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Maniac (2012)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Franck Khalfoun
Elijah Wood
Nora Arnezeder
Liane Balaban
Megan Duffy
Bottom Line: 
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Super stylish extreme horror from France meets ‘80s New York grindhouse splatter in this odd, semi-successful, yet ultimately still very entertaining remake of William Lustig’s sleazy slasher classic “Maniac”, which comes from the pens of “Haute Tension” director Alexandre Aja and screenwriter partner Grégory Levasseur -- directed by their associate, Franck Khalfoun. This time out the unlikely figure of Elijah Wood takes on the role made infamous by Joe Spinnel in the grimly nihilistic original. It seems an unlikely piece of casting on the surface because, despite having appeared in one or two edgy roles before (“Sin City”, “Green Street”), not only is Wood ten years younger than Spinnel was when he made the part of deranged and deluded loner serial killer Frank Zito his career calling card, but on first consideration, Wood seems entirely to lack the capacity to embody that slovenly mixture of lowlife deadbeat hopelessness and boggle eyed insanity Spinnel was able to exude so convincingly. However, despite his performance being crucially handicapped by a dubious directorial decision (which we’ll come to in a second) Wood seems largely to revel in the chance to cut loose in a film which certainly doesn’t hold back in terms of taste or decorum when it comes to depicting the activities of what is still, even in this version, a fairly scuzzy, bat shit insane individual who goes around butchering a succession of women (most of them young and sexually available) in extremely graphic, gory fashion, for almost the entirety of the film’s snappy eighty minute run time.

Those who remember the original will be aware that Frank’s ‘thing’ is to messily scalp his victims (and just to make this even more unpleasant a spectacle, he almost always seems  to do so before he’s finished brutally killing them with a holstered kitchen knife, thus unnecessarily prolonging their agony). Just such bloody excess continues to hold sway during this recapitulation of the slasher classic. The most immediately obvious change in approach here, comes with the detail in how some otherwise very similar material is handled: a few minutes into the film, and the viewer realises that the opening shot is actually taken from the POV of the killer, rather than the uncomplicated street scene it at first appears to be. We hear Frank’s muttered thoughts as he stalks his next victim along the neon illuminated sidewalk, following her home and then up into the stairwell of her apartment block after first ripping out the building’s electrics and plunging it into darkness. The eventual kill is sudden, unexpected and graphic – but all the while we’re reminded that this entire sequence has been a fairly obvious homage to Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom”, the conflation of cinema, voyeurism and obsession cheekily implicating the film-goer in the violent maladjustment of a deranged psychopath, just as Powell had managed to suggest so effectively, back in 1960.

The big ‘innovation’ is that Khalfoun then holds that POV perspective for the whole of the rest of the film! Most of the time we only hear Frank’s voice (voiced by Wood), the exceptions being when he’s reflected in mirrors or in other surfaces (including the side of a car in one sequence that impressively reproduces the poster art of the original movie). The prevalence of the found footage subgenre has recently turned such extreme POV perspective cinema into one of the biggest horror clichés currently in existence, so this isn’t quite the big twist on the slasher genre that it wants to be, even though, in general, the viewer usually takes the side of the stalked rather than the stalker in such scenarios. Otherwise, the main difference here is that we are not only seeing the objective reality of what is in Frank’s line of vision at any particular time, but that we’re also taking a peek inside the Cartesian theatre of his head in order to experience and witness his recall of painful childhood memories, his sensations (Frank is a martyr to crippling migraines which invariably strike at inappropriate moments), and psychotic episodes in which he is prone to terrifying bouts of hallucination or paranoia.

Frank has been traumatised by years of abuse and bad parenting (to put it mildly) at the mercy of his whorish mom, who was not averse to having the infant Frank watch while she was being gang-banged in the upstairs flat above the family mannequin restoration business, in downtown LA. According to the movie’s rather skewed logic, these experiences account for Frank being one messed up individual, with the kind of mummy issues that make Norman Bates look well adjusted. Now, every sexually appealing young lady with a bohemian streak who crosses his path – artists, photographers, musicians, dancers – immediately reminds him of mother, and induces in Frank the uncontrollable urge to remould and restore her, having her 'become' the idealised form of motherhood held in his imagination. After dispatching the flesh and blood version with knives and attaching the recovered bloody scalp of the victim to one of his in-store mannequins, they come to life again (at least inside his twisted psyche): the tragedy of poor old Frank’s predicament is that he’s so utterly deranged, even his imaginary idealised versions of womanhood turn against him in the end and begin to torment him!

The extreme POV gimmick, when used by filmmakers such a Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock, becomes usually a means of forcing the viewer to identify with the protagonist (or antagonist) despite their anti-social on-screen acts; and, of course, it’s also a way of placing the viewer in a position that obliges him or her to acknowledge the appeal of their own voyeurism (which is an appeal cinema has largely always thrived on) particularly in relation to the male gaze. This was indeed the case with “Peeping Tom”. But in this particular instance, never are we ever made to feel at all inclined to share in a sympathetic understanding of Frank’s experiences throughout “Maniac”, childhood abuses or not. Frank’s psychology is so outré and so extreme, and its results rendered with such brutally gratuitous delight that, despite (for instance) the graphic nature of the sex murder performed upon the person of a naked, tattooed alternative musician near the start of the movie; or the prolonged multiple stabbing instigated against the person a performing arts dancer first shown being followed as she’s taking the tube home, midway through the film -- all with the viewer sharing in the killer’s perspective throughout – we never feel any understanding of the extreme states of mental confusion and derangement which might actually drive a person to such hideous acts, nor even any disquiet afterwards that we have, effectively, just experienced the brutal murder of these persons from the killer’s point of view.

That curious sense of distance endures, I think, mainly because, in marked contrast to the original film (which felt real and immediate and disturbing because of the guerrilla street film-making methods forced upon the makers as a result of their poverty row budget) this remake stylistically disarms the effectiveness of such POV techniques by adopting an inappropriately glossy and visually appealing mise-en-scene. The result is an aesthetic that comes to seem entirely at odds with the presumed original aims conceived with taking on the POV idea in the first place. It really feels like Khalfoun saw Nicolas Winding Refn's “Drive”  (the tag line ‘Drive’s Psychotic Cousin’ is quick to acknowledge the similarity between the two movies) just beforehand, and simply copied that work's visual palatte of shiny chrome and neon pink and blue -- which is particularly evident in the hyper-stylised subway sequence – as well as adopting its icy cool retro-'80s electro-rock score wholesale (both have excellent soundtracks, but it feels like they could easily be swapped without it affecting the mood of either film, one iota).

This version also follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessor by having the plot turn on Frank’s chance encounter with an aspiring artist/photographer called Anna (Nora Arnezeder), whom he connects with over their mutual appreciation of his store’s unique antique mannequins. Much more so than was apparent in the original film though (where the Anna role was taken by Caroline Munro, and the setting was a grimy-looking New York), the superficial LA world which surrounds Frank here, merely reflects his own narcissistic emptiness back at him. Everyone is an ‘artist’ on the hustle, moving through a sterile world of art galleries and workshops and alternative performances. ‘I photograph mannequins to try to bring them to life with light,’ claims Anna, and after borrowing the smitten psychotic’s specially donated shop mannequins, projects her own face onto their blank heads as part of her own art installation, unaware of just how closely she is feeding and entering into Frank’s deranged world.

“Maniac” 2012 is a hugely stylised, visually lush amalgamation of all the best bits from a host of recent found footage/POV flicks, with a compelling central performance at the heart of it from a disconcertingly weird-looking Elijah Wood, as well as a no-holds barred depiction of extreme violence (perpetrated almost entirely against women) that will certainly put many people off it. The arthouse trappings don’t ultimately convince as wholeheartedly as they did in “Drive”, and beyond the basic re-staging of the original concept there is little new here to recommend this remake above the grim, down-at-heel Lustig version. At the same time, it’s not a bad or completely unintelligent film either (unlike “Texas Chainsaw 3D” for instance) so is always worth a look, but -- ironically enough -- more by fans of Refn’s uber stylish film than of Lustigs scuzzy 1980s feature. Those who appreciate the glossy stylishness of it all will also enjoy the soundtrack by Rob, which is also highly recommended.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT! 

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