Taking a largely first-person perspective to its otherwise mostly faithful adaptation of William Lustig's grimy, unrelenting 1980 cult classic, 2013's "Maniac" aims to delve into the diseased mind of serial killer Frank Zito (Elijah Wood) by sticking to his point-of-view (for the majority of screen time, he's only seen via reflections). A human predator with pent-up mommy issues, Frank prowls the streets of Los Angeles hunting his next female prey, each perverse and inevitably lethal encounter culminating in their own scalping. Having taken over his late family's mannequin restoration business, he staple-guns their hair to the dummies and positions them around his dank backroom apartment. Suffice it to say, he's as dangerously insane as he is haunted by the past.
Directed with stylish verve by Franck Khalfoun (2007's "P2
"), this modern "Maniac" certainly doesn't skimp on the unflinching brutality of its subject matter, but, then, neither did the rawer, less slick earlier film. It's an effectively disconcerting horror picture, misogynistic only in that its main character has serious hang-ups with the opposite sex, a step toward any kind of intimacy proving to be a step closer to the poor women's demises. What is, perhaps, a little disappointing is that screenwriters Alexandre Aja & Gregory Levasseur (2008's "Mirrors
") have left out the most memorable set-pieces of the original while not really devising anything new that comes close to their equal. Especially missed is the suspenseful subway chase sequence, which is so briefly recalled here it's no more than a complete afterthought.
Bringing the story into a new century, Frank doesn't just follow women off the streets, but scours dating sites. His dinner date with one Internet acquaintance, Lucie (Megan Duffy), leads to a creepy, deliberate unfolding of events in her apartment, indelibly underscored by Q. Lazzarus' "Goodbye Horses" (it can't possibly be a coincidence that this song was previouslyand unforgettablyused in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs"). Meanwhile, Frank does finally meet someone who gets his heart beating ever faster. Her name is Anna (Nora Arnezeder), and she is a photographer specializing in mannequin art. They'd be a perfect match if, you know, Frank wasn't a murderous psychopath.
Elijah Wood (2012's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
") wouldn't normally be a casting director's first choice for the bad guy role, but what is so intriguingly different here is that Frank is both the villain and a tragic figure unable to break free from his homicidal urges. Wood is creepily menacing in the part, his internal voice-over going a long way toward filling in the blanks of a character that the viewer tirelessly follows but rarely sees. As Anna, Nora Arnezeder (2012's "Safe House
") makes believable that she would be drawn to Frank, though why no one seems to notice his perpetually skinned and dirtied-up hands is anyone's guess. In a picture that rarely gets close to its female characters since they so quickly tend to drop like flies, Arnezeder plays her scenes as if she were in a romantic drama. She'd have a better chance of living to see the closing credits if she was.
"Maniac" is respectful of its name's enduring history within the horror genre (and let's take this moment to also gush about the mesmerizing throwback music score by Rob), but as is so often the case with remakes, it's no match for what William Lustig achieved thirty-plus years ago. Unwilling to follow suit with the open-ended bang of its precursor, the gruesome, chilling conclusion keeps going past where it should have cut to black, tacking on a last shot that spells things out and snatches the lingering mystique of what it could have been. Warts and all, "Maniac" still does what it should, digging under the skin and never for a second shying away from the grim realities of a protagonist who's not only an antagonist as well, but a violent sociopath. Next time out, director Franck Khalfoun would be wise to realize that less is more and explanations are sometimes overrated.