This is a trigger warning. Both versions of Maniac are depraved horror films featuring extreme violence against women and really cannot be fairly discussed without acknowledging these horrible crimes. I normally try to avoid those topics when posting about exploitation films, but it really is the substance of these features.
The original 1980 version of Maniac, written by and starring Joe Spinell, is one of the more infamous slasher films. It was released unrated and ravaged by critics as nothing more than violence for the sake of violence. Spinell’s performance was praised (as was William Lustig’s direction) and it comfortably grew to be a cult classic.
The 2013 remake of Maniac takes a different stylistic approach and actually removes the justification mechanic. The original version made it very clear that serial killer Frank Zito became a dangerous psychopath because of childhood trauma from years of abuse. The remake doesn’t offer that excuse.
Here, Frank is just obsessed with forming permanent relationships with women in the most grotesque way possible. He stalks his victims, kills them, scalps them as a trophy, and attaches the hair to realistic mannequins to keep up his dark sexual fantasies. It’s shocking. There’s no excusing what Frank does in either film. The remake doesn’t even try to create the illusion of justification.
Director Frank Khalfoun doesn’t try to examine why the violence happens. It’s secondary to his interests (and those of screenwriters Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur). Khalfoun is concerned with putting you in the role of a serial killer through first person camerawork.
Elijah Wood’s Frank always seems to be talking through the back of your head. Whether he’s addressing a living or dead victim, you never see him talk. You take over his body, see his hands on the knife, and watch the crimes take place with no chance of escape. You’re as trapped as Frank’s victims, only you don’t get to escape the escalation of violence against these women until the credits roll.
The one reprieve is a clever conceit that externalizes the conflict just a bit. Every so often, the camera catches a reflection of Frank in a mirror, a window, or another shiny surface. Again, this is not an attempt to justify what he’s doing. It’s not humanizing him, either. Khalfoun wants you to realize that Frank is devoid of empathy. There is no possible redemption. He is a lost cause. The only hope is that he gets caught or killed before he claims another victim.
There is one brief moment in Maniac where Frank shows any sign of human weakness. Frank gets migraines. He becomes so sick while on a date that the world spins around him, light hurts, and sound is amplified to painful levels even when someone is whispering. Frank is a monster because of his actions, but he is physically still a human. He’s not a sympathetic character; however, he is as susceptible to attack, ailment, and failure as any of his victims.
Both versions of Maniac are highly experimental in their execution. The remake is all the more disturbing for removing the separation between killer and audience. You become culpable in Frank’s crimes because you are seeing the world through Frank’s eyes. His reflection becomes your reflection and his crimes become your crimes. The horror starts from despicable acts of violence and only grows from the internal conflict of your empathy for the victims versus his blatant disregard for anything beyond his perverted fantasies.
Have you seen the Maniac remake? What did you think? Sound off below.