Tuesday, May 26, 2015

An Open Letter to Elijah Wood, Franck Khalfoun, and Alexandre Aja Regarding Totally Blowing It with Maniac

Note: This article originally appeared on From Midnight with Love

Mssrs. Wood, Khalfoun, and Aja,

So as not to get off on the wrong foot, let me first clarify that the “Totally Blowing It” portion of the title refers not to the quality of the film in question, but the staggering size of the missed opportunity it represents. Make no mistake, I loved the film. In fact, I liked it so much that I bestowed upon it a coveted MMM Best Picture nomination. But, regardless of the fact that your team made the most brutal, disturbing horror film of the year, I can’t help but feel cheated.

Please tell me that's orc's blood Mr. Frodo.

Maniac should have been not one, but two films, the second of which would have been Maniac, exactly as it is. The first film, however, would have been a romantic comedy, shot simultaneously with Maniac, using the same characters, locations, and cast. Imagine the devastation to the unsuspecting audiences who would have been charmed by the wonderful, quirky characters and the romantic ups and downs of their relationships, when they discover it was all just Frank’s fantasy world version of a reality in which he murders and scalps pretty much every woman he speaks to.

They're just so freakin' cute together.

The reason this would work is that Maniac is structured exactly like a romantic comedy. The lonely lead character goes on a series of disasterous “dates” before meeting his dream girl, but it gets complicated because she has a boyfriend. Due to a very specific and relatively rare mutual interest, the two have plentiful reasons to continue seeing each other, and they quickly grow close. The girl breaks up with her boyfriend, leaving an opening for the leading man to sweep her off her feet. But just as it seems he’s about to get the girl, she discovers something he’s done, an act of dishonesty or betrayal, that makes her reject him, despite his pleas that he did it for her and she’d see that if only she’d listen to him. The leading man then “chases” her in an attempt to get her back. Where the structure diverges is the ending,, which in the rom-com pretty much has to end with them reconciling and getting together. The horror version, of course, must end with blood, blood, blood. In a good rom-com, you’re invested in the characters, so you worry that the lead will end up with the wrong person and miss their shot at true love. In a good horror film, you worry that the character’s intestines will be strung up on the wrong person’s curtain rods.

Envision this:
In June 2013, a film entitled “Mannequin Man,” opens. It stars the boyishly good-looking Elijah Wood in his first film as the romantic lead. Playing on the quiet charm he exhibited as Frodo, the film follows the love life of lonely introvert and passionate mannequin-restorer Frank Zito. The movie opens with Frank witnessing an attractive young woman being harassed on a street corner. He shows his nice-guy demeanor by following the woman, just to make certain she gets home safely. He’s pretty much hopeless with the ladies, so he doesn’t realize how creepy it is when he approaches the woman at her front door. She freaks out and makes an embarassing scene, and Frank slinks off knowing he's blown it and she thinks he's a perv.

In the next scene, Frank is in the backroom at his store, interacting with his mannequins as if they’re alive. It’s kind of weird and slightly pathetic, but he’s pretty funny and charismatic, so we write it off as him just being a shy and lonely guy.

Unable to introduce himself to women in person, Frank turns to online dating. His handle is I M Timid, which doesn’t attract too many women, but eventually a pretty girl called RedLucie86 shows some interest. They agreed to meet for drinks and things don’t go as planned.

I'm sooooo in love with this woman.

A huge part of what makes Maniac work is the rom-com’s stock-in-trade: it makes it audience fall in love with the characters. When the audience meets RedLucie86, they will either be put off or attracted by her tattoos and piercings (put me strongly on the attracted side of the divide), but as we get to know her, we see she is a kind, fun person, more than willing to give a shy dude a chance. When we get to her apartment, we spy three keyboards in the corner, indicating that she’s a pretty serious musician and not merely a vacuous bar girl. Then she puts on a record, revealing herself as a vinyl enthusiast and winning me completely over (okay, I was probably in love the first moment I saw her gorgeous curls, but this cemented it). That’s when the seduction begins. RedLucie playfully flirts with Frank, but he’s clearly not comfortable with it, so she becomes more aggressive. She’s not so aggressive as to make the viewer think she’s a psycho, but aggressive enough that we clearly see that she’s not Frank’s Ms. Right. In the rom-com version, this would be the point at which Frank would freak out and embarrass himself before quickly making for the door.

Now imagine knowing only the quirky, cute version of the scene and then being subjected to RedLucie’s graphic strangulation and scalping.

Just when we think Frank's love life is doomed, an unlikely twist of fate brings along a beautiful, intelligent artistic young woman who just so happens to have a passion for photographing mannequins. Her name is Anna, and clearly, she is Frank's perfect match. He sees her photographing his display windows and invites her in to look around. They hit it off right away, and even discuss a possible artistic collaboration. But then, on her way out, she points out that Frank has lipstick on his face. Awkward! Wait, you say, that's exactly what happened in the horror version. And you're right. In fact, it was this scene that gave me the idea for the Maniac rom-com.

So the lipstick is the first bump in the road for their relationship, the second is that she has a boyfriend, so they've got to keep things strictly professional. He makes her some faceless mannequins for her gallery show, and they go out to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as friends of course. As she works on her show, Frank backs off a little, not wanting to come on too strong, he even attempts to get a date with a lovely aerial silk performer, but inadvertently finds himself stuck in the closet of her dressing room after the show. This sequence is a classic comedy of errors. Frank has the best of intentions, but every bumbling attempt to connect with the girl makes him look like a weirdo stalker. Frank barely manages to escape detection, and the girl leaves in a hurry, forgetting her purse. Ever the gentleman, Frank attempts to return it to her, following her all the way to the subway. When he finally gets close enough to speak to her and tries to return the purse, she bolts. Not realizing why exactly she's creeped out (maybe something to do with the purse being left in the dressing room rather than somewhere public where a passerby could find it), he chases after her, trying desperately to do the right thing. In a parking lot, she falls and twists her ankle. Frank catches up, but she's screaming so loudly that he just leaves the purse on the ground next to her and flees the scene.

On the night of Anna's big gallery opening, Frank must overcome his social awkwardness and make an appearance. He's doing very well until a series of encounters with Anna's rude art-world friends puts him on edge. Anna's drunken agent insults Frank's life's work to his face. He stews about it for awhile, but then can't take it anymore. When the agent leaves, he follows so he can give her a piece of his mind without making a scene at the opening. She manages to stay well ahead of him, so Frank ends up following her all the way back to her apartment. When she sees him at her door, she doesn't give him the chance to speak, but immediately freaks out and starts throwing shit at him and screaming. In her frenzy, she too falls and hits her head on a countertop. Frank rushes to help her and ends up calling an ambulance. When the police arrive, they take him in for questioning, but eventually let him go.

The next day, he visits Anna, who is upset both because she has broken up with her boyfriend, and because of the news that her agent was attacked in her apartment and had to have stitches. Frank, of course, doesn't know how to own up to his role in the accident, so he plays dumb. Then, in the middle of the visit, Anna gets a call from her agent, who tells her it was Frank who "attacked" her. Anna gets pissed and kicks Frank out of her apartment. The rest of the film is basically Frank following Anna, who has decided she's getting back together with her jerk ex-boyfriend. A series of near-slapstick mishaps keeps Frank from catching up too quickly, but when she finally notices she's being followed, she hastily accepts a ride from a stranger. Urging him to step on it, they get in a collision.

When Anna awakes in the hospital. There's a huge bouquet from Frank, and not so much as a card from Mr. Wrong.  There's also a video apology from Frank, who explains his intentions and wins her over. The film ends with Anna showing up at his shop and a big, sloppy make-out session.

Alternately, instead of going with the whole agent fiasco (which might set too dark a tone for the film), Anna could walk in on Frank while he's having a weird dance party with his mannequins in the back room. Of course this might crank up the pervy knob just a bit too high.

The movie comes out with decent numbers and mixed, but mostly positive reviews. It is a fun trifle of a movie quickly forgotten by most. Forgotten, that is, until August 2013, when Maniac premieres. While Mannequin Man wasn't a huge hit, Maniac causes the internet to explode with alternating praise and outrage, so much so that theaters are forced to reopen Mannequin Man to accomodate those who missed it the first time around. Horror nerds, of course, would have already picked up on the fact that Mannequin Man's hero was named after Joe Spinell's 1980 character, and their minds would have been half blown seeing all the parallels between Mannequin Man and William Lustig's Maniac. But when the secret remake is dropped on them, their heads simultaneously explode, eliminating the entire audience for Maniac. The film goes down in history as being responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of horror fans worldwide. It is banned in 75 countries and becomes the most illegally downloaded film of all time.

And that, dear sirs, is why I consider Maniac both a great horror film, and a failure of epic proportions.

Marvin the Macabre

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