Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac is an accomplished remake of a movie already revered among horror aficionados for more than three decades. William Lustig’s 1980 original starred the late Joe Spinell as a psychotic mannequin dresser who likes to scalp women, and has become as famous for its hardcore practical gore effects as its surprising compassion for a man with a damaged brain. Its rare nowadays for a list of the most controversial movies ever made to not include Lustig’s film.
Khalfoun’s new interpretation works precisely because it respects its source material without feeling the need to copy it. It also doesn’t hurt that Khalfoun (working from a script by horror auteurs Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur) plays his version absolutely straight, without humor or levity. This is a gritty film, as dark and bleak as its predecessor, with an equally disturbing level of violence. Satire or tongue-in-cheek would have felt wrong.
I say all of this as a compliment, of course. I love a horror movie that goes for broke, and does so without apology. And I respect an actor willing to do as much. Elijah Wood, who takes over for Spinell this time around, has really put it all on the line as Frank, a lonely man battling his brain for dominance over his obsession with his dead mother. Mom did a number on Frank as a kid by exposing him to an endless parade of graphic sexual activities (all shown in flashbacks), thus twisting his brain into knots. Frank goes on a psychotic killing spree, keeping the scalps of his victims so he can staple them to the heads of the mannequins he thinks are alive. This isn’t Frodo Baggins, here, and we’re not in Middle Earth.
Khalfoun pulls off a neat trick by filming most of the movie from Frank’s perspective so that we’re locked inside his head and forced to witness his crimes in horrifying detail. Every now and then, Frank catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, allowing us a brief connection to him as both human and monster. Wood may not be as creepy as Spinell was in his most infamous role — he’s a little too soft for his character’s sleazy undercurrent — but he jumps on the task in earnest. He’s as effective as he can be playing a man whose reality extends to large plastic dolls.
Like I said, this is gritty stuff. Yes, the violence and gore tend to spill into misogynist territory at times, which diminishes the overall impact of the film. If Khalfoun had kept everything just this side of offensive, he might have been looking at a minor slasher masterpiece. As it is, he’s made a surprisingly effective genre film that maybe crosses the line once or twice.