It’s partially Jonathan Demme’s fault that Franck Khalfoun’s MANIAC doesn’t quite work as well at it should.
For the first twenty minutes or so, MANIAC, a remake of William Lustig’s 1980 film that’s often name-checked among the dingiest films in grindhouse history, maintains a solidly consistent tone, following the exploits of serial killer and mannequin enthusiast Frank (Elijah Wood) as he stalks and murders a young woman, and then sets up a date with another potential victim. Except for dream sequences, the film is entirely shot from Frank’s point of view – with the exception of brief moments in which Frank encounters a mirror, we rarely see Wood on screen, and only feel the performance through his breathy narration and the superior camera work of Maxime Alexandre.
The whispering serial killer has become such a cliché in film that this honestly shouldn’t have worked at all. Lustig’s original lucked upon a captivating performance by Joe Spinell, whose greasy, ill-kempt character was both repellant and strangely compelling, and the loner whose murderous intentions are highlighted by just sounding creepy hadn’t yet been used by countless direct-to-video thrillers and made-for-cable potboilers. It also had the benefit of being shot in the Times Square area, circa 1979, a locale that allowed a movie to scream “creepy” without having to cast a single extra as a vagrant.
Despite relocating the film to Los Angeles and setting the film in the present, however, the brooding, dingy tone of MANIAC is kept intact. Even though his performance is rarely on screen, Wood devours his role that, admirably, feels creepy and strangely sympathetic. The opening sequence is a thing of quiet beauty, one that caused the audience at Chicago’s C2E2, who hosted a screening of the film this past weekend, to burst into applause when the title came up.
And then, for a moment, the carefully-orchestrated tone that could so easily be pushed into camp at any moment actually tip over and become silly. And it’s all Jonathan Demme’s fault.
The moment comes after Frank and Lucie, a woman he’s met online played by Megan M. Duffy, go back to her place after having meeting for dinner. (The fact that Lucie asking Frank back to her place is believable despite Frank’s quiet nature and restaurant freak-out is a testament to how consistent the film has been up to this point — it also helps that Lucie clearly isn’t the brightest bulb.) Lucie goes to the stereo for some make-out music, putting on a song she says she loves.
That song is Q Lazzarus’s “Goodbye Horses.” You may not know it by name, but you’ll certainly recognize the melody, as Demme’s use of the song in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a cultural touchstone at this point – it’s the song Jame Gumm is listening to as he dances around his apartment. It’s as noteworthy a use of a song in film as Steelers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” is in RESERVOIR DOGS, and few genre fans can hear it without suddenly wanting to strip, tuck their cock between their legs and find a mirror with which to ask, “Do you want to fuck me?”
(You know you do. You do, don’t know? I’m not alone here. I KNOW I’M NOT ALONE.)
You can’t hear “Goodbye Horses” without thinking of Buffalo Bill’s assertion that he’d fuck himself, and the use of the song in MANIAC throws the delicately-crafted tone headlong into campsville, as it’s as though the filmmakers have suddenly chosen to make a tongue-in-cheek serial killer movie that does coy references to other serial killer movies. It’s an odd choice, but one that’s even more perplexing as the song itself fits the movie perfectly – the music in MANIAC is as carefully put together as the music for DRIVE in terms of capturing the hollow misery in a timeless way, and “Goodbye Horses” is a beautifully melancholy song that should fit into the moment like an overplayed ‘70s R&B staple fits snugly into a Robert Zemeckis film.
Instead of carrying the tone of loneliness and despair, however, you just end up thinking about Ted Levine’s tucked junk, and it was hard to suppress giggles in what was clearly building to be a disturbing sequence. The audience I saw the film didn’t manage to hold back laughter, and it made the subsequent moments of Lucie giving Frank head as he looks at himself in the mirror over her bed seem more comical than creepy, and the murder of Lucie itself, a brutal act that should have been one of the film’s creepiest moments, just awkward.
It’s a strange stumble, and one that MANIAC does eventually recover from, thanks to Khalfoun’s assured direction (a genuine surprise, as his only previous features as a director were the direct-to-video Cuba Gooding Jr. thriller WRONG TURN AT TAHOE and the mediocre parking garage stalker flick P2) and committed performances by Wood and Nora Arnezender (SAFE HOUSE), who plays a young artist fascinated by Frank’s mannequins and Frank himself. The murders are grim and not so much gory as it is brutal, with violence that should work as a gut-punch to all but the most jaded viewers.
The original MANIAC has certainly had accusations of misogyny thrown in its direction, and the remake is likely to be accused of the same (in the remake, Frank is exclusively a killer of women, and he seems to actively discourage any kind of socialization with men) but in reality, the films are both intriguing character studies of a man with severe issues with women over anything else. While relentlessly downbeat, both the original and remake could be accused of misanthropy as well, but in both cases, there’s enough care taken into the portrayals of the characters to make them into believable, if irreparably flawed, human beings.
Those that are automatically dismissive of remakes won’t necessarily find a reason for a new version of MANIAC to have been made, but Khalfoun and co-writers Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur have managed to give what would seem at first to be a film very much of its time enough of a modern take to be worth recommending. It’s certainly a much better “grindhouse” film than many of the recent takes on the genre that throw in tons of exploitation elements but forget about the artistry and tone that made the best exploitation films of the part so memorable, even if it does make the occasional misstep.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some mirror dancing to do.
– Paul Freitag-Fey
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