Like a cover song that takes an original tune in a fresh new direction, Franck Khalfoun's remake of William Lustig's notorious 1980 slasher flick Maniac! boldly serves up a familiar story with an exciting twist. Employing a distinctive POV style that takes us directly into the warped mind of the titular madman, played with grim gusto by the versatile Elijah Wood, Khalfoun's scalp-ripping shocker will almost certainly be accused by some of favoring style over substance (especially considering that it plays somewhat fast and loose with the visual conceit), but offers enough nightmarish visuals to warrant a look from fans of the original and curious newcomers alike.
On the surface Frank (Wood) may look like just another skinny L.A. hipster, but don't be fooled -- he's a deeply disturbed killer with a penchant for collecting the scalps of pretty young women. The young proprietor of his late mother's mannequin-restoration business, Frank scours the city streets by moonlight seeking silky heads of hair, skillfully removing them with his massive hunting knife before bringing them back to his apartment, and stapling them to the heads of his rigid roommates. One sunny day, surprised by the appearance of pretty French photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) on his doorstep, Frank warily lets her snap pictures of his "unaltered" mannequins, and agrees to allow her use the images for an upcoming gallery display. Before long the pair strike up a friendship, with Anna admiring Frank's restoration work as he marvels at her creative eye for detail. Charming as Frank may be in his encounters with Anna, he remains deeply haunted by the childhood traumas inflicted upon him by his loose mother, whose idea of bonding involved allowing him to observe her drug-fueled threesomes. When Anna's gallery display draws an impressive crowd, she remains deeply indebted to Frank. Little does the unsuspecting artist realize, however, that her biggest supporter might also be the death of her.
Love this remake or hate it, you have to give director Khalfoun and co-producer/screenwriters Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur credit for trying something different. Relocating the distinctive NYC setting of the original to contemporary L.A., while injecting the desolate mise-en-scène with an eye-popping '80s color scheme, Khalfoun and company use the talents of cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes) to maximum effect. Together with mononymous composer Rob's lost-in-time score -- an alternatively seductive and repulsive mix of grimy synths and bubblegum pop -- this Maniac feels at times like the slasher celluloid cousin of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. That combination of sound and imagery is a strong one, especially in the POV scenes when Frank's psychosis takes hold, and though for the most part we only see the character in reflections, Wood's delectably unhinged vocal performance keeps us locked in the action, as if we've somehow taken on the role of the psychopath's long-forgotten conscience.
As mentioned, however, the further the action plays out, the more inclined Khalfoun, Aja, and Levasseur seem to jettison the POV conceit when convenient. For a while, at least, it's fun to watch as the trio offer creative new ways to let us glimpse the character. As a result, there's a creeping sense of disappointment when, after a particularly brutal stabbing in a parking lot, the camera spins around and reveals the killer head on. Some will accuse the filmmakers of laziness for this, as well as stalking scenes in which Frank and his intended victim appear to be the only two people in the entire city, though to be fair Lustig's own film was guilty of the latter in at least one key moment, and viewed through the filter of nightmare logic, the scenes go from implausible to deeply eerie.
Aside from some inventive scalpings, the gore in Khalfoun's Maniac feels surprisingly restrained in comparison to the original, although the filmmakers do manage to establish a rather intensely violent tone throughout, and the faithful, flesh-rending climax is sure to send viewers out with a shudder. Returning as a producer here, Lustig certainly can take pride in turning out an uncompromisingly grim remake that improves on the original in minor ways, including, thanks to Wood's boyish charm, making the semi-romantic story subplot a bit more plausible.
So while Wood may not have the sweaty hulking factor of the late, great Joe Spinell, he certainly succeeds at making this Maniac his own. Perhaps if horror fans are lucky and this remake is a hit, Khalfoun and company will manage to lure Wood back for Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie, Spinell and Buddy Giovinazzo's planned sequel to the original that died along with the actor in 1989. Wouldn't that be a glorious nightmare come true?