William Lustig is a personal hero of mine. A few years back, I got to meet him at a screening of a newly struck 35mm print of MANIAC, and had the pleasure of sitting through a Q&A in which Lustig went into everything from his days directing porn to the legacy of late, great character actor, Joe Spinell, whose performance as the titular homicidal momma’s boy is nothing short of iconic in the eyes of horror fans. After the Q&A, I approached the legendary grindhouse director* and had him sign a copy of my VIGILANTE blu ray, all the while marveling at just how warm and friendly the big man from 42nd Street was.
So when I heard that his notorious slasher landmark was set to be remade under the supervision of Producer Alexandre Aja (a man whose work I have an admittedly difficult relationship with), it’s safe to say that I was skeptical of the film’s chances at best and downright terrified of the prospect at worst. The original was a distinct product of its times; a movie steeped in Time Square sleaze that made you uneasy from frame one, and utilized the griminess of late ’70s/early ’80s New York to the point where the city itself became a supporting character. How the hell was this feeling going to be replicated in today’s white-washed, homogenized horror world?
These feelings of cynicism were greatly allayed once Elijah Wood signed on to fill Spinell’s shoes and claim a few scalps of his own. Wood is a performer who has no problem taking risks and subverting his own image, and anybody who has seen SIN CITY knows that his baby blues can turn from adorable to downright terrifying at the actor’s behest. But beyond trusting the diminutive thespian, it showed that Franck Khalfoun (writer/director of the abysmal P2) was taking a distinctively different approach to the material. Gone was the sweaty, hulking beast that stalked women on the beaches and in the subways of Manhattan, replaced with a boyish introvert who you wouldn’t mind your daughter bringing home to dinner…until he started to wear her face as a mask.
There really isn’t any point in comparing the two films beyond simple story beats, as Khalfoun has opted to shoot nearly the entire film from the perspective of Frank, the psychopath at the center of the story. Where Lustig’s film only adopted the usual, greasy lensed slasher film perspective for the “stalking sequences”, we see Wood’s Frank do everything from dressing up mannequins in his apartment to shoving a knife through the bottom of a woman’s jaw through his own monstrous eyes. It’s an interesting gimmick (and make no mistake, it is a gimmick) that almost feels like a play on the found footage aesthetic that has overtaken horror and mixes it with another tried and true filmmaking technique slasher fans are familiar with (the aforementioned Carpenter POV shot). He’s dressing old tropes in new digs, which simultaneously gives the film both an experimental and routine feel.
It’s when Khalfoun abandons his own gimmick that the movie fails slightly. It doesn’t happen often (one murder about mid-way through is particularly notable), but the camera will break from this First Person Perspective to adopt the usual Third Person Omnipresent Eye. And while it’s understandable as to why Khalfoun does this (usually to show more of the brutal violence), it almost feels as if the young director doesn’t fully trust his own vision. That being said, the final twenty minutes or so are downright harrowing, as the violence finally explodes and escalates to a level that almost feels unnaturally heightened. But because we’re inside of the Maniac’s head for nearly the entire run-time, it feels natural to the world and perspective that Khalfoun has created.
Yet another reason why the POV gimmick works for the most part is due to the fact that, when combined with Wood’s excellently nebbish performance, we as an audience start to strangely empathize with Frank. We get to know what his struggles are, day in and out, and when he begins a doomed romance with Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a young artist who finds our antihero not just fascinating, but slightly alluring, the true nature of his insanity is revealed. During their first date, we see the walls begin to cave in on Frank, as he thinks that everyone in the restaraunt is staring at him, knowing just what kind of beast he truly is. It’s an arresting bit of visual story-telling, and proof that Khalfoun is more than capable at creating cinematic paranoia.
While there isn’t anything that’s going to blow horror fans’ minds quite like Tom Savini’s early gore work (shotgun to the face!), the MANIAC remake is definitely worth their ninety minutes. A brutal descent into madness, the film does what all early directorial efforts should: it made me want to see more from the man behind the camera. And while the movie still has yet to receive a date from IFC Films here in the US, fans in the UK should definitely do their damnedest to seek this psychotic vision out on the big screen in March. Not only is it worthy of Lustig’s name (who also acts as a co-producer with his Blue Underground Films), but is also a solid upate on a nefarious bit of cinematic blood-letting.
*This is sort of a lie, as I was geeking out so hard my lovely wife, Sarah, had to do most of the talking for me.