There is little I enjoy more than experimental horror, and Maniac, directed by Franck Khalfoun (P2) and written and produced by Alexandre Aja (High Tension, the 2006 The Hills Have Eyes remake), is exactly that. In the wake of a bunch of so-so horror movies told from the point of view of a camera, this film has taken it a step further and turned its camera into the eyes of its main character, Frank (Elijah Wood). Frank is a disturbed young man who lives in and runs a shop that refurbishes antique mannequins. In his free time, he can’t seem to stop himself from stalking and slaughtering just about every pretty girl he meets.
The pounding 80s style synth score by Rob and the excellent camera work lend themselves to the film perfectly, harkening back to the heyday of 70s and 80s slashers, while still remaining fresh and original. Yet, while being as exciting and slick as it is, it’s still extremely threatening and completely inescapable. Maniac doesn’t ask for your consent, it makes you a serial killer for an hour and a half. And then, surprisingly enough, tells you an emotional story about an abused outcast.
Maniac is a remake of William Lustig’s 1980 film of the same title in terms of its plot, but little else. Frankly, neither film is that concerned with plot to begin with. Both are more about the character and the gratuitous, graphic murders of a bunch of innocent women.
Now, I want to make this plea early in case you stop reading: please go see this in theaters, if you can. It is an astounding film, whether or not you find it enjoyable, and when something this risky gets made, all I can hope for is the studio sees a reaction from audiences, and feels safe in taking more chances. Horror is not dead if a film like this can exist, there are still ideas and the genre can still be used to do fascinating things. So see it, not only to support creative filmmaking, but because it is a unique experience in a theater. That, and the score sounds so good on a huge sound system. Seriously. Listen to how rad this is:
Elijah Wood is a weird kind of perfect as Frank. Although he only appears on screen in reflections and at moments of his character’s severe dissociation, his awkward, boyish voice is always present, cooing anxieties and odd observations. It’s disconcerting, and a little rough adjusting to, but once you do adjust to the viewpoint of the film, it’s a constant reminder of who you are and where you are in the movie.
From the forced first person perspective, there is basically no way to be passive in viewing Maniac. And as a result of this, I imagine that this is a film that will elicit an emotional response from every person who views it. People will be sickened, angry, they will call it exploitative and empty. Others will take the invitation to engage as the killer, allow themselves to be swept up and titillated. Many will probably be annoyed by the perspective, technically or emotionally. They will criticize the film for pulling them into it, for not offering that passive alternative to view Frank’s murders. It will all be reaction to the blame, for being forced to be implicated in his acts. You either don’t watch the film, or you perform the murders from within Frank. Unlike other serial killer films, you are not given a choice.
Where this really becomes difficult is that you are also not given much of a choice in seeing what transformed Frank, and unless you are so sickened by his killing that you refuse to acknowledge his story, by the end of the film, you will sympathize with him. I could see many feeling like this is a cruel trick, first you are introduced to the pattern of his slayings, numbed by the excess, and then lulled into sympathizing with a psychopath from within his own head. I did not feel tricked. I found it heartbreaking.
I hopefully am not a psychopath, and I definitely (well, to my own knowledge,) don’t stalk and kill women. But I do know what it’s like to feel like a bitter and confused outsider in a society that demands I behave differently than I feel I must. I also admittedly enjoy watching violence in an environment where I know that in the end, everyone is okay. I’m in touch with and accept that animalistic red meat loving part of myself, handed off to me by my cave-dwelling ancestors. And, you know what, it’s nice to have a movie encourage me to engage with it that way. Enjoy it. It’s a simulation, it’s porn, and it’s much less realistic than it could be. And it’s extremely effective; it makes you feel.
And I can’t remember the last time something made me feel like that.
Maniac will be available in limited theatrical release and VOD on June 21st, 2013.