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Maniac

Year: 2012
Production Co: La Petit Reine
Producer: Franck Khalfoun
Writer: Alexandre Aja/Grégory Levasseur
Cast: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder

As soon as I watched this movie I set about tracking down the grimy 1980 exploitation original, but quickly realised I'd already seen it. Rather than it being the stuff of cinematic nightmares and a video nasty-era classic of psychological slasher horror, I'd actually been bored stiff in between bouts of misogynist-tinged gore.

That makes this the second movie that springs to mind where – despite the following and cachet the original carries – it's mechanically and narratively better. Though it's not such a controversial statement to make about Maniac , my similar opinion of Evil Dead might be a different story.

Like Fede Alvarez's 2013 redux, here director Franck Khalfoun takes the skeleton of the story by depicting similar scenes (the subway, the possibly-imagined climax, etc) and the same general direction and puts both lots more meat on the bones and a much fuller nervous system underneath. It's certainly not as dull as William Lustig's 1980 original, and there's a lot more anchoring the action to Frank's (Elijah Wood) psychosis.

Not that it forgets what the fans who did love Lustig's effort would want from a remake. The parking lot scene perfectly captures both the creeping terror of knowing a psychopath with a knife is after you and the nasty edge of what Frank does to his victim, both to immobilise her and then execute the sickness that drives him.

This time set in the dark filth of downtown LA rather than late 70's-era New York, Frank runs the mannequin supply store that's been in his family for years, but his real job is in endlessly trying to convince his beloved, promiscuous, dismissive and long-gone mother to stay and take care of him like a real parent. He does so by following and murdering beautiful young women, scalping them and taking the bloody tops of their heads back to his secret bedroom where he staples them to mannequins he's dolled up to be his many girlfriends, women who know their place and stay home when he tells them – something his mother never did.

But the thing that's bringing Frank increasingly unhinged isn't the fact that he's a serial killer, it's that his many wooden partners are becoming jealous of each other, accusations he has to defend himself from and which are making him even more stressed (and therefore dangerous). The pills he tells people are for migraines but which might be antidepressants or worse work most of the time, if he can remember to have them on him at the right time...

He befriends a pretty young French photographer, Anna (Nora Arnezeder), when she finds her way to his shop, and Frank finds he can tamp down the worst of his sick tendencies with Anna around, so to the extent he realises there's something wrong with him, she might offer some kind of salvation. The chance of a real life edges slowly into Franks's world but the disappointments, minor betrayals and lies that naturally come with it threaten to tip him over the edge – putting Anna and everyone around her in danger.

I might be reading too much into Frank's inner world or imagined a lot more of it than writers Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur intended, but that might be because the design, visual language and tone were so well handled they made it easy to buy into the story.

The welcome mood of dirty muckiness is partly because of the locations and set design, director Khalfoun picking out the gaudily reflected light on wet streets and rubbish-strewn sidewalks and filming a lot in badly lit corridors and rooms. Another element that adds to it is that star Wood isn't in the movie a real lot because most of it's shot from his point of view.

It does more than make the action more urgent or make you feel like it's you doing such terrible things – by not framing things with the usual medium takes on two actors or over the shoulder two-way conversation shots, it lends the visual language an off-kilter feeling that's discomfiting, like a horror movie should be.

But special mention should be made of Wood when he does appear. It would have been hard to do something different from what the sweaty, craggy hairball Mike Spinell did in the original (I could never buy any woman falling in love with such a greaseball) but still project an air of menace, but Wood does so beautifully. Even though he doesn't look physically strong, angry or volatile those clear, icy eyes, slightly googly countenance and angular features make him perfect as a sexually and emotionally repressed psychopath.

But as well as looking the part, Wood's had such an interesting career. It certainly didn't start with the Lord of the Rings films but after that he probably could have been a megastar – at least to the extent his weird, non-matinee idol looks would let him. Instead he's done what Kirsten Stewart did after Twilight, parleying his cachet into a series of very small, esoteric projects as actor and producer like the near-experimental Open Windows, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and a lot of Beastie Boys videos.

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