Frank (Wood) is a killer of women. By day he somehow makes a living restoring antique shop store mannequins, by night he prowls the streets of Los Angeles hunting humans. Frank is able to keep his public persona apparently normal, enough to pass in society and even convince a victim he has found on an online dating site to invite him home after a date. Internally, he is in turmoil and completely deranged. Stricken by migraines, and hallucinations inspired by memories of his dysfunctional relationship with his dead mother, Frank is barely holding things together by sating his sick compulsions. Into his life comes Anna (Arnezeder), a French photographic artist who wants to use his mannequins as part of an exhibition. Frank is attracted to her, and clearly feels there is more of a connection than with the women he routinely murders. Could there be a possibility of redemption?
A remake of the notorious Bill Lustig film (one of most high profile of the video nasties), this new Maniac may actually be more violent and problematic than the original. Director Khalfoun and writers Aja and Levasseur stay very true to the plot template laid down by the original, mounting several key sequences from the original. The remake retains the sickening and graphic mutilation of Frank's victims (he scalps them for wigs to use in a strange harem of mannequin girlfriends). However this is not a simple copy; there are key differences and a major filmmaking innovation that makes the remake at once technically dazzling, but also a very troubling and controversial work. In fact, this is likely to be one of the most controversial horror films of recent years.
The most obvious change to anyone familiar with Lustig's film lies in the casting of Frank. In the 1980 film Frank was played by character actor Joe Spinell, who also wrote the film. Overweight, with a poor complexion and greasy black hair, Spinell was a memorable killer but the relationship he wrote himself with the original film's Anna (played by the stunning Caroline Munro) was unbelievable wish fulfilment. Spinell's Frank was a character that you would cross the street to avoid. Wood keeps Spinell's trademark pencil moustache, but otherwise is far more successful portraying a character that one could imagine an attractive woman tragically mistaking for a normal human being. It is an astonishing role for Wood, and one that I can only imagine has given his agent and ulcer.
The original film was set in pre-cleanup New York, a contemporary New York update is simply unimaginable. The foetid, decay and violence of the Big Apple in the late '70s was a key component of the film's DNA. That city, for good and for worse, does not exist anymore. The remake moves the story to Los Angeles, and finds a city of street level poverty and corruption over which tower gleaming office blocks, where the gulf between rich and poor is vast and conspicuously on display. This is an environment where a predator like Frank can hunt almost unnoticed. LA has also had a Metro system opened since the original, which allows for the recreation of the extended NY subway stalking sequence from the original.
The major innovation, however, is that the remake is shot in first person, and from the point of view of the killer. The technique has been recently used in Gasper Noe's Enter the Void, and the Jonas Akerlund directed Smack My Bitch Up Prodigy video. Here the technique is remarkable effective, going beyond gimmickry, turning the movie into a technical tour-de-force. It also seems to invite audience identification with the killer in ways that are troubling to say the least, particularly during the film's many extended stalking sequences, and graphic murders. There is an undeniable rush brought on by this technique; it gives an intensity to the visuals, and makes the film extremely exciting. For most members of the audience, the experience of seeing the world as Frank sees it will be an abject and distressing one. It is arguable, however, that this could also accentuate the likelihood of vicarious pleasure being taken in the brutal terrorisation and killing of women by individuals who are inclined to that point of view.
This is a stylish film with one of the best electronic soundtracks since Drive, but it is a very, very, tough watch. The original had gore effects by Tom Savini, and if anything the remake endeavours to be even more graphic (although it wisely does not attempt to recreate the shotgun murder from the original, one of the most shocking makeup effects ever filmed). Unlike most modern horror films, the violence is not fast cut (the style makes that more or less impossible) and this film features the sort of long, lingering gore and violence of '70s and '80s exploitation. With its extended stalking scenes, striking score, and killer's POV style, Maniac is really a neo-Giallo, but a it is a Giallo in the style of the rougher Italian films (Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper springs to mind), rather than the artistic and formally beautiful films of Argento or Bava.
This is a profoundly troubling film, but one of undeniable virtuosity. It left me shell shocked and shaking, feeling thoroughly dirty for loving its nightmarish adrenaline rush.