliness.

Highly Recommended.

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