Alexandre Aja’s transition to the American film industry has been a strange one, mostly due to its relative success. While fellow French directors were brought to the States and foundered (Malefique‘s Eric Valette adapting Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call, for example), Aja seemed to take to remakes surprisingly well. His first English-language film, The Hills Have Eyes, was generally well-received, and even his take on Joe Dante’s Piranha garnered better reviews than anyone could have anticipated. So it was with some excitement that his name came to be attached to the 2012 remake of William Lustig’s sleazy slasher classic Maniac, although that was somewhat tempered by the fact that Aja was on board with the film as producer and not as director. Franck Khalfoun, Aja’s frequent collaborator and director of the surprisingly solid P2, was brought on to direct a remake that many horror fans have been opposed to on general principal, and the casting of Elijah Wood in the lead only added to the confusion. Fortunately, Maniac has turned out as something that hews close to the original film while striking out stylistically in very interesting ways.
Elijah Wood plays Frank Zito, a lonely young man who runs a mannequin restoration shop he inherited from his mother. During the day, Frank restores vintage mannequins. By night, he stalks and kills beautiful women, bringing their scalps back to his apartment behind the store and stapling them to his mannequins to keep him company. One day he finds photographer Anna (Norah Arnezeder) taking photographs of the mannequins in his shop window under his security gate. He opens the gate and lets her in to take more pictures and explains his work. The two enter almost immediately into a tentative flirtation, or as much of one as Frank can handle, and Frank agrees to help Anna put together her next gallery exhibition. For the first time, Frank can see the possibility of having an actual relationship, but his demons have a strong hold on him and won’t let go without a fight. And the annoying people in Anna’s life are making it so hard to not kill them…
The most immediately noticeable change from the original Maniac is that the film is done almost entirely in a first-person perspective from inside Frank’s head. The first-person camera is an old horror trick, especially popular in the slasher film, but it is usually only done for short stretches to build tension or misdirect the audience. In this case, the audience is forced to become intimately familiar with the way Frank sees the world: a discussion on a dinner date turns sour when his date starts bleeding from the scalp and everyone in the restaurant stops what they’re doing to stare at him. Frank’s tenuous grasp on reality is underlined by the fact that the film offers viewers no other objective outside “reality” to compare with it. Perhaps the most unsettling and effective use of this is the mannequins used to show how Frank sees his victims after he kills them. Instead of lingering on gruesome makeup effects, the film presents the victims as mannequins. This simple trick is one of the most interesting ways Aja and Khalfoun have reinterpreted the iconography of the original film and made something new.
Other changes are more subtle but no less effective. Replacing Joe Spinell’s creepy, greasy Frank with Elijah Wood makes perfect sense. In the original film, whenever Frank is trying to interact as a normal person, the film bordered on the comical, especially in regards to his relationship with fashion photographer Anna (Caroline Munro). Wood gives the impression of vulnerability, both in his physicality and in his performance. It is not hard to imagine other people seeing him as simply quirky and withdrawn, although the truth the audience is privy to is much darker. Frank and Anna’s relationship is much more believable in this version, and therefore that much more crushing when things go inevitably wrong. This Maniac generates considerably more sympathy for its central character than the original, but offers no better alternatives for his future. In fact, so many of the film’s changes are so well-considered that it is unfortunate that it keeps the Freudian explanation for Frank’s insanity. Given how great the rest of the film is–the first-person perspective, the fantastic cinematography, the excellent soundtrack, the great performances–it’s a serious disappointment that the story remains mired in such simplistic psychology. Despite this glaring issue, Maniac is still easily one of the best horror films of the year, and an intriguing new take on an undisputed classic.
MPI Home Video released Maniac on DVD and Blu-ray 15 October 2013. Special features include a commentary track, an hour-long “Making of” feature, deleted scenes and the film’s theatrical trailer.