In Maniac (2013) we are transported into the world of Frank (Elijah Wood), a very sick young man who works in his late mother’s store, restoring old mannequins to pristine shape. Frank happens to occupy his nights stalking and killing young women, scalping them, and using their hair to transform his lifeless mannequin companions into avatars of his slain victims, who will love him unconditionally and forever – just like mommy used to.
Frank’s hellish world is turned right-side-up with serendipitous arrival of Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a pretty young photographer whose main signature is creating portraits of humanity using posed mannequins as subjects. What starts as a mutual interest in a very strange niche world (mannequins) blossoms into a friendship, as Anna recruits Frank to help her stage a major gallery opening. However, Frank’s growing attraction to Anna quickly begins to conflict with his unquenchable urge to kill, and he fears that it’s only a matter of time before beauty finally recognizes the beast inside of him.
As a remake of the 1980 William Lustig cult-classic, Maniac 2013 is a bold attempt to tell a slasher-horror tale from a new perspective: that of the killer himself. Director Franck Khalfoun (along with co-writer/producer Alexandre Aja of High Tension fame) opt for a first-person perspective, forcing viewers behind Frank’s eyes as he stalks and brutally murders his victims. That choice in format will be the make-or-break element when it comes to many viewers’ assessment of Maniac: for some, the forced perspective will be disorienting and sickening; for others, it will be a deliciously twisted experience that sets this film apart from so many other similar works in the genre.
For the most part, Khalfoun does a good job of creating the world through the eyes of killer. There are enough smart breaks in the first-person POV (like, say, when Frank is in front of a mirror) to give the viewer sporadic relief from the technique; similarly, the visual representations of Frank’s psychosis (strange hallucinations or flashbacks, blurring effects whenever one of his schizo migraines hits) add a nice bit of surrealism that allows for some deeper character exploration and cinephile indulgences.
At the same time, the first-person POV is a clear gimmick meant to distinguish the film, and even at a lean 89 minutes, Maniac does begin to wear out its style. By the time Frank is on to victim number five (or above), the initial (creepiness? Horror? Disgust?) of being in a front-row seat of carnage and brutality has eroded into a formulaic routine of episodic kills – but a fantastic surrealist ending does brings some of the intrigue back to the proceedings.
Visually, Khalfoun creates a smart dual-sided world of light and darkness and comes up with some clever camera tricks that make creative use of the first-person format. Other times (like a subway “chase sequence”) the spatial distance of the camera and its subject feels totally at odds with the logic of where Frank is standing or how he is moving. Jump-cuts and other editing techniques provide more than few “cheats.”
The script by Aja and Grégory Leasseur is pretty thin, just a series of “kill episodes” featuring different female victims, strung loosely together by the predictable ‘beauty and the beast’ plot at the center. Aside from a gruesome opening sequence, there is very little surprise or innovation in Maniac‘s story; like watching a train wreck slowly unfold, you know exactly what’s going to happen as things slip slowly down the slope into chaos. All that aside, the screenwriters do manage (through some key flashback moments) to make Frank into a somewhat sympathetic character – only to juxtapose that sympathetic side with Frank’s brutal and merciless nature in some cleverly-constructed (and squirm-inducing) kill sequences – which tend to diminish in quality as the film rolls on.
The main arc between Frank and Anna is well-developed and believable, thanks primarily to Nora Arnezeder, who works well selling chemistry and charm with a camera pointed directly in her face. Wood is an unnervingly perfect choice to play Frank, exuding that mix of boyish innocence and haunted weirdness which makes him so very creepy yet not completely repulsive. If you liked him in Lord of the Rings, Sin City or even on Wilfred, you’ll be getting that same trademark Elijah Wood, here.
However, one definite drawback to the first-person perspective is that at times Wood’s manic performance seems out of synch with the perspective of the camera, which can make the whole experience feel like an episode of Mystery Science Theater. Though these times are far and few between, they are still noticeable. The rest of the cast – mostly a parade of nude or half-nude bit actresses – get suitable time to ham it up before they’re meat for the slaughter.
In the end, Maniac is a sick experiment that has the bloody fingerprints of Alexandre Aja (Mirrors, Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D) all over it. It’s best left to the hardcore horror elite who will appreciate the unique format of the film, the homages to other horror (cult-)classics (the Silence of the Lambs Easter egg is pure genius) - and yes, the perverse and gratuitous turns of sex and violence that the slasher genre is known for.
This film is no doubt destined for long life as a cult-classic viewing experience, but whether or not you need to rush to the theaters to see it depends entirely on your tastes. If World War Z isn’t enough blood to sate your horror needs, Frank’s blade may be just the thing to scratch your itch.
Maniac is now playing in theaters. It is 89 minutes long, and is Unrated (though it contains extremely graphic violence as well as instances of nudity, profanity and brief drug use).