A Comparison of Three Films Entitled Maniac

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The first of the three films entitled Maniac was made in 1937, the second came out 46 years later in 1980, and 33 years after that a third Maniac was released in 2013. These three films can be used as markers or touchstones to represent a sample of American culture in three different periods. They are not remakes of the same film although the third is loosely based on the second, but they are similar enough as to be easily comparable.

When the 1934 Maniac was made, America was in the middle of The Great Depression. Almost 20% of the population was unemployed. Prohibition had just been repealed in December of the previous year. The real Bonnie and Clyde were on the loose and America had 48 states. Hitler and Mao Zedong were swiftly rising to power, Japan occupied parts of China, and Britain was trying to manage an emerging Israel.

There wasn’t any television yet, nor any computers. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president. The popular movies of the time were It Happened One Night (1934), The Thin Man (1934), King Kong (1933), City lights (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). Talkies and color were still new.

Historians would refer to this time as the modern era, but the romantic era which preceded it was not dead. Hitler was, in many ways, the last truly romantic figure, and his undoing marks a more accurate end of romantic thinking. The scale of his ideas, the unquestioning confidence he had in his grandiose ability to steer humanity in a new direction. The belief in progress and the ascension of man were all distinctly 19th century.

At $7500 dollars, the budget for the 1934 Maniac was tiny, even adjusting for inflation. It was made by Dwain Esper who specialized in exploitation films disguised as cautionary tales. The Hayes Code was imposed the same year Maniac came out. There was a rising consensus that the film industry was a debauched and malignant force in society. There had been several high profile scandals and murders of actors and actresses that cast the whole industry in a bad light. To avoid criticism, a filmmaker could show sex and violence under the guise of displaying the dangerous pitfalls we all must avoid.

Esper made films that warned about sex and drugs and moral decay because audiences were excited by these subjects, not upset by them. He was far from the first filmmaker to use this strategy. In what may have been a nod to his like minded predecessor Esper used multiple clips from Haxan overlaid with his own footage to create the ghostly presence of Satan throughout Maniac. The creator of Haxan, Benjamin Christensen, claimed lofty motivations for making his film, some of which may have been true, but it is evident that he also had a fascination with, and love for, the demons and devils he depicted.

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The plot of Maniac is byzantine to say the least. The film is scarcely an hour long and it has enough twists and turns to confuse Agatha Christie. There is most certainly a nod to Frankenstein, a movie which came out three years earlier. There is also some resonance with Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse. Along with these stories is overlaid the plot of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat written in 1845. The film is a mess but its ingredients are romantic. Dr. Mabuse is perhaps an outlier but the other two are prime examples of romantic ideas. They pit man against his inner nature.

The core of romanticism is a fear of nature. It is the recognition that humans are animals and capable of being swept away by primitive emotions. It is a fear that science and reason may not be enough to keep us from destroying ourselves. In The Black Cat the main character is irresistibly drawn to acts of violence which he abhors,

“Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”

Mary Shelley writes in Frankenstein

““There is love in me the likes of which you’ve never seen. There is rage in me the likes of which should never escape. If I am not satisfied in the one, I will indulge the other.”

With these two examples of romanticism in mind the opening screen of 1934 film Maniac can be seen to recapitulate the same unease with the human mind and the conflict between reason and emotion.

“the brain, in and of its physical self, does not think, anymore than a musical instrument can give forth melody without the touch of the musician’s hand. The brain is indeed the instrument of thinking, but the mind is the skillful player that makes it give forth the beautiful harmony. It is because of the disastrous results of fear thought not only on the individual but on the nation, that it becomes the duty of every sane man and woman to establish quarantine against fear. Fear is a psychic disease which is highly contagious and extraordinarily infectious. Fear thought is most dangerous when it parades as forethought. Combat fear by replacing it with faith. Resist worry with confidence.”

Just one year prior to the release of Maniac, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered his famous saying, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”

The attitude here is that a “maniac,” an inexact and overly inclusive term, is a victim of their own mind. This idea is fraught with both semantic problems as well as conceptual ones, but what is important is to note that the blame for the illness is put on the person in question. The 1934 Maniac has many inter-titles inserted throughout the film. They use phrases like “weak minded” and “failure on the part of the patient to curb his primitive tendencies.” These pronouncements are meant to sound clinical and objective. It may well be that they constitute a sincere attempt to grapple with the issue, but it is more likely an empty trope employed to disguise the prurient nature of the film.

In the film there is both sympathy as well as reproach for the mentally ill. They are seen as victims, but victims of their own shortcomings. Alcoholics Anonymous was founded one year after Maniac’s release. The whole stance of AA was to relieve the moral stigma of alcoholism and replace it with the clinically neutral idea of a disease (which would later prove to have its own problematic baggage).

As a film the 1934 Maniac is uneven. It capitalizes on the emotionality and nightmarish intensity of German Expressionism and prefigures much of what would become noir. The important core is watching the central character struggle and suffer and to see his victims do the same. A viewer needs an apatite for the gruesome in order to engage the film. There is a scene lifted directly from Poe’s story where the main character in maniac, Buckley, rips the eye out of cat. Esper decides to one up Poe by having the main character, Buckley, triumphantly plop the eye in his mouth while laughing maniacally. There is quite a bit of maniacal laughter in the 1934 Maniac which unfortunately has become a grotesquely overused trope in movie villains through to today.

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Along with the eye eating there are several shocking bits of violence. At one point two women are trapped in a basement dueling with poisonous syringes, when one woman drops her syringe and beats the other woman to death with a baseball bat.

There is nudity. Female nipples make a few brief appearances. There is an especially gratuitous scene behind stage in a dance club where we get to see women in their undies wiggle, dance and gossip freely about men.

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Even with its generous doses of sex and violence Maniac did poorly at the box office, prompting Esper to change the name to Sex Maniac whereupon it became a big success. This familiar lesson is one that helped fuel the grindhouse revolution of the 1970s. It was this revolution that paved the way for the next Maniac film which came out in 1980.

1980 began with Jimmy Carter being ousted by the October Surprise and replaced with Ronald Reagan. Reagan would later prove to be a major turning point in American culture. His election was fueled by a nostalgia akin to Donald Trump’s “Make America great again.” Reagan was a cowboy from the time before women’s lib, the betrayal of Nixon, the defeat of Vietnam, and the emancipation of civil rights. Conservatives hoped he would bring order to what the 60s and 70s had made chaotic. They longed for a giant leap backward.

In 1980 no one had heard the word AIDS, or internet, or cell phone. Abortion had only been made legal 7 years ago. John Wayne Gasey was on trial in Chicago, and John Lennon was murdered in front of his home in New York.

The popular films in the year 1980 were The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Raging Bull, Airplane, Elephant Man, The Blues Brothers, Ordinary People, Altered States, and 9 to 5. On television there was Mash, Dallas, Dukes of Hazard, The Jeffersons, Happy Days, Different Strokes, and Chps. On the radio you could hear Queen, Olivia Newton John, Billy Joel, Blondie, and David Bowie, but MTv was not on the scene yet so the era of the music video had yet to begin. The new source of entertainment that was sweeping the nation was arcade games like Pac Man and Space Invaders.

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Grindhouse films had been around in earnest since 1968 when The Hayes Code was dropped. The 1934 Maniac was precode, the 1980 Maniac was post code. Just as the first film tried to both shock and titilate so did the 1980 film. To be clear the 1980 film had no necessary connection to the first. Its unlikely that the filmmaker of the 1980 film ever saw the 1934 version.

The filmmaker was William Lustig. Maniac was Lustig’s first foray into the horror genre after making two sexploitation film in the 70s. After a successful run with Maniac he followed it with Maniac Cop, then later Maniac Cop 2 and in 1993 Maniac cop 3. Maniac had a budget of $550,000 dollars. For comparison, David Lynch had a budget of 5 million to make Elephant Man, and John Landis had 30 million for The Blues Brothers. Arethas Franklin and James Brown don’t come cheap.

Unlike the 1934 Maniac, the 1980 version was more of a character study. The 1934 version was a morality play, a cautionary tale, whereas the 1980 Maniac implicitly upholds a similar moral stance, it is not intended to engage in anything overtly ideological. The 1980 Maniac is more an attempt to get inside the subject’s head.

The 1980 Maniac is far more violent and graphic than its predecessor. Although both films were unrestricted by The Hayes Code they were still made inside a society that had obscenity laws. In addition even if both directors had total freedom it is doubtful they would have changed their films much. These films are made for their entertainment value and must correctly gauge the taste of their intended audience. Showing a close up of a naked woman being scalped with and enormous bowie knife would not have been received well in 1934. However the 1934 Maniac does appear to make reference to an unabashedly graphic film that preceded it. Bunuel made Un Chien Andalo in 1922 and the infamous eye scene is still a profoundly shocking sequence for any audience. In gauging what audiences would accept Bunuel was not courting thier approval. To the contrary, he sought to truly, deeply horrify and shock his audience where Esper was trying to horrify just enough so as to excite.

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The salient feature of the 1980 Maniac is the points of view the camera uses. We rarely have true individual point of view shots in the 1980 Maniac but there is a concerted effort to place the viewer in the action. The one true POV shot is from the victim’s point of view as she is being strangled.

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It is the most dramatic and startling shot in the film. Frank, the assailant, looks right into our eyes as he looms, sweaty and crazed, above us. The POV shot is a powerful tool. We are placed in a position where we see the characters and they see us. Almost all narratives provide a character for the audience to identify with, but the POV shot goes further by making us share their point of view both figuratively and literally.

We rarely see the actual POV of the villain in movies, because we are not meant to identify with him or her. A notable exception is a film that came out the same year as the 1980 Maniac. Friday The 13th featured the true POV of the villain in order to keep the identity of killer a secret. Distinction can be subtle, but there is a big difference between seeing over the shoulder of a murderer and actually being put inside his body so that we see through his eyes and do what he does. The still below and on the right is not a true points of view for Frank.

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However the still from Friday the 13th on the left shows a true POV for Jason. We occupy Jason’s body but the film does not go as far as to have us see our hands actually commit the murder. This may simply have been been a matter of feasibility. Camera’s in 1980 would have been too big and heavy to allow for true POV arms in the shot.

This will all change in the third incarnation of Maniac. Both the 1980 film and the 1934 film are notable for their complex relationship to the titular character. In the 1934 version we are not meant to identify with the main character but we are meant to have some amount of pity for him. He is depicted less as a monster and more as a broken man. Were he a monster we could categorize him as the “other” and dismiss him as inhuman. Esper wants to foster some understanding for his subject. In order for it to be a successful cautionary tale we have to see that madness is not a completely foreign entity that could never enter our lives, We have to relate to the character enough to understand the message.

The 1980 Maniac brings us closer to the murderer. We never fully inhabit his body but we are on much more intimate terms with his thoughts and actions than we were with Buckley. We are also given more context for his behavior. We never learn much about Buckley’s past and we almost never leave the confines of his laboratory. With Frank we follow him through the streets of New York. We watch him interact with different people. We are given a social context for his behaviors. We see Frank interact both with prostitutes and pimps as well as with fashion photographers and artists.

With one photographer he holds philosophical conversations about imagery and capturing a subject. The audience is given a space to think about the film itself. The 1980s was the beginning of the postmodernist moment. Artists like Andy Warhol had broken the trance that made art a transcendent window into the artists’ soul, and brought attention to the film or painting being an object. For Warhol a film is not a story that transports us, it is a film and as such uses tools, tricks and techniques to create an illusion, but no matter how lofty its goals are it is still celluloid on plastic. Maniac was made at time when movies could draw attention to the fact that they were movies. Godard and Cassavetes were making films, not stories.

It is likely that when Esper made his film the primary driver was telling a story, for Lustig it was making a film. Lustig makes references in his film to Psycho, and to Jaws. He saw himself as participating in an industry who’s goal is to makes a salable product. Esper surely had some amount of this capitalist ideology in his head but in 1934 the film industry was not as developed and self aware as it was in 1980.

In 2013 Obama was entering his second term as president. American culture now included the internet, youtube, mass shootings and dating apps. The Arab Spring was winding down but The Civil War in Syria was escalating. America’s cold war enemy had all but collapsed and what remained was a dangerous kleptocracy. The American supreme court approved gay marriage and Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s surveilance of everyone. This was a post 9/11 America where we were all more closely observed than ever before.

In 2013 information gathering had become one of the central activities of both corporate and government entities. Facebook, Google, Amazon were making money by gathering and selling information about consumers, or voters, or possible terrorists. The idea of a Maniac roaming the streets had a different connotation. It was not only a threat but a failure of the surveillance apparatus that was already so prevalent in our lives.

The arcade video games of the 1980s were replaced by video games you could play at home. The flat abstracted screens were replaced by realistic, three dimensional environments where players could move freely.

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The same home computer that allowed you a first person experience of a fantasy world also provided you with free pornography, free music and movies. One flat screen could provide a window into endless possibilities. The hit movies of the year were Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Iron Man 3, The Wolf of Wallstreet, Frozen, Hunger Games 2, and Hobbit 3. On television there was Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, The Big Bang theory, and Game of Thrones. If you wanted you could enter the world of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones and participate in a first person game based on those shows.

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The third incarnation of Maniac was a remake of the second. As a remake it is pretty loose in its interpretation. The plot is similar, and so are the characters but Franck Khalfoun, the director, makes some sweeping changes as well. Of the three films this one had the largest budget at 6 million dollars. Even with adjustments for inflation it is considerably more than the previous two but relatively small compared to Maniac’s contemporaries. One episode of Game of Thrones cost as much as the entire budget of the 2013 Maniac. Maniac’s budget allowed it to be the only one of the three films to employ a major movie star. The maniac was played by Elijah Wood. It is very likely that he was chosen because of his innocent, young looking face and big eyes. Features that played against his role and created dissonance.

Like the 1980 version of Maniac the prominent feature in this film is its use of the first person point of view. However in the 2013 version this is taken much further. Most of the movie is filmed from this point of view. We see Wood mostly when he is reflected in mirrors.

This complete embrace of the maniac’s point of view is disturbing. We the audience are now made to see our own hands do horrible things. It is not just a matter of sympathy with the character, it is a matter of inhabiting his body, or worse placing our body in the film and watching our own hands appear on screen. This whole proxy exchange is intensified by our having been conditioned or trained by video games to participate in this fashion. In addition there is a whole genre of pornography that specializes in first person POV encounters. There are even virtual reality versions to heighten the feeling that you are really there.

The fact that we can physically orgasm through the use of first person POV, illustrates its power. Apply that to watching maniac where we can meet a woman,

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go back to her place,

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unclasp her bra,

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and then strangle her to death.

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This last still does seem a little off center but in an interview Wood explained how difficult it was to get two hands in the shot. Often one hand is his and the other is a different actor’s.

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The 2013 version of Maniac is uneven. Elijah Wood was not convincing as a mentally ill murderer. In addition his illness was not convincing either. His character is certainly not a psychopath, he is far too emotional for that. More likely he is meant to be suffering from paranoid delusions. As a whole the depiction seems overwrought and sensationalized. It is however possible that there is a post-modern element at work where the 2013 Maniac is a remake of the 1980 film and as such the 2013 film limits itself to working from its original’s parameters. Gus Van Zandt’s Psycho is an extreme version of this idea.

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The 1934 Maniac was violent but bloodless. The 1980 version was both very violent and very bloody. The 2013 ups the ante with even more violence and gore. The quantity of blood and violence is one thing but the quality is what makes a bigger difference. The violence of the 1934 Maniac was stagey and unrealistic with the exception of the woman wielding the baseball bat which was pretty shocking. The 1980 version was quite realistic and gruesome but the 2013 version used its bigger budget and better technology to produce something truly graphic. All of the films still retain some theatricality. None of them seem set on truly being realistic. A certain amount of artifice can heighten the drama and maybe even simultaneously manage the amount of horror that is invoked.

The most intense scene in the 2013 version is set in a parking lot. Wood stabs a woman to death with an intensity that is truly frightening. The exaggerated sound, the unsteady camera, the closely mic’ed screams and grunts create something visceral and desperate. Even so, the 2013 Maniac becomes repetitive. Wood kills a lot of women and we have to watch each murder in detail. The film is a misogynist nightmare. We watch as a man’s portrait is painted with women’s blood. It is only through his destruction of women that we come to understand him.

All these films ask us to to understand the motivations behind pathological misogyny. The problem arrises when that understanding results either in sympathy for, or an identification with, the assailant. All three films cross the line but each one steps progressively farther than its predecessor. It is the last incarnation that is most troubling. A director in 2013 should see the mountainous pile of misogynist material looming over our culture and think twice before contributing to it. The 1980 version has at least the flimsy excuse that it was a genre film that made an effort to give its main character some dimension. The 2013 version just revels in its debasement. There is a video on Youtube of all the 2013 Manic murder scenes strung together with a rock soundtrack driving it home.

It is worth noting that any fear, concern or outrage that might be expressed over this 2013 version will almost certainly be a repetition of what was raised with the previous two films. All three films court our shock and horror. They are after all called “Horror Films.” The 2013 film could be seen as simply raising the level of violence in order to meet the needs of a 2013 audience. There is no “line” that can be crossed that is independent of cultural context.

Frankenstein is a tragic figure driven to crime by melancholy, confusion and revenge. In Fritz Langs M the murderer delivers a compelling soliloquy pleading for mercy because he can not stop himself. In Taxi Diver we are given a fully realized rendering of a multi-dimensional character we have to wrestle with, but the 2013 Maniac does not rise above its titilation. What makes the 2013 Maniac interesting is the same thing that causes its problems. Its the level of identification with the killer, in both form and content.

All societies are challenged by people who can not fit in with the rest of the population. Societies construct labels to separate these figures from the norm. They are called mentally ill, witches, foreigners, infidels, criminals etc. These three films each construct an image of this outsider, this aberration. We are meant to be horrified by his deviance and simultaneously attracted by his exotic and chaotic behaviors. We indulge both in reestablishing the norm through our disapproval as well as getting a thrill by vicariously behaving badly.

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I have an MFA in painting and I’m an art professor but I managed to convince the school to let me teach film. https://twitter.com/Filmofile1

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