Dir. Franck Khalfoun
Written by Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur
Starring Elijah Wood, Arnezeder
|I think he and the blue guy from I KNOW WHO KILLED ME would really hit it off.|
The original 1980 MANIAC is probably best known as one of those films that just goes way too far. One of those movies that makes you feel dirty just having watched it. The 80’s were a great time for movies about hellish urban nightmares bursting at the seams with sleazy, depraved deviants (hell, even CHILD’S PLAY has a little of that) but boy, MANIAC ups the ante a whole lot by avoiding the usual horror rule that the narrative follows the victims. Instead Joe Spinell (a real titan among actors typecast as sleazy, sadistic lowlifes) --the titular MANIAC-- sweats, simmers, and scalps his way through a long line of women and all we can do is watch in discomfort. There’s not really any break for the viewer, no relief at all; even when he leaves his rat’s nest apartment with the bloody scalps stapled to tear-soaked mannequins, it’s just as disturbing to watch this twisted freak apparently successfully fool everyone into thinking he’s not a dangerous psycho. It’s such an unpleasant, immersive experience that even Tom Savini had to admit that this was one case where they probably went a little too far.
Well, the Frenchie filmmakers of this modern remake correctly determined that they would never be able to match the original in terms of filth and sleaze. You can’t go home again, and it just isn’t possible to capture or even legitimately imitate the fetid cesspool of 1980’s New York. So instead of trying to directly recreate the sweat-soaked urban nightmare of the original, they went a different route, transplanting the story to shiny, glamorous LA, trading scarred, imposing Spinell for doe-eyed little Elijah Wood, and exchanging real-world grit for a dreamy, hyper-stylized gimmicky (but effective) conceit.
|Now, let's not jump to conclusions, I'm sure there's a completely reasonable explanation for this.|
Meet John Q. Maniac (Elijah Wood, FLIPPER) a nice, shy boy who lives a cloistered and regimented life repairing vintage mannequins. Wait, I don’t mean meet him; you are him. You are looking out through his giant eyeballs, at his scarred hands, and occasionally at his wan visage whenever he passes by a mirror. You’re also looking through his eyeballs as he stalks, corners, and brutally scalps scores of unfortunate young women, and through the charming afterglow scenes where he staples their bloody hair to creepy mannequins and gibbers at them about his mother. Remember how I said the original was so unpleasant because it never leaves the psycho killer’s perspective? Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that this is worse.
Wood is a less physically intimidating psycho, but in a way that’s worse because although he’s off-putting and weird, he's also sort of handsome and harmless-seeming and people don’t seem to realize just how scared of him they ought to be. And all the while, you’re trapped behind this guy’s eyes, screaming at people “Run!! Ruunnn!!! I’m not in control of this body but I know where it’s been!” After being disappointed by all those Found Footage films which never take advantage of the tension generated by being unable to cut away from a horrifying situation, this one finally does America proud by forcing you to sit there all the way through the whole sick process, as much as you might want out. Being stuck with this guy makes you feel responsible, guilty-by-association. You want to apologize to his victims and tell them you tried to warn them but there was nothing you could do. During a couple of particularly uncomfortable scenes, I noticed myself actually turning my head -- not because I wanted to look away, but because I was subconsciously trying to make the killer to look away. Watching murder from the Killer's perspective is an old horror gimmick, going back at least to THE NAKED CITY and becoming ubiquitous with the Italian Giallos of the 70's. But this takes it to the next level by inserting the viewer not just into the killer's murders, but his whole life.
|Hey, hey! Don't drag me into this! I want out!|
Pleasingly, director Franck (the extra “c” is in case of emergency consonant shortage) Khalfoun isn’t slavishly devoted to the first-person POV beyond reason; a few times during the runtime --maybe 5-10 minutes total-- he actually abandons it and peppers in a few more traditional shots for things that the POV couldn’t easily capture. I like that approach; POV when it works to the film’s benefit, standard shooting when it doesn’t. He does, in my view, miss an opportunity to turn the POV gimmick into an excuse for long, unbroken takes. Even though we’re seeing through Wood’s eyes, scenes are still edited like they would normally be; for example, we don’t see his whole walk from his car to the party he’s attending, it does what any normal movie would do and cuts from his car to him entering the building (it’s just all done from his perspective). That’s fine, I guess, but it does sometimes result in some lost opportunities for greatness. There’s a pretty great sequence where he stalks a terrified, screaming lady through a parking lot (I guess this is post-apocalyptic LA because there never seems to be anyone around) and when he finally grabs her and kills her, the camera suddenly leaves his perspective so we can see him do the whole bloody deed. It’s a fun sequence, but it would be even better had the whole stalking scene been one long, tense, uninterrupted take with the final, non POV reveal as the exclamation point on the end. Oh well, it’s still better than most of V/H/S 2.
|Just in case you doubt that those are really Wood's hands.|
One interesting thing about watching the whole thing through the killer’s eyes is that although you’re repulsed, it also allows him to be kind of sympathetic in a way. We know how deeply fucked up the guy is, we know his insecurities and loneliness and inner torment, and even though smell-o-vision hasn’t been invented yet we gotta figure that his apartment smells like shit with all those scalps around (maybe when they remake this in another 40 years we’ll finally get that last piece of the puzzle). We also see that part of his predicament is that he’d really like to be sane, he really would. He really makes an effort at it, but it’s just not in the cards for the poor guy. Occasionally since we’re seeing things through his eyes we’ll also see things that clearly are not really happening, which makes his actions (perversely) make more sense and also gives us a disturbing glimpse into his freaky alternate reality. Actually, I’d love it if the whole movie was like that, showing us JUST his weird warped perspective and leaving us to kind of guess at what’s really going on. But this way is fine, too.
His obvious break with reality makes it harder to completely feel like it’s entirely his fault that he’s a psycho murderous nutball. The poor guy saw his mom have sex with a sailor when he was kid, how was he supposed to not end up like this?* So when he meets a gorgeous young French girl who amazingly shares his love of creepy ass vintage mannequins, you find yourself hoping that maybe somehow he’ll pull it off, this will help him work through his issues and it’ll basically end up as a charming indie rom-com which just happened to begin with somewhat more scalping than usual**.
|Interesting trivia: Every relationship that has started out this way has ended happily, and vice versa.|
Obviously, the lack of a remake of MANIAC was not, in my estimation, one of the top ten problems the world has right now. But since apparently it’s some kind of deeply held religious conviction in Hollywood that things don’t really exist until they’re remade and hence it was inevitable anyway, I’m glad to report that this one is really damn good. There’s even a great, entirely organic homage to the original poster, which heartens me with the knowledge that even if the deranged psychos*** who made this remake have a different flavor of perversion from the original filmmakers, they at least share a common bond of mutual respect for the concept of some sicko fuck slicing up attractive young women and stealing their hair. It just goes to show that true sleaze never goes out of style, it just changes it’s bloody wig.
*Ah, Europe, the continent that taught me that flashing back to seeing your mom have sex basically guarantees that you’re going to grow up to be a psycho killer.
**I don’t want to spoil it for you or anything but, uh, maybe don’t get your hopes up.
***Khalfoun, obviously, but also his frequent collaborator and producer/writer of this one, PIRANHA 3-D's Alexandre Aja.