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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Remakes: Redux, or Ridiculous -- Mothers, Mannequins & Maniacs


In December, 1980, William Lustig's controversial horror favorite, MANIAC, was unleashed onto an unsuspecting world. It caused a critical uproar and media frenzy in relation to the films unrelenting array of savage violence and misogyny. It's among a handful of rough and rowdy genre pictures whose reputation is warranted -- remaining a powerful work some 33 years after its initial release. 

Fast forward to 2011, French filmmaker Alexandre Aja produced (along with his frequent writer/producer collaborator, Gregory Levasseur) a remake of the infamous slasher/character study with a mostly French crew and Franck Khalfoun directing. Below are my thoughts in how the new picture compares to the original shocker, and also notations of some of the similarities and differences between the two films.


MANIAC (1980) is a brutal, uncompromising motion picture that dwells on its viciousness. When it's not depicting women being terrorized, strangled, stabbed and scalped, its story unfolds almost entirely from the perspective of the title psychopath. Technically not a slasher movie, the movie begins much like a typical stalk and slash picture, but quickly descends into the all-encompassing madness of its title character for the remainder of its 90 minutes. This dedication to unsettle and nauseate the audience works perfectly. The slummy tinge of the 80s NYC only enhances the raw ambiance. However, the oppressive mean-spiritedness may leave some viewers cold to its touch. And therein lies the power and divisiveness of Lustig's movie. Much of the original films power lies in its lead star, Joe Spinell.

This shot, a reflection of the killer, is an homage to the original films iconic poster artwork.
The MANIAC remake evokes a faithfulness to Lustig's original that is commendable, and, like Aja's own HILLS HAVE EYES (2006) remake, installs a handful of alterations (some bigger than others) that deviate from what has come before. Moreover, its glossiness fails to achieve any semblance of reality that was captured the first time around. While visually striking and beautifully photographed, it's no match for Joe Spinell's soul-shattering one-man-freakshow that permeates every frame of the 1980 movie; which leads us to this particular films meat and potatoes...


Freddy Krueger was nothing without Robert Englund and Frank Zito just doesn't feel right without the irrepressibly lovable Joe Spinell filling those psycho killer shoes. He is the heart of the picture, so it's difficult to imagine anybody else essaying this role other than Spinell. His character quirks and nuances are stamped all over the film. MANIAC is literally 90 minutes of cinematic Joe onscreen. He does a magnificent job becoming this epically deranged character. So finding the right actor to even come close to emulating Spinell's unstable performance is no easy task.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers went for a daring choice in casting Elijah Wood, of all people. Apparently, a lot of folks who've seen the new film feel Wood does a great job in the part; and he does, only I had difficulty feeling any sense of revulsion emanating from his portrayal of a wacko with a mother complex. Spinell's serial killer is ripped from the headlines. Wood is little more than a standard horror movie villain enhanced by an ambitious gimmick (discussed below).

There have been some very successful remakes such as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) and some duds like FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009) and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010). So what makes a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie? It's Jason, but moreover it's the violence Jason brings to those horny teenagers. People go to see the kills and the remake didn't deliver any that stood out. So what makes a NIGHTMARE movie? It's the wicked personality, and nightmarish world of Freddy Krueger, and the limp remake didn't have those, either.

Frank Zito, as played by Joe Spinell, is what makes MANIAC (1980) an unsettling experience. Tom Savini's splattery gore effects stand out as appalling displays of latex craftsmanship; but without that frighteningly effective portrayal of Frank, the gore is all you got. And for all the glossy bells and whistles, and tip o' the hat from the remake, that's ultimately all it has, too.

Elijah Wood (Frodo in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies) plays Frank much differently in the remake. The mother complex remains, but his insecurities emerge when in the company of women (see above photo). He not only hates them, but he's terrified of them; all but Anna, at least. This is in direct contradiction with Spinell's interpretation of the character. He's very friendly and something of a ladies man on occasion, at least till his evil side surfaces. In regards to Anna, both Frank's want to kill her, but they're intrigued by her because of their shared interest in "keeping beauty alive forever."

In Lustig's movie, Frank was anything but indifferent towards the fairer sex. He was a charmer. He could mask that evil behind his smile. This is what made Spinell's Frank Zito real and frightening -- he could be your neighbor, or blend in with the crowd virtually unnoticed. Not so with Wood's depiction of Frank, who draws attention to himself, and stumbles around in broad daylight suffering from recurring headaches.

Khalfoun's movie integrates a unique innovation that, at least in my eyes, proves to be the films biggest detriment when compared with the original movie. It's shot almost entirely from a first person perspective. A lot of reviewers state that this approach made them feel compliant, or taking part in the murder scenes as if they were the killer. I never felt this way. I guess I couldn't get past the fact that Elijah Wood was nowhere near the ballpark where Joe Spinell was hitting home runs with his skin-crawling rendition of the composite killer he wrote for himself.

We rarely ever see Wood -- save for reflections in mirrors and objects; and moments when he's committing some of the kill scenes. We barely ever see Wood actually acting out the role of Frank. We hear him occasionally, but all the jittery mannerisms, odd bodily movements, groans, heavy breathing, and unnervingly teary delivery brought to life by Joe Spinell is totally lost here. 

Furthermore, Frank Zito's past isn't visualized via flashbacks in Lustig's picture. We get just enough information through Spinell's line delivery. On the remakes side of the coin, we are shown a series of flashbacks as opposed to envisioning his sickening upbringing in our minds. Ironically, we're denied Frank's pain exuded from the actors body language in the new film since we hardly ever see him.

For me, this was the portion of the movie I was partially intrigued and leery of prior to seeing it -- wondering just how Elijah Wood's interpretation was going to turn out. He didn't seem the right actor for it, and after seeing the film, I maintain that opinion. I recall the original films director, William Lustig suggested Tom Sizemore for the role, which was an interesting, and more logical choice. Still, it was an unusual, and brave gamble the filmmakers made in casting the title role. Most seem pleased with it; only in my opinion, it wasn't the right decision.


The original movie uses all practical effects. There was no choice, obviously. Tom Savini's juicy exploding heads, severed limbs, scalpings and other latex 'n blood magic still look good today. Despite the extreme nature of the gore, only the exploding head scene is lingered upon for any length of time. The camera stays on it till the last piece of brain matter and scraps of skull rest against the blood-stained car interior. There's also a fairly uncomfortable strangling that seems to go on forever. Suffocation is one of the numerous plot details imported from William Lustig's original movie.

The new film mixes practical gore with (occasionally) unconvincing computer generated violence. The scalpings are front and center here, and we see a few of them in graphic detail. The original only had one that was shown (see insert), but we never saw the entire skin and hair removal. The new film revels in them. However, some of the scalping effects are a bit cartoony; particularly the one at the beginning. Frank has barely cut into the girls forehead and her entire scalp comes loose like a wet band-aid. One of the later scalpings is far more grotesque, and that's because it appears to give Frank some trouble cutting it off.

Compared to other remakes that are as good as, or, dare I say, better than their originals, the 2012 MANIAC is, while very well made, an average remake. For me, this is based solely on what made the original movie so memorably reprehensible -- Joe Spinell's skin-crawling portrayal. Elijah Wood just doesn't do it for me. Below are a list of ten comparisons and alterations between the two movies -- a few of which were mentioned above.

1. The 80s MANIAC showcases a Frank Zito with a disturbing fascination with mannequins and bloody scalps of the women he kills. Not only does he use them as bizarre examples of art, he also sleeps with them. While we spend the entire film with Frank, we never see him at a job other than stalking and killing women. He later tells Anna (Caroline Munro) that he's a painter. We do see various paintings adorning his walls presumably done by him (see background of insert photo).

The MANIAC of 2012 inherits his family's business where he partakes in antique restoration with an accent towards repairing mannequins. Unlike the first movie, we actually see our killer at work performing duties that don't always involve butchering women. His usage of mannequins mirrors that of the 1980 movie.

2. The locale of MANIAC (1980) was NYC. The limited, but grimy settings added an element of societal decay that only reinforces the films raw brutality.

The new MANIAC (2012) takes place in Los Angeles. Aside from a couple street shots in and around a theater marquee, the locations are as glossy and clean as the film stock. This is a stark contrast to the squalidity seen in Lustig's movie.

3. The character of Anna (played by Caroline Munro in the original and Nora Arnezeder in the remake) is a photographer in both pictures. She's single in the 1980 movie and there are hints she's possibly attracted to Frank on a romantic level.

In the 2012 version, you're led to believe Anna's single, and possibly interested in Frank; he's definitely interested in her, but an abrupt revelation late in the film reveals she has a boyfriend already.

4. In the original movie, Frank's attraction to Anna stems from her photographic profession. His "profession", twisted as it is, involves capturing a woman's beauty by removing their scalps and attaching them to store mannequins. His works of art are completed by dressing them in the dead women's attire. As short-lived as their relationship is, Anna is the first woman he shows any level of moderate affection for. When he's around her, he's strikingly debonair in this respect -- the antithesis of his evil alter ego.

Frank meets Anna much sooner in the remake; at approximately 20 minutes in (as opposed to 50 minutes into the original). Frank's infatuation with her is also more profound in the new film. The new Frank is not the suave ladies man of Lustig's film. He never appears confident, and is overly nervous and rattled during close, intimate encounters with females.

5. Spinell's Frank relays to Anna that his mother was killed in an automobile accident when he was a young boy. Through some of Frank's monologues, we can speculate that he may have actually killed his mother at some point. We also see (and hear) that his mother was abusive to him both physically and mentally.

Wood's version of Frank explains to Anna that his mother passed away the previous summer. Unlike the first movie, we see a few flashbacks showing Frank's mother prostituting herself in front of him. The physical abuse aspect is vague, or absent altogether. So we're left with a child whose mother's sexual proclivities drove him to become unhinged.

6. Both films have great scores -- the original films soundtrack is a synth driven collection of haunting vocal orations and stinging chords that raise a goosebump or two. The new film is likewise synth driven, and while familiar, it's more melancholy than nerve-jangling. The music by the single named Rob in Khalfoun's movie is extraordinarily good.

7. Joe Spinell's MANIAC is a lumbering slob of a man. He talks to himself, talks to his mannequins, both loves and hates his mother. His body bears scars of an abused upbringing. He even has a couple of shrines to her in his room amidst a gallery of toys, dolls and other childhood paraphernalia. His mannerisms evoke a deeply disturbed individual. He looks scary, and even more so when he turns on his face of normalcy.

Elijah Wood's MANIAC is of slight build, short, and doesn't look threatening at all till he has a bladed implement in his hands. He's withdrawn, gets nervous around women, and also loves and hates his mother. Aside from his bloody mannequin collection, there's nothing else in his room that divulges a twisted connection to his early years. His bodily mannerisms are difficult to ascertain since we rarely ever see him other than hear his voice, or see his hands (which often look really dirty). This love/hate character trait is the only shared emotional quality between the two killers.

8. Both MANIAC's have a fondness for scalping their victims and nailing them to the heads of mannequins. The newer maniac adds some CGI flies swarming around the bloody scalps giving the impression that Frank's domicile might not smell very pleasant. Even so, he lives in the back of his workshop, yet nobody who enters (we only ever see Anna inside the shop) seems to smell anything unusual.

9. MANIAC (1980), outside of a couple brief snippets, unfolds entirely from the killers perspective. The camera rarely leaves his face. The viewer spends 90 minutes with Joe Spinell. We watch him have conversations with himself, to his "collection" -- vocalizing as if his mother is in the room with him. This startling performance is the films greatest strength.

MANIAC (2012) is likewise told from the killers perspective, but takes a novel approach by enabling the viewer to see everything the killer sees from his POV. Save for a handful of scenes, the entire movie unspools from a first person view. This device is an original approach for this sort of movie, but we're robbed of a visualized emotional rollercoaster from the lead actor; or as close to emulating the tour de force that was Joe Spinell. 

10. The original MANIAC concludes with Frank returning to his apartment after chasing, and attempting to kill Anna. Once there, he imagines himself being torn apart by his victims. He's discovered by two cops apparently dead from a self-inflicted stab wound.

The finale of the new MANIAC ends structurally the same way, but dramatically changes some key elements. The only alteration I'll mention is that the finale occurs during broad daylight versus the dark of night from the original.


MANIAC (1980) may not be a mainstream horror favorite, but its notoriety is well deserved. Despite what you may think of it, or how the picture makes you feel viewing it, there's no denying the punch to the gut you receive from watching Joe Spinell masticate scene after scene of one of horrors most vile movies. The violence gets most, if not all the attention, but there's a bounty of expositional loot lying just under the surface.

The new version of MANIAC lacks the wallop of a Spinellian performance, but treats the material respectfully -- much like Aja's prior remake projects. Aside from two major deviations (the POV motif and a portion of the finale), and a few alterations here and there, this would never be mistaken as anything other than a remake of the 1980 movie. It takes some gambles that, in this viewers opinion, never totally pay off. It's a middle of the road remake, but succeeds in regards to production value, direction and a string of creatively gruesome scenes. The latter of which, is the one area where the successor surpasses its descendant. The 2012 interpretation is recommended on its fresh approach, even if this reviewer feels it's not entirely successful in its ambitions.


Maynard Morrissey said...

Wow, very extensive, very insightful comparison.

As you already know, I enjoyed the remake a bit more, mostly because it never bored me, while the original has a few scenes and sequences that were too dull, at least for me.

Spinell is definitely a better and more impressive Frank. I guess, Khalfoun and Aja were aware of the fact that they couldn't top Spinell, and so decided to do a few things different. The POV "gimmick" is not new, but here it works in a marvellous way IMO.

Btw, I've seen the original three times: 2 times on DVD and 1 time on the big screen in 35mm.
The retro screening was fabulous because the 35mm copy was wonderfully gritty and grimy and with a tinge of red. Still, it didn't appeal to me as much as the remake.

venoms5 said...

I did like the movie, just Elijah Wood did nothing for me. I think I had certain expectations since the whole time all I had on my mind was how it was going to be in terms of Spinell's performance. So possibly, I will see it differently after another viewing or two down the road. I do wish Aja would go after something original, but he does know how to do a good, respectable do-over.

Yes, I know the POV isn't new, but it's the first time it's been used like this for this type of movie. At least the filmmakers (on the DVD) and Lustig have said as much, and I can't recall another similar movie like this where it's used. It was a novel approach, but that bugged me, too, because I was expecting something along the lines of the original movie and didn't get that. I'd still give it a six out of ten, though.

Well that's one to you then, Harry. I've never had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen. :p

Actually, I've seen both movies twice since the other night when I wrote this so I doubt I'll be spinning either one of them for a good while, lol.

By the way, it didn't bore me the second time. I think it was just down to my expectations since I hadn't read anything about it prior to buying the DVD.

I would love to get the score on CD!

Kaijinu said...

the fact that we hardly see Elijah Wood in the new Maniac, and the fact that we seem to be "trapped" in his own perspective is probably what makes the remake such a Godsend for me. I love Maniac 80s, I worship it, I shrined it as one of the few slasher films I managed to own in my own effort that actually had something to give back. So you can imagine my skepticisms with a remake, that is, until I finally see it, and hot damn, the impossible happened: two versions, a dang classic in my book.

venoms5 said...

Yes, I was skeptical, too, Kaijinu. The casting was what had me curious. Still, there was enough here I did like, as I pointed out.

The POV style was a nice addition, but as I said in the article, Spinell made such an impression on me, I was expecting a performance that was along those lines, or at least an attempt at one. I am possibly in the minority in my lukewarm response to certain aspects of the picture, but that's how I felt after watching it the first time.

Kaijinu said...

perfectly understandable, mate. I actually felt a bit "home sick" seeing this is an encapsulation of one of the movies that gave me sleepless nights. Spinell was that good...

thetruth said...

Wait - you actually thought that the dark, dreary and misogynistic 1980 flick was BETTER than the re-make?!! HA HA HA HA HA!!! OK, sorry to be so rude, but this is my take: In my humble opinion, this re-make is way, WAY better than the over-rated original. In fact, IMO The original movie DOES NOT DESERVE a re-make THIS GOOD.

I hated the original Maniac - it was not a horror film, it was a 'disgust' film. It spent less time trying to tell a story and more time making me want to take a bath after watching the movie.

You LIKED Spinnell's performance? Granted, it was top-notch, but a LOT of it was mugging for the camera. Plus, Spinnell LOOKS like a sweaty killer in a cop drama - and his scenes with the heroine just didn't ring true - I NEVER bought him as a 'ladies man'.

By contrast, Elijah Wood with his boyish looks, shy demeanour and slight frame, would fool several girls into thinking he's NOT a threat. I thought his casting was genius. The thing that I LOVED about this movie is that the main character kills women so violently because he is TERRIFIED of them - he, by killing them, is protecting himself - the act of scalping them afterwards is a bit like some terrified caveman fighting off a threatening wolf (which isn't a threat when faced with the caveman's weapons) and then taking the meat back to feed his family - the reason why you see everything from HIS perspective ( a genius movie on the filmmakers' part) is because we need to feel his oppressive surroundings and experience his anxieties and paranoia firsthand - it makes the character waaay more unsettling. The only time I see so many POV shots done these days is in those 'found footage' films, and THIS seems so much more original and exciting.

One of the original's most important features, the NY setting, has been replaced for LA, but I felt that the shiny surroundings of LA in the new movie was even MORE jarring and unsettling especially when compared to the gruesome goings-on ocurring inside the movie. In short, the change in surroundings worked.

P.S. For a movie so hyped up for it's 'realism' and 'grittiness', I found it amazing that it was the NEWER version that acknowledged that a room full of rotting scalps would be gross and disgusting whereas the original ..... didn't. Oh yeah, the re-make's score was killer too (and better than the original).

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