Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
William Lustig and Joe Spinell’s 1980 film Maniac took a sleazy, psychological approach to its serial killer slasher that repulsed critics upon release. That its killer, Frank Zito, is the lead character with whom we develop sympathy for is contrasted by his gory modus operandi of gruesomely scalping his victims. That viewers spend all their time with the depraved killer, combined with Tom Savini’s gore effects, proved to be too much for many viewers at the time. In 2012, French extremity horror auteur Alexandre Aja and his screenwriting partner Grégory Levasseur took it much further with the remake, which makes the viewer complicit in Frank Zito’s slayings.
Directed by Frank Khalfoun (P2), Maniac doesn’t deviate much from Frank Zito’s origins. He’s still a psychologically disturbed individual who was abused as a child by his prostitute mother. He’s still a collector of scalps, of which he uses to adorn his mannequin collection. What’s changed, though, is that Frank Zito doesn’t look nearly as intimidating as he did when played by Spinell. Now played by Elijah Wood, this iteration seems like the harmless next door neighbor type, which in many ways makes Zito more dangerous. Not that you see him much, because this remake frames the entire story through Frank’s point-of-view.
2012’s Maniac is, essentially, a warped love story. Frank’s burgeoning friendship with artist/photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) seems sweet and normal. He’s smitten by her charm, and seems genuine in his offer to help her with an art exhibit. But it’s interspersed with Frank’s lust for blood. He seeks out victims through dating apps or even just women he haphazardly meets, and because it’s shot in POV, we see the acts of violence through his eyes. The gore feels even grislier because we’re now complicit. Even if Anna brings out the best in him, we know Frank isn’t stable. Their friendship is destined for brutal devastation, and we know Anna is in danger long before she ever has a clue.
The gore in this remake is much more explicit than before. It shows more than the original film, and posed challenges for the makeup effects team. Namely in the tricky nature of scalping- hiding the actors’ hair while making it look as though they’d been completely skinned. Khalfoun also wanted full hair pieces, not some little mohawk piece. So special effects artist and supervisor Mike McCarty (Hostel: Part II, Texas Chainsaw 3D), a prominent KNB EFX Group artist recommended by Greg Nicotero, had his work cut out for him. Especially given the tricky, technical aspect of this remake: the POV.
With everything shown from Frank’s perspective, a lot of blocking, planning, and choreography was required. That meant Wood was on set every day, working behind the camera and maneuvering his hands in front of it. In other words, it added complications to just about every aspect of the film, from building Frank Zito as a character when you only see him in flashes, to how to handle the special gore effects.
When the topic of well-executed horror remakes comes up, Maniac deserves inclusion. It retained what worked so well about the original while building upon it in effective ways. It pushed the envelope a bit farther on the gore, too. But above all, it’s a technical marvel, cleverly putting you in the shoes of its killer. And what could be scarier than that?