It may have a higher budget, slick production values and a star name attached to it, but make no mistake; this update of William Lustig’s 1980 ‘video nasty’ – infamous for Tom Savini’s gruesome special effects and a lauded performance from Joe Spinell – is every bit as unsettling, extreme and confrontational as its predecessor. Director Franck Khalfoun and writers Alex Aja and Grégory Levasseur pull no punches in their depiction of a deranged young man with a penchant for scalping and murdering women who remind him of his neglectful mother. A chance encounter with a pretty young French photographer seems to offer him hope of redemption, but things inevitably take a turn for the dark and nasty…
The most interesting aspect of Maniac is the way in which it is filmed – entirely from the killer’s perspective. While horror cinema is rife with subjective camerawork aligning the audience with the point of view of various madmen – most notably the slasher film and the Italian giallo – never before has a film unfurled entirely from this disturbing vantage point. It calls to mind film theorist Laura Mulvey’s concept of ‘the gaze’, in which the spectator is, through camerawork and typical Hollywood conventions pertaining to gender-roles, situated in a masculine subject position, with the onscreen figure of the woman presented as an object of desire and the subject of violence. Far from the gimmicky tone this could have elicited, instead, it not only provides the audience with unsettling insight into Frank Zito’s (Elijah Wood) troubled psychology, it also thrusts us face first into the ensuing carnage, ensuring Maniac remains challenging and unsettling throughout. While we do catch glimpses of Frank in shattered mirrors, reflective surfaces and glinting blades, the rest of the time we see what he sees, and this, coupled with Khalfoun’s taut direction, ensures Maniac is a darkly immersive experience, nay, endurance.
The remake transplants the action from New York to contemporary downtown LA, but still manages to evoke a similarly grimy atmosphere. It’s a lonely, unfriendly place where the horror and isolation of modern living is expertly conveyed. The vulnerability of people, and how they (we) move in close proximity, often without realising, to others who would harm them (us), makes for unnerving viewing. The various scenes depicting Frank driving around the city at night in search of his next victim are immensely creepy and voyeuristic. His victims worryingly return his/our stare before he gives chase, and when he gets up close and personal with his selected prey, we have front row seats for the crazed, deliriously bloody results. The chase scene in the subway (which features décor strangely similar to the house of the first victims in Dario Argento’s Suspiria) culminates in one of the most shocking, brutal and intense death scenes this writer has seen in quite some time. Throughout it all, a mesmerising, strangely melancholy electronic score – echoing the likes of John Carpenter and Goblin, and occasionally nodding to Philip Glass – pulses throughout like blood throbbing from a deep, wet wound.
The casting of Elijah Wood is an interesting one; playing completely against type (though he is no stranger to portraying dark and disturbing individuals, having appeared in Sin City as mute cannibalistic serial killer Kevin) convinces as the unhinged and utterly broken Frank. His paranoia is expertly conveyed in an early scene when he meets a woman from an online chat-room in a restaurant, fleeing the table and vomiting in the bathroom when the conversation turns intimate. Equally impressive is Nora Arnezeder as French photographer Anna. She’s really the only other character with any sort of depth. Her interest in Frank stems from her initial perception of him as a fragile, lonely young man in need of a friend. His boyish good looks and slight stature offer no threat to her; to begin with anyway.
The other characters are less well developed, and most of the female characters are just depicted as whores. While this is arguably all very misogynistic (well, it is a remake of Maniac), it stems from our seeing things from Frank’s skewed point of view; in his eyes, women are objects, they are mannequins, and reminders of his troubled mother. The old dated and tired trope ‘his mother was a whore and that’s why he hates women’ is used to explain Frank’s deadly perversions, but Wood’s performance and Khalfoun’s direction feed into the deranged atmosphere enough to make up for any shortcomings such as this. References to other films – particularly the work of Argento and Lustig’s original – abound, and Khalfoun even finds time to cheekily reference the artwork of the original film’s poster without detracting from the impact.
The picture is clear and pristine throughout. Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (Aja’s usual lenser) ensures the visuals are slick and moodily lit, the various night-time scenes especially exude an unnerving and lurid quality; the deep shadows of the streets, reflective surfaces of buildings and streetlights really enhance the contemporary creepiness. The obvious modernity of the cityscape contrasts nicely with the scenes filmed in Frank’s home – low lighting and cluttered set design produce a gritty feel, and the increasing squalor of Frank’s abode reflect his ever-disintegrating state of mind. In terms of visual aesthetics, Maniac rather resembles Khalfoun’s P2 and Aja’s Mirrors, with their urban grime and deep, dark palettes.
The sound throughout is as sharp and clear as the visuals – this is a thoroughly modern film utilising the most up to date equipment. From the flies buzzing through Frank’s squalid home, to every vicious stab wound inflicted upon his victims, the audio contains all the clarity of cut glass, reinforcing the impact of the brutal visuals. The pulsating electronic score courtesy of French musician Rob, may hark back to the Eighties, but it’s melancholy edge works to underpin the despair and internal conflict of the deeply disturbed protagonist.
Special features come in the form of a trailer and a series of interviews in which Khalfoun and Aja shed light on the genesis of the project, the complexities of shooting subjectively and the difficulties of finding funding and distribution. Wood discusses what attracted him to project – mainly the chance to play against type and revel in the unusual shooting style – and how he approached the difficult task of portraying such an unhinged character, while Nora Arnezeder also contemplates her character and the psychological impact of the film.
The interviews themselves are fine, though they are rather badly edited and the shaky camera work and on-set noise prove a little distracting, while many of the badly translated question cards are just baffling.
With its oddly European feel and off-kilter tone, dizzyingly voyeuristic camerawork and shockingly extreme violence, Maniac certainly won’t be for everyone. Those willing to watch it with an open mind will find themselves lowered into some very dark and distressing places indeed, for the film is without a doubt one of the strongest, most vicious horror titles to emerge in recent years.
~ By James Gracey