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Directed by Franck Khalfoun
Screenplay by Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg
Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, Jan Broberg
How long is Maniac? 93 minutes.
What is Maniac rated? [not yet rated]
He’s a Maniac, Maniac, and a Bore
Satire, serious, or schlock? That was the question playing through my mind during Maniac, director Franck Khalfoun’s remake of William Lustig’s remarkable 1980 film that mixed the serial killer and slasher genres during the nascency of slasher films. (The original Friday the 13th and Prom Night also came out in 1980.)
In this version of Maniac, Elijah Wood stars as Frank, a mannequin restorer/serial killer. He falls for an attractive photographer named Anna (Nora Arnezeder), but the only thing worth knowing about Frank is that he kills women and scalps them. I’ve grown to appreciate Wood over the past few years primarily due to his work on Wilfred, and one might consider Frank as what would have happened to Ryan if he didn’t meet his neighbor’s dog, but his performance in this film lacks the subtlety necessary to make the character work. While certain classic slashers such as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface benefit from being pure monsters, more “human” slashers need some semblance of humanity because it makes them a greater threat, especially if we’re supposed to believe that they can pull off a somewhat “normal” public persona, as we are with Frank. In this movie, our lead isn’t just a meek, off kilter guy, he gives off blaring warning signals that he’s a creep, complete with creepy voice and demeanor. There’s shy and awkward and there’s “probable killer,” and Frank too obviously skews towards the latter. Even Joe Spinell in the original film was able to maintain some non-twitchy composure around potential victims.
With his lead character lacking actual depth, Khalfoun attempts to force faux-complexity into the movie by shooting it in first person perspective; in other words, we see most of the film through Frank’s eyes. The “first person camera” concept is hard to pull off, but not impossible. Gaspar Noé used it to incredible effect in his brilliant and dizzying Enter the Void, and its adoption in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly allowed us to feel the claustrophobia of paralyzed protagonist Jean-Dominique Bauby. But the decision to use it in Maniac only seems like a cheap gimmick, and one that highlights the flaws in the rest of the movie. Unsuccessfully replicating the “first person” feeling, it adds nothing to the film except for those scenes that remind you “oh right, this is supposed to be in first person.”
Director Khalfoun even seems to lack confidence in this technique as occasionally he’ll slip out of it. I can understand its non-use in fantasy sequences because Ryan is “seeing” himself from the outside, but if it’s meant to show the ‘out of body’ experience of murdering someone, it needs to be consistently applied. The choice of this method also gives the impression that the film wants to put us into the mind of a serial killer. This could have been a fine concept. If done well, it could have produced a very intense and unsettling experience that left a genuine impact on the audience… except the filmmakers’ idea of how a serial killer operates internally seems to come from madmen in bad 80s films and cop shows. Do sexual issues related to his mother play a part in Frank’s insanity? Guess… And while this was also a factor in the original film, it never felt as overbearing or hacky as it does in this one.
As a possible satire, Maniac had the potential to be part of a subgroup that brings new life to the off-trod territory of the horror/thriller/slasher movie. Both of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games films proved that one can create a truly disturbing work within the framework of the genre, but with a wry, dark humor that makes it something more; a genuinely clever experience that manages to prey on one’s fears while subverting conventions. Lucky McKee’s May made its lead character into a genuinely emotional and tragic figure that you felt for even as she delved into murder.
Similarly, Khalfoun included small elements that implied a greater intelligence and attention to detail in Maniac than one would expect in a conventional horror feature, such as Frank’s torn knuckles and the look and dinginess of his creepy basement. The director’s terrific ability at making the violence so matter of fact is easily the best and more interesting aspect of the movie, and it indicates a willingness to play off the “reality” of these films. Unlike many modern horror classic remakes, this film thankfully retains an atmospheric, true-to-life grit, as opposed to the overstylized re-imaginings of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Halloween and the like. Additionally, the ridiculously over-the-top nature of certain parts could also push Maniac towards the category of postmodern horror, and Anna trusting Frank might be seen as Khalfoun and writers Aleandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, and C.A. Rosenberg mocking the naivete of horror movie victims.
Unfortunately, the severely melodramatic tone that constitutes most of Maniac makes me question the director’s overall intent. Is Frank supposed to be deeper than just a mindless slaughterer? Is a scene where a woman runs throughout city streets without seeing a single sign of life parodying slasher films or copying the tropes of a mostly dead genre? Are Frank’s mannequins coming to life a frightening sign of his madness or just plain silly? Do we end up laughing with the movie or at the movie?
As horror films go, Maniac will probably have difficulty finding an audience. Too artsy for the Saw crowd, yet too on the surface for people looking for a higher brow take on the genre, Maniac cannot decide what it is and thus finds itself unable to live up to its ambitions.