Posted June 23, 2013 by Jeff in Flicks

Maniac: Frank Khalfoun puts a new spin on a cult classic

The 1980 horror movie Maniac is such a cult classic, director Frank Khalfoun was reluctant to remake it. But when he realized he could film the entire movie from the point-of-view of the serial killer, he realized he could put a new spin on it. And casting Elijah Wood as the lead also enabled him to create a movie that asks us to have sympathy for a killer. Khalfoun recently phoned in to discuss the recent remake of Maniac, currently showing in select cities and available on cable VOD, SundanceNow, iTunes and through other digital outlets.

I know the film is a remake of a 1980 movie but I don’t think you have to have seen the original to appreciate your film. Is that something you set out to accomplish?
Obviously, I want to make a movie that stands on its own. Whether or not you know the original, you’re going to have fun with this one and go on a ride.

Did you see the original in the theater?
I did not see it in the theater. I was 11. My mother did not even want me to see Saturday Night Fever. Too much talk about condoms or something. I did get an old VHS copy and watched that. I remember it quite well. I just stumbled on it in the video store. I was like “Wow. A guy has a girl’s head in his hand and a knife and a big bulge in his pants. I gotta see this.” When they approached me about it, I immediately remembered the film. I thought, “No way. Why do you want to redo this?” It’s a movie that has a huge cult following. We had to work budget out and come up with an original concept.

Talk about the casting of Elijah Wood.
One of our producers is a close friend of his. She mentioned it to him and he’s a big horror fan. When I told him about the concept, he was very interested. He’s a good actor. He’s a cinephile. He’s a pleasure to work with.

A charming guy with beautiful blues eyes who’s unsuspecting is so much scarier to me than a monster.

What does he bring to the role?
It’s the innocence he brings to the character. That’s terrifying to me. He’s the last person you’d suspect of being this way, which is often the case with serial killers. The neighbors all say that they used to hang out with the guy and knew him and he was a nice, quiet guy and they ate ribs with the dude. That terrifies people. A charming guy with beautiful blues eyes who’s unsuspecting is so much scarier to me than a monster.

You’ve said this is the first horror movie to be told from the killer’s point-of- view. Why haven’t other films switched the POV?
There have been a couple of other films that have done point of view shots, dating back as far as Dark Passage with Bogart and Bacall. I think it’s a timing thing. Audiences weren’t prepared for this until recently. Because of video games and first- person shooters and found footage movies, we’re used to seeing things from that point of view. The audience is kind of ready. If you look back at the history of horror movies, they’ve all had point of view shots, starting with Peeping Tom.  Sustaining an hour and a half of that is difficult.  It was frustrating to have him act and not turn the camera on him. And to create empathy for a character you can’t see is difficult. I thought it was important to see our lead character a few times. How can you see him? You see him in reflections and in dreams and in these out-of-body experiences. Most of the serial killers I researched talked about having these out-of-body experiences when they killed. I thought that would allow me to see Elijah murdering people.

Horror movies often build up to the violence, but your film starts with a particularly violent scene. Talk about that decision.
I think it’s calculated to draw the audience in. You start with some adrenaline pumping scenes and then you get into the character and story. It’s measured throughout and so is the suspense. It’s very calculated. How much time are you spending with the character and away from the character? It’s all about keeping the audience engaged. More so than other genres, technique is very important to horror films. They’re all about technique, really.

We live in an era when audiences are numb to most acts of violence. I found the film to be rather shocking. How did you manage to achieve that?
When you look at it in terms of violence and gore, it’s not as bloody as other movies. It’s so much more effective. Why is that? I made a very lush and enticing movie. Everything is poised and beautiful. The music sucks you in and engages you and wants you to follow it and participate. It creates a jump emotionally. It creates a false sense of security so that when the violence comes, it’s that much more painful. It’s not how much violence there is but it’s in terms of where it’s placed. Some of the most effective horror movies don’t have an ounce of blood in them. It’s about technique and engaging your audience and manipulating them into a false sense of security. That’s what this movie does. It’s a beautiful movie to look at. My take was to make it beautiful and douse it in darkness so that beneath the darkness there is beauty.

The film is showing in some cities for one-night only. Talk about the approach to its distribution.
I’m not the distributor, but I wish I was. This is a movie that’s meant for audiences to share and not to watch alone. I want people to see it and see it as a community. The movie only has a heartbeat when people sit together and watch it. There’s a thing in theater that happens to actors and to a play. The rhythm is dictated by the actors and the audiences. When that happens at once, it engages the audience. There’s a great deal of that in films, too. For you to feel a movie, you have to have a communal feeling for what’s happening on screen. I believe all movies should be watched on screen. But things are changing and it’s a business, too.

Do you think of it as a midnight movie?
No. I think of it as a compelling story. I love all movies. I don’t differentiate. I love all movies. I like dumb comedies and adventure films and action. I’m only compelled by human stories. I don’t make the difference so I don’t consider it a genre movie.

Your bio says you were originally a go-go dancer before you started making movies. Is that really true?
I danced classical ballet for years. I don’t know where that comes from. That’s funny. I dance classical ballet for years. I’ll take that.

Have you started work on your new project?
I’m editing it now. It’s called I-Lived. It’s based on a man who finds a self-help app on his phone and when he enters goals into it, it gives him a set of objectives to reach his goals. He finds himself in a descent to hell. He realizes that perhaps he should have read the user agreements before accepting it and downloading it. It’s a Faustian take on technology.

That’s brilliant.
I hope so. We’ll see about that.



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected]