There’s A “Maniac,” Maaaaayyyy-niac At Your Door —

Posted: July 5, 2013 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Bear with me, friends, as I take a circuitous and convoluted path toward any supposed “points” I’m trying to make here —

As far as catchy pop tunes go, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Michael Sembello’s amazingly popular (and only) hit single, “Maniac.” I’m not here to tell you that it’s a quality piece of music by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have a few things going for it, namely that it’s fast (next time you’re on YouTube, do a search for “Michael Sembello ‘Maniac’ Cover” — you’ll be amazed by all the third-rate European speed metal bands that have taken a crack at it), it has some damn intelligent and evocative lyrics scattered about here and there (“there’s a cold kinetic heat — struggling, stretching for the feet”), and it knows enough to cut itself short before it becomes too terribly repetitious. Plus, it sticks in your head like a motherfucker if you haven’t heard it in a few years and happen to catch part of it playing overhead in the grocery store, the waiting room of the dentist’s office, or wherever the hell else they pipe in the Sirius satellite radio ’80s channel all the time.

There’s an interesting urban legend that’s been floating around for some time now that the song was actually written for William Lustig’s legendary, dripping-with-misogyny 1980  horror flick Maniac — which as you all are well aware, I’m sure,  features the late, great Joe Spinell in a tour-de-force performance the likes of which only happen in the cinema once every decade or two (and that’s if we’re lucky) — and that Sembello and his songwriting partner (whose name I’m currently just too goddamn lazy to look up) simply changed a few words here and there to make it fit in with the movie that it eventually landed in, namely Adrian Lyne’s runaway blockbuster hit  Flashdance.

Anyone who’s watched the bonus feature where Lustig sits down and talks about all this with Sembello and his (still too lazy to look up his name, sorry) writing partner that’s included on Blue Underground’s “30th Anniversary Special Edition” Blu-Ray/DVD of Maniac knows this isn’t true, of course — the actual facts behind the song’s genesis, its inclusion in Flashdance, and its mistaken association with Maniac are actually far more banal, yet bizarrely also more fascinating, than that. Suffice to say they really did alter the original lyrics pretty considerably, but it was never written specifically for inclusion in Lustig’s, or for that matter any, film.

But enough about that — let’s get back to these cover versions of Maniac that are all over YouTube (I did warn you this was going to be — what did I say, “circuitous and convoluted”? ). Some of them are, as you’d expect, pretty terrible. Others, however, are actually kind of fascinating. You can that tell some care went into their production and arrangement. The bands really do seem to be giving it their best shot.

But ya know what? Not a one of them, despite their best efforts, manages to get it exactly right.

All of which brings us — finally! — to the 2013 remake of Maniac, the movie, brought to us by director Franck Khalfoun , producer/co-writer Alexandre Aja (swiftly establishing a name for himself as the new reigning king of retread horror properties now that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company seems to have slowed down its pace a bit) and co-writer Gregory Levasseur.


All in all, you’ve gotta say this ain’t a half-bad effort. If you’re lucky enough to be in one of the few areas where it’s getting some theatrical play (most of us are stuck with the cable or satellite “On-Demand” menu if we wanna see it), you probably won’t leave the multi-plex feeling disappointed, by any means. Our intrepid European “re-imagineers” have taken pains to make the proceedings more “realistic” than what  Lustig and Spinell gave us (no hot female photographer love interest , our titular psycho actually seems to have a job in this one, etc.), while keeping the general thrust (sorry) of things agreeably simple and straight-forward and doing their level best to hang onto (if you’re feeling generous), or at the very least mimic (if you’re not),  the sleazy, unforgiving “edginess” their predecessors served up so expertly and generously.

Most wisely of all, though, they’ve chosen not to have their lead, Elijah Wood, try to emulate, reference, or even give off the faintest accidental odor  of Spinell. There’s just no point trying to catch  lightning (even if it’s of the extremely greased variety) in a bottle twice.

But is any Maniac without Spinell even Maniac at all? That’s the question I’m still struggling to answer. To me, this feels like another one of those cover versions that tries its  level best, but still doesn’t quite manage to hit the nail on the head.


Wood’s take on Frank is an interesting one, to be sure — he’s still got the unresolved mommy issues, still got the whole mannequin obsession (hell, in this one he even owns a mannequin shop), and still harbors a pretty bleak and remorseless view of the fairer sex, but his presentation of the character is far more brooding, sullen, and internalized than was Spinell’s. You can pass this guy on the street and not think to yourself “what a filthy fucking creepy sleazebag!” And while that’s, as I said, pretty interesting, it still doesn’t feel quite right.

The “will-he-snap-or-won’t-he?” psychodrama that that the Khalfoun/Aja/Levasseur trifecta (who previously pooled their efforts on the shamefully-underappreciated P2) set up between Frank and art student/object of obsession/mother stand-in/unwitting muse (if homicide can an in any way be viewed as “art”) Anna (played with understated style and charm, and just a dash of dangerous intrigue thrown in, by Nora Arnezeder) manages to shift the main focus of the narrative a bit into “two-people-playing-a-dangerous-game-even-if-only-one-of-them-knows-it” territory, but again, while that makes for some nifty and even engrossing cinematic storytelling, it just doesn’t have that same completely random, scattershot, balls-to-the-walls sense of fury that Lustig and Spinell brought to things. It all feels too controlled, too calculated, too pre-planned to bear the Maniac title.

And finally, while Khalfoun does his best to keep things visually interesting — and to his credit largely succeeds — the street-level, “guerrilla” filmmaking style of the original is sorely missed here. Maniac circa 1980 felt like exactly what it was — some guys with a camera, little to no money, and certainly no filming permits, hitting the streets of New York late at night, getting things done in a take or two, and getting the fuck outta Dodge before the cops showed up and hassled them, or worse. Maniac circa 2013 is all about carefully selecting just the right color palettes, angles, and perspective shots to give its audience something of the same visceral experience that its predecessor achieved more by dint of necessity than out of actual choice. These guys want to make a sleazy, “street-level,” authentic slasher pic — and that’s great. I’m all for it. But it’s still not gonna pack the punch of something that can’t be anything but a sleazy, “street-level,” authentic slasher pic.


When all was said and done, I think it’s fair to say that Maniac‘s new iteration left me feeling much the same way that many of the hard-core fans of Max Brooks’ World War Z novel feel about the big-budget  Brad Pitt “starring vehicle” bearing the book’s name (and yes, I realize I covered this point yesterday in my review of that film and I am, therefore, guilty of repeating myself — and quite quickly, at that— but the sentiment really does apply, so I’m sticking with it) — it’s very good at what it does, and I even liked it quite a bit.  But it should have been called something else.

  1. As I stared in my review over at the Shattered Lens, I was surprised by how impressed I was by the remake of Maniac. However, I do think it is going to struggle simply because it does exist in the shadow of a notorious film and an iconic performance. (As a woman, I had a hard time sitting through Lustig’s film but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very effective and disturbing movie, despite the fact that the character played by Caroline Munro never would have fallen for somebody like Joe Spinell’s Frank Zito…)

    I don’t know if I would have changed the title because “Maniac,” after all, is a fairly generic term and it was also used as a title for a Dwain Esper film that’s as well-known and popular among some cult audiences as William Lustig’s Maniac is with others. (Though not with me because, judging from that film, Dwain Esper had issues with cats…) I can’t say for sure but it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s been a few other dozen films called Maniac as well. It’s just one of those titles.

    However, I would have renamed the lead character because, even though I think highly of Elijah Wood’s performance, just hearing the name Frank Zito automatically makes me think of sweaty, scary Joe Spinell. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people. By re-using the Zito name, Alexandre Aja does make it difficult to judge this Maniac on it’s own terms without comparing it to Lustig’s original film.

    Instead, they could have named the character Frank Sommers or something and maybe called the film Maniac: Los Angeles. If they had done that, this Maniac would be seen less as a remake and more like Bad Lt.: Port of Call New Orleans — a “remake” that serves more as a companion piece to the original as opposed to being a “do-over.”

    • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

      That’s actually a pretty good idea you’ve got there, and I think I enjoy both “Bad Lieutenant” films precisely because they’re able to exist side-by-side and not as either a remake or direct sequel. I understand your point about “Maniac” being a fairly generic title, but when you’re specifically setting out to remake the Lustig film, as these guys made clear was their intention from the outset, well — you’re bound to be compared to it. And while I take your point about “Maniac” a la Spinell and Lustig being a pretty tough thing for any woman — or any guy with a conscience — to sit through, that really is what made it so effective. The violence felt more random, uncontrolled, and yet oddly more personal in that one to me. Spinell was just too damn good at what he was doing, By contrast, this “Maniac,” while admittedly quite effective and fairly disturbing in its own right, didn’t have that same “this son of a bitch could do something more horrible than we can imagine at any moment” edge to it.

      • Oh, don’t get me wrong. When I say that the original Maniac was so disturbing that I had trouble sitting through it, I mean that as a compliment to both William Lustig and Joe Spinell. Films about serial killers should be disturbing and difficult to watch and that’s why I frequently get annoyed with the whole Hannibal Lector-type of serial killer film.

      • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

        Agreed. Good as “Silence Of The Lambs” generally was, I feel like only Michael Mann got the whole “Lecter universe” or whatever we want to call it right in “Manhunter.” I think a big reason the sucees of “Maniac” circa 1980 was down to both the performance of Spinell, obviously, and the gritty, gutter-level realism that came across in the film’s low production values. The new “Maniac,” by contraast, just feels too slick and too concerted in its efforts to LOOK “realistic” without actually BEING “realistic.” It’s definitely a more slick, accomplished, and cinematically literate work than its predecessor — and that’s the problem when you compare the two. You can’t set out to make a movie like the 1980 “Maniac” — you just get left with it because that’s all you can afford. You can, however, very much plan and set out to make a movie like the new “Maniac,” and that’s why it suffers in comparsion. It just doesn’t feel as raw, immediate, or threatening. And I fully agree that a genuinely “good” slasher flick is one that will cause you to either have trouble watching it, lose sleep thinking about it later, or both. The original “Maniac” certainly had the power to do those things — the new one, while good, just didn’t pack that same punch.

    • About Munro’s character falling for Spinnel’s Zito. I thought the same thing. However go back and watch it. There doesn’t seem to be anything sexual between them. Just friendship. On the SE release the interview with Caroline Munro mentions her character being maybe a lesbian. Makes total sense if you know that and watch the film again.

      All her photos of are women. Plus at the photo shoot she’s very touchy with another girl and there seems to be more sexual tension between them. Some people are really trusting and that’s all I think it was. After Munro mentioned the lesbian thing I watched the film totally different.

      • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

        Good point, there isa bit of a lesbian “vibe” you can pick up from her, especially during that photo shoot scene, if you can keep from getting distracted by that stupid “Going To The Showdown” music, it’s definitely there if you watch for it.

      • Haha I freaking love that song. So damn catchy.

        Not sure how I missed the vibes. But now that I know to me it’s now obvious. But hey I also missed the gay subtext in Elm St. 2 only after I read about it I picked up in it

      • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

        Wow, not sure how you could have missed all that? “Elm Street 2” is probably the most overtly homo-erotic horror film ever made!

      • Haha yeah, yeah I know. Even I wonder how I missed it. Now it’s painfully obvious, but didn’t realize it at first. Lol in fairness I was young my first couple of viewings. Than later on I kinda zoned out at times

      • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

        Hahahaha — I was about 12 when it came out (no pun intended), but truth be told, I still thought it seemed pretty obvious.

      • I can be oblivious at times lol. I don’t hate the film, but don’t love it. Perhaps losing focus is,a,reason I didn’t notice. But yeah now I more than see it lol.

        I wrote a review and when it some detail about it. Not oblivious anymore lol

      • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

        Sometimes we can all be slow on the uptake —

  2. Great review. Haven’t seen this yet, but probably will at some point. The original is a favorite I love that 16MM gritty look. So very unsure on this one, but I’ll give it a chance at some point.

    • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

      I was just as apprehensive as you are, believe me.

      • I will probably see it at some point. Depends what’s out when it hits Blu-ray. I got,a few more things to buy than I’m gonna try and save up for a laptop. Odds are I’ll get to Maniac at the end of the year.

        I am interested, but again I just love that 16MM gritty exploitation style, which was a big,reason why I wasn’t overly fond of the Last House remake (didn’t dislike it by the way)

      • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

        My feelings about both the “Last House” and “Maniac” remakes are strikingly similar — both are well-done, polished, solid films worth your time, but neither is able to capture the gritty realism of its predecessor.

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