Cult horror director William Lustig’s original Maniac caused a serious amount of controversy upon its release in 1980, so it’s appropriate that Franck Khalfoun’s remake has proven to be similarly difficult for audiences to stomach. Rather than soften the impact of his protagonist’s crimes with a forgettable reboot, Khalfoun makes the viewer a voyeur by presenting the film almost entirely in first person.
The Lord Of The Rings’ Elijah Wood plays Frank, a mannequin shop owner whose shy demeanour masks his psychosis. He spends his nights killing and scalping women for his collection but when a beautiful photographer (Nora Arnezeder) shows an interest in him and his work, Frank is torn between his desire to develop a relationship and his murderous impulses.
Khalfoun’s version is arguably a more troubling piece of work than its predecessor. By forcing us to see through the eyes of a man who brutally murders women, the issues of voyeurism and misogyny rear their ugly heads before you’ve even settled in. The filmmakers are very aware of what they’re doing and have no intention of letting you sit comfortably. This perspective doesn’t just allow Khalfoun to depict brutal murders in unflinching detail, it also saddles us with Frank’s view of the world. In a memorable early sequence he panics in a restaurant as his fellow diners all turn to look at him, and we’re shown exactly why he works with mannequins. Maniac is certainly brutal and gory, but it’s the manner in which the violence is presented that really turns the stomach.
This unsavoury but powerful trick is contrasted by the decision to switch out the grimy night-time world of Eighties New York for the neon landscape of Los Angeles, complete with a superb synth-heavy soundtrack that makes the film feel more like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive than anything from the gloomy Platinum Dunes remake stable or the winking throwbacks of the Grindhouse movies. In short, it’s hypnotic and beautifully shot as well as revolting. That Khalfoun has managed to deliver a challenging and stylish film is a pleasant surprise given his last genre outing was 2007’s routine P2.
Elijah Wood is both a canny piece of stunt-casting (who doesn’t want to see Frodo embrace his inner maniac?) and something of a misdirect. Despite his star billing Wood appears only briefly and mostly in reflective surfaces, which allows for a nice nod to the original film’s poster, and for the most part he’s more of a narrator than a star. He’s also a very different maniac to the original’s Joe Spinell, a twitchy and neurotic recluse rather than a mumbling hulk of a man.
Wood gives a very impressive turn and he makes the role his own even before he cries “I told you not to go out tonight!” Arnezeder does well with the rather thankless task of playing the lovely artist who completely fails to notice her new friend’s dark side. The rest of the cast are essentially scalps for Frank’s knife, although America Olivo (Friday The 13th reboot) deserves a mention for her performance as Frank’s tyrannical mother.
The film does start to run out of steam as it builds towards its finale and the impact of a first person stalk-and-chase sequence loses some of its impact by the end. But this fresh and challenging approach to one of the more problematic slasher classics is a welcome example of an update taking a fresh approach and reaping the benefits.
It’s upsetting and certainly not for everyone but, if you’ve got the stomach for it, Maniac is a challenging and disturbing late night chiller.