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How Franck Khalfoun Updated the Slasher Classic Maniac for Modern Audiences

Maniac.jpg
Elijah Wood is a Maniac.
By Cory Casciato

The original Maniac hit theaters in 1980, and quickly became a slasher classic by heralding a new era in on-screen depravity. The grimy, gritty film about a serial killer who scalps women and collects mannequins famously depicted a close-up of a shotgun blast to the head, multiple scalpings and other radical -- for the time -- images of violence and gore.

Although the movie still has a dedicated following, it's fallen into relative obscurity, with modern-day movies like Saw making its once- shocking kills look relatively tame. But that just makes it ripe for a remake, which is what producer Alexandre Aja and director Franck Khalfoun have done, updating the story to the present day and resurrecting the heart of Maniac with a new style and daring approach. We caught up with Khalfoun to talk about why horror fans are the best film fans, how L.A. is the new New York and bringing something fresh to a classic horror film.

Were you a big fan of the original Maniac?

You know, I remember the original. I remember being really touched -- it marked me. It certainly left an impression on me. I acquired a VHS copy of it years and years ago. I'm a fan of movies, and certainly when something is as powerful as that, which it was at the time, certainly I remember. So yes, I was. I also knew the danger in trying to remake something like that, something with the audience, the core fanbase that it has.

The hardcore fans can be pretty unforgiving when it comes to remakes and reinterpretations.

Yeah. I feel that [horror fans] are movie fans more than anything. More than being genre fans, they're actually the best movie fans because they love all movies, they don't just love horror movies. They're the fans who will dissect and will live the movie. They appreciate movies more than anybody. They'll watch a David Lean film just like they will an Eli Roth film, or one of my movies. They only care that films are good. They don't like remakes because they're usually bad. But if you attempt to give them something good, they're willing to watch and appreciate it for what it's worth.

It seems like the initial reception to this new Maniac, among fans and critics alike, has been generally positive, so you must have done something right.

It has. It seems like it has. Obviously, it's really dark, so when you start getting into more popular critiques they seem to shy away a little bit. But for the most part, even the big papers and the mass media has been pretty receptive to the film. I think that's because it's an attempt to do something fresh and new, to reinvent in a creative way.

But while still maintaining the spirit of the original.

Oh, yeah, totally. Well, we're still scalping women [laughs]. That's a tough one ... you can't make Maniac without that.

I know you've worked with producer Alexandre Aja in the past. Is that how you came to direct this film?

That's correct. He and Thomas Langmann, who produced The Artist recently and has been a producer for years, had discussed this movie for a long, long time and felt that now the time was right to do it. It seemed like the obvious choice to follow up The Artist with Maniac. [Laughs.]

What was the impulse to change the setting from the original's New York to L.A. for your version?

Well, I think that New York is no longer as threatening as it was. I think that Los Angeles still has these sort of lost neighborhoods and these sort of isolated places. Where do you go in New York to find an isolated neighborhood? When I first read the script, it mentioned the Lower East Side and there was nobody there at one in the morning and I'm like, "In what world, what year, is this remake?" That's not really the case with New York any more. New York is one of the safest places in the world. I was trying to find a place that sort of fit, that sort of embodied what the original movie embodied with the city, that sort of matched a little bit more.

Also, I felt that Los Angeles is this very strange combination of places, especially downtown. It's an old town that was really decadent at one point, that fell into despair and now has become sort of trendy again. It's a place where homeless people and crazy people mingle with artists and businessmen. It's a real melting pot of our society. It's also a place that's vivacious during the day -- and at night, most of that town goes dark and empty. People run away from that place at night. It's become hip and trendy in some areas, but for the most part it's still a very sketchy place.

The way you describe it, it almost sounds like L.A. today is very similar in that vibe to the New York of the late '70s and early '80s.

Yeah, I remember SoHo when it was just factories and there was nothing. It was the beginning of the gentrification. So was the Lower East Side, and it was pretty sketchy. It was just the beginning of renovation. And that's sort of what's happening to downtown in Los Angeles. It's a sketchy place that is now being renovated again. Lofts are coming up, and restaurants and clubs. In that regard it's very similar.

And it makes a good setting for a psycho killer movie.

Totally. And the architecture is beautiful. You have this mix of modern buildings and these old post-war buildings from the '40s that are still very beautiful. Thematically also, it's really a wonderful place.

The other big departure from the original is the decision to shoot it from the killer's perspective, which worked really well. Was that written into the script, or was that something you brought to the table?

Well, thank you. I'm glad it's effective, because it's a challenge to try and pull that off for an hour and a half, to watch a movie entirely from a point of view. Even though I do believe that the audiences today are conditioned, are more prepared, to see a movie that way, because of first-person shooters and all these found-footage movies. They're more receptive to films shot in that way.

The script was not written that way. The script was just a straight-up script and I felt, very strongly, that we needed to bring something different. I didn't want to remake a movie that's been copied over and over again throughout the years by genre filmmakers. I didn't want to be the guy that recopied the movie, you know? The iconic movie everybody's been sort of using. I thought that if we were to, we had to capture the essence of the film, but do it in an entirely original way, and in a daring manner. It goes back to "What are you giving the audience?" Especially the core audience. If I was to do a straight-up serial killer movie, it's been done so many times.

Alex Aja and I had long discussions, we traded a lot of ideas, and he mentioned this movie, this romantic drama that he'd seen in Europe that he'd seen entirely shot in first person. Then we watched Into the Void and we watched this old Prodigy video that's really great called "Slap My Bitch Up." Then we went back and looked at Peeping Tom, one of the original POV horror movies, which ended up being copied in a lot of movies. Then you realize, in horror films, some of the scariest moments when you are the killer, lurking behind the bush at the unsuspecting victim. Then I saw a movie called Dark Passage, which was in, I think, '42, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. She was mesmerizing and I was like, "Wow, this could actually work today." And that's where it all began, just the idea that we needed to do something different and offer the audience a different take. I think that's why they've been receptive to it -- it's daring! I think they appreciate it when you take a chance, for better or for worse. If you're going to risk something and offer something new, I think the audience is much more forgiving.

It's hard to bring something new to the horror genre, since horror is such a populist genre. There are so many filmmakers, at every level, making horror films that a lot of ground gets covered. You have to dig deep to come up with something to shock people out of their complacency.

Yeah, completely. I think it was important for us. Who needs another serial killer movie, honestly, unless we can do something really daring?

I know your film P2 dealt with some of the same territory, with a killer obsessively stalking a woman. Is that a theme you like to work with, or just coincidental?

[Laughs.] You know, I think it's coincidental. I like a dramatic premise and situations that are dramatic and have action and put people in tough situations that they have to fight out of, for the most part. This one is more psychological, for the most part, than P2. But I certainly hope that tying up women is not a continuing theme in my work.

It's terrifying to think about being held. I'm more drawn to real stories between humans, and human struggle, than I am the supernatural, for instance. I find it scarier, for me. I find the deranged minds of killers more terrifying than ghosts, personally.

Real monsters are scarier than pretend monsters.

I think. That's why a lot of times these movies have a hard time with ratings, because they seem more realistic. P2 or this film, they create an innate fear in people and create paranoia and real fear. It's a little more intense, I think.

Did you put in any homages or references to the original in your film that we should be looking out for?

There's a bunch. There's a description of [original Maniac star] Joe Spinell in there. There's the original poster composition in one of the shots. There's a few ... the mother, references to the mom, we elaborate on that. They're there. It's funny, because when you're sitting with horror audiences, they pick up on that immediately. General audiences, it flies right over them, but those little things are for those particular audience members who love this stuff.

It seems like these days, too, the newer films, the remakes, introduce young fans to the originals, so those things work in reverse.

Yeah. It's true. And that's why you try to do a movie that stands up on its own. A lot of people won't know that the first one exists. As the years pass, and people rediscover this film, they won't know there was another one. If it stands on its own, that's ultimately what we try to do. We try to relate the feeling of the last one to a newer generation.

Now that Maniac is out, what's next for you?

I just finished shooting a movie that I wrote called I-Lived. It is about a man who discovers a self-help app on his phone and he uses this app to better his life by setting goals into the app, and the app gives him a set of objectives to accomplish to reach his ultimate goal, and it seems to work really well. The problem is that the more he asks of the app, the more the app requires of him. Eventually he finds himself asking what did he sign when he signed the user agreement? Perhaps he should have read it. It's an interesting little take on Faust, through an app.

It's a Faustian look at making sure you look at what you sign. How many times do you download apps and accept the terms without looking at them? It's a dangerous premise. Every time. Nobody reads it! You're signing your life away. Off of that premise, I thought there was a great story of someone spiraling into hell.

Anything else you want to add about Maniac before we wrap up?

I think it's an entertaining film. I saw it recently -- it's been a year since we made it -- and I was very happy that it's unexpected. Every turn in the film is unexpected. So if you're interested in discovering something and going into a real journey into the psyche of a crazed killer, then this will be a fun ride for you. It's an unexpected film and there's an adventure there to embark on, so I hope people enjoy it.

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