Posts Tagged ‘maniac’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Sadistic. Misogynistic. Lurid. Visceral. Exploitative. Shameless. Hateful. Sleazy. These are some of the more polite terms that have been used when describing director William Lustig’s 1980 slasher classic Maniac. More unhinged reactions at the time of its release essentially stated that it marked the end of good taste and civility, if not western civilization itself — and while all that might be a little bit much, the truth is that most of the critics, the ones who called it “lurid,” “sleazy,” “hateful,” “misogynistic” and the like were absolutely right — what they failed to realize, if course, is that those very — uhhhmmm — “qualities” are what make this flick so fucking good.

Granted, our definition of “good” here at TFG doesn’t exactly match what the dictionary has to say, but the fact is that Maniac is one of those movies that you just plain never forget once you’ve seen it. Most of that is down to the tour-de-force performance of the late, great Joe Spinell as Frank Zito, the titular “maniac” himself, a man haunted by memories of childhood abuse at the hands of his mother who is taking out a twisted form of permanent vengeance on the entire female population of New York City. Spinell doesn’t even seem like he’s acting in this movie, and the low-grade production values employed by Lustig give this shot-on-16mm slice of pure, unadulterated celluloid hatred an even more immediate, quasi-documentary look that conspires to communicate Spinell’s unhinged portrayal even more directly. Sure, most of that raw, immediate quality is foisted upon this film due to budgetary constraints, but like all the best exploitation efforts, this flick’s ultra-low budget is actually its best friend, and a more polished, professional production would have positively ruined things.

Which isn’t to say that it looks cheap — Tom Savini’s effects, especially the infamous “shotgun-blast-to-the-head” scene, are particularly effective. A lot of — dare I say it — love obviously went into making this flick look as authentic as possible.  And if we were looking for one word to describe Maniac in a nutshell, that would probably be it : even aspects of the film that are less than realistic — I can’t see the glamorous Caroline Munro falling for Frank under any circumstances, and of course the infamous ending cuts loose from the moorings of reality entirely — still feel absolutely fucking authentic.

I can’t imagine that there are too many readers of this blog who haven’t seen Maniac before, or who don’t own it on DVD and/or Blu-Ray (and I sincerely hope that if you do, you’ve got the Blue Underground two-disc 25th anniversary edition, loaded as it is with positively awesome extras), but if you haven’t watched in awhile, this is a great time of year to revisit it : and if by some strange and slim chance you haven’t seen it, now would be the time to do so before the Elijah Wood remake hits our screens in December.

In a world full of super-powered slashers like Michael, Jason, and Freddy, Maniac stands out in that Lustig and company really seem to mean it. They’re just plain not fucking around; Maniac is all about bringing the horror home, and not just erasing, but obliterating  the “comfortable distance,” if you will, that usually exists between the audience and the fictional killer whose twisted exploits we’re privy to. This is the real thing, folks, and leaves you feeling psychically unclean merely for having seen it.

Who could ask for anything more?