Look to your right. Against that lurid purple background reminiscent of one of Jack Nicholson’s suits in Tim Burton’s Batman is a rating out of 5. Apparently there are some people out there who base their decision whether or not to see a film purely on that rating. Those people should definitely seeManiac. They should have a big dinner first. Then at the concession standthey should invest in a bucket of their favourite tooth-rotting syrupy soft drink. And some nachos caked in industrial cheese. Mmm…yummy! Enjoy!
Now they’re out of the way and probably puking in that bucket, you should know that whatever numerical value that sits to your right doesn’t accurately reflect the film you’ll see. Some of you will love this film. Some of you will despise it. It’s unavoidable. Quite simply, Maniac is a truly repellant, bleak, nihilistic, nasty film that’s also one of the most visually stunning, original, disturbing, experimental pieces of cinema you’ll see all year.
A remake of William Lustig’s 1980 down-and-dirty slasher flick, the titularManiac is Frank (a scary, fantastic Elijah Wood) a shy, sensitive young fellow who collects and restores mannequins by day. But by night Frank, plagued by migraines and mommy issues, hunts and brutally murders women, collecting his victims’ scalps, taking his trophies home and stapling the scalps to his models’ heads, indulging in fantasy relationships with his ‘girlfriends.’
When he meets Anna (French actress Nora Arnezeder), a photographer who wants to use his mannequins as the subject of her next exhibition, the two form a connection. Anna brings the lonely Frank out of his shell, allows him to function (almost!) as a normal person, their tentative relationship offering a glimmer of redemption. But there’s always someone coming between them, Frank wants her all to himself and his headaches are only getting worse…
Shifting location from the original’s sleazy, pre-Giuliani cesspool New York to a sweaty, neon-lit Los Angeles, Maniac also puts you right behind the killer’s eyes, director Franck Khalfoun and cinematographer Maxime Alexandreshooting virtually the whole film in highly stylised subjective POV with star Wood’s cherubic features and soulful, saucer eyes glimpsed only fleetingly in photographs and reflections (one shot brilliantly recreating the Lustig’s original’s lurid poster image in a car door reflection).
It’s a bold, experimental move, inviting the audience directly into Frank’s fractured world allowing us to empathise with him while also condemning us for our scopophilic desires, our vicarious pleasure in Frank’s actions. The effect is stunning, disorienting, often nauseating and potentially alienating, giving the audience no safe retreat, no respite. It’sour hands repeatedly plunging the knife into that girl, our hands strangling the life from another, our hands lovingly slicing, ripping the dripping scalps from their skulls. Alexandre’s camera never flinches, never looks away, recording every brutal, horrific detail even down to Frank’s constant use of bug spray as he constantly battles the flies feasting on his trophy scalps. Khalfoun doesn’t just put us behind Frank’s eyes, he plugs us directly into his brain allowing us to experience the paranoid freak-outs, traumatic memories and visual and auditory hallucinations that plague him. There’s no escape.
Lustig’s original Maniac was a nasty, misogynistic little film that shocked audiences back in the ‘80s, earning itself a cult following among horror fans and gore hounds, but otherwise is largely forgotten today and it’s tempting to write Khalfoun’s film off as a cynical exercise in nostalgic woman-bashing. While it’s not without it its faults, not least of which is a childishly simplistic motivation for our killer (Mommy was a whore and he didn’t get enough cuddles!) and a middle third that sags into tedium (how do you make killing beautiful women boring?), Khalfoun’s Maniac is a gruesome, nerve-shredding art-house shocker that’s quite literally in your face, implicating its audience in the onscreen horror. A beautiful, disturbing, sickening piece of filmmaking.