A Tale of Two “Maniac”s

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 15th March, 2013

In just another dingy underground apartment on just another street in the Bronx, somewhere close to Travis Bickle in location and not far from Norman Bates in spirit, Frank Zito lived with plastic mannequins and real human scalps, screaming with anguish at the ghost of his mother and his own lost self. Joe Spinell’s work as the knife-wielding killer in William Lustig’s 1980 film Maniac was a truly great performance in one of the best of all slasher films. It involved spying, heavy-breathing and implosions and explosions of rage at night, yet a charming, composed exterior in the daytime. It was searing, oddly sympathetic, complex, and, above all, indelible and inimitable.

If Spinell was fascinating, the other great character in 1980’s Maniac was old New York. One of the tensest scenes in the film involves Frank chasing one of his victims through the subway system. It’s empty and lonely, full of blind corners, dirt and hostile graffiti. You can feel the danger and uncaring nature of the city – it feels like it was built to devour you.

To remake Maniac in 2012 and to cast Elijah Wood in the role took some chutzpah, because they don’t make them like Joe Spinell nowadays and New York City is a different place too. (The remake is set in Los Angeles.) Wood is beloved and babyfaced, so the role of a serial killer is made for him – playing against type is one of the oldest and most fun tricks in the entertainment playbook.  The remake’s Frank Zito, though, lacks Spinell’s layers. 1980 Frank could sit and have dinner with a strong, independent woman and convincingly charm her. 2012 Frank glares, rasps like Heath Ledger’s Joker and has hands slashed up from his nocturnal activities; you get satisfyingly grossed out by him, but you don’t believe for a second that anyone would go on a date with the guy.

This new Maniac, produced by Alexandre Aja, directed by Franck Khalfoun and opening across the UK today, has interesting remake credentials and an instant place in film history for one particular narrative device – it’s almost entirely shot through first-person point-of-view shots, and most of the glimpses we get of Wood’s face come through reflections in mirrors. (Of course, you can use just about anything as a mirror, from a fork to a car hood, something that’s not lost on Khalfoun.) Maniac goes on a very short list of such experiments, the last one that was this bold being the 1947 Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake.

It’s intense, for sure – not only do we see victims through the camera’s subjective eye, but the screen folds in on itself and bystanders stare at us, as Frank has paranoid spells and migraines. Maniac 2012 also turns the levels of blood, music, sound effects and violence up to 11. Where it can’t build complex characterisation, it bludgeons us. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard may have complained that “the pictures got small,” but it’s more like they got big, underlined and simple.

And that’s my main problem with this new film. It’s boldly experimental and an effective assault on the senses, but the shades and intelligence are lost. Frank Zito of 1980 asked, “Why, mommy?” but we didn’t know exactly what the source of his frustration was. In the new film, it’s made explicit, with flashbacks to his prostitute mother turning tricks in front of the younger Frank. In 1980, Caroline Munro played a potential love interest as an upright, articulate photographer. Here, we have a bobbelheaded motormouth barmaid who takes Frank to bed for no conceivable reason, and later, a girl who calls herself a photographer but is really just a hipster flibbertigibbet who takes an interest in Frank’s mannequin collection because, ya know, she likes “old things.” She also, quite unnecessarily, has a douchebag boyfriend who treats her like a possession. The new Maniac has been accused of being misogynistic, and indeed it is – not because of violence against women, but for portraying women as idiots.