Elijah Wood is not Joe Spinell. Nobody, except Joe Spinell, is Joe Spinell. The late star of the original 1980 film Maniac had such an intense, sleazy and insane screen presence in Lustig's film that had Wood tried to ape him or copy him in any way, it would have spelled certain death for director Franck Khalfoun's remake. Thankfully, Wood plays the lead role in his own way and the script, written by Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, takes things in enough of a different direction while still plainly showing all the influence in the world you could want from the first take on the story.
The movie follows the exploits of a man named Frank Zito (Elijah Wood) who runs a mannequin store and lives in Los Angeles. When the movie begins, Frank is watching some girls leave a nightclub. He follows one of them home and cuts the power in her hallway. As she tries to get into her apartment he approaches her but before she can call out for help, his knife has gone through the bottom of her jaw and into her head. He cuts off her scalp and brings it home with him, all of this within the first few minutes of the movie and all seen from Frank's point of view, meaning, we see it through his eyes. This makes us as much of a participant as it does a viewer.
From here on out, we see Frank do more or less the same thing to a few other pretty young Caucasian women unfortunate enough to wind up alone in the dark streets of the city. One morning as he wanders out of the backroom of his shop where he keeps his trophies, mannequins adorned with the scalps of his victims and their outfits, he notices a pretty blonde girl outside his shop with a camera. He opens up the gate to talk to her and learns that her name is Anna (Nora Arnezeder) and she tells him she's a photographer who ‘tries to bring mannequins to life with light.' Given that his shop is full of old mannequins from decades past, she's interested in shooting some of what he has. He lets her in, they talk, and soon enough he's agreed to let her use some of his pieces at a gallery showing that she's in the midst of organizing. They strike up a friendship, take in a screening of The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari and all seems to be going well until Frank learns she has a boyfriend. At that point, he starts to take his obsession with Anna to the next level, with predictably horrifying results.
This take on Maniac literally lets us see all of this unfold from the eyes of the killer. It's an interesting technique that takes a few minutes to get used to. While it seems gimmicky, maybe even annoying, at first once you settle into it, this turns out to be a pretty effective way to tell the story. Adding to this are some interesting flashbacks and hallucinations, also shown from Frank's point of view and helping to further put us into his deranged psyche. It's here that we learn that he sees certain women as victims before the urge to kill takes him and it's here that we learn that much of what is wrong with him would seem to stem back to his mother's overtly sexual behavior around him at a young age. There's no doubt he was abused, if not physically then very much psychologically and emotionally, it those scars run deep.
Wood, small in stature and almost meek looking compared to the loud, chubby, larger than life Spinell, makes the part his own. He's good at playing timid characters, and Frank, while psychotic, is definitely timid. In fact, his online dating profile the one he uses to lure an unfortunate victim early on, says as much. When she takes him back to her place and plies him with wine in order to get him into bed, she has to almost force him to get into the act. Frank is shy in many ways and Wood not only acts the part but he looks it as well. He doesn't have loads of dialogue but when he does, he delivers with convincingly enough and the bits and pieces of internal monologue we hear as he talks to himself have an effective sense of desperation to them. The flipside of his work is pretty Nora Arnezeder as the French photographer. She has the confidence that he does not and the attraction he understandably perceives as there actually seems to at least temporarily calm him a bit. Of course, it won't end well, that's no surprise, but the dynamic that the movie develops between the two leads is well handled.
The movie features some pretty strong gore, the scalpings are nasty and the knifings quite bloody. There's some graphic sex in the film and the camera does not shy away from the more exploitative side of things. Had they watered this down, well, it wouldn't have been Maniac. The pedigree of the title alone implies a certain amount of nastiness and this remake delivers it. This one doesn't beat the original for seediness or nastiness but it comes close. It also moves at a noticeably faster pace and features some good acting from all involved. Was a remake of Lustig's film necessary? Absolutely not, but it's here and it's actually been done surprisingly well.
Maniac arrives on Blu-ray from IFC, framed at 2.39.1 in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. For the most part, the image here is good. Some minor compression artifacts are evident in the darker scenes as is some visible noise in the scenes shot without much light but these aren't really all that distracting, even if they are there. Detail is pretty good, as is texture, and while the movie isn't particularly colorful, the hues used in the movie are replicated well, the sickly red blood standing out against the grimy backgrounds rather well. Black levels are solid and as this was shot on digital video, there's no such thing as print damage. All in all, not a reference quality transfer but one that definitely feels true to source and which probably recreates the theatrical image quality pretty accurately.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix on the disc is top notch. Surround activity and directional effects play a big role in creating some solid tension and atmosphere, be it the ominous sound of an old van firing up its engine and driving slowly down an empty street following a lone woman or the chaos that ensues during Frank's eventual visit to Anna's apartment. The score is used very effectively and spread out nicely while dialogue stays crisp, clean and very clear. As it is with the visuals, so too is it with the sound design in that the audio is constructed in such a way that we effectively hear what Frank hears. It's an interesting gimmick but one that is employed very well here. Of course, this being brand new and all, there are no issues with hiss or distortion to note. An optional English language LPCM 2.0 track is included as are removable subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
The supplements begin with an audio commentary in which director Franck Khalfoun is joined by leading man Elijah Wood and executive producer Alix Taylor to talk about the up's and down's of bringing this project to completion. They talk about the effects work, location shooting and casting the picture but also talk about what they tried to do a little differently here, the POV shooting style and offer up some interesting stories about what it was like on set. It's a fairly active track with a good flow to it.
Complimenting this rather well is a lengthy sixty-six minute long Making Of Maniac documentary that includes a load of clips from the movie alongside some fairly interesting behind the scenes footage interspersed with some cast and crew interviews. All of the principals are involved here and everyone has a story to tell. A lot of the clips shot during the production are interesting to see as they show how some of the trickier first person shots were accomplished. They also give us some insight as to how everyone got along and what it was all like working together on the picture.
Aside from that we get four minutes of deleted scenes (these are quick but shed some light on the necklace Frank gives Anna, offer up a bit of extra gore and also elaborate on Frank's stalking of one of his early victims among other things), a short still gallery of poster art and a trailer for the feature. Menus and chapter stops are also included and previews for a few unrelated IFC properties play before the main menu loads. One other item of note: the cover art is reversible, with the big ol' Elijah Wood head displayed on one side and the more controversial mannequin one sheet displayed on the other.
The 2012 remake of Maniac does what few remakes manage to do, and that's take inspiration from the film that inspired it and to tell a similar story while giving things its own spin and remaining true to what made that first film interesting in the first place. This doesn't reinvent the wheel but it does use the POV idea very well and the performances are quite good. This movie is slick, violent, edgy without trying to be hip and quite intense and IFC's Blu-ray release of it looks good, sounds even better and offers up very good supplements too. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.