Franck Khalfoun’s (P2, Wrong Turn at Tahoe) third feature, Maniac, is a remake of William Lustig’s schlocky serial-killer flick from 1980. It makes a few adjustments to the original: employing Elijah Wood’s nerdy neurosis as Frank, the titular maniac, in place of Joe Spinelli’s fat, sweaty menace; relocating from seedy, pre-Giuliani New York to the urban wasteland of L.A.; and, most notably, shooting the entire film from a first-person POV perspective. As a formalist experiment, the film succeeds surprisingly well. While being inside Frank’s head is certainly vertiginous and nauseating, both for logistical and thematic reasons, the grand experiment of Maniac is sure to become, as Hollywood Reporter’s Megan Lehmann described the original, “a grubby touchstone among genre fans.”
Khalfoun succeeded in this gamble with ample assistance from his fellow Frenchman Alexandre Aja (who co-wrote and produced the film), the director of such torture-porn gems as High Tension and the execrable remake of Craven’s Vietnam-era classic The Hills Have Eyes. Between the two of them, Aja and Khalfoun have made quite a name for themselves in horror-fan circles as directors who push the envelope and aren’t afraid to show as much gratuitous violence as they can pack into a single feature. Maniac features several very graphic scalpings; Frank takes the scalps home to adorn his female mannequin collection, trying to cover the emotional scars left by his neglectful prostitute mother. The blood and gore are so prominent both visually and thematically, and so well rendered, that these murderous set pieces would make even Cronenberg proud.
Or would they? In Cronenberg’s films, extreme gore is always tied to a larger moral issue, or at least a larger theme relevant to the character’s development (or society’s dissolution, as the case may be). In Maniac, this is hardly the case; the film’s only moral statement seems to be that women exist to be looked at. We are forced to identify with Frank’s every glance and action, because the POV strategy does not allow the viewer any critical distance from what he’s doing. We watch through Frank’s eyes as he scouts the sidewalk for his next victim and hide with him in closets and bathrooms as he ogles a panoply of skinny, naked women, each of whom represents something that sets Frank off by reminding him of Mommie Dearest. One girl is too forward, too confident in her sexuality. One is a dancer, too proud of her body and too happy displaying it. One is successful, middle-aged and drunkenly sardonic to him, but her wealth and her age alone seem to be enough to put Frank over the edge. All are stalked, murdered, and scalped before Frank retreats to his house of horrors, and the audience has the ultimate front-row seat to the entire show.
Only one girl inspires both Frank’s bloodlust and his romantic interest simultaneously: Anna, a photographer and fellow mannequin enthusiast, whom we first see brandishing a large camera. Anyone familiar with Hitchcock’s work and theories of the male gaze—no longer a theory in this case, since the entire film is literally a male’s gaze—will recognize a woman with a camera as a symbol of female agency, a character who can’t just be reduced to a watchable (and scalpable) object because she is dealing with the male gaze on its own terms, often turning it back on itself by creating images of her own. Indeed, the only glimpses we ever see of Frank himself are either in mirrors or photographs, and most of these are taken by Anna herself. The metaphor is clumsily obvious here: Frank creates fake women out of mannequins and Anna is in turn creating Frank, in a way, by capturing images of him and forcing him to look at them. To Frank, women are nothing but images, so being forced into such a role from Anna’s point of view makes him feel both vulnerable (the watched instead of the watcher) and at least slightly guilty about his murderous ways.
Unfortunately [spoiler alert!], Anna ends up being just another of Frank’s trophies, though her scalp gets the distinction of adorning a bridal mannequin, complete with dress and diamond ring. Frank tries to convince himself that treating the mannequin-Anna differently than all the others will make her death mean something different, or at least make it less reprehensible in his own mind. Of course, it does neither, and he eventually dies surrounded by his grisly trophies, by a horde of his ideal (fake) women, none of whom could lift a finger to help him even if they wanted to.
Here’s my problem with this film, and with Khalfoun’s directorial perspective in general: he takes no ownership of the film’s misogynist content, and doesn’t seem to think there’s anything problematic about it (I know this because I asked him about it, in person, at a Q&A after the film). The entire point of Maniac is to put the audience inside the mind and behind the eyes of a disturbed man (whose disturbance is entirely the fault of his mother) who stalks, tortures, and murders women. All the shock value and horror of the film come from the inventive ways in which Frank does each of these things, and the film’s suspense comes from the nerve-jangling waiting game Frank and the audience experience between kills.
I am not asserting that Maniac is going to turn anyone who sees it into a woman-hating freak, bent on murdering the first comely dancer who crosses his or her path. Clearly, the relationship between film and viewer is far more complicated and nuanced than censorship advocates would have us believe. But the way women are treated in this film is not a minor issue; it is the entire point of the narrative. This isn’t a character study of Frank’s disintegration into insanity, because the audience never has the opportunity to observe him outside of his own subjectivity. We are him and, by implication, he is us. Therefore, the thrill of this film, as well as its horror, must necessarily reside in the opportunity it affords audience members to vicariously participate in Frank’s stalking, torturing, and killing of women.
The fact that the film can blame everything Frank does on his slut of a mother is a perfect analogy to the fact that Khalfoun can (and did, in my conversation with him) easily shift responsibility for his film’s virulent hatred of women onto Lustig’s original. Even when misogyny is so glaring, so blatant, and so obviously reveled in, its source can always be pinned on someone else. No one wants to be told they are complicit, even when they watch a film that puts them directly inside the mind of a killer. No one wants to believe that the women Frank watches on the sidewalk are no more vulnerable than the women on any given sidewalk in today’s America. But pretending that misogyny isn’t an issue (Khalfoun’s excuse: “I love women! Look how many naked women are in the film!”) doesn’t make a film like Maniac less objectionable, no matter how innovative its camerawork may be.
~ by Lita Robinson