Of course Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur, the dirtbag auteurs that turned Joe Dante's gleeful "Jaws" send up "Piranha" into "Piranha 3D," a hilarious, excessively violent screed about American over-indulgence, would spearhead a remake of 1980's "Maniac," a notoriously misogynistic Bill Lustig horror movie whose poster, featuring a man holding the bloody scalp of a young woman, still elicits cries of outrage. Most filmmakers would be too scared to approach the material; it practically glows it's so toxic. But when thinking about these two, who also turned Wes Craven's backwoods horror romp "The Hills Have Eyes" into an angry, gore-soaked metaphor for Bush-era American intervention and culpability, well, why the fuck wouldn't they, really?
The original "Maniac," released during a fertile period for American serial killers and set in New York City (this was three years after the Son of Sam murders), concerned Frank Zito (played by the film's co-screenwriter, Joe Spinell), a sad sack who gets off on murdering people (mostly women – hence the rightfully leveled charges of misogyny. Years before New York City was turned into a glittery Disney World, "Maniac" felt grimy and real and, thanks mainly to special effects wizard Tom Savini, who facilitated the film's graphic special effects (and plays a small, unforgettable role as the doomed "Disco Boy"), and Lustig's solid, if occasionally workmanlike direction. (For a real Lustig grindhouse masterpiece, rent "Vigilante," starring Robert Forster. Revenge never tasted so sweet.) Critics and cultural commentators brought out their own knives for "Maniac," though, for the violence, for the misogyny (which is still, to this day, shocking), and for its general griminess. It isn't a pleasurable movie; but it is a great one, a surprisingly sturdy character study of a loner that only occasionally slips into the absurd.
For the remake, Levasseur and Aja, aided by original "Maniac" confederates Lustig and co-screenwriter C.A. Rosenburg, along with director Franck Kalfoun (a protégé of Levasseur and Aja's who also directed the underrated garage-set horror flick "P2" for them), have transplanted the action of the first film to a desolate, bombed-out-looking Los Angeles and settled for a nifty visual hook – the movie is almost entirely POV, so we're looking through the eyes of the titular maniac as he stalks and slashes. Whose beautifully icy blue eyes, you ask? Why, Elijah Wood's, of course. That's right – Frodo has gone homicidal. And it feels so good.
The movie makes no attempt to hide what it is – the opening sequence is broody and shocking and has Wood stalking a pretty young girl, first through the streets of Los Angeles and finally to her apartment, where he kills the lights and eventually kills her. (He shoves a knife up through her jaw and, true to the original, scalps her.) One of the movie's central jokes, of course, is that Los Angeles really is such a dystopic, neon-lined wasteland that madmen can prowl with open abandon because nobody's ever around. It's the lack of connection that everyone always bitches about but amplified to an insane degree. Kalfoun, working with regular Aja/Levasseur cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, pumps up the feelings of clammy isolationism to the point that the thickly-layered dread doesn't just hang there; it suffocates.
Wood's Frank, like in the original, lives in a mannequin factory, restoring old pieces in his spare time. He also slaps the scalps onto the mannequins and has conversations with them; really gross. When a comely photographer, played by the jaw-dropping Nora Arnezeder, inquires about using Wood's mannequins for an upcoming gallery show she's doing, the psychopath forms an unlikely relationship that borders on sincere friendship. Of course, since the audience has already seen him go on an internet date that ends up with him suffocating a cute alt-chick with his bare hands (Psyche's "Goodbye Horses" plays during this sequence, in a nifty homage to another serial killer classic, "Silence of the Lambs"), it's only a matter of time before his homicidal tendencies show up.
Those tendencies, it should come as no surprise, are triggered by an abusive and neglectful mother (played, in surreal flashback form, by "Friday the 13th" remake star/Playboy pinup America Olivo), who would rather snort coke and bang random guys than care for her young son. It's pretty simplistic stuff, and this kind of pop psychology is both a source of some kitschy fun in the film, and the only time that the entire enterprise ever inches dangerously close to cheese. We've seen this time and time again – from "Psycho" to "Friday the 13th" (which was sort of a nice inversion) – but in the year 2012, it feels less like a loving homage than just lazy storytelling. The filmmakers try to give this thread some pep, but it doesn't come across as any more believable than it did the first time around. When asked, after the screening, if the movie was misogynist, Khalfoun said, "No, the movie's not misogynist and I'm not a misogynist. I love women! Look at how many of them are naked in my movie!"
The flashback sequences, and a few other times, we slip out of the POV situation, but for the most part we really are seeing it through the maniac's eyes. It's pretty eerie; the closest thing it reminds you of is probably the Jonas Ackerlund-directed clip for The Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" (the one that was outlawed from MTV, back when things like that mattered). Such a bold, and sustained, stylistic decision could have backfired horribly, but here it works wonders. It's not like there's some deeper understanding of the killer gained from seeing things from his perspective; mostly it's just really cool. But it causes the filmmakers to exercise some muscles that they normally wouldn't have to if they were covering the movie conventionally, and, complete with the movie's brilliant electro score (by Rob, a member of French pop sensations Phoenix), it turns "Maniac" into a kind of even-more-violent version of "Drive." It'll get your blood pumping, before it starts spilling down your forehead. [B+]