A Tale of Two Maniacs: Spinell Vs Wood

This was originally published in October of 2014 on the old Supernaughts site. I’ve been asked about it over the past several days, and thought it was time to post it again. 

When Maniac was released back in 1980, I missed it. I was 15 at the time, and no one I knew had any interest in seeing it. Not until I ran across it on HBO (or maybe Showtime I forget which), did I finally get to see this cult classic. I was underwhelmed at the time, finding it slow moving, not especially scary, and only notable for some excellent make up effects. Joe Spinell brings what little creep factor there is simply for how he looks in the film, as opposed to his acting (which never goes beyond good, and is usually verging on bad). Let’s face it though, a film like Maniac isn’t going to be notable for acting, writing, or anything other than the gore factor and scares.

When I first heard about a remake, I let it pass under my radar, as I had little emotional investment from a horror fan’s or even a nostalgia ridden perspective. I don’t think it was until I heard Elijah Wood had been cast in the role as Frank Zito that I started following it with some mild interest. I’ve always liked Wood’s as an actor, and thought it was such an odd choice it would either be a fantastic idea or so bad it would be good. Either way, this was the horror movie I was looking forward to the most this year.
Prior to writing this, I watched both versions back to back. Not once, but twice. I’ve even gone back to certain scenes to take screen shots and to refresh my memory (I did this a couple of weeks ago, and the notes I wrote down, were pretty illegible).

I watched the original first, and this time around had a far more favorable reaction to it. Perhaps because I hadn’t seen it in 20 years or so, I had a new perspective on it-still it’s far from perfect, and my criticisms of it still stand, but I can appreciate it more now.

The first difference between the two is the opening. In Maniac 1980, it opens on the beach with Zito killing a couple getting down to business. I never understood this as he’s spying first, and knows the boyfriend is there, and it goes against his M.O. in the rest of the film. Maniac 2012 starts with Zito driving around looking for a hooker. Before I go on with the comparison I have to mention this: much has been made about how the remake was shot entirely from the killer’s POV, with our only glimpses of him in a mirror, etc. Prior to watching it, I was pretty sure I’d hate it. And while I don’t love it, I found it very effective. And there are two scenes where it breaks the POV, which while a bit jarring, didn’t detract from the experience.

So, Elijah has Wood that he’s intent on using on a prostitute, and stalks her, setting up the kill in the doorway to her apartment. The remake has a far more effective opening, and more important, it keeps with his motivation.

Maniac 1980 has Spinell hire a hooker, and after some banter, they get down to business and once he strangles her, he takes her scalp.

This same scene is told a bit differently in the remake, the woman Wood seduces isn’t a prostitute, but someone he meets online. After a nice Italian dinner, she takes him back to her place where she attempts to seduce him by giving him a blow job. Now, during this scene they use the same song that was made famous in Silence of the Lambs (during Buffalo Bill’s dance in front of a mirror-and no Bill, I wouldn’t fuck you). I was ready to actually stop watching. I thought it was such a gratuitous and lazy move, it angered me-and that doesn’t happen a lot. Yet, I kept on, and as in the original, Wood strangles her and scalps her. Though Wood actually seems to orgasm as he scalps her, and for Spinell it’s business as usual.

Both Maniacs get love interests, and while Spinell is more methodical and devious in getting his, it doesn’t come off as believable (he spies a beautiful woman taking pictures, sees her camera bag, looks at it and sees an address on the tag, and then shows up at her apartment unannounced). Woods’ would be paramour is merely happenstance, he notices someone taking pictures of the storefront where he lives/works and invites her in-thus beginning their relationship.

Spinal’s relationship never really worked for me, granted in both, you know the outcome won’t be good, but Spinell looks and acts like such a creep, it’s more a matter of when things go down, than if they do. With Wood, you get a sense at times, that maybe it could work, that this woman might be the one to help him get past his issues that cause him to kill.

That thought also brings another difference between the two. The original only gives back story about what causes Zito to kill through some laughably bad monologues and cheesy voice overs. The remake shows us through flashbacks why Woods acts the way he does. Granted with the first, it was probably more a matter of having a small budget and little time to film, but I think it suffers for that.

There’s a scene in the remake where a young Frank is hidden in a closet as his mother brings home two men. He watches her snort coke, and have a threesome with her new found friends, and is pretty disturbing. I can only imagine how more effective the first would be had they been able to do some of that.

As both films progress, there are a few more minor differences, but none bigger than what acts as a prelude to the final scene. Maniac 1980 shows us Frank taking his gf on a date, but he insists on stopping at the graveyard first to pay respects and put new flowers on his mother’s grave. It’s in this pivotal scene, that the gf realizes who Frank is, and as they wrestle on the dead mom’s grave, she manages to stab him in the arm and escape. Frank chases her, but it so weakened (despite the fact he can kill women who to be polite are full figured, but is put out of commission by a superficial wound), he can only stagger home.
By contrast, the new version has Zito going to his gf’s apartment to comfort her after she tells him, the art gallery owner, she had done a show with was murdered. Once at her home, a friend of hers takes his leave, and as the two of them talk, she realizes who he is, and a fantastic fight takes place. Woods’ gets his hand pierced by a knife, he’s slashed, punched, beaten and still has enough energy to slam a butcher knife into the mouth of her friend when he returns. Even when she escapes and he chases her down the street, and gets run over by a car she hops into, it doesn’t stop him, he still manages to crawl over to her broken body and scalp her.

And then he staggers home.

The final scene is the same for both films: the mannequins he pretends are his girlfriends (complete with nailed or stapled scalps attached to them), come to life, and literally rip both of them to shreds. However, when the police barge in, they only find the dead Frank, whole but a victim of suicide.
Maniac 2012 is beautifully filmed. There are some shots that are so haunting and surreal, it takes your breath away. The director, Frank Khalfoun does a masterful job of framing shots, and uses much trickery with mirrors to show Woods face onscreen (and part of a butt crack). There are only two times where, as I said earlier that the first person POV is broken, the final scene, and an earlier kill. The previous scene had Woods chasing a woman through the subway and into a parking lot, and it’s the only kill we see him from the victims viewpoint. I almost looked at it, as he was so out of control and out of himself by that time, he was having what could be termed an out of body experience. The remake is slick, and glossy, and by comparison the original is a grainy, third generation copy of a bootleg videotape. That’s not even a criticism, as it really highlights the sordidness and squalor of New York at that time (where I happened to live when it was first released). The unrefined nature of the 1980 movie works to its advantage. It has no pretensions of being anything other than what it is.

I have to mention the sound of the remake-at times it borders on brilliance. The music, sound effects, and dialog are all perfectly recorded and sound fantastic. The music in both is appropriate and greatly enhances everything else. In spite of being set in present day (though there are some anachronisms, like CRT televisions, flip phones, and a record player), it retains the ‘80s musical style-and it’s bloody perfection. In fact, it could have easily come off the soundtrack for the original, it’s that good.
The special effects in both are top notch. Savini did such a fantastic job with what he had to work with back then, you can’t find fault with any of it. Having said that, the effects in the remake, even though most are CG, are so well done, I found them almost too realistic. It may not be as violent as the original (the shotgun scene from the first is missing from the second), it’s far bloodier, and the POV gives it an off the charts squirm factor.

With the remake being set in Los Angeles, I thought the change of location served the movie very well. Spinell is as seedy as the city he lives in, while Woods’ is every bit the clean cut hipster that LA brings to mind. Neither one would be given a second look in their respective home towns.
While there are some major and minor differences in tone and character (Woods’ Maniac also has an OCD compulsion to scrub his hands with steel wool after each kill), the biggest is back-story, and the remake really does a fine job with this. The writing is tighter, more believable, and the dialog doesn’t make you cringe. Well, not as much.

As for which is the better film? I think it will depend on who you think is the better Frank Zito. While Spinell does a serviceable job, there are points his performance verges on camp, and you end up laughing at places you’re not meant to. Much like Nicholson in The Shining, who already looks crazy from the start, you have a hard time believing anyone would talk to him for more than 10 seconds before crossing the street to get away from him. Woods, I think, benefits from having very little screen time due to the POV situation. His voice over work is solid, and when you do see him, he’s alternately charming, in a nerdy kind of way, or simply haunting.

I prefer Woods interpretation, and when he kills, you don’t think about his diminutive size, because you don’t see him. The director, perhaps unknowingly, did Woods a boon, for using the POV, as it erases your thoughts about how someone his size can do what he does.
For me, I far prefer the remake. It’s one of the very few instances where it outshines the source material in almost every single way. Both are worth seeing, and adding to your collection, but the remake is the version I’ll always remember.

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