Whether or not we can learn a thing or two about the current state of cinema by examining the 1980 film Maniac by William Lustig and its 2012 remake by Franck Khalfoun is difficult to say—both films were not made for mainstream audiences. And both have leading men that wouldn’t ordinarily be considered leading men: starring in the 1980 film is Joe Spinell (the extremely prolific character actor who had bit roles in such films as The Godfather 1 & 2, Taxi Driver, Rocky 1 & 2, and Cruising) and in the remake, Elijah Wood, star of the immensely successful Lord of the Rings saga (as well as many other films that aren’t necessarily known as Elijah Wood vehicles). The original Maniac was shot in the very seedy New York City, with Spinell stalking about the grimy 42nd St theaters that would soon be playing the very film he’s acting in. When it was released, it caught some of the backlash that all “slasher” films were experiencing at the time—namely, accusations of being merely an exercise in violence for its own sake. (Gene Siskel took pride in claiming he walked out of Maniac after 30 minutes.) The remake was shot in sunny Los Angeles, mostly in the downtown area. It has yet to have a wide release here in the US.
Things in common with both films: the plot, which involves a maniac on the loose, hunting and killing women and using their scalps to dress mannequins he collects; terrible female actresses who are nothing more than cyphers; a synth score that is evocative of late 70’s/early 80’s cinema. None of these things are very impressive. The only thing that really matters are the differences—each film asks you to look at it in a different way. It’s easier to speak about the remake because the way it asks you to look at it is much simpler to explain. It uses what some may call a gimmick—but I will give the benefit of the doubt and call an experiment—in which we, the viewer, see through the eyes of the lead character for the entire film. This isn’t a new concept—certainly Khalfoun can’t think he’s the first to think of this. But the difference between Khalfoun and everyone who has had this idea previously is that, with a few exceptions (Lady in the Lake, et al.) everyone else thought it through in a clear manner and realized, without ever needing to try it, that it wouldn’t work. Khalfoun was stupid or stubborn enough to actually put the idea into practice, and thus, we’re forced to examine the failure of a technique for an entire feature.
The film resembles a video game, or rather, watching someone else play a video game, which everyone knows is no fun. We never get a turn to control the character, so why stick around? Was Khalfoun asking us to identify with the character? I can’t see how. We’re not dealing with a character, we’re dealing with a camera, and as Rossellini once said, the camera is a tool. I’ll add that a camera is a tool at best, and an imbecile at worst. Khalfoun does no favors to Elijah Wood by not having him create a character, but instead, simply provide the voice for a camera. A voice that is as dead as the victims. I have no sympathy for cameras, even ones curiously voiced by a hobbit.
In direct contrast, Bill Lustig’s direction in the original film is clean and simple. Aside from a couple instances where he cuts into optical zooms (perhaps not the most effective moments in the film) the technique proceeds simply. It begins, like many slashers, through the eyes of the killer, but we bounce back to a more objective view for almost all subsequent scenes. The simplicity of the film is such that it appears to be made out of narrative blocks—several units that are joined together in a row. There are about 5 or 6 of these units and the whole thing is over. The film progresses like a train; the only stops are for the victims.
Joe Spinell is really where the film’s complexity comes from. The clear presentation focuses on Spinell’s Frank Zito, who stalks, stumbles, coasts, sweats, and even on occasion moves imperceptibly through the space designated by Lustig’s camera. The grime on the streets is palpable, as is the dirt in Spinell’s apartment, as is the sweat on his face. When we see Elijah Wood’s cut hands, we know it’s makeup. When we see the cigarette burns on Spinell’s chest, we know it’s narrative scar tissue, a link to a bitter past that is never explained. Spinell doesn’t get the headaches that Elijah Wood does, because he doesn’t need to. The pain and anguish goes far deeper than that.
By showing us this pathetic creature unflinchingly, we, if not sympathize with, at least pity him. He is someone who is forgotten; not an other, but a lost fragment of the human race. He murders for reasons that are complex and difficult to untangle, but most of all, he murders because New York City 1980 allows him to. The darkness envelops him and it’s within their shadows that he feels at home. To shine a light on it brings death. If, by the end of the film, we have found ourselves in a monster movie, it’s because Spinell has allowed it to happen. We find ourselves in a dark, foggy graveyard, watching the final victim escape the killer because there’s nowhere left to go; whatever false hope of finding humanity for Spinell has been obliterated—the only thing left to happen is dead rising from the grave.
Whatever corresponding scenes Khalfoun can show us in his version of Maniac fall flat in comparison to the original, whether they are direct lifts or merely “inspired” by the Lustig picture. But the remake has a right to exist for the sole purpose of acting as a pair of spectacles to see the original film from. A way of focusing our vision upon its deft clarity of technique.
There are some films that try to explain away situations, to look for the one answer that can give insight into a certain character. It is the mark of, if not a good film, than a true one, to not bother looking for it, and instead focus upon the many questions that make up the core of humanity. If we’re never really sure about what drives Spinell’s character at the end of Maniac, it’s more than enough that we understand on a deeper level how he feels at the time of his pathetic and well-deserved death. We want him to die, but we are sad for him nonetheless, sad that such a thing could ever happen. The remake, on the other hand, fails a priori according to its own agenda. I said earlier I have never sympathized with a camera. They are very easy to understand.