Even by grindhouse standards, 1980’s Maniac was a sleazy, unpleasant affair, a gory and glum low-budget wallow in slasher-film clichés that was less than zero fun to watch. Set in a grimy, pre-Giuliani New York City, the movie followed a repellent schlub (played by the late Joe Spinell) who went around scalping young women and decorating female mannequins with his bloody trophies.
The film is a curious choice for a remake: What possible merit could there be in revisiting this lurid material? But Alexandre Aja, a growing presence in the horror genre ( High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D) who produced the redo and co-wrote the screenplay, has come up with two clever variations. First, he cast the amiable, baby-faced Elijah Wood as the killer; he’s Frodo gone psycho. Second, Aja and director Franck Khalfoun shot almost all of the film from Wood’s point of view. For much of Maniac, we only see the actor when he’s reflected in mirrors or windows (there are just a few shots that break the rule, for clarity’s sake). During the plentiful murders and mutilations, which are at times unbelievably graphic (the movie was released unrated in order to avoid an NC-17), the first-person perspective implicates the viewer in a discomfiting way. You can practically hear Michael Haneke clucking with displeasure. “Didn’t Funny Games teach you anything?”
Maniac has a sliver of a plot. Wood develops a relationship with a pretty photographer (Nora Arnezeder) who seems to reciprocate his romantic interest. But will he be able to keep his impulses in check? Mostly, though, the film is a mood piece, a portrait of a deranged monster gradually losing all control. Unlike the original film, which was ugly to look at, this new Maniac has been shot in an artful style that counterbalances the grimness of the scenario. The violence is still hard to stomach, but the misogynistic streak has been exorcised, and the novelty of watching Wood in such an uncharacteristic role never wears thin. Maniac is a minor curiosity, a pet project Aja squeezed in between bigger films (he’s currently directing Daniel Radcliffe in an adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel Horns). But the movie shouldn’t be dismissed outright, either. It’s a creepy experiment that stays with you.