MANIAC remake: first cut

Franck Khalfoun’s s(l)ickly stylised remake of William Lustig’s Maniac (1980) hits cinemas today, and it is everything a remake should be (contrast Evil Dead, also out this week). For it stays true to the spirit of the original while turning it inside out, bringing it up to date, and self-consciously, even melancholically ringing the changes. My current review in LWLies is actually an abbreviated version of an original response to the film for LWLies as part of my coverage of last year’s FrightFest. Below is that earlier, longer review:

psychosis reflected

“William Lustig’s original Maniac (1980) was already itself a sort of remake, relocating the mad mamma’s boy from Hitchcock’s Psycho to the mean streets of New York, and hanging its low, ‘generic’ murder set-pieces from Joe Spinell’s transcendent performance. Big-bellied, sweat-dripping, heavy-breathing and greasy-haired, Spinell’s Frank was both grotesquely sleazy and utterly, confrontingly human – and the ease with which this repellent figure gets pretty photographer Anna (Caroline Monroe) to go on a date with him is just one of many signifiers that all that we see cannot be quite as it seems. It was a lurid blend of warped fantasies and horrific realities that seemed formally as unhinged as its titular anti-hero.

With their remakes The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and Mirrors (2008), Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur have proven extravagantly radical rewriters of established and not-so-established films, and now they have turned their pens to Lustig’s film, shifting the action to a neon-lit, post-millennial LA, and replacing the original’s objective camerawork with subjective POV shots. This time we are made, uncomfortably, to share Frank’s madly murderous perspective, while for the most part he is himself seen only in mirrors, photographs or reflected surfaces (including a stunning recreation of the original film’s poster image refracted in a car’s door).

Yet just as Lustig’s supposedly ‘documentary’ footage occasionally gave vivid realisation to Frank’s flights of fancy, here director Franck “P2” Khalfoun incorporates not just what Franck sees with his eyes, but with his mind’s eye as well, so that his hallucinations, paranoid freakouts and vividly traumatic memories also form part of the film’s heady visual texture, along with the odd shift to an externalised, if not always objective, point of view. It is a disorientingly trippy technique, more reminiscent of Enter The Void than anything else, forcing the viewer to become as trapped as Frank himself in the headspace of a crazed killer.

Frank’s mother issues compel him to collect (mostly young) women, whose scalps he staples to a menage of mannequins in his bedroom at the back of an inherited workshop. When Frank meets French artist Anna (Nora Anezeder), who shares his obsession with dummies and preservation, the psycho has finally found his perfect match – and so, amidst all the murder and mayhem, a very twisted romance unfolds, even if it, surely, cannot end much better than The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (which the star-cross’d pair watches on a date).

Though only rarely seen in the film, Elijah Wood takes on the lead role of Frank, unnervingly combining the innocence of Frodo with the cold-eyed derangement of Sin City‘s Kevin. Wood’s youth and waifish looks certainly help explain his attractiveness to women, although at the cost of Spinell’s weightily abhorrent presence which was so key to the original’s queasy impact.

Here, though, it is the mobility of Maxime Alexandre’s camerawork, best experienced from as close to the front of the cinema as possible, which creates the sense of nausea in the viewer, while the synth-heavy score (think Carpenter meets Goblin) drives the action forward without forgetting this story’s Eighties’ origins. All the beats of Lustig’s slasher are there, but owing to its slickly sick stylisation, Khalfoun’s remake never feels like a mere rerun – and if, by the end, we are left unsure exactly which of this American psycho’s perceptions have been real, even the disturbed Frank’s fantasies are a disconcerting – and strangely moving – window to a damaged brain.”