Maniac is a film within which Lord of the Rings star Elijah Woods plays a mentally disturbed short guy. No, not that film… no, no, no… yep, the one where he scalps women. No, scalps, not beheads. Anyway, Maniac is a remake of a largely forgotten (sorry horror fans, it is) 1980 horror film that puts spin on the film by being presented almost entirely from the first person view of Elijah Wood’s character Frank Zito. Click below for my review.
Frank Zito is a very disturbed young man. By day he repairs mannequins. At night he stalks and murders young women removing their scalps. He places these scalps on a few select mannequins in his shop and treats them like they were his girlfriends and occasionally his mother. One day a photographer named Anna (Nora Arnezeder) Appears at the shop he sells his restored vintage mannequins from. She’s interested in mannequins, bringing them to life through her photos. An awkward, mostly for Frank, friendship begins to form which tests his ability to restrain his inner urges. Part of him wants to be liked by Anna, any woman for that matter, but that pesky urge to kill of his just keeps coming back.
Director Franck Khalfoun, who’s name isn’t a typo, takes the basic premise of the original and creates something entirely new here. The switch to the first person allows the film to have a visual identity all of it’s own without being another bloody found footage film. This also means that, by default, nothing is going to feel like a retread of what we may have seen before. There are very few entirely first person films, Russian Ark springs to mind, and there’s usually a good reason. It’s an incredibly tricky technique to pull off for an extended period of time. Especially if you’re only presenting the film from one character’s perspective. The brilliant TV series Peep Show got around that limitation by having everyone’s view be a camera. Here, we are in Franks head for nearly the entire film. There’s a few moments where the camera will pan out of Frank to a third person shot, usually when he’s having some sort of out of body experience associated with killing or memories. The final shot of the film is third person too. But other than those brief exceptions we are fully in Franks head.
Being in the head of the killer creates an interesting tone and feel. This isn’t just a case of the camera happening to be where Elijah Wood’s head would have been. Visual effects are used to manipulate the imagery to reflect Frank’s unhinged moods, his migraines, his intense focus. This also leads to the kills themselves being, what many would likely call, quite uncomfortable. Frank has a compulsion to kill. One he cannot control. So when he does kill he blames another part of himself personified as his hatred for his mother. His victim are his mother to him. As a result of this when he kills we are there in his eyes listening to him verbalise his desire to not kill. I’m gonna get a bit existential on you all here.
We are the killer. Our desire to keep watching this film is what drives Frank to kill. The kills only occur because we keep watching and by being in his point of view we fill one of two roles of Frank’s psyche. We are either the part of him that wants to see the gory murder or the part of him squirming at the imagery wishing for it to end. We could end it. We could stop watching. But we don’t. And when the kill has been completed we’re dragged along with his life and condition to accept him as just a troubled person. Scenes depicting his friendship with Anna are socially awkward but staged in a manner where you can feel them genuinely becoming friends. You’ll be there with him hoping he can find happiness. And then he’ll kill again and you’ll do nothing but watch. This film knows what the fuck it is doing.
Couple this with the cinematic tone, all dark shadows, neon purples placed against darkened blues and you’ve got one hell of a mood piece. The narrative sensibilities are much more European than your usual slasher affair. Understandable as the film is a part French production. By this I mean that it is a story about a period in a character’s life rather than a distinct set of goals and tasks a character must complete. Frank has a goal, of sorts, to be loved and to hold back his demons, but they are goals that he could never achieve. There’s no getting over that adversity. Even if the events of this film hadn’t played out he would have killed others. There’s a subtext of dialogue running between certain moments of the film mentioning the police hunt for a serial killer. He was being hunted already and he certainly wasn’t careful with covering his tracks.
Adding to the mood of the film is the, quite frankly, superb synth heavy soundtrack. The opening scenes of the film would likely draw comparison with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive as Frank slowly drives his way through the city with a darkly grim and 80’s tinged synthetic rhythm being the centrepiece of the score. The composer for the film is Robin Coudert, known as Rob professionally. There’s a lot of influence from low budget horror scores of the 70s and 80s, largely from the likes of Goblin and John Carpenter. On top of that there’s a song, called Juno, produced for the film by Rob and former Pure Reason Revolution lead singer Chloe Alper who I have been waiting a number of years to hear something new from. Pure Reason Revolution were a superb band I only got to see live once so catching her singing on this film was a great surprise. Sound design is also excellent and has some of the queasiest sounding Foley work you’re likely to hear. Scalping sounds nasty.
Oh, another thing about the music. Ballsiest use of Q Lazzarus’ Goodbye Horses. It’s one thing to use that song and directly reference Silence of the Lambs, as Kevin Smith did in Clerks 2, but it’s another to use that song to evoke a familiarity of danger to a female character due to your mental association of that song with Buffalo Bill. The song almost becomes a countdown to her eventual victimhood as you know, psychologically, that no good can come of that song in a horror film. Ballsy, ballsy move. I’d say they got away with it.
So can you tell that I quite liked this film? I had heard it was pretty good, excellent even. Whilst it isn’t perfect, there’s a couple of awkward shots due to the first person view for example, what the film is is nearly a masterpiece. There could be more direction to the story at a few points but really, no time is wasted. It’s a tightly put together, moody, creative and visually brilliant work of modern horror. I’d go as far as to say it’s probably the best new horror film I’ve seen in quite some time. I don’t think I’ve felt like a horror film had this sort of level of execution since I discovered Asian horrors some 15 years ago. Absolutely superb.