Director: Franck Khalfoun
Screenplay: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur and C.A. Rosenberg
Cast: Elijah Wood (as Frank Zito); Nora Arnezeder (as Anna D'Antoni); Jan Broberg (as Rita); Liane Balaban (as Judy); America Olivo (as Angela Zito)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #50
With no personal connection to the original Maniac (1980)1, I come to Franck Khalfoun and Alexandre Aja's remake as an entirely different film. Elijah Wood is Frank Zito, the son of a late mannequin restorator who suffers from deep psychological problems, an impulse to kill women and scalp them, the collected pieces of hair stapled onto mannequins with the victims' clothes at the time of the murder and becoming part of his fantasy world of interacting with them. It's a creepy, disturbing premise, and whilst the original film by William Lustig and Joe Spinell is known for being depressing and scuzzy, the 2012 version is still an uncomfortable experience in spite of being glossy with retro-techno music by musician ROB.
This is especially so as the main conceit to Maniac 2012 is that, like the first quarter of Enter the Void (2009) before it enters its esoteric spirit travels, it's entirely depicted in first person from Frank Zito's perspective, Elijah Wood only seen in reflections or an occasional out-of-body experience. The result could easily be an uncomfortable proposition for some viewers, entirely in Zito's head as he not only kills women but stalks them beforehand, even a voyeuristic sequence where he watches a woman change clothes from the wardrobe. However the result actually forces you to confront this potential morally problematic concept in that the viewer is forced into the mind of a psychologically damaged serial killer and forced to see everything he commits from his eyes rather from a safe distance from another camera off in the distance. The theory of the "male gaze" which has been a thorny moral debate with films especially in the horror genre, of a mostly male view of films leering over women, is turned on its head with this gaze being the only camera one sees the film through. Being forced to witness the murders committed from the eyes of the killer committing them turns out, at least for sane and intelligent horror fans, is actually a horrifying experience to sit through and through how carefully the film deals with the issue, not hiding from the extreme discomfort it causes.
As a result, especially with its very violent and gory content, you feel incredibly uncomfortable and ill at points in Maniac. Adding to this is how Zito is a damaged person, forcing the audience to suffer from his migraines, where everything becomes blurred and distorted, and hallucinations which plague his mind and visualise in front of us as much as him, of the mannequins turning into the real victim he killed or replaying his late mother and his younger self from the past. If there's only one issue with Maniac, it's not being forced to see through a killer's eyes, which instead forces us the viewer to be complicit in chasing and killing terrified women and feel awful because of it, but whether the back story of Zito's mother from the flashbacks, having sex with many men and taking drugs, is a bad cliché to detail Zito's later behaviour. Is it a tasteless and lazy cliché, merely an eye rolling cliché, or is having to be in the mind entirely of a man whose subjective reality is up to debate, with constant hallucinations, able to compensate for it in wondering if his view of his mother is entirely up to question and possibly fictionalised? Aside from this, the tone of the film is perfectly done, the only real area of question with a film that, while a nasty chiller, manages to avoid how poorly tasted it could've been in the wrong hands and actually effects you greatly in ways this type of serial killer genre film doesn't usually, actually having a real emotional effect.
This is particularly enclosed and made important in the ultimately tragic nature of Maniac where Zito meets a young woman Anna (Nora Arnezeder), the aspect of the film where it succeeds the most. Anna, who does art installations with mannequins and bonds with him, is a really significant emotional core for the film to have, bringing Maniac higher in quality than a lot of horror at the time of its ilk in forcing you to see Zito as a tragic figure, damaged, who will sadly destroy his only salvation whilst also being forced to suffer it through his eyes. Not only is how the first person perspective an incredible technical accomplishment but, despite only a few shots of him in the flesh, Elijah Wood gives an exceptional performance hinting at vulnerability, shy charm and a disturbing menace that, with only his voice for most of the film carrying this character dynamic on his shoulders, succeeds. Helped by Arnezeder and other actresses in their scenes2, Wood is able to command both revulsion but a sickly sympathy even through the extremity of the violent scenes.
Khalfoun's film is exceptionally well made, glistening with colourful night time sheen which is also nonetheless grimy and rundown. ROB's music, evoking the same audio aesthetics of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) in choice of cues, does command a great deal of the mood, not only its shiny pop but also in the appropriately dread-inducing synth drones, evoking the old eighties films of yore where the droning noises of pioneering (or antiquated) electronics was apt for ghost stories with their haunting themes or down-to-earth serial killer films because of their grainy, dank sounds.
1 Have yet to see the original Maniac at the time of this review. Only a long out-of-print, old and censored DVD release of it exists in the United Kingdom and I felt put off trying to acquire an antiquated copy of such a film when it deserved better treatment whether my opinion of it ultimately is.
2 Of topic, I'm still wondering why actress Megan Duffy's feisty redhead, on a date with Frank Zito in her scenes, has so many keyboards in her apartment. A moment of brevity in spite of the grim nature of the entire film.