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Review: ‘Maniac’

Remake Made Right

Elijah Wood is serial killer Frank Zito in the remake of the 1980 cult classi...

Credit: IFC

Above: Elijah Wood is serial killer Frank Zito in the remake of the 1980 cult classic, "Maniac."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando review the remake of "Maniac."


Horror films, and slasher films in particular, are often condemned for their gore and lack of substance, but I defend the genre and “Maniac" (screening July 5 and 6 at 10:00pm at the Digital Gym Cinema), a remake of the 1980 cult classic.

Horror films, even the most blood splattered and empty-headed, still reflect the times that spawn them. So it’s interesting to see a return to slasher films, a genre that came to full fruition during the conservative Reagan era.

Slasher films serve up a perverse conservatism as a white male kills off everyone who fails to live up to his particular code. The slasher film tends to punish -- most frequently and consistently -- teenagers experimenting with sex and drugs, and women exhibiting sexual liberation, These films deliver a conflicted message that on the one hand upholds a conservative set of moral values and on the other smashes it by making the one set up as the administer of justice (Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers) is pure evil and worth destroying. We love horror films precisely because they allow us to go someplace dark and enjoy a cathartic experience. So what better way to express our dislike of Daddy or Big Brother watching over us and punishing us us for real or imagined wrongs than to turn him into a serial killer or Boogeyman that we want to destroy without mercy.

The new "Maniac" returns us to slasher territory with a contemporary spin. It's blood splattered but definitely not empty-headed. For starters, you can read all the recent concern about the NSA watching over us too closely as a possible inspiration for director Franck Khalfoun to remake "Maniac" from a first-person point of view that feels invasive and voyeuristic. It's an uncomfortable point of view, and by relentlessly sticking to it Khalfoun makes us feel conflicted. We may never come to sympathize with the serial killer with whose eyes we are forced to look out at the world, but we do come to understand what forces prompt him to behave the way he does. And for some that sums up how we feel about the NSA: we don't like it and it's going to far, but we can understand what drives it.

Okay, you might think that makes me as crazy as the killer in the film but so be it. Horror sometimes expresses things that we cannot verbalize or that we don't even realize we feel. Horror -- whether consciously or subconsciously -- reflects its times and the fears and anxieties of those times, and that's what the new "Maniac" made me think about.

Check out the trailer for Khalfoun's remake.

Trailer: 'Maniac' (2012)

Trailer: 'Maniac' (2012)

Compare it to the original 1980 film directed by William Lustig and written by actor Joe Spinnell, who created the role of Frank Zito for himself.

Trailer: 'Maniac' (1980)

Trailer: 'Maniac' (1980)

The films are markedly different in style. Lustig's was gritty, low budget, gruesome, and disturbing. Khalfoun's has a much more polished and artful style, achieving moments of beauty even. But both ultimately reject the sanitized look of mainstream Hollywood violence -- where no one ever seems to suffer pain, they just die quickly and with minimal blood. In both "Maniac" movies the violence is shocking and disturbingly effective. And isn't that how violence on the screen should be? Shouldn't you want to look away because that's what real violence is, shocking and stomach turning? There may be more artistry and suspense in showing less but the "Maniac" films show that there can also be an argument to be made for occasional excess.

But not everyone agrees. The original film offended many mainstream critics when it came out, like Gene Siskel, who, according to Wikipedia, "vociferously described how sickened he was by the film on 'Sneak Previews,' and walked out thirty minutes into the film (after the shotgun murder scene), saying the film 'could not redeem itself' after the amount of violence shown up to that point." But for fans of horror, the film is a great example of the slasher genre at its most basic and maybe even basest. But it works and Joe Spinnell was unnervingly brilliant as the killer who elicited no sympathy.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: IFC

Elijah Wood is creepy as serial killer Frank Zito in the remake of "Maniac."

Elijah Wood recreates the role of serial killer Frank Zito for a new millennium, finding his female victims through online dating sites. Wood's Zito is different from Spinnell's, decidedly not sympathetic but much more human. By taking the point of view of Wood's Zito, Khalfoun insures that we at least try to see things from his point of view even if we don't approve of his actions. Khalfoun has a nice ye for detail, showing, for instance, that Zito's hands are always scratched up and raw. We discover later that he tries to cleanse the blood and sins off his hands with steel wool.

Wood's Zito kills women he deems sexually reckless, punishing them because his mother was a prostitute who left him orphaned. He regrets his actions yet keeps souvenirs of each kill. The first-person perspective works well to trap us inside the head of a lunatic, we hear the voices in his head, feel his migraines coming on, and engage in his moments of fantasy when he thinks things might be all right. We can't escape his perspective just as he can't. (This is the flip side of "Irreversible" in which the director, Gaspar Noe, traps us in the position of the woman getting raped.)

Khalfoun gives us an unflinchingly brutal film that places the viewer in the role of accomplice with disturbingly effective results. He has an appreciation for the horror genre referencing such esteemed classics as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and Universal's "Frankenstein." His film sis a sharp contrast to those and reveals how horror has moved from the realm of the supernatural to real world horrors of serial killers.

I also need to make note of Greg Nicotero's impressive make up effects and gore. Well done sir.

“Maniac” (unrated, like the original) screens July 5 and 6 at 10:00pm at the new Digital Gym Cinema.

Online tickets for "Maniac" can be purchased here. "Maniac" is presented by The Film Geeks, a group of programmers from Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, Pac-Arts and FilmOut, and with myself as organizer. We are all volunteering our time to program the late night film series and run the screenings because we are all dedicated to genre films that push the envelope.

Companion viewing: "Maniac" (1980), "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer"Sin City" (proving Wood can be quite evil), "Repulsion," "Spider" (these last two for getting inside the mind of a crazy person)


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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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