Maniac: From Grindhouse to Art-House Horror

William Lustig’s splatter exploitation film, Maniac, remains one of the more controversial horror movies from the 1980’s. It never quite reached the levels of infamy of Silent Night, Deadly Night. Nevertheless, Maniac found its way onto the United Kingdom’s Video Nasties List. Critics have alternately accused the movie as tasteless, misogynistic, or both. Among the vast catalogue of 80’s horror, Maniac seemed like an unlikely candidate for a remake. But a remake is exactly what happened. In this edition of Re-Animated, I take a look at Alexandre Aja’s art-house re-imagining of this grindhouse cult classic.

William Lustig’s Grimy Maniac a Grindhouse Cult Classic

Maniac is about as divisive a horror movie that you can find. Perhaps not as controversial as Cannibal Holocaust or A Serbian Film, this is still a movie that’s going to provoke a a reaction from audiences. Though not technically a ‘good’ movie, Maniac is like a ‘car crash’ that approaches watchability. Of course, this is in no small part due to its shock value. Even after nearly 40 years, Lustig’s grimy exploitation flick is still a raw and visceral viewing experience.


With its low production values and disturbing violence against women, Maniac is a grimy, seedy movie. You may feel the need to take a shower after watching it.

Some people classify it as a slasher movie. Not really. Lustig’s violence lacks the cartoonish over-the-top style of a Friday the 13th. Arguably, Maniac shares more DNA with the violence you’d find in 70’s grindhouse movies like The Driller Killer and The Toolbox Murders. Director Lustig’s filmography isn’t extensive, but his other movies – Vigilante and Maniac Cop -clearly fall in the grindhouse splatter film wheelhouse. With its low production values and disturbing violence against women, Maniac is a grimy, seedy movie. Be forewarned – you may feel the need to take a shower after watching it. Yet what sets it apart from some of the lesser exploitation fare is that it’s a compelling watch.

Nothing to Lose Your Head Over

Undoubtedly, Lustig’s DIY film-making style and Tom Savini’s mind-blowing practical effects make Maniac work. Yes, this is the definition of low-budget horror movie. In terms of plot and story, the movie feels incoherent at times. But Lustig makes all of these limitations work. Rather than feeling unwatcheable or disjointed, Maniac has a surreal vibe to it that makes it feel as creepy as Joe Spinell’s ‘Frank Zito.’

You might say it’s Savini’s ‘crowning’ achievement.

At the time Maniac was released, Savini was doing some of the best work of his career. Savini worked on Friday the 13th in the same year Maniac was released. In the following year, Savini brought his talents to both The Burning and The Prowler. In a movie that features multiple stabbings, slashing, and, yes, scalping’s, you might assume it would be difficult to select just one effects achievement. Yet anyone who has seen Maniac knows the ‘head-exploding’ scene is THE moment. Nothing quite compares to it. You might say it’s Savini’s ‘crowning’ achievement.

Maniac Remake Avoids Sanitizing Original

With a few notable exceptions, horror remakes from the 2000’s were characterized by a sanitization of 80’s horror movies. Sex and violence were downplayed to secure safe PG-13 ratings and more robust box office takes. As a result, remakes like The Stepfather and Prom Night felt like anemic shadows of the original movies. Producer and writer Alexandre Aja’s (Piranha 3D, High Tension) update may be more polished, but it does not skimp on the original’s polarizing violence.

It’s a creative choice that adds a disturbing layer to the remake.

Quite the contrary, the 2012 Maniac is as equally disturbing and violent. If horror fans had lingering doubts, director Franck Khalfoun (P2) puts any concerns to rest in the movie’s opening five minutes. That opening death scene pulls absolutely no punches. Though there is no ‘exploding head’ moment, Maniac is no less gruesome. Aja and Khalfoun are as equally comfortable crossing lines of good taste as Lustig. But what truly sets the remake apart is its adoption of a continuous point-of-view perspective. Elijah Wood’s ‘killer’ is only seen photos or mirror shots. Everything you ‘see’ is through Wood’s eyes, implicating you in the movie’s violence. It’s a creative choice that adds a disturbing layer to the remake.

Remake Sticks Too Closely to the Original’s Dated Story

Aside from the bold choice of using that POV perspective, the 2012 Maniac adheres pretty rigidly to the original’s story. Ultimately, it’s a disappointing direction, and one that almost instantly dates the remake. Lustig’s simplistic incorporation of Freudian psychology and deviantization of sex work may have worked in the early 80’s, but it was strained in 2012. Now just several years removed and it’s a story direction that doesn’t feel like it could work. Not when strong movies like Cam are offering much more realistic and, yes, healthy depictions of sex work.


Yes, Spinell looks the part, but it’s Wood’s seemingly ‘boy-next-door’ look that makes his character even more disturbing.

Everything else about the remake is an upgrade. Production values, music score, cinematography – this version of Maniac is a clean, polished movie. And no offence to Joe Spinell, but Elijah Wood makes for a far more interesting ‘maniac’. Yes, Spinell looks the part, but it’s Wood’s seemingly ‘boy-next-door’ look that makes his character even more disturbing.

Original and Remake Are Both Uncompromising Horror Movies

Gruesome, disturbing incoherent, offensive – Maniac is all these things. It’s a low-budget psychological horror movie that has earned its cult classic status by virtue of its uncompromising violence. As far as remakes go, Aja and Kahlfoun’s 2012 ‘re-imagining’ is about as much as you could have hoped for if you’re a fan of the original. In spite of its higher production values and art-house sensibilities, the 2012 Maniac is every bit as transgressive as the original. What the remake lacks in originality, it makes ups for with it disturbing use of the POV perspective.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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