The following article contains violent images. And a couple of spoilers. Reader beware.
In 1980 a low-budget film appeared, called Maniac. As you can guess from the title, it was edited, censored, and banned for its violence. Many people originally just pegged it as an exploitation film, and it made its way around the grindhouse circuit.
Eventually, however, it was recognized as being something out-of-the ordinary, that it wasn't really an exploitation film. 32 years later it was remade, starring Elijah Wood (this was the same year that Wood returned to the screen as Frodo in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey).
Here's the poster and the NSFW trailer for the original:
Here's the poster and the NSFW trailer for the remake:
How are the two movies alike?
The plot summary
A man named Frank has mommy issues. He kills women, takes their scalps, and puts them on mannequins in his home as he talks to them. Then Frank meets a photographer named Anna, and he attempts what he thinks is a relationship with her. It doesn't work.
Yeah. They both have the same title.
...and that's about the only ways they are the same.
How are the two movies different?
In two words - everything else. Other than the basic idea, the movies are basically reverse images of each other. Let me explain.
The original is set in the grimy nightlife of the New York City. Frank moves around in the barely-noticed world of the underclass.
The remake is set in the polished, neon nightlife of Los Angeles. Frank moves around in the shiny world of dating websites and hipster artists.
The character of Frank
The original Frank Zito is a sweaty, potbellied, bug-eyed schlub who grunts, moans, and sweats. He lives in a shitty one-room apartment. He usually finds his victims by chance, killing whoever catches his eye in the moment, using various weapons.
The new Frank Zito is a boyishly sexy man. He lives in the back of his family business. He is more of a predator, and sometimes finds women on dating websites. He prefers large knives.
The nature of Frank's sickness
In the original, actor Joe Spinelli gives us a Frank that is really disturbing. He's both depressed and frantic. He speaks what seems to be almost gibberish at first, until you slowly figure out what (and who) he thinks he his. There are some chilling moments that help you understand him, and just how far gone he is. You actually feel sorry for him, because he's beyond any possibility of help.
Elijah Wood plays a more traditional psycho. While the original Frank was totally helpless to stop his actions, the new Frank tries to keep himself sane through taking medication. Wood's traumatic childhood is bad, but doesn't seem to reach nearly as deep as Spinelli's. Sometimes I just wanted to slap Elijah Wood and tell him to check himself into a hospital.
The sleaziness/exploitation factor
This element is directly related to the reasons why Frank is psychotic. The original movie contains no nudity. Women are not sex objects for Frank - they represent an entirely different problem.
The updated movie does have a definite exploitation element. There are boobs, and Frank likes to touch them. Women are outlets for his sexual and romantic impulses, but they also make him go haywire.
The film style
The original movie follows Frank around the city, and focuses on him in his apartment. Sometimes the movie takes on the POV of minor characters, or even the victims as they try to escape being killed.
The remake is the exact opposite. Almost the entire film was shot POV, and we are inside Elijah Wood's head the whole time; except for a couple of kill shots, we are seeing what he's seeing, hearing his thoughts, experiencing his hallucinations.
Putting the viewer inside Frank's head is a bold move, and is technically very impressive. I'm sure it was done to make a statement about voyeurism, and an attempt to put us in the headspace of a psycho killer. The effect is both intimate and alienating.
The first movie was very brutal for its time, although there are much worse films today. The gore effects were all practical, as CGI was not a thing back in 1980. They were done by Tom Savini, who had just finished doing the effects for Friday the 13th. The most notorious scene is known as the "disco boy scene", in which a guy gets shot in the head with a shotgun. Savini wanted to make the shot look as realistic as possible, and being a Vietnam veteran, he knew how to do it.
The remake is in the digital era, so while there are still practical effects, this one has the benefit of being digitally enhanced. And as a whole, this one is much more violent than the original.
The nature of the horror
I think the original has much more of a "horror" feel to it. The nature of Frank's psychosis is worse, and Spinelli's performance is still one of the best portrayals of a maniac I've ever seen.
As a specific example, the original has a breath-stopping moment that I've never seen in any other film. A woman is hiding from Frank. Frank gets almost to where she is, and pauses. Then he breaks the fourth wall and looks right at us. His eyes tell us he knows exactly where she is. Then he moves away, and the girl sighs in relief. But we know she's fucked. Frank told us himself. The suspense is over for her and for us... but all we can do is watch helplessly as she smiles in relief and walks into her death. That is horror.
The new version is suspenseful, bloody, and creepy. But none of those are the same thing as horror. We see everything Frank sees, including his memory flashbacks. There's really no space for us to imagine the terrors going on in his head, because they are shown to us. And there is no moment in Elijah Wood's version that comes close to that moment of horror in the original.
Both movies are good, but for different reasons. They have different concepts, different styles, and make different statements. I recommend both films. But if I was forced to pick the superior maniac between the two, then it's not even close. The no-budget, grimy 1980 grindhouse film is much more effective than the shiny art-horror film made three decades later.