Review: Maniac


Last year I reviewed a Romanian film called Best Intentions (Din dragoste cu cele mai bune intentii). In that film, director Adrian Sitaru told much of the story from the point of view of side characters. The problem was that he treated POV simply as a technical matter. POV is about how we see objects, but it’s also about the different ways that people perceive and interpret the world — it’s about opinions and values, not just camera placement. Rather than dealing with POV from a character perspective, Sitaru reduced his characters to mere tripods, and the formal decision fell apart for me because it didn’t really inform or affect the story he was telling.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Best Intentions as I watched Franck Khalfoun’s remake of Maniac. The film is told almost entirely from the POV of Elijah Wood’s murderous lead character, and I think it’s a generally effective play with the form even if it doesn’t always work. What’s interesting is the way the POV in Maniac functions both as an exploration of character as well as a commentary on being a viewer.

Director: Franck Khalfoun
Rating: NR
Release Date: June 21, 2013 (limited) 

The original Maniac was released in 1980. Written and directed by William Lustig, the film is brutal, ugly, and a must-see if you’re a gorehound. It starred character actor Joe Spinell, whose greasy, unkempt appearance gets referenced in the remake. Whereas Wood has managed to look dapper and elvin throughout his career, Spinell looks like a dirty uncle, which served him well in a career playing interesting lowlifes. The original Maniac has one of the most famous head shots in exploitation history, in which a mold of Tom Savini’s face is shot at point blank range with a shotgun.

This new version of Maniac takes place in LA rather than New York. Wood plays Frank, a loner who’s been scarred by childhood trauma. His mother was a prostitute who used turn tricks right in front of him. As with most cinematic killers, this trauma manifests itself thematically and inexplicably perfect: Frank prowls the night for women to murder and scalp, and he mounts the scalps on the heads of vintage mannequins that he restores. It’s an unnerving mix of sublimation, substitution, and objectification all in one.

Mannequins are a convenient metaphor for a lot of things in Maniac. You can dress these human analogs any way you want to suit your thematic hobby horses. For one, they help embody Frank’s discomfort around actual people and his inability to forge intimate relationships with women. We watch him go out on the hunt at the beginning of the film in a sequence with shades of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. That first kill doesn’t differ too much from a date he goes on that culminates in humiliating sex (not for her) and murder — he’s also stalking, also creepy, and during a panic attack we the first glimpse into the warped little head of Frank.

Frank reduces the women around him to a series of hunts and and scalps, and through his point of view we get a general understanding about the fetishistic nature he has with his women and his murders. It’s an interesting experiment with the POV form, and when it works, it works, but it still doesn’t feel as natural as first-person narration in a book. This might have something to do with current conventions of film language. (I still think Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the best killer character study ever made.) When Khalfoun swerves his camera out of Frank’s POV, it tends to be during the climax of murder. This is the closest that Frank comes to an orgasm — real deaths, brutal deaths, not those gentle and welcome little ones.

The POV conceit takes a few interesting turns, one of which comes early in the film during the bad date. After the panic attack, Frank’s night plays out like POV porn. Things go so easy for the person behind the camera as a nubile Suicide Girl flirts, teases, and undresses. There’s a kind of sexiness to it, but it’s sexy objectification. Like porn, the situation is so artificial and plays entirely into male fantasy and the male gaze. No need to be charming, no need to be kind, no need to be pleasant — just show up. There’s a Silence of the Lambs joke thrown in there with the song “Goodbye Horses,” as if the film is asking the viewer “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.” Nevermind that it’s sort of like sex with a mannequin — would you?

This is how Frank’s interpreting the moment, but I suspect there’s something about audience expectation in there as well. When the T & A plays out in other slasher films, there’s a comfort of distance. We’re not necessarily viewing the situation as the killer unless the shot is done voyeuristically, obscured by curtain blinds or around the door jamb or through the slats in a closet door. Maniac forces the audience to watch as Frank watches, and since this scene is bookended by mayhem and murder, I think there’s a strange confusion of sex and death in the moment that gets into Frank’s worldview. There’s no escape from this misogynistic worldview in the film since Maniac is filtered through Frank. It calls attention to my own act of watching and how passive it can be with other films. Maniac made me feel like an unwilling pervert, or maybe I’m not as unwilling as I wish I was.

There’s another moment of fantasy where Frank gets out of his head. He begins falling for Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a photographer who accidentally runs into him one day. She shows an interest in his mannequins, and like any lonely psychotic would think, a mutual interest in fetishized objects must mean the possibility of romance. We get a vision of how Frank sees himself when redeemed by love. He looks like movie star Elijah Wood and not like Elijah Wood’s demented twin brother. Like the the POV porn date, this is another facet of male fantasy, but much creepier and more pathetic. This feels less attainable for Frank since it’s about engaging a human being as a human being rather than as an object.

Wood plays Frank mostly by voice. He sounds nervous and timid so much of the time, and yet the people he’s talking to don’t sense his perpetual unease. I wonder if this was a function of POV, and I also wonder what Frank’s facial expressions must have looked like. To someone who’s always uncomfortable in his own skin, maybe he’d think his own voice was always on edge. Wood was on set every day, with the director of photography constantly over his shoulder. Since it’s a second set of eyes rather than Wood’s own, the POV doesn’t quite play out just like we normally observe things — the jittery way we look back and forth isn’t there, and it’s hard to perfectly convey how we can look at one thing but really be paying attention to something else in the periphery. I think those slips are made up for in the way Khalfoun invests most of the shots with Frank’s character.

It’s hard for me to give Maniac a score that really reflects the experience of watching it. The film is effectively dark from beginning to end, and it’s more disturbing than it is scary. It doesn’t consistently hit the same high water mark of characterization as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but that might be because it paints a much different picture than that film. This one’s uglier and fueled by unending self-loathing. Maniac is probably what Frank sees every time he looks in the mirror.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.