The stylish remake of the horror classic MANIAC hit theaters and VOD this past week. Icons Of Fright’s intrepid correspondent Graham Denman and Strictly Splatter’s Jose Prendes had the awesome chance to sit down with the director Frank Khalfoun and star Elijah Wood to talk about the film, the future of the genre and which MANIAC would win in a knife fight. Check it out!
How familiar were each of you with the original and hand in hand with that have you seen it and did you try to deliberately avoid the vocal intonations that Joe Spinell had in the original?
Franck Khalfoun: I stumbled on a VHS copy in a video store in Miami back in the late 80s and it was sort of the iconic man with bulge holding decapitated head. I thought, ‘Wow I gotta see this!’ So I rented it.
Elijah Wood: Those were the days.
FK: Yeah! It blew my mind.
EW: When the box art would just grab you, man.
FK: Like an album!
EW: That’s the beautiful thing about it.
FK: Yeah, buying records in a record store when you’re just like ‘Woah this is cool’ and then you listen to the album and you’re like ‘Wow that was the best thing about the album!’ That’s not the case, obviously with this movie. It was really powerful and shocking and I had never really seen anything like it at the time. I remember, primarily, Joe Spinell in that performance and that’ll always stay with me. And the empathy that I felt for this scuzzy character. He was horrible! And yet, by the end of the movie I had completely forgot about the victims and had felt so bad for this guy and that’s what I kept with me until Alex Aja and Thomas Langham approached me for the remake.
EW: I hadn’t actually seen the original film. It was something I was aware of. It’s certainly a classic within the genre. I didn’t see the film until we actually started shooting. I guess part of that was so I could work to establish the character from my perspective without having seen what Joe Spinell did. However, Joe’s physicality, his voice, who he is – this is never anything I could have been. The differentiation is so vast anyway but it was important for me to base the character on my interpretation and what was in the script. But it’s an incredibly powerful film because it so deeply resonates largely from his performance. It’s also a product of an era – I mean it’s really hard to make a movie like that now. I was thinking about this today actually. It really is a product of its era, it’s a product of New York at that time. The danger on the streets. The sort of dirt and grime that comes off of the screen…it’s very difficult to recreate that now and often times when people try and do that, it feels a little false and a little forced. So there’s something really special about that era. It feels so visceral, you can almost smell him.
FK: I read an old article when doing research that said “This movie smells like piss”.
FK: That was really interesting, you know? I remember that! And it also shows how daring William Lustig was in attempting this and in thinking that he would find an audience. This is pre-internet, pre-cable, like pre-anything. You know, how ballsy it was for them to attempt this thing. Plus how daring it was and horrific it was for the time and to actually think that people were gonna come see this. It was innovative and I think that’s why it was so successful. So many movies have been copying it since then. I’ve been in movies that have copied that particular movie. So when they came to me to actually copy the complete film it was a daunting sort of venture, you know?
So what do you think your movie smells like, then?
FK: Roses! (laugh) No, I mean I think it still has a little bit of that. It’s made for today’s audiences more. Today’s audiences are a lot more savvy, a lot more critical. They analyze more and they’ve certainly experienced everything when it comes to cinema. So it was important for me to try, and the producers were all on board to try and do something fresh and something new. The best audiences are the genre audiences by far! They love all kinds of movies, they analyze movies, they talk about movies more than a general audience. They’ll like a David Lean film, they’ll like an Eli Roth film, an Alex Aja movie…you know, so I think it’s important to deliver something that attempts at least to do something fresh. As soon as we announced MANIAC, you heard things like, “Oh my God, how dare you do this movie! It’s a classic!” And then we’ll say, “We’re putting Elijah Wood in it.” And they’ll say, “Oh my God, how dare you!”
EW: To be expected.
FK: But I also know if you deliver a good movie, if you attempt something, if you go in there with some balls and try to do something creative, then they’ll watch the movie for what it is and not try and compare it to something because it’s a remake. That’s I think the case with all good remakes.
EW: Great remakes are made by people that have something new to add or something different to tell and felt genuinely moved creatively to do it. I think a remake, just for remake’s sake, you can smell it a mile away.
FK: And my experience was, with MANIAC, I think different from the way people felt it. My experience was that it wasn’t a gore-fest but was, “wow I have empathy for this monster.” And I thought, how human is that of me? No matter what this guy has done, I still feel something. I feel bad. I wanted to give him a reason and excuses for the things that he had done. It became less gratuitous for me in that way. And that’s what I brought into this one and that’s sort of the take that I started this venture on.
I love that you placed the movie in Downtown L.A. I live in Downtown L.A. and I love it there. You were in my back yard, you know? Why did you decide to put the film there? That downtown area you don’t see a lot in Hollywood movies?
FK: You know the answer. I mean that’s why! And primarily when I read the script, the script that I was handed mentioned the girl walks in the Lower East Side at one in the morning and it’s deserted of all….and I was like what? What year is this? Are we actually doing a remake in the ’70s? Because that is absolutely not New York. If you go to New York now, it’s Disney. It’s absolutely the safest place…you know, I’m more scared of the Eiffel Tower in Paris than I am anywhere in Manhattan. It’s really a very clean and gentrified sort of place and I remember my experience of living in Downtown Los Angeles and I felt like that was the Soho of the ’70s. Downtown was still being rejuvenated so you have this mix of homeless people and crazies and rich people and artists. They all live in that area and figured what an incredible place that perhaps this sort of artist/killer could sort of infiltrate and find victims. It’s desolate and at the same time beautiful and I think it sort of embodies the character. Somebody lost in time. Somebody trying to do something new. To be somebody different but stuck in this past. So, I found it to be fascinating and beautiful at the same time.
EW: I imagine someone getting lost and being anonymous downtown. I don’t think you can have that as much in New York. Certainly not the neighborhoods they were originally trying to put the film.
FK: Not only that but being lost and stumbling onto somebody’s space and being like, “Woah this is really cool!” I remember living in Downtown L.A. in the ’80s and there was nothing there. You would think this is completely desolate and then you would meet somebody and then walk into these lofts and there was like artwork in these amazing places that people lived in at the time and they were completely isolated from the world. I remember the homeless guys hanging out and coming to our parties. Everybody was friends. And you know, it just made sense for this movie.
For both of you having done MANIAC, along with the attention it is currently getting, is there interest in doing more genre films in the future?
EW: I love the genre. I have been a fan of the genre for a long time. I just started a production company with the purpose to produce horror films. So I think for me, I want to live in the genre and continue to make horror films but probably not from an acting perspective but mainly to produce. But this is his second horror film.
FK: Yeah, you know, for me it’s not about genre/not genre. I feel like movies are either good or they’re bad. I don’t really separate it and I don’t really categorize it. Of course I do when I have to explain it to people but I don’t seek out movies because they are a particular genre. I seek out human stories and human experiences, things I connect to. And certainly if they turn ugly or they turn gory, then you know, so be it. That’s the way it’s going and that’s okay. I think that the audiences are ready for that and the genre has stepped a bit more into the mainstream and it’s accepted. People will go to horror movies who may never have in the past. If you look at iTunes right now, MANIAC is right before A TURTLE’S ADVENTURE…
EW: I think we’re in a really global world now. With the advent of VOD, I feel like people are exposed to films they wouldn’t normally have been exposed to and I think genre cinema is sort of bleeding a bit more into that world, not necessarily always mainstream but more-so. It’s definitely a genre I love and want to be a part of and like I said, with this production company, to develop content for.
One of the things that makes this film stand out, particularly as a remake, is you shifted the entire point of view coming from Frank’s eyes. How challenging was that for both of you to always maintain that POV perspective while you were filming?
EW: It’s a challenge. For me as an actor, it was probably less challenging than for the logistics of the filmmaker. My challenges were logistically getting myself behind the camera and making sure I was there for the other actors and also to potentially get an arm or a hand into frame at different times which could be cumbersome. But that was an exciting process. I found it all to be almost like a puzzle everyday. It was a challenging process too because you walk into that thinking it’s simple, right? Everything is one shot. Of course, the limitations actually create more challenges because you can’t rely on traditional editing. You can’t rely on traditional coverage.
FK: For me it was a huge challenge because movie making is about following characters and capturing their experiences and if you don’t see them…okay you’re stripped away from your lead character for the most part and so you have to substitute that for other things. Also, in terms of doing horror and suspense, it’s all about coverage and it’s all about stretching time. You know, slowing down time so you can raise tension and raise fear. If I’m doing everything from one point of view, I can’t then cut to a close up of somebody’s feet or a hand grabbing a doorknob –
EW: To play with tension.
FK: To play with tension! So it’s an incredible challenge. And not being able to see the main character and feel for this character. Elijah does a remarkable job. We don’t see his face a lot but when we do it’s very impacting and his voice guides us through this and we’re able to sort of feel that emotion so you have to substitute in other ways to do it.
EW: It was a real discovery process.
I am a huge fan of the original and love the remake. The one thing I was thinking throughout the whole movie was, I wonder what your thoughts are – the Joe Spinell character and your character in a knife fight, who do you think would win?
EW: Joe might win.
FK: Hmm too slow.
MANIAC is currently in theaters nationwide and available on VOD. Go see it!