To me, the key to a truly great “remake” of a pre-existing horror film is simple. Would the new update make a good double feature with the original movie? When it comes to programming a double feature, the goal is to find two movies with a similar theme that would complement each other. And there’s no better test to see if a remake works than by watching it back to back with its inspiration and seeing if it respects its source material and tells a similar enough story, yet does its own new thing. Each week, we’re going to pair up two horror films – its original and its remake as a double feature and see if it makes for a great double bill. Welcome to Double Take!
Back in 1980, and hell, even today, the original MANIAC, directed by William Lustig and starring the late, great Joe Spinell was somewhat an anomaly. Sure, this was the very beginning of the “slasher” boom inspired by HALLOWEEN and later taken to new gory heights by FRIDAY THE 13TH, but there’s something tremendously disturbing, sad and poignant about MANIAC. It could be Spinell’s portrayal of Frank Zito, which at points is disturbing and despicable, especially his murder sequences, but somehow he manages to be a sympathetic character as well. You can take the scene where he arrives with a stuffed teddy bear to pick up Anna (Hammer legend Caroline Monroe) for a dinner date. If you were to take this one scene out of context, it could easily be from a drama of that time period. Frank is shy, polite, awkward and comes off as a giant teddy bear himself, despite us having witnessed him do some of the most horrific things depicted in horror history. As my Killer POV co-host Elric Kane always says, “Joe Spinell has poetry in his eyes.” And it’s true!
The stand out of this shocker flick is of course the realistic FX work done by Tom Savini. In one of the movie’s most famous scenes, a guy (Savini himself) making out with his girlfriend in a car is interrupted and gets his head blown to smithereens by a shotgun, all in slow-motion. All of the other kills and scalping’s of the women in this movie are brutal, unforgivable and difficult to stomach, something made even more excruciating by how drawn out they all are. And yet still, 30 some odd years later, the movie still works as an odd genre masterpiece. A horror work of art. There’s truly nothing quite like it.
Cut to 2012 as Alexandre Aja & Gregory Levasseur, the producing team that previously directed the remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES, as well as the fan favorite HIGH TENSION set their sights on remaking MANIAC. This time, the 1980 New York backdrop is replaced by the strangely parallel modern day downtown Los Angeles. (Equally a scary place in my opinion!) Instead of the physically imposing giant as the films killer, they cast Elijah Wood as Frank, the unsuspecting hipster boy next door. This updated version follows fairly closely a lot of the beats of the original. Frank owns a mannequin shop, we get glimpses of his past and how his relationship with his mother turned him into the monster he is. (We also get hints of that in the original.) And then he meets Anna (Nora Alexander), an artist whom he starts to form a genuine relationship with. The biggest difference between the original and this update is that this version is completely shot from the point of view of Frank, making us, the audience the maniac. Had it been any other way, I don’t know if the movie would’ve been anything other than exploitation but by making this creative decision, you have to look at it as its own artistic thing.
So, does the original MANIAC and its 2012 remake make for a good double feature?
While you’ll recognize certain beats, they are both stylistically completely different movies and there’s enough “tipping of the hat” to the original in the update to acknowledge and recognize where this all came from. For example, the poster for the original MANIAC, a painting of the killer holding a scalp and bloody knife is not really directly in the movie, but that visual cue is acted out at the conclusion of one of the remakes most memorable set pieces. Music-wise, the scores for both movies are synonymous with their tones. Jay Chattaway does an incredibly light, melodic, almost lullaby score, which reflects the fractured childhood of Frank’s psyche. Whereas the Franck Khalfoun movie has a pulsing electronic score by Rob. From the moment I heard the first few notes of Rob’s score as Frank tours the streets of Los Angeles, I knew we were in for a new, unique experience.
The story of both versions of MANIAC are fairly straight forward and simple. We’re following along with a psychotic person that stalks and murders women, so it’s not exactly a pleasant experience, but the best horror movies are the stories that evoke some sort of visceral reaction out of us. The type of films that stay with us long after the final credit rolls. In that regard, I wouldn’t exactly recommend this double bill for a cheery Friday night party, but they both totally work as a double feature and complement each other perfectly, showing us two sides of a troubled maniac’s full descent into madness and inevitably getting what he deserves.