Coming out Friday from IFC Midnight in limited theaters and VOD, Maniac follows the story of Frank Zito (Elijah Wood), a young, unassuming man who owns a mannequin restoration shop in downtown Los Angeles. Like any lonely young man in a big city, Frank spends his nights looking for women. Love, however, can be a funny thing for Frank. The problem is that Frank is a delusional-schizophrenic serial killer with a penchant for murdering women, scalping them, and stapling their scalps to his mannequins. However, things seem look up for Frank when he meets Ana (Nora Arnezeder), a photographer who has taken a liking to his mannequins, quickly striking up a friendship that Frank is certain has led to finally finding his one, true, love.
Everyone has their own reaction to the word “remake”, which usually isn’t positive. Positive or negative reaction aside, remakes have become a rather solidified part of the horror film genre, and subsequently so, the slasher film subgenre. In ten years time, over a dozen slasher films, from Halloween to The Toolbox Murders, have been remade or “reimagined.” Most remakes, though, suffer from the same issues that buried the slasher franchises in the first place: rarely do these updated takes offer anything new or different. With a memorably creepy performance from Joe Spinell and special effects done by master-craftsman Tom Savini, the original film is an influential cult favorite of the subgenre. Both producer/co-writer Alexandre Aja and director Franck Khalfoun, as fans of the original, knew they were treading on thin ice with genre fans by reimagining this film, specifically. However, both filmmakers knew what so many disliked about remakes and tackled that issue first, offering up something other remakes of the genre didn’t.
Maniac does, in fact, deliver on that front. One of the many staples of the slasher film subgenre is the use of a P.O.V. shot from the killer’s perspective. Usually, this shot is meant to heighten tension by showing where the killer is, but not reveal who the killer may be. For Maniac, Franck Khalfoun instead places the entire film in the killer, Frank’s, point-of-view perspective, letting us know exactly who he is while still gradually unfolding his motivations and tactics. This idea alone should be enough of a reason for naysayers to see the film.
In a world of where remakes and found-footage movies saturate the mainstream box office, having the two combine at some point was inevitable, but Khalfoun instead makes a film that feels legitimately from his killer’s perspective. Instead of just seeing his point-of-view, the audience becomes Frank. The terrible washouts and blinding lights of his migraines, his delusions that everyone in a restaurant is staring at him the whole time, his daydreams, and even his memories of his less-than-loving mother are all placed in front of the audience so that they may experience exactly what Frank experiences and see what makes him who he is. For the first time, possibly in any slasher film, the audience is given a glimpse into the mind of the killer, and given a chance to grow sympathetic toward him in a very human way, not just because they want to see more blood and gore.
Maniac is beautifully shot, courtesy of DP Maxime Alexandre, and set to a wonderfully staggered pace. Between the smooth and calculated movements of the camera, the vibrant coloring of the sets, and the haunting musical score, the film plays out almost like a dream in how unnatural the “normal times” in Frank’s perspective feel. It is this dream-like feeling that the film invokes that creates such a harsh contrast to the violence and gore of Frank’s murderous exploits. This parallel keeps the horrific aspects of its story fresh and terrifying, unlike the stagnant rinse-and-repeat format that most slasher films have fallen into. One of the few drawbacks to this perspective is while it gives an understanding of the killer, it takes away any potential sympathy we might share with Frank’s victims other than audibly experiencing their pain. These women really become nothing more than vessels for the nudity and gore of the film, possibly to maintain some of the sleaze of the original William Lustig film. The argument can be made, however, that this adds to the “killer’s” perspective, in which he wouldn’t care to “get to know” these women before he kills them. Sadly, with most slasher films these days, that’s all the female characters tend to be: an oversexualized product of a misogynistic cultural landscape.
Compared to other films of its ilk in the past decade, Maniac is surprisingly restrained in the gore department. Having Alexandre Aja’s name attached, this film is rather tame compared to the previous work he has written, but it does have some of the most realistic special effects in recent memory and certainly of Aja’s filmography. It really is the shock of being pulled out of our dreamy sequences in which we get to know Frank as a person and having to face his true, murderous nature that makes the violence in this film as effective as it is.
However, keeping the story in the perspective of Frank leads to a glaring cinematic issue: the biggest name in the film, as our lead character, also has the least amount screen-time (at least in terms of singular presentation). This does not, however, work against Wood’s performance. Though mostly conveyed in voice-over and a minimal amount of actual physical presence, Wood still manages to convey the desperate loneliness and deluded psychosis making up Frank’s duality. Without Wood on screen most of the film, though, that means the majority of the story rests on the remainder of the cast. Sadly, Miss Arnezeder’s first appearance falls a bit flat and unimpressive, but luckily seems to improve as she is given more to do than simply talk to the camera. Her final confrontation with Frank really makes for an exciting bit of filmmaking and is enough to hold this film high above most of the slasher genre in the past decade.
Ultimately, Maniac is one of the few films that appropriately redefines the term “remake” and should wear it proudly. Khalfoun rewards his audience with a unique, rare reprieve from a sea of old slasher tropes and constant repetition. Thanks to a solid and inimitable lead performance and a stark visual presentation, Maniac is a film that should not be missed by genre fans and casual audiences alike.
– By Matt Delhauer
Matt Delhauer is a graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey, with a degree in communications and digital filmmaking. As an avid fan of horror films since childhood, Matt has had years of exposure to the best, worst, and many in between. Outside of film Matt also holds knowledge in several fields of media and entertainment, from literature to television, which are all met with an eye for analysis and a love of entertainment. For more of Matt’s work take a look at his blog at www.gingergeekblogs.blogspot.com or follow him on twitter: @MattDelhauer