I managed to get my lazy arse along to the showing of the much discussed "Maniac" remake in the IFI last Friday night. Considering I'd been up since 7 a.m., had been running in and out of town all day, and came directly from an Enabler/Martyrdod/Rotten Sound show across the road I'm amazed I didn't pass out from sheer exhaustion half way through (I got out of the cinema little after 1 a.m), and the tiredness initially shaped my opinion of the film as I was watching it. But I've found myself thinking a lot about it over the last few days. Thinking about the approach taken, about remakes in general, and about the film itself.
I'm not sure it would be accurate to say I "enjoyed" it. There's something vaguely sinister in saying that you enjoy a film that is essentially about misogyny after all, right? I mean I'm not sure I "like" the original William Lustig version of it either, but I appreciate that it's a powerful, ugly watch that makes strangely compelling viewing. And the 2013 version is that to a tee as well. That's as much of a comparison I'm going to give you between the two versions, as this new film really just seems to share the same name and a similar theme (though there is a fairly blatant homage to the original at one point - I won't spoil it for you). The premise - young guy with Mommy Issues who restores mannequins by day meets girls online and kills them by night, falls in love with a young photographer with disastrous results.
The strength of this new retelling of the story is in the presentation. It's mostly shot from Frank's point of view, which straight away put you inside his head, let's you see what he sees. It makes you complicit in his acts in a way that amps up the discomfort factor I think more so than if you were just watching him. When he gets the blinding migraines that signify his urge to kill kicking in, we're right there with him as the obnoxiously loud feedback and blurring camera try and effect the same feeling of disorientation he's feeling. We're there when he talks to himself, stapling scalps to mannequins, roaring at imagined tormentors. And we're also there powerless to stop him when he strangles a woman he's been having sex with and stalks his victims on their way home.
Yeah, the POV apporach is nothing new. But here I found myself thinking it worked for two reasons - one, because it sets this version apart from the Lustig one a little more. And secondly, crucially, is because in putting us inside his head in this very modern retelling - again, the fact that he meets women online is key here - we're not so much voyeurs as we are implicated in the action. Elijah Wood's performance initially struck me as being awful - wooden and monotone, just a guy reciting some lines. When he appears on screen he seems weirdly blank. But in the past few days his detached portrayal of Frank has clicked with me.
The only time he gets emotional really is during the aftermath of his killings. In one sequence in Anna's apartment towards the end, he tries to be calm and reasonable while carrying out an act of extreme violence. It's like it means nothing to him, like it doesn't matter. In that regard, being put in his shoes in this era where people will watch and download videos like the "Two Guys One Hammer" thing, or beheadings, or what have you on one hand or the kind exaggeratedly demeaning porn that makes millions every year, and then talk about these things on messageboards like they're the most normal, mundane shit ever, it feels weirdly believeable that this behaviour seems normal to him. Like a logical way of working out his issues. And portraying it that way while we're inside his head is an interesting way of making us think about that salacious, voyeuristic end of culture that we fans of horror or sleaze dwell in, even for five minutes.
Not crazy about how the film makers try, at times, to make you feel sympathetic towards the Frank character here. The big difference is that Elijah Wood is a normal relatively good looking young guy as opposed to Joe Spinnell, a big, rough, badly complexioned older guy in the original. Sure, it's an interesting move that the Frank in the 2013 is a non intimidating little guy (he even uses the screen name "timidguy" which kind of feels like they're overegging the pudding a little) and it certainly works pretty well in making it clear that anyone can be a villain. But here he seems like a Norman Bates knock off - the lonely little child who went wrong, made all the more acceptable by the fact he's a slim, vaguely effeminate, quiet little guy in his late 20s (at one point another character implies he's gay). Maniac was also a riff on certain aspects of Psycho,and here they perhaps uninteionally pushed that. Thing is for this to really work, you need to not feel empathy for him. You need to be confronted by the fact that this supposedly normal, quiet person who wouldn't stand out in a crowd has performed acts of the unspeakable.
And yeah, the violence in the film..well, it's there. It's unsettling. People will ram home the sexism argument, and I understand that entirely as all the victims bar one are women. But the context is key, and you don't watch this film without understanding that. It isn't titillating in any way,and it shows sexualised violence in a horrible manner that pulls no punches and doesn't play to the dirty mac brigade.
I was relieved that this wasn't yet another mindless remake. I was impressed that it stood on it's own two feet and stayed with me a few days later. It sank in slowly and I'm considering seeing it again when it goes on general release. Not perfect, but a fine effort.