Why we shouldn't be too quick to lose our heads over remakes

News Craig Lines
18 Mar 2014 - 05:44

How Maniac (1980) and its 2012 remake with Elijah Wood showed that sometimes, just sometimes, another take on a film can work...

WARNING: Contains spoilers for both Maniac films (1980 and 2012).

Joe Spinell loved the grindhouse. Although a reasonably successful character actor who'd clocked up significant roles in The Godfather I and II and Rocky I and II, there was nothing renowned insomniac Joe enjoyed more than sitting in the darkness of a festering 42nd Street dive at 3am and watching low-budget sleazoid filth. He was even married to porn star Jean Jennings for a couple of years. In 1980 - the height of 42nd Street's glory days - he and his buddy Bill Lustig (who was crewing on various porn movies at the time) decided that they knew what the raincoat brigade wanted. Too often the movies were "all sizzle, no steak" and they wondered what would happen if they made one that delivered the goods exactly as promised. So Joe wrote a script called Maniac, which he was convinced would satiate even the most jaded gorehound.

It was a pet project. Spinell put up his salary from appearing in Friedkin's Cruising (which had just wrapped) and Lustig paid his way with profits from his 1977 film The Violation of Claudia. Their buddy Andrew Garroni fronted the rest and, between them, they had total creative control. To keep down costs, Lustig even hired a number of local east coast porn stars like Sharon Mitchell and Abigail Clayton to appear in it alongside Spinell. Much of the film was shot on location in New York without the appropriate permits so - apart from the occasional intervention from FX man Tom Savini (who reportedly told Spinell that 'biting off a woman's clitoris' wasn't an effect he was prepared to create!) - there was no one to tell them "stop". They could take it pretty much as far as they liked.

The resultant film gained exactly the type of instant notoriety they'd hoped for. It was banned in many European countries (including the UK where it wouldn't screen anywhere in legal form until 2002 and, even then, with cuts), it had screenings petitioned across the US and was universally reviled by critics (Gene Siskel claims to have walked out 30 minutes into the movie, convinced that it "could not redeem itself"). Yet somehow, through the tape trading underground of the 1980s and 90s, Maniac's reputation grew and its appeal endured. Now, in 2014, we have a special edition 2-disc Blu Ray royal treatment and a $12 million budget remake starring Elijah Wood. Who'd’ve seen that coming, eh?

Maniac does still stand apart from the majority of its peers. Sure, it's sleazy. It's loaded with gore and nudity. The story is crude - a misogynist loon with a mommy complex stabs, strangles and scalps a bunch of women (mostly prostitutes and models) - and the low budget shows in every grimy 16mm frame. But there's a surprising depth to Maniac too and a tremendous, almost stifling, sense of melancholy. The “maniacal” character of Frank Zito is detestable and his Psychology 101 dysfunction (abused by his promiscuous mother so he kills women while imagining that they're her) is never convincing on paper but somehow Spinell brings it all to life. The film makes no attempt to justify his actions or make us sympathise but everything we see is more or less through Frank's own eyes so there's an uncomfortable feeling of complicity hand-in-hand with revulsion (which mirrors Frank's own guilt about his crimes).

It never feels like Frank takes any pleasure in anything. What we see of his life is shown as constant pain, terminal alienation. The film draws clear inspiration from Taxi Driver (even down to a humorous reference where Frank says "You talkin' to me?") but is an even bleaker affair. Taxi Driver is dark film with a complex morality (and, it should be noted, features Spinell himself in a small role) but there's an element to Travis Bickle that audiences seem to relate to, that even looks kinda 'cool' at times. Frank Zito, by contrast, is wholly unglamorous. Spinell makes himself grotesque; a weeping, gibbering man-child. Frank's fleapit apartment is decorated with sexualised art, his only company being the crudely posed mannequins who wear the scalps of his victims. He even talks to a child mannequin who represents young Frank himself.

The film charts his total mental collapse until eventually he hallucinates that the mannequins come to life as his victims and tear him to pieces (in a gore-soaked grand guignol finale). This sequence is total delusion but arguably many or any of the scenes that came before could have also been entirely in Frank's head (a precursor to the ambiguity later employed so successfully in Bret Easton-Ellis's American Psycho). The last scene, where two cops enter Frank's apartment and see him lying there dead amongst the squalor, has an undeniably haunting quality. Have they arrived because they've tracked the murders to him or are they just there because a neighbour's complained about the stench of Frank's corpse? Either way, there's a feeling of senselessly wasted life that hangs over this stark, downbeat ending. It's a major bummer.

So, of course, no one wanted a remake. Fans were instantly up in arms the second it was announced. A big part of Maniac's appeal was, surely, its no-holds-barred tawdriness. Hollywood would gloss it up and make it unrecognisable. No one expected it to have a point and yet Franck Khalfoun's 2012 is a resounding success. It pays respect to both the complexity and the extremity of the original. It takes what Spinell and Lustig made and builds from there. It is a reimagining that understands its source material inside and out; at once a new version as well as an ultra postmodern deconstruction.

There's a tighter plot in the remake and our new Frank is offered a hope of redemption through Anna, the photographer he meets by chance (Nora Arnezeder taking over the role from Caroline Munro). In the original, Frank and Anna's relationship is presented as a platonic friendship that Frank is unable to handle, snapping and trying to murder her as they visit his mother's grave together. In the remake, Frank has clearer romantic feelings towards Anna and there seems to be a genuine reciprocal connection (even though her macho boyfriend openly questions Frank's sexuality - a mirroring of Anna's amibiguous sexuality in the original perhaps?). As in the original, both characters have a life's work that revolves around the preservation of beauty; in Anna's case through her photographs. In Frank's twisted version, through his mannequins.

At the heart of 2012's Maniac is an exploration of relection and refraction. And distortion. There is glass everywhere in the movie. Its location is transposed from one end of America to the other - New York to Los Angeles - a glossy reflection of the original's grime. L.A. is presented as a city full of windows, of lights, of mirrors, of glass barriers that keep Frank isolated from everyone around him; he's either looking in at others he can't reach or just back on himself. To amplify this effect, the whole film is shot as if from Frank's P.O.V. - the lens of the camera providing the ultimate refraction.

Casting the very pretty Elijah Wood in the Joe Spinell role raised outrage upon its announcement ("he played a hobbit! How can he play a manaic!?") and then outright confusion when it was revealed he'd spend most of the film behind the camera. That said, we see his face more often than you might think, his bloodshot stare reflecting in the mirrors of shops, galleries, cars, etc. The mirrors often provide insight into Frank's mental state too. While out for a meal with plucky young internet dater RedLucie86 (Megan Duffy), Frank - surrounded by mirrored walls - imagines the other diners staring at him until his paranoia reaches feverish levels and he flees to the bathroom. When Lucie takes him home and seduces him, she has a mirrored ceiling above the bed and we see him stare, repelled, into his own reflection as she tries to arouse him. After he murders her and takes her scalp back to his lair, he loses his temper and shatters his own bathroom mirror, fragmenting his reflection; his mind in pieces.

There are only a few times that the film breaks from its P.O.V. conceit and these are also crucical to the character. In Frank's fantasies he replays scenes of his encounters with Anna and we see a different, angelic, smiling Frank to the nervous jittery creepy one who's played these scenes out in actuality. He also breaks P.O.V. during the peak of his murderous frenzies, the camera seamlessly panning out and around as we watch him kill. It's as if his blurred, delusional state finally coheres, snaps violently into reality when he kills and suddenly sees himself in the sharp focus of the truth. Inevitably, moments after these peaks of lucidity, Frank collapses and weeps and wails and regrets what he's done and we're back to his P.O.V. He can never escape himself or his pain for long.

Interestingly, the most prolonged stalking scene in both films is the one that goes through the train station. In the original, Frank chases a nurse and in the remake a ribbon gymnast. We see little of Spinell in the original's chase, instead focusing on the victim's terror as she runs and hides. In the remake, it's all Frank - a complete reversal of perspective. In the original, we finally see Frank only at the very end when he pops up behind her in (guess what?) the bathroom mirror to kill her. In the remake, the moment of murder is the only time Frank comes out of his P.O.V. and we see him in full body shot as he scalps his victim. We see this reflected in the side of a car and it becomes a perfect reconstruction of the original film's movie poster (a shocking tableaux that doesn't, curiously, feature in the original film). Phew!

The remake's approach to Frank's abject misogyny is a strange, grim reflection of how it was presented in the original too. The Frank Zito of early 80s New York picks up prostitutes. His film begins with a conversation between two hookers about their johns' demands. The remake begins with a similar conversation between two girls outside a club, talking about rejecting the advances of guys inside. Old-Frank pays his first victim to go back with him to a dingy hotel room. RedLucie86, by contrast, invites new-Frank back to her flat and pursues him for sex.

The outcome is the same - Frank is unable to reach arousal and kills in an impotent rage - but it's interesting that the remake acknowledges a more modern approach to female sexual liberation yet seems to suggest that it has no relevance whatsoever to Frank. There is a sobering, horrific inevitability to this inference that permeates throughout the film. That no matter what changes around him and in society, the character of Frank is something that is broken and can't be fixed (arguably, in one reading, he could be an allegory for patriarchy itself?). Despite the different angles and the even greater pathos (the pathetic exchange outside the cinema where he codedly begs for hospitalisation and Anna calls him "the last of the romantics" is heartbreaking), the remake makes zero effort to ever redeem Frank. He's still one of the most unforgivably horrible characters to ever hit the screen.

Khalfoun's Maniac works brilliantly as a film in its own right - a technical tour-de-force and an engaging, artfully-scripted serial killer movie - but, as a sister piece to the original, I genuinely believe it's a unique companion that allows the viewer to see Lustig's film in new ways, with greater appreciation; surely the best thing a remake can offer. It's a film that acknowledges and celebrates its roots. "Are you a fan of those old movies?" Anna asks Frank at one point as they watch The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (arguably the first slasher movie). This is one of several references to genre history (the other super-obvious one is the ill-fated RedLucie86 sticking on Goodbye Horses (the song Buffalo Bill dances to in Silence of the Lambs) when she takes Frank home) that invite a whole other reading of the P.O.V. technique: as a slasher film about slasher films, is Maniac asking the audience to take a look at itself in Frank's dirty funhouse mirror? Is it asking what its own appeal is?

Why do these movies work? It's an interesting question. Arguably, on a simple level, it's the combination of intelligence, compassion and beauty with such tremendous violence and ugliness and horrible darkness. The contrasts make both films fascinating to watch but there's more (yet less) than that. Maniac's narrative simplicity make these films blank canvases. The tone is hyper-realistic in some ways yet utterly surreal (possibly even entirely hallucinatory) in others, leaving so much space between the text; I'm hardly scratching the surface of the many ways to read them and therein lies the long-term appeal.

The fact that such a bizarre low-budget film can be remade in an intelligent, artful manner and enrich the experience of both of them proves there's still so much hope for the modern horror remake, despite the reservations of the genre's fanbase. With 32 years between them, both versions of Maniac stand outside the pack and serve as reminders that the genre still has very sharp teeth and brains behind its blood and guts. Sometimes you just have to look behind the mirrors...

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