Maniac (2012) (US - BD RA)
Gabe checks out the best-made and most unique horror remake in years...
Frank Zito(Elijah Wood) leads a deceptively peaceful life. To the outside world, he's a withdrawn and somewhat eccentric owner of a mannequin store. But his quiet façade masks an inner rage that forces him to brutally kill and scalp the women who get too close to him. When a young artist named Anna (Nora Arnezeder) appears one day at Frank's shop and asks for his help with her new exhibition, Frank develops an obsession with her that threatens to completely destroy his already fragile psyche. Soon the streets become unsafe for any woman after dark as this newly awakened maniac begins to stalk and kill. (From IFC’s official synopsis)
Over the past decade, horror remakes have gone from big business to moderate business. All the while, filmmakers have failed to produce more than a handful of films that od anything unique or subversive with the material they’re recycling. At this point, fans still protest the concept of some know-nothing, Johnny-come-lately remaking one of our favourite horror classics, but our hearts aren’t really in it. We know the new versions will be in and out of theaters in a few weeks and forgotten. After reinventing Wes Craven’s Hills Have Eyes into arguably the only post-2004 remake that actually improves on the original, French filmmaker Alexandre Aja has made a brand for himself as Messieur Horror Remake (he also remade Kim Sung-ho’s Into the Mirror and Joe Dante’s Piranha). When he announced that he was developing a remake of Bill Lustig’s Maniac most of us were nominally intrigued. When he announced it would be shot almost entirely from the killer’s point-of-view and that the killer would be played by cherubic good guy Elijah Wood, we realized that he might be on to something.
Lustig’s film was often lumped in with the ‘80s slasher boom, but it doesn’t really fit the bill. Slasher movies are fun, formulaic rides, whereas Maniac was oppressive and structured around the killer, instead of the victims. The bleak atmosphere was enough to alienate mainstream audiences, who preferred to ignore it in favour of the latest generic slasher sequel. Lustig’s film wallows in a sweaty New York hellscape worthy of other relentlessly sleazy horror/dramas, like Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. We are so focused on the experience of understanding Frank Zito that shooting the remake in the first person makes sense. The subjective camerawork is certainly a gimmick – not even one that the filmmakers entirely stick to – but it fits the material in a way it wouldn’t fit a Friday the 13th remake (nobody cares about Jason Voorhees’ day job). Joe Spinell is so naturally slimy it’s hard to remember he’s not actually a psychopath – he’s a successful ‘70s character actor that wrote himself a meaty role he could sink his teeth into. In lesser hands, this remake would mindlessly reproduce his version of Frank, right down to the greasy hair and potbelly. Hiring Elisha Wood to play the character without making drastic changes to his story was almost as brilliant a move as shooting through his big, doe-like eyes. Wood’s softer demeanor and good looks changes the experience without changing the text, which is possibly the most interesting way to approach a direct remake like this one.
Back in 1980, Lustig was an unknown and his relative amateurism went a long way towards the believably suffocating atmosphere in the original film. It was as if serial killer Frank Zito had just hired some guy off the street to film his exploits. For the remake, Aja chose to work only as writer & producer only and went to his P2 collaborator, Franck Khalfoun, as director. Khalfoun doesn’t try to recreate Lustig’s on-the-fly, pseudo-vérité look, opting instead for a more technically fastidious and surprisingly glossy approach. He maintains the first person illusion without being entirely tethered to it – there are a handful of choice moments where he breaks with the format and delve into more surrealistic/dream-like imagery. The obvious reason for the POV is to stick the audience in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with a serial killer on a physical level. Of course, it’s much harder to develop suspense when the audience is complacent in the murders, but Khalfoun manages to eek quite a bit of tension out of the situation. During the film’s most stressful moments, he even plays our loyalties to Frank against us, positioning us to root for and against him at the same time. Shooting the film through Frank’s eyes also allows the director to recreate his schizophrenic hallucinations and massive migraine headaches onscreen, which he does with relatively little digital enhancement. The gory violence is tastefully augmented via digital compositing, but these, too, are largely created using much older techniques, many championed by the original film’s effects artist, Tom Savini.
The screenplay, co-written by Aja, Grégory Levasseur, and C.A. Rosenberg, is more or less structured around the original script (which was written by Spinell), frugally spicing it up with cosmetic changes (Frank makes a living repurposing mannequins, not as a landlord) and updating it with technological advances (Frank finds victims via a dating site). The simplicity and general lack of plotting arc are clearly the only way to approach the material, but the writers stick so close to the source that they lose some points for not matching the subversive imagery with more subversive storytelling. For example, the majority of the people Frank meets (aside from Anna) are either so obnoxious or unnecessarily cruel people that the audience kind of wants him to kill them. We are aware of the damage their deaths do to Frank’s psyche, but that’s the only real tragedy in the case of most of the murders. It could be argued that this was part of the process of immersing the audience in Frank’s perspective – that we’re meant to experience these people through his filters – but there isn’t much evidence outside of his mentally ill frame of reference that marks these people as anything less than mean-spirited and/or annoying. It feels like a too lazy a decision for such a smartly crafted movie to make. I also found the extra added back-story written to explain Frank’s behavior a bit lazy on paper (though, again, in keeping with the spirit of the original), but it works well within context of film, where his hallucinations are altered to include images of Mommy doing horrible things.
Maniac was shot using the relatively portable Red Epic camera and is presented here in 2.35:1, 1080p video. Khalfoun and cinematographer (and frequent Aja collaborator) Maxime Alexandre aim for a relatively natural look, but definitely embrace the format’s consistent colours to portray more subtly garish neon hues. The nighttime palette has a semi-green tint to its steely bases and is brimming with busy neon highlights. The daylight palette is warmer, but more washed out, and usually highlighted with more pastel-like hues. All of these colours are very rich and the purity ensures that the stylistic contrasts really pop. Detail and patterns are complex without risking the slicker gradient blend qualities (you can see the grit under Franks finger nails and the fine dots of the city’s skyline). Foreground edges are sharp without enhancement effects, but some of the unfocused backgrounds do appear a bit blobby between gradation blends. The darker sequences are flecked with fine compression noise, but such is the consequence of shooting with source lighting. The brighter, blooming edges also have minor issues with banding effects. The black levels are mostly deep with slight cross-colouration during those noisier, dark scenes.
This disc’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack isn’t a complete practice is aural immersion, but doesn’t entirely wrap itself up in recreating the ‘reality’ of the subjective environment, like one’s own head. Wood’s dialogue is appropriately muffled, yet louder than the rest of the track, as it would sound inside the actor’s skull, but it also keeps the words situated in the center channel – it doesn’t trickle into the stereo channels. Directional effects are held back for more dynamic movements, though there are plenty of more subtle, incidental additions, like buzzing flies, passing cars, and the walla of people having fun at a party. The sound design grows a lot stronger and more aggressive during Frank’s migraine attacks/fits of crazy, including ringing and buzzing noise that press out of the stereo and surround channels and overwhelm all other sound. Composer Raphaël Hamburger’s (aka: Rob) music recalls the original film’s disco-friendly ‘80s sound, but infuses it with a distinctly modern electronic noise. The music isn’t particularly melodic, aside from a few key sequences, but underlines the creeping dread and spikes the occasional jump-scare quite well. Among the films pop music contributions is Q. Lazzarus’s ‘Good-bye to Horses,’ which some viewers may remember as being featured during Silence of the Lambs’ ‘tucking’ scene.
The extras begin with a commentary track featuring Khalfoun, executive producer Alix Taylor, and Wood. This is a nice enough, but almost frightfully low energy/low volume track. Content-wise, there are some nice discussions about the character’s psychological state and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, but a lot of time is spent praising the cast & crew, numbly talking about how nice a shot looks, or not saying anything at all. Khalfoun, Taylor, and Wood seem like really nice people, but they express themselves much better on the disc’s making-of documentary, so I’d recommend everyone but the film’s biggest fans skip this track.
Speaking of, up next is that making-of documentary (1:06:10, HD), featuring footage from on-set and discussion of the project’s inception, concepts, getting Lustig’s approval, casting, dealing with Frank’s psyche, the technical processes of shooting POV, Wood’s performance behind the camera (including hand doubles and reflection shots), gore/make-up effects, ‘Rob’s’ music, and the film’s Cannes showing. The doc includes interviews with Aja, Khalfoun, Taylor, cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, FX supervisor Mike McCarthy, composer Rob, and actors Wood, Genevieve Alexandra, Megan Duffy, and Jan Broberg. The disc also has a collection of deleted/extended scenes (4:10, HD), a poster gallery, a trailer, and trailers for other IFC releases.
I never doubted that Alexandre Aja’s first-person version of Maniac would be interesting, but I didn’t know that ‘interesting’ would necessarily translate to ‘good.’ He and director Franck Khalfoun don’t simply rest the film on the strength of the concept – they couple it with impeccable technical filmmaking and a powerful central performance to create an eerily moving serial killer movie unlike any other I’ve ever seen (though I was reminded of Gaspar Noé’s non-serial killer, neon-caked, first-person flick, Enter the Void). IFC’s Blu-ray features a beautiful digital transfer, an immersive, but not over-stated DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and a solid behind-the-scenes documentary (you may want to skip the commentary, though).
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 15th October 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, PCM 2.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Director/Producer/Star Commentary, The Making of Maniac, Deleted Scenes, Poster Gallery, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Franck Khalfoun
Cast: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, Genevieve Alexandra, Jan Broberg, Felt Megan, M. Duffy, Liane Balaban, Joshua De La Garza, America Olivo
Genre: Drama, Film-Noir, Horror and Thriller
Length: 89 minutes
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