Review: Maniac (2013)

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Directed by – Franck Khalfoun
Written by – Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur
Starring – Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, Liane Balaban, Jan Broberg, America Olivo, Sal Landi & Joshua De La Garza

Anyone who knows me will know that I have a chronic aversion to horror remakes, so it’s with a real sense of surprise and jubilation that I am able to tell you that Maniac, Franck Khalfoun’s adaptation of the cult splatter classic of the same name, is pretty damn good. More a “re-imagining” / contemporising than a scene-for-scene remake (thankfully…), Khalfoun’s film is glitzy, flashy and contemporary, yet it still possesses all of the gore, violence and grime for which the original is so well loved.

The original Maniac was always controversial, not least because of its ultraviolence and the perverse nature of its story, and while the remake isn’t quite as submerged in the same sensibilities of exploitation, Khalfoun’s film refuses to sacrifice the original story’s brutality. In this version, our killer – Frank Zito – is played by Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) in a role so far from his comfort zone that it makes his excellent performance all the more impressive. Zito is, as the title suggests, ever-so-slightly unhinged and spends his nights stalking and murdering women before scalping them in order to get some hair for his mannequin collection. However, when he meets Anna (Arnezeder; Safe House, The Words) he starts to change. The more he falls in love, the more he tries to overcome the urges that have driven his life for so very long.

This is a film rich in the sensibilities of a classic slasher – the killer has an all-consuming Mother Complex, he is sexually repressed and his victims are attractive young women – yet thanks to some slick direction and a unique perspective (we see practically everything through the eyes of Zito) it still feels fresh and contemporary. It’s tough to make a slasher / splatter film that doesn’t feel generic these days but Khalfoun, with his slick, stylish direction and his focus on what it is that Zito represents about modern society, manages to shake things up pretty successfully.

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The film’s USP is that we see almost all of the action (save for a few brief moments) through the eyes of the killer, an approach which works far better than I expected it to albeit one that does cause the occasional problem. In an “Eyes of Laura Mars on speed” turn of events, the audience is invited to “become” the killer and to empathise with him, though not in an exploitative or trashy way. We’re granted a unique insight into Zito’s mind; we experience his rage, his frustration and his paranoia just as he does, yet we also experience him at his most calm, his most collected and, dare I say, even his most caring.

What this means, of course, is that we rarely get to “see” Wood in action – at least not from the perspective of a traditional viewer – yet despite this he’s still wonderfully convincing. His voice alone works wonders but it’s in those rare moments when we do get to see him that it dawns on you just how perfect he is for the part. His youthful face exudes an innocence that suits Zito’s Mother Complex because deep down the character is still just a confused and terrified child. Whenever we see Wood, usually in a reflection, he looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly, which grants his character a further layer of complexity.

However – and though it might seem like I’m about to contradict myself here, do hear me out – I’m not sure I like the fact that we get to see Wood. When we do he’s great but for me the film would have benefitted from sticking with the courage of its convictions. Note, for example, the countless amount of times we catch a glimpse of Zito in a mirror; mirrors are shoehorned in all over the place, almost as though Khalfoun wanted to prevent audience alienation, which is quite grating. The POV gimmick works but the lack of consistency was a tad disappointing. A glimpse in the mirror would have sufficed, but instead Zito spends a lot of his time staring intently at his reflection. Heck, sometimes we’re even taken out of Zito’s POV altogether to watch him murder a victim, which does little more than interrupt the natural flow of the story.

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Similarly, though Maniac has a runtime of less than 90 minutes it does start to run out of steam towards the end. It suffers from the same problem as most modern slashers in that it has a repetitive streak. It is structured in the fashion of a tried-and-tested “stalk and stab” film, which means that the action sometimes feels a bit drab. The first act is all but perfect, as are the final confrontation and the surreal but mesmerising ending, but there’s an obvious lull in the middle where the film struggles to regain its footing.

Nevertheless, this isn’t to suggest that Maniac is ever boring. Far from it, for though it is primarily a stylish twist on the splatter genre Maniac is also brimming with substance. Even at its slowest moments, it is a taut and nasty film which oozes creepiness. The audience is given little respite – not least because we are forced to take on the role of the killer – and, as such, the film is consistently unsettling. It is a film that exposes the dark, voyeuristic heart of the horror genre in all of its vicious beauty and one that takes the idea of the “male gaze” and horror’s innate andro-centrism quite literally. It also, for all of its focus on Zito’s insecurities, never fails to ensure that we sympathise with the victims at all times. In the film’s numerous chase / stalk sequences, the audience’s sense of the victim’s fear is palpable, and Khalfoun deserves much praise as his tight direction allows us to experience each woman’s terror despite our own relative safety within Zito’s head.

Maniac is a pleasant surprise in a year full of pretty bog-standard horror cinema. It is by no means perfect but it’s a damn sight better than most remakes, not least because it doesn’t attempt to mimic the style of the original film. Though rarely scary, Khalfoun’s adaptation is both surreal and creepy, so much so that even a horror purist like me can find much to enjoy, and is definitely worth a watch… though perhaps have a bucket on standby if you’re a bit squeamish.