Review: Maniac / Director: Frank Khalfoun / Screenplay: Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg / Starring: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder / Cert: 18 / UK Release Date: March 15th
Maniac has to be one of the best remakes of a 1980s ‘classic’ - a perfect fusion of European horror and American grindhouse. And what’s more Khalfoun’s Maniac is marked with a formal daring that easily transcends the sleazy original, while retaining the more transgressive elements of the Lustig movie.
The paper-thin plot remains more or less the same: seriously disturbed loner, Frank Zito, murders women in order to get their scalps which he uses to adorn the mannequins that he keeps in his apartment. These mannequins are his only ‘friends’ until photographer Anna enters his life and offers Frank the chance of redemptive love. But with Frank’s grasp on reality becoming increasingly tenuous, will Anna end up sharing the same fate as her predecessors?
Although the remake fails to develop the themes of the original to any great extent, Khalfoun’s film is distinguished by its use of POV camera throughout; a bold stylistic choice that places Maniac in the company of Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void (2009) and Robert Montgomery’s 1949 classic The Lady in the Lake as one of only a handful of films to have attempted this. We see Frank only by his reflection in mirrors and car doors etc. almost entirely for the whole film (only moving to an objective shot of Wood once during a pivotal scene). It’s a risky ploy, denying the audience involvement with the film in the usual way but Khalfoun pulls it off brilliantly, literally drawing us inside Frank’s psychosis and his deeply skewed view of the world around him, where reality, fantasy and memory ultimately merge into one.
The casting of Wood as Frank Zito is also a masterstroke, and Wood gives his all in the part (Frodo fans and Wood detractors would do well to remember that Wood played a similar role as the lethal Kevin in Sin City, a part that seems almost like a dry run for Maniac). Whereas Joe Spinell’s Frank was a sweaty slob, Wood is a pretty but socially awkward and seemingly harmless guy, which makes it plausible that he would be attractive to the women around him, at least superficially.
Khalfoun’s film is marked by its reflexivity throughout, both in terms of its commentary on the original Maniac and on the Slasher sub-genre as a whole. POV camera is after all a Slasher trope, but by adopting it throughout Maniac Khalfoun critiques it and undermines it: one cannot ‘enjoy’ the killings on any level simply because we cannot distance ourselves from Frank by stepping outside the subjective camera. Michael Powell’s classic Peeping Tom (1960) is strongly invoked at times, both in terms of its ‘scopophilia’ (the love of watching) and the queasily sympathetic killer at the heart of the story. And Khalfoun has Frank take Anna to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) at one point, “the first ever horror film”, Anna comments. Are we meant to see Frank as a killer, who like Cesare the somnambulist in Caligari, is controlled by forces outside of him?
In this respect, despite its formal brilliance and reflexivity, it has to be said that Khalfoun is unable to completely shake off the misogynistic undertones of the original. In fact, Khalfoun’s film makes even less of an effort to explore the roots of Frank’s homicidal hatred of women than the original did. At least Lustig made an effort at a plausible backstory for the Spinell character. The flashbacks to Frank’s childhood in Khalfoun’s film offer only a cursory explanation: Frank was neglected by his mother while she screwed around. Blame the mother.
That said, the remake does attempt some quite incisive social commentary that reflects the updated milieu. Whereas Lustig’s Maniac takes place in the lowlife environs of 1980s New York, the remake is set in contemporary Boho-Soho, which subtly changes the nature of Frank’s alienation from the women around him. Spinell was surrounded by hookers and druggies, but Wood’s victims are all shallow metrosexuals. Accordingly, Khalfoun has changed Frank’s occupation from seedy landlord to restorer of mannequins for the fashion industry. He runs a little shop and this is how he meets photographer Anna. The women in this Maniac (and the men too) are all drawn to Wood on a superficial level purely for his looks, and are too self-involved to notice that he is, deep down, a troubled soul who simply wants to be loved. Even the coquettish Anna, who initially seemed to offer friendship, rejects him too quickly and completely when she comes to suspect him as a murderer, not even wanting to try to understand why, as she might if she had any true feelings for him (the way the Moira Shearer, by contrast, wants to ‘understand’ Mark at the end of Peeping Tom). In this sense, at least, Frank’s compulsion to surround himself with his mannequins – who won’t reject or abandon him, ‘like real women do’ - becomes understandable in the context of the film.
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10