Via NetFlix streaming I recently caught the remake of the seminal trashy horror film MANIAC (1980) and I must admit that I found it to be quite well done. I have to confess that I have never been much of a fan of the original film. Its grungy, filthy look and its generally unpleasant tone always put me off and made it hard to easily enjoy the excellent effects work and the fine performance by star Joe Spinell. I can admire the 1980 film without really thinking very highly of it and I think I'm far from the only horror fan that feels this way. Its a dark, oppressive movie that generates a depressive state in the viewer that makes it difficult to think positively about the work.
By all rights, the same should be true of the remake. It tells the same tale of a tortured man guilt-ridden by his sexual urges, driven to commit hideous murders to calm the horrors in his own head. The ways in which this new version is more impressive (and, for me, more compelling) is in that the story is better structured and the agonized suffering of the main character Frank is more sharply detailed. Part of this is because the film is told completely from the point of view of Frank as he stalks and kills his victims and then deals with his own shame and revulsion at his actions We see him in mirrors and other reflective surfaces as he tries to control his emotions while obsessively scrubbing his hands with steel wool in a Lady Macbeth style attempt to wash away his conscience. We see his home in the backroom of his family's manikin store where he tries nightly to create a world where he is loved and cared for in the ruins of the early life that warped him into his present state. In both versions Frank is a man with serious Mother issues but in this film we see her actions in flashbacks that show specific moments that make her son's adult existence hellish. He can't trust women once they arouse him sexually and this horrific fact makes his burgeoning relationship with a French photographer all the more tragic.
It is in this odd courtship that the 2012 film stands well above the 1980 version. In the first film the scenes of Spinell's Frank and the luminous Caroline Munro out on restaurant dates were out of place and completely unbelievable. In the new film Elijah Wood as Frank is able to get across a convincing sense of being barely able to string sentences together well enough to talk to the beautiful lady come to admire his restoration work on manikins. Her flirtatious nature is sexy but not so aggressive that it triggers his migraine-like need to kill and her careful conversation about a subject he knows well makes the bond they begin to share quite convincing.
Of course, this tale is never going to end well but the 2012 version ends in a way I think is very satisfying. I'm glad this film was produced by the brave French filmmakers that tackled the project as I'm sure that if done by an American team it would have failed quite badly. I'm curious to learn what fans of the 1980 film think about this updated approach.