“How can you watch stuff like that?”
That is a question often asked of the horror film fan. It’s a tough question to answer, honestly. There is literally no logical reason that a mild mannered, well spoken and optimistic human being should enjoy seeing countless hordes of people have endless amounts of violence brought upon them, but it does. The most effective aspect of director Franck Khalfoun’s latest film, Maniac, a remake of the 1980 slasher film of the same name, is that through its primary narrative device it forces the horror fan to ask themselves such a question. Just as when someone else asks it, there is no easy answer.
That narrative device in question is Khalfoun’s decision to shoot nearly the entire film in first person perspective. Not “found footage,” praise the gods, but from the viewpoint of the film’s protagonist; a vintage mannequin restorer named Frank (Elijah Wood). What makes this aspect stand out from the pack is that Frank is the killer, and the viewer takes this 90 minute ride through the eyes and emotions and violent outbursts of the proverbial bad guy.
To say that Frank is troubled is to put it unbelievably lightly. He mutters to himself, he has these jarring migraine/panic attacks that cause him to hallucinate. He also has a penchant for stalking women late at night, dispatching them with his trusty blade and, with almost orgasmic glee, scalping them. Frank then uses the victims’ hair, “the only part of the body that never dies,” as final decorations for many of the mannequins that he surrounds himself with, finding a way to keep these particular women with him forever. Frank also has some deep-seated mommy issues. Aren’t there always mommy issues?
One day Frank notices a young woman taking photos of his shop from outside. Her name is Anna (Nora Arnezeder) and she’s a photographer who is currently finding her muse in none other than mannequins. Frank and Anna almost instantly form a bizarre bond that leads to the pair becoming quite friendly together. Frank seems to be enjoying this real person that’s become a part of his life, but it doesn’t stop him from his late night prowls and maiming. In fact, his violence seems to be escalating as the film builds to a not entirely pre-ordained conclusion.
First and foremost, Maniac is brutal. With a combination of producer Alexander Aja (director of High Tension) and the KNB Effects crew, I knew that the gore was going to be top notch. In that realm, the film does not disappoint. Throats are stabbed, tendons are slit and skin is viciously sliced all with properly revolting sound to accompany it.
The brutality doesn’t lie just in the gore, though. It’s primarily in the perspective. Thanks to the first person POV, the viewer is essentially committing the murders. As Frank would not look away as he’s finally claiming his prizes, neither does the viewpoint. This not only puts the viewers in the killer’s shoes but it also adds this nearly overwhelming voyeuristic aspect to everything that takes place. Kill scenes are the bread of butter of what the typical horror fan wants in a film, and here the viewer is almost forced to take part. Even to a well seasoned horror fan like myself, it makes the film quite unsettling and that, to me, is a good thing.
After years upon years of watching horror films, the ability to be scared is sadly nearing extinction. The ability to be impressed or grossed out remains, but what I and many other horror fans want is an instinctual reaction. If something’s not going to scare me, at least let it leave me unnerved and that’s precisely what Maniac does oh so well.
Despite only ever seeing him in reflections or a random photograph here and there, Elijah Wood delivers a stirring performance. It was his silent role in Sin City some odd years ago that first gave a glimpse into a darker aspect of his acting range that Wood had never really tapped into. With Maniac he’s able to revel in it. Much of his performance is through his voice and his breathing as he effortlessly pulls off the madman behind the timid facade.
Not to be outdone is Arnezeder who brings a gentle and immense likability to her character Anna. Her portrayal makes it easy to believe that Frank, someone who seemingly detests women and their finite nature, would become so enamored with her.
Director Khalfoun does an exceptional job of taking a cult classic of the 80’s slasher genre and truly making it his own. Working with cinematographer Maxime Alexandre on the first person view, they are able to add a certain beauty atop the heaps of brutality on display. There are moments where the view cheats or wouldn’t actually be what one would see form a direct line of sight, but those moments are small and merely nitpicky.
Tying the whole film together is an absolutely brilliant score from the artist simply known as ROB. At times feeling like an almost modern answer to Goblin by way of Cliff Martinez, ROB infuses each scene with synth-driven power that manages to compliment each scene rather than overbear it. ROB’s score is so good in fact, that the world’s two leading vinyl soundtrack labels, Death Waltz Recording Company (holds rights in the UK and is currently available at DeathWaltzRecordingCompany.com) and Mondo (holds the US rights and will be available on Friday at Mondotees.com), have both obtained the rights to it and are releasing their own limited collectible versions with artwork by Jay Shaw (for Death Waltz) and Jeff Proctor (for Mondo).
After years of Hollywood churning out generic horror films one after the other, Maniac is an unsettling breath of fresh air. It’s vicious and unapologetic. It forces the viewer to accept the mayhem head on. This is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomached. Maniac will challenge you. When the film ends and the credits roll and you are faced with that age old question, “How can you watch stuff like that?”, you’ll be able to simply reply, “Because it’s damn near incredible. “
Maniac will be available via Video On Demand and in a limited theatrical engagement beginning Friday, June 21.