MAY 11, 2013
GENRE: SERIAL KILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (ADVANCED SCREENING)
If you're not going to do your own thing with a remake, the least you can do is fix the problems of the original, which is what Franck Khalfoun and Alex Aja have done with Maniac, their update of Bill Lustig's 1980 original. Lustig serves as producer here, and as with many a remake with original players involved, there are some slightly jarring nods to the source material (a subway chase - come on, its set in LA this time! No one uses the subway!), but I walked away fairly impressed with how they barely changed much at all with regards to the story but yet still made a different - and superior - film.
The biggest change is perspective; the entire movie (save for a few shots) unfolds from the POV of the killer, this time played by Elijah Wood. It's NOT found footage, I must stress (thank Christ), but literally just from his point of view, like the opening scene of Halloween but for 90 minutes. Of course, you don't hire Wood for voiceovers only, so this means at least once per seen we get a shot of the killer (named Frank again, a bit odd since it's basically the name of the director too) looking into a mirror. The shots aren't technically perfect - you'll see Wood moving his head around in the mirror but the camera will remain still (or vice versa), and some are kind of obnoxiously implemented (dude likes to look at his reflection a LOT), but many work in a fluid, seamless way - I particularly liked when he is in a girl's bed and she's got a mirror on the ceiling. The only times it breaks from this approach is when he's killing someone; I'm not sure if they're trying to say he has an out of body experience when killing or merely wanted to give us a better view (and screenshots, for those who pepper their reviews with such things), but either way is forgivable, and it never stops being unsettling seeing Wood's face as he's choking or stabbing someone. Leo Biederman, no!
That's another thing I liked - Wood is nothing like Joe Spinell, so even when the film is getting pretty similar (the freakout climax is almost identical), it's easy to take it as its own thing. So many remakes opt for look-alikes, and I don't get the point - shouldn't they be looking to find ways to keep us from thinking about a different movie? All due respect to Mr. Spinell, he was just a sort of slobby looking dude, and much older than Wood (Spinell was pushing 50 at the time of Maniac's production; Wood is 30 and can still pass for like 20). So when Wood talks to a young girl, she's intrigued (in one case, she's more into him than he is in her), giving the film a different, more unnerving dynamic, replacing the original's sleaze with something much creepier and intense.
(Speaking of reminding us of other movies - I laughed along with everyone else, but it's a BIT too on the nose to have a would-be victim play "Goodbye Horses" before Frank strikes, though 2 points for crediting it as from Married To The Mob instead of Silence of the Lambs, even if the latter is the one everyone will be thinking of, for sure.)
Another beneficial modification is that they introduce the "girlfriend" a lot sooner. Their relationship is different too; rather than have him just be some guy she took a picture of, she's interested in his mannequins (he restores them for a living), but what's important is that it's not a random plot point for the 3rd act to give the movie some semblance of tension, as in the original. He meets her before the end of the first reel, in fact, and she's a constant presence throughout until the inevitable tragic consequences of their friendship near the film's ending. Anna is played by Nora Arnezeder, who is an endlessly appealing and alluring screen presence - you'll be thankful that all her scenes are pretty much closeups of her face since they're all from the POV of the guy she's talking to, and as a result, the finale is much more suspenseful and upsetting than the original's. Nothing against Caroline Munro, but her character was so awkwardly introduced and never given much time to grow, so it wasn't really much different from the various anonymous girls Frank had been killing throughout the film.
But honestly, they could have used the same script and I think it would be the superior film simply due to the incredible score by Rob (yep, just Rob). If I had to describe it, I'd put it as a mix between the most synth-y Carpenter scores and the slower John Murphy cues from Sunshine, but why settle for that? It's on iTunes and Spotify; even if you don't want to see the movie I highly recommend checking out - I've been reading/writing to it all day. I've been bemoaning the lack of memorable/great scores in modern horror movies for quite some time now, so anything that bucks that trend makes me very happy indeed. "Horses" is one of the few songs (and not on the soundtrack release), another plus as that can date a film or just cause unnecessary distractions.
My only major complaint is that it gets a touch repetitive; apart from Anna there are no other recurring characters, and each kill results in Frank hallucinating memories of his mother (America Olivo, who was in No One Lives as well - she features in back to back post-HMAD reviews!) and being taunted by the "ghosts" of his victims. At one point he watches a news report about the serial killer, but Anna knows nothing about it - did he hallucinate that too or is she just ignorant? And either way, where ARE the cops? He seems to center all of his killings in the downtown LA area (which is not large) and he was connected to at least two victims through a dating website - it shouldn't have been hard for the cops to at least question him. As a result it's kind of hard to tell what parts of the movie are just in his head and which are real (something they could have used the POV effect for to differentiate if they wanted to make it clearer), and takes away from the otherwise strong attempts at realism.
IFC midnights is putting this one out soon; my guess is that it'll be a NY and LA only kind of thing unless it does terrific business at that time, but even if that happens don't expect to see it in your multiplex. It definitely earns its R rating thanks to the (practical!) KNB gore and overall disturbing tone, which will keep it from hitting AMCs and the like despite Frodo being the star. It's a shame though - the POV aesthetic makes it a perfect big screen endeavor (IMAX would be AMAZING!), but it'll probably find most of its audience on VOD and blu-ray. And (sigh) it's ANOTHER remake with Aja's name on it - does he simply not WANT to try original properties anymore? His only other original production since High Tension was P2 (also directed by Khalfoun) - did that film's failure scare him away from unproven commodities, or what? Come on man! Not that any of the movies are bad (well, Mirrors...) but your filmography is starting to resemble any random horror fan's top ten list from the 70s/80s.
What say you?