I have not become this obsessed with a modern horror film for quite some time…
Directed by Frank Khalfoun, Maniac (2012) is a remake of the 1980s cult classic horror film of the same name. Offering viewers more than just your average psychological slasher movie, audiences are confronted with a rare perspective: that of the killer himself.
The film opens with the stalking of a young woman. She waves goodbye to her friends and begins her trek home. She pauses for a moment and turns around, her gaze directed into the camera lens. Startled to find us staring back at her, she begins to run. In darkness we stalk her to her apartment. As she opens her front door she feels our eyes on her again and slowly turns to face us. A voice off-screen begs her “please don’t scream, you’re so beautiful”. As she opens her mouth an arm reaches forward from behind the frame and plunges a knife through her skull. A second arm caresses her expressionless face before removing the blade and slicing it across her brow.
We quickly learn that these limbs belong to Frank (Elijah Wood), a socially awkward and mentally unstable young man who has dedicated his life to restoring mannequins. We have joined him at the moment his world and his sanity have begun to literally deteriorate around him, conveyed by the visually nauseating screen images that shudder, spin and dive in and out of focus. Distraught over the recent death of his abusive mother, Frank desperately tries to displace his ‘love’ by going on a murderous rampage across Los Angeles. From the onset, as the film is shot almost entirely in first person point-of-view, the audience are inescapably a part of the on-screen world. Frank’s eyes are our eyes, his hands are our hands as we shakily draw our scalpel across the forehead of each woman.
Frank is not your typical slasher villain. The choice of Elijah Wood to play this tormented soul is an interesting one. Wood’s performance in this film is enigmatic and tortured. Wood creates his character through the precarious tone of his voice, the irregular pattern of his breathing, the delicate placement of his gaze. His large blue eyes, his small body, his tiny hands – it is hard to believe that he is capable of causing such pain, and it is equally unbelievable that he has managed to contain his insanity with this fragile frame for so long. Departing from the strong and invincible killers of traditional horror narratives, Frank is a character with which we may empathize. We get a rare glimpse of his scars. Although his actions are grotesque and unforgivable, they do not appear to come from a place of cruelty but rather from a place of eternal torment, of mental illness. Immersed in his madness we are more than cinematic voyeurs, we become a part of Frank’s psychosexual fury. We do more than walk beside him as he stalks and scalps each of his victims. We are accomplices. We wield the knife.
Khalfoun’s direction is impeccable, the occasional glimpses of Frank’s face reflected off mirrored surfaces are subtle and artfully done without making the viewer self-conscious. The meticulous precision of the camera is remarkable – it took 2 weeks just to film all the reflection sequences. The soundtrack is abrasive and shrill, not only furthering our disorientation but harking back to the glory days of the raw and uncompromising 80s slasher flick. It is hard to look past Manic’s visual effects – this slasher film is complete with ample realistic gore and blood without becoming the focal point of the film. If it has become your focus, sadly you have missed the point of this film.
Maniac is largely a character piece about a psychopath with Oedipal issues who, because of a neglectful childhood, is incapable of navigating love, pain and sex. There is no real narrative or other identifiable characters, concentrating primarily on the inner workings of a serial killer. The greatest weakness of this film would have to be the presence of Nora Manezeder who plays Anna, an artist with whom Frank becomes infatuated. Her performance appears stilted perhaps due to her accent or by the confrontational nature of having to play directly into the camera. Regardless her character lacks congeniality and charisma, which appears all the more odd when playing against Wood with whom we barely see yet sympathize with more. Having said that, I’m not sure if this is just another success of the film’s ability to submerge us into the mind of a killer.
I am compelled to mention Abele’s review for the LA Times that reduces Lustig’s gritty original to a “cheapo urban grimeball”. She appears to have missed the point of the slasher canon, her reductive interpretation of Khalfoun’s Manic labelling it a “feel-bad exercise in misogyny and dimestore pathology”, using it to further advocate for an end to repetitive the slasher cycle. Like so many before her, she fails to appreciate the significance of a genre that thrives on its ability to be endlessly reinterpreted and adapted. The slasher film is much like Pachelbel’s Canon in D, a variation on a common theme, and what Khalfoun has done here has overlaid some very heavy distortion.
Having said that Maniac is not a film for everyone. Some may be incapable of dealing with its brutality, or may grow bored without the presence of a driven plotline. For the rest of you, it promises a tragically beautiful and haunting journey into a mind teetering on the edge between light and darkness, of redemption and ruin. Maniac treats its audience with kind of ‘respect’ that other films dare not, withholding no truth from us to the extent of hyperbolic invasive subjectivity.
A homage to a horror cult classic, Manic has earned itself a place alongside its predecessor.For another review I recommend Fangoria’s “Maniac” Movie Review
For an alternative view I recommend Film Fanatic’s Maniac Remake Repulses for the Wrong Resons