Remakes often vary — some recreating the original movie almost precisely, like Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO, while others might simply steal the name to create a completely different disaster, like PROM NIGHT. It happens less often that someone takes an original film and uses completely new creative techniques to tell the same story. With the MANIAC films, we get the same basic story, but completely different viewing experiences between the two.
The best way to describe the 1980 original is ‘grimy.’ It’s the New York City often depicted in 1980s horror, where prostitutes work every corner and smoke is constantly billowing from unseen sources. This mood-setting creates an unclean atmosphere from the outset. Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) lives in a cramped apartment, filled with female mannequins which he speaks to as if they were alive. He stalks young women, and ultimately ends up scalping them and placing those scaps on his mannequins. These mannequins then become anthropomorphized, prisoners in his head, all of them inhabited by the personalities of the woman they once were. Frank vents and cries to each of them, but his coping skills aren’t exactly the best. Frank has a bit of an issue with beautiful women, which stems from an abusive childhood, thanks to his mother.
Frank takes prostitutes into seedy motels and asks them to act like models. It doesn’t even seem like it’s sex he’s after — he merely wants to mimic an image he’s been traumatized by. One of the most notable scenes in MANIAC is when a young man (played by Tom Savini himself) is taking a date out for a ride, and his plans for some backseat loving are interrupted by a shotgun-wielding Frank, who blows the young man’s head off in a seriously convincing effect. Despite these nocturnal activities, Frank eventually meets a photographer, Anna (Caroline Munro), who he takes a legitimate interest in. He takes her out on a date and finds she seems to be one of the most genuine women he’s met. However, he goes crazy on their date after taking her to his mother’s grave. She fights back, and makes it out alive. Frank goes back home, and finds his mannequins are ‘alive’ and out for vengeance. They carry his weapons and literally tear his body apart, in probably my favorite scene in the movie. It’s probably a head-scratcher for the casual viewer, but hopefully the final scene makes it more understandable, as police arrive (probably phoned in by Anna) and find Frank’s dead body, the result of a suicide.
MANIAC was never a popular movie, or something often referenced to when discussing horror movies. It’s not necessarily scary, and never really attempted to change the landscape of cinema, but it did develop a cult following, resulting in a few special edition home video releases. Funding for the film was taken literally out of the filmmakers’ pockets (Spinell also serves as a cowriter), and the guerilla-style filmmaking only adds a sense of authenticity. An interesting tidbit is that the pop song “Maniac,” now famous for being the theme for FLASHDANCE, was originally written for this film, with a slight change of tone. (Oh, if only we could live in an alternate reality.) Its use of gruesome special effects, and the way it allowed the killer to be the lead, helped make MANIAC stand out as a more alternative character study piece. The title is more than fitting as Frank defines the conventional understanding of a psychopath, but we also get a glimpse into what creates a murderer. He’s one hell of a sad person, and his need for companionship will never be fulfilled.
Two decades later, French director Franck Khalfoun partnered up with Alexandre Aja (HAUTE TENSION) to put together a remake of MANIAC. The pair came up with a unique take, this time by not only continuing to let us follow the villain, but having audiences to literally see through the eyes of a killer. Most of the film is shot in POV style, with the occasional pan away, where we watch the action in an outer-body experience, including an all-too-realistic scalping that’ll make anyone cringe. Elijah Wood takes over the role of Frank, still awkward, but also awkwardly cute. We can see why beautiful women would want to hook up with him and see his weirdness as almost endearing. When Frank gets panic attacks, the screen loses focus. He’s on medications that help keep him functional, but still don’t prevent him from scalping his victims while they are still alive and place them on mannequins. We get to actually witness his childhood, as his mother wasn’t the most discreet when it came to sleeping with men and making that their dirty little secret.
Wood might not have anything physically in common with Spinell, but the casting choice is interesting, because Wood has a youthful yet damaged look. His version of Zito wants to be a good man, but his childhood trauma has already done its damage. In this version, he restores old department store mannequins, and Anna (Nora Arnezeder) is a photographer who partners up with him in order to create an art exhibit utilizing the mannequins. Their friendship is innocent enough until he meets the other people in her life, and then he loses control again.
Anna almost gets away in this version, but is thrown out a windshield in a sick car sequence that has to be seen to be believed. As she lies bleeding to death from her injuries, Frank scalps her for his final mannequin, who is dressed like a bride. The mannequins come to life in the form of the women they once were, and they tear his face off to reveal the mannequin within himself, the one he’s been so scared he was becoming throughout the film.
The remake carries on the character-study feel, but on a more personal level. The feelings of unease come as this time around, we are forced to watch the violence unfold and literally see Frank’s hallucinations through his eyes. Both versions of Frank are tragic killers, but death is still probably the best ending for either one of them. The damage is done and their relationships with women are not something to embrace. Although released in 2012, Khalfoun’s take on MANIAC is accompanied by an ’80s-style synth score by French composer Rob. As a result, the murder scenes take on a more delirious feeling, filled both with dread and an almost erotic sensation that makes it all more unsettling.
This is not an easy “which version is better?” type situation, as both MANIACs feel like unique visions on the same story. I will say that I love both movies, and feel each have something different to offer. The techniques enlisted represent the style of their particular filmmakers, and the remake doesn’t feel like some cash cow. Both are a must for horror fans, especially for those interested in successful remakes.
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