So there was still a 1980s horror classic left to remake. After a wave that started over a decade ago and saw anything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to A Nightmare on Elm St being badly remade with all the flair of a cheap music video, it is now the turn of the lesser known yet infamous video nasty Maniac (dir: Bill Lustig, 1980). I look forward to the reimagining of Killer Klown from Outer Space and Rabid Grannies.
The original Maniac was no masterpiece but certainly a cut above other slashers of the era, thanks to the unforgotteable performance by the late Joe Spinell, adding psychological depth to his character which had more to do with Norman Bates than Michael Myers. Having French director Frank Khalfoun at the helm of this new version initially inspired no confidence, and the ones who saw his previous effort P2 (yes, both of you) would understand why. The presence of Alexandra Aja as a co-producer however, alongside original director Lustig, and bizarrely Thomas Langman (The Artist) was a good omen. The director of Switchblade Romance had previously showed his love for the trashy gems of the ’80s with his recent and superior remake of Piranha 3D.
This new film, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month, only keeps the basic story arc. Just like in the original, we follow a seriously disturbed man, Frank (Elijah Wood), with some unresolved mummy issues, who goes out at night on the hunt for women. Unable to connect with them on an emotional level, he invariably ends up despatching them in gruesome ways before scalping them and stappling newly acquired trophies on beloved mannequins he keeps in his store (nice!). Will a chance encounter with French artist and free spirit Anna (Nora Arnezeder) and the friendship that ensues offer him the chance of a way out of his murderous madness?
From the very first scenes, it becomes obvious that we are in safe hands. The director of photography (Maxime Alexandre) has managed to create an image that is very faithful to a certain type of horror films of the 1980s, all in neon lights at night . And the tense, electronic soundtrack, which would not have felt out of place in a John Carpenter film of the time, adds to the atmosphere (speaking of music, a reference to a thriller/horror classic had the audience chuckling). Director Frank Kahlfoun also does a great job of recreating the menacing, sleazy look of American cities of the 1980s, which looked so dangerous in films such as Taxi Driver (1976) The Warriors (1979) and Cruising (1980). In fact, bar a few scenes set in a very modern looking art gallery and a loft, the film could have easily taken place at that time.
In the biggest departure from the original however, the killer here is not an middle aged, overweight man but a nerdy, slightly creepy younger man. In a bold move, the action is filmed entirely from his point of view, with the actor only glimpsed at in the few scenes where he is seen in a mirror. And it is all to the credit of Elijah Wood that he makes his presence very much felt throughout, mainly through his voice. The camera only ever “cheats” once (well twice actually!) as it moves away from him just as he is committing his most brutal, wince-inducing murder, which is guaranteed to make you look away. The fact that he nails this tortured and psychotic character so well will not come as a surprise however to anybody who saw him play an equally deranged killer in Sin City.
And the first, gruesome murder in the opening scene is a great throwback to the schlocky horror of the video nasties, paving the way for what is to follow. In fact, the whole film is incredibly violent, but never in a titillating, torture porn kind of way. Just like the original, this is not just a slasher, we are left with an ambivalent feeling towards the lead and possibly some sympathy, even as his violent murder spree escalates. This is the sad story of a man struggling with his demons, faced with a glimmer of hope and a doomed romance. This part, while a vast improvement from the original, which had the wonderful Caroline Munro play his love interest, still feels undevelopped and could have done with a few more scenes to flesh it out.
But this is a minor niggle, and a brilliant, ballsy ending leaves no doubt that this is not just a superior horror but a case study on how to make an intelligent remake that respects and even enhances its source material in the process. This new version resolves the pacing issues of the original with a better script, offering a more tense and gripping experience, and just as involving.
You could argue that horror directors, rather than look back and imitate past glories, would be better off coming up with some original material and take the genre to some unchartered territories. But when it is done with such respect and talent, this is the sort of tribute can only be applauded.