*Warning: Mild spoilers primarily about technical aspects of the movie follow.

Like most genre fans, anytime I hear the news about yet another remake, I sigh and ask myself “why?” But I’ve also decided that these remakes need to be looked at on an individual basis. For example, MANIAC. The basic plot (or lack thereof) of the original? A crazy guy with mommy issues scalps women. That’s it. There’s really nothing more to it. The reason the original MANIAC has stood out from the countless crop of early 80’s “slashers” and become such a seminal cult classic is because-

A) It’s filmmaker Bill Lustig’s first feature film.

B) It features some of the best & most gruesome work of FX legend Tom Savini’s career, including a show stopping shotgun blast to the head performed by Savini himself.

C) The performance of actor Joe Spinell, who often played memorable bit parts in things like ROCKY and THE GODFATHER, but gets top billing here.

D) I’ll throw in one more reason, Jay Chattaway’s haunting and beautiful score which was the beginning of a long collaborative relationship between the composer and Lustig. (Music is big for me in movies.)

So, with Bill Lustig as one of the producers of the new update, you have to at the very least give it the benefit of the doubt. I mean, the original director approved of this reinterpretation. Throw in the unlikely, yet interesting casting choice of Elijah Wood, who physically is nothing like Joe Spinell, but who showed he can let his freak flag fly from his performance in SIN CITY; not to mention the ambitious and unique decision to make the entire movie from Frank Zito’s point of view, something that’s only partially been done before, made this remake worth investigating.

And I’m here to report that it’s pretty great.

I revisited the original just before this LA premiere screening of the remake, just to re-familiarize myself with the source material, and while the new version definitely shares the basic themes (maniac with mommy issues, collects & restores mannequins, scalps girls) and skeletal structure of the original, this does what remakes are supposed to do. Makes it their own. The strength of the movie lies on what an achievement it is from a technical stand point. Director Franck Khalfoun actually pulled it off. The whole movie is from the killer’s POV, with the exception of a few bits, primarily dream sequences where Frank sees himself and for a couple of the murders later on in the film, it shifts so that Frank sees himself performing the deed, something most convicted serial killers often cite as happening to them during the act of their murders. Otherwise, the entire thing is his view, and hence the film makes us, the audience the maniac.

After an impressive opening sequence (all I’ll say is when the title card comes up, you guys are going to LOVE it), we’re pretty much full-fledged into the world of Frank (Elijah Wood). He’s a lonely, to-himself kind of guy who lives with his girlfriend (or does he?) and spends most of his day restoring the mannequins in his family owned shop that once belonged to his now deceased mother. By night, he can’t help his impulses and either sets up dates with women via internet dating sites or just simply stalks ones that he finds attractive. We learn later on that Frank’s mother was very promiscuous and often with him hiding in the closet to watch her sexual acts (something implied in the original). Those anxieties coupled with his frequent migraines make it difficult for him to function out in every day society, but he tries his best when it comes to meeting new women, despite it often ending in a horrific and ghastly way. He meets a beautiful French photographer named Anna (Nora Arnezeder) with whom he immediately forms an infatuation with. Could this be the girl he’s been waiting for? Or will his murderous impulse finally consume him until there’s nothing left.

Look – this isn’t a pleasant movie. Neither was the original, so if you can handle that, then you can handle this. The violence is brutal, gory, and drawn out to almost unbearable degrees, again, much like the original. But putting us in the point of view makes it awkward as an audience member because it’s forcing us into participating. And that’s also what sets this apart from any other “slasher” flick and makes it feel fresh and original. There is a sympathetic side to Wood’s version of Frank. There’s one revelation mid-movie from Anna that made me sink in my seat (if you know what I’m talking about, it’s probably a guy thing), but also, later on, one (of two) characters are very pretentious and condescending to Frank when he’s attending Anna’s gallery show and our initial response as an audience is “oh I hope he gets one of these two”. And then the following scene when he does follow, stalk and kill one of these characters, it’s so horrific and ugly that you feel guilty for even letting the thought cross your mind.

Let’s look at my points from earlier and analyze the reasoning behind this remake. Was each aspect that made the original stand out homaged yet done in its own unique way for the remake?

A) Direction? Huge yes. This isn’t a movie you particularly “like”. Hell it’s hard to say that of the original considering how nasty it is. But even if you don’t care for the subject matter, you can’t deny what an incredible achievement this is on a technical level for a horror film. Often times when we see Elijah, it’s in reflections and there are a few moments where you scratch your head thinking ‘how the hell did they get this shot? Where’d they hide the camera?’ So in that regard, Franck Khalfoun nailed this. Also, he peppered the entire movie with some fantastic nods to the original, in particular one that references the now legendary theatrical poster for the original. (It’s at the end of the trailer below.)

B) The FX? Yes. All the kills… actually all of the set pieces/beats of the kills (minus the shotgun one) are matched from the original, yet done slightly different. In fact, because most of them are done in POV, again I found myself wondering how the hell they pulled some of this stuff off in one long take, in particular the scalpings. It could be digital, but if it is, it’s the best hidden usage of digital FX ever.

C) The lead actor? Here it’s Elijah Wood as Frank and while he’s nothing like Joe Spinell, I feel he captures that strange repulsive, yet sympathetic aspect that Spinell played so beautifully in the original. The only thing I’m curious about is the clunky dialogue. I can let some of it go in Anna’s case because anything you say in a French accent will come across as cute, but I wonder if the dialogue will play differently for me when I watch this at home. I saw it with an audience that laughed out loud nervously at a lot of it, so it didn’t detract from the whole film. Regardless of dialogue, Elijah does a fantastic job of letting his presence known despite largely being off camera.

D) The score? Amazing. Simply amazing. The composer is credited simply as “Rob” but I asked the director about the score during their post screening Q & A and I believe he said it’s one of the guys from the band AIR. He rarely (if ever) composes music for films, so he relished in this opportunity and delivered something that’s got a low-fi 80’s synth sound. Very memorable and great stuff, reminiscent of the DRIVE score.

Final verdict? 4 1/2 out of 5.

I actually prefer this new one to the original, but I love that they both exist and are both different enough to be judged and celebrated on individual merits. As of right now, IFC picked up the film and it has a tentative release date of December 26th. It’ll probably go the VOD, then theatrical route, but we’ll keep you posted as soon as we hear the official release plan!

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