“We watch him struggle to suppress his murderous tendencies, but ultimately succumb to his heinous proclivities. “

William Lustig is a name caked in grime and grit. This is not to besmirch the man himself, but the imagery of the films to which he affixes his name.

Since the early 80s (his films prior to that were under the nom de plum Billy Bagg), Lustig has cranked out flicks from cinema’s seedier side (Vigilante, Maniac Cop, Hit List). But his “breakthrough” was a dark and dirty little piece titled “Maniac,” which starred the late Joe Spinell in one of his few starring roles.

Equal parts Norman Bates and Travis Bickle, Spinell’s Frank Zito was an NYC shut-in with a mannequin fetish, mama issues and homicidal tendencies. Maniac earned infamy in the 80s when Roger Ebert washed his hands of the whole deal after a kill, citing its extreme violence within, followed by viewers of their show, Sneak Previews, to boycott the picture for its unrelenting cruelty.

Directed by
Franck Khalfoun
Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, America Olivo
Release Date
Robs Grade: A-

This, of course, only whetted the appetite of gore-hounds, earning it cult-like status in what might otherwise have been another bottom-shelf blood-and-guts casualty of the era.

It was enough to plant the dingy little pic in the mind of writer-producer Alexandre Aja, the director responsible for Haute Tension, who decided to clean up the production value and remake it with the relatively well-known lead, Elijah Wood.

The resulting flick is far better than its inauspicious predecessor in every possible way. That may strike a nerve in the purists, but after you wipe off the fog of nostalgia, it’s clear that this Maniac takes a derivative, dirt-encrusted pic into a bold, innovative new direction.

Using point-of-view cinematography, director Franck Khalfoun makes us the killer. Imagine, if you will, if the entirety of Halloween remained in that opening sequence perspective of Michael Myers. The film still manages to keep its bloodlust in tact, but we are given the additional discomfort of “committing the crime.”

Frodo is far from the Shire as Frank Zito, heir to a family mannequin business who spends his days perfecting his collection and ruminating over his neglectful mommy. As an escape from the migraine-inducing memories, Zito decides to embark on a killing spree of lovely young women. This is an easy leap for the audience to take, given Wood’s soulful, dewey stare.

Zito’s penchant for murder stalls momentarily when he befriends a lovely photographer (played by Nora Arnezeder), who takes his interest in his rather peculiar pastime as a model maker. But that relationship is fleeting when she begins to look deeper into his closets.

Despite its polish, there’s little sunlight that breaks through Maniac, as it remains as dark, violent and nasty as its original. But the skill involved with its dedication to direction makes Maniac such a fascinating watch. And Wood exceeds Spinell’s sheer brutality and unhinged performance by providing us with a conflicted protagonist. We watch him struggle to suppress his murderous tendencies, but ultimately succumb to his heinous proclivities.

With its loyalty to the original’s brutality, it’s easy to see why Maniac, despite its higher-profile pedigree, would fail to reach a mainstream audience, but for fans of the genre, it’s an exhilarating sprint into horror that often merely wheezes and limps to its conclusion and deserves to reach an appropriate audience that can appreciate its many maniacal merits.

Review by Rob Rector, Lead Entertainment Writer