15 March 2013

Review: Maniac

(Dir: Franck Khalfoun, 2012)

If you're going to remake a horror film, tackling a lesser known effort from 1980 is a good approach to take. Of all the films I've seen that got caught up in the "video nasty" escapades of the eighties, Maniac always felt like the bleakest and grimiest. Perhaps a fair reflection of that point is how the film never legally made it onto UK shores until 2002, at which point it was a version cut by nearly a minute. Rather appropriately on a holiday to New York in late 2000, I was intrigued enough by Maniac's notoriety to buy a copy of the full uncut version on VHS. I never watched it more than a couple of times - it's one of those sorts of films after all - but it is perhaps one of the best examples of what a serial killer film should be. It's entirely uncompromising and unglamorous (despite a small glamour angle to the film), and exists perfectly in the darkly rotten underbelly of the Big Apple. The seedy side of New York was commonly on show in films of the seventies and eighties, but never has it looked less like a place you'd want to visit than in Maniac. If you take a step back and think about the reality of the subject matter for a moment - a weird, mentally disturbed man killing women to satisfy a strange urge that involves decorating mannequins in his apartment with their scalps - this is thoroughly horrible. Why is it we watch a plethora of films about serial killers and don't come out feeling dirty? This is where Maniac succeeds because if you take the screen out of the equation it's how you should feel; this is bleak and depressing stuff. Joe Spinell demands mention as the titular maniac Frank Zito, who horrifies and totally embodies the depth of the character in such a skin crawling manner that the film would be infinitely less effective without him.

So how do you positively approach a remake of a film like this? This new version of Maniac supplants the story to Los Angeles where young Frank (Elijah Wood) has taken over his mothers business restoring classic mannequins, but like the original, Frank is afflicted with the need to hunt, kill and scalp women. He meets French photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) who shares a love of mannequins which actually gives him some hope that normality is possible. So, the star of three of the biggest films of all time (Lord of the Rings) playing a deranged psycho - does it sound like it should work? Going in I had hope on the basis of his silently sadistic Kevin in Sin City, proof that he could pull this off. And he pretty much does. There's a desperation around him and a genuine seeming dementia. He may not be physically threatening but he plays the character as barely keeping himself together which makes him strangely compelling. As Anna is the only other character of note she ends up having the most physical screen time and Arnezeder makes her likeable, whilst it's difficult to chastise her for being blind to who Frank really is.

The most interesting decision taken by the filmmakers was to shoot the whole thing from a first person perspective - Frank's. Thus we get to see stalking of victims combined with heavy breathing, all the way up to the brutality of the atrocities committed. It's certainly not an original technique, but is perhaps lesser seen in films of this nature (found footage aside, which is a cheat of this) and so successfully puts the viewer uncomfortably in the perspective of the lead. It helps too that the film is really well shot. Yet the approach here isn't perfect - there are a couple of occasions when the camera pulls itself out of Frank's perspective to actually show him, which is totally jarring and unencessary, pulling the viewer out of the moment. Then there is an over reliance on Frank standing in front of mirrors or catching reflections of himself in windows or cars and so on, seemingly just to remind us that Elijah Wood is in the film. A far more effective approach would've been to cast an unknown and never properly show his face, making it all the more creepy, but of course commercial reasons have to take precedence sometimes. And I did appreciate the reflection intended to replicate the original's poster. There's a decent soundtrack in place too, with plenty of modern synthy electro that apes the eighties, much like Drive's soundtrack and like that movie it works well here, especially knowing the era the original is from.

Fortunately this new version of Maniac compares very favourably to the original. Arguably this is because of a decent production behind it and how the first person perspective shooting style really works. But what it lacks is that squalid, bleak, low budget feeling that gives the original such a powerful impact. Despite trying to put us in the position of a killer it still feels like a film so we're disconnected from what's taking place on screen, mostly because of the quality of the filming and the fact that we keep seeing Wood. This was good casting and a brave decision from him but he's not a patch on Spinell in the original, yet Wood arguably fits the look and feel of this new version better. Maniac isn't scary as it's not really that sort of film, not having much opportunity to build tension and unable to deliver jumps because of the visual perspective. Instead it unflinchingly delivers on the violence and gore front and I can see for some people it being too much, but the films not overflowing with it. I was mostly surprised at how watchable Maniac is and that it's a decent film. In fact it's probably the best horror film I've watched in a while, proving to be a worthwhile remake and offering an interesting alternative version of this story.

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