I’ve been gestating on Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac since last week when I saw the film with a packed crowd at Texas Frightmare Weekend on Saturday evening. Prior to the screening, I rewatched the 1980 William Lustig/Joe Spinnell original and now that I’ve had some time to stew, I don’t know if that was the best idea after all. There are very stark and dramatic differences in filmmaking approach, style and result with the 2012 version from the 1980 version that start out as bracing and original but devolve into a one-upmanship game of cleverness and shock that ends up being more distracting than engaging.
The most obvious (and wide-reaching) of these is to place almost the entirety of the film in first-person. This means that the lion’s share of what we see of Frank (Elijah Wood) is via reflections in mirrors of various types or shiny surfaces. The camera only moves away and into third person rarely and even then it doesn’t linger long. Initially, this is a creative and incredible way to frame the film – you as the viewer essentially walk in Frank’s shoes during day-to-day life and also when he hunts and kills. After a while though, this technique becomes tiresome and I felt myself growing annoyed at what seemed to me to be nothing more than a never-ending display of the various ways you can screw with perspective with a camera.
Another (ultimately) negative byproduct of placing the film in first person is we aren’t actually watching Frank, we are watching Frank go about his life from his eyes outward. One of the things that makes Frank in the 1980 original even marginally sympathetic is that we shown little flashes of him clambering to hold onto whatever might be left of his sanity, his humanity. I realize this is a bit of a stretch but even if it is just half a percent humanity, it is still there. You aren’t given that when you are stuck behind the killer’s eyes and are instead left only to see what he does and how he does it and the naked, ugly pain suffered by those he does it to. While Elijah Wood does do a commendable job as Frank, he is given little chance to actually be human like Joe Spinnell is afforded in front of the camera in the original and I feel that distinction diminishes the emotional, personal aspect of the 2012 film.
The story follows a mannequin restorer, Frank, who has a secret life as an anonymous serial killer that relentlessly stalks his prey in a variety of inventive ways to scalp them and take said scalps to decorate mannequins in his apartment behind his old family restoration shop. I know, fun for the whole family. Frank seems to carry on relationships with the grossly decorated, lifeless statues and it is pretty clearly suggested that he might’ve been medicated and/or institutionalized at some point in his past. This is a double departure from the original because the 1980 version’s Frank buys the mannequins and brings them back to his small super’s apartment (is a landlord) to start and restart and restart his violent cycle. He doesn’t have a professional association with the things which makes it all the more creepy. While the mannequin restoration shop provides the opportunity for beautiful, haunting visuals, you become accustomed to them in a way that diminishes their otherworldly quality. Also, as near as I can remember, there was really no mention of Frank taking medication in the original. Again, the idea that Frank never received help is much more unsettling than someone who, for all intent and purpose, could be a labeled patient in some way or other.
Both films delve into Frank’s upbringing and the ways in which his mother treated him and exposed him to truly terrible things that no child should see. His mother was a prostitute and the 2012 film shows scene after scene (sprinkled throughout) of him as a child having to hide in the closet as his mother ‘worked’ in their apartment or hide behind a column on a side street etc etc. The original touches on this but does not focus its attention in such a fetishistic way as the remake does. While it is utterly stomach churning to have to watch a child in that situation, in some way it actually takes you out of it because it reminds you it is a movie. The original relies much more on the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks and has a stronger impact.
The violence of the film is a real sticking point that will definitely separate viewers into two camps. Because we watch this film from Frank’s eyes for the most part, seeing the victims stalked, scalped and killed a profoundly vivid thing. We aren’t saved by common techniques like a stab-and-react cutaway or a partially blocked shot (by someone’s back or other object) and are instead shoved directly into scene after scene of very realistic, very disturbing violent acts. This is a bold decision in terms of filmmaking but it tears away what I feel is a vital humanistic aspect of this type of subject matter and leaves only the guts and the bones. While effective at times, by and large this brutally ugly display only further removes the viewer from investment in the film and its outcome. It becomes a test to see what you can stand and what you can stomach and I feel like if used more sparingly would have resonated much more.
A quick note, the music used in the film is dynamite and fits the whole aesthetic like a glove. The waning, quieter musical moments are pushed away at times and are replaced with strong, pulsing, vibrating synth attacks. Just as quickly, the score circles back and quiets the background again and the effect of it is quite bracing and impressive. If I had to nail down one area of the film that was a complete success it would be the score (and I don’t really much care for electronic stuff for the most part).
Lastly, there is one aspect that I thought was solid and an improvement over the original and that is in the character of Anna. In the original, Caroline Munro plays the curious photographer with a sweet, innocent charm that is endearing but also somewhat shallow. Nora Arnezeder’s Anna is much stronger, much more interesting and ultimately a better character. Because we have to ride shotgun with a terrible monster who we cannot relate to, it is refreshing addition to have a female character with her feet on the ground who seems not only dynamic but someone you can feel for and understand. I don’t want to speak about her character much more than that but I was really impressed with Miss Arnezeder’s performance.
The bottom line on this is tough to really spell out. For every positive, there was a negative for me and over the last week of thinking about it and preparing to write this review, it didn’t get any clearer. This is a tough call. Do I think it should be seen? Absolutely. Do I think it was a crashing success? No, I don’t. I think the directorial and production skill exhibited in Maniac (2012) is sadly undermined by the showy overreach of oh-so-clever tricks time and time again and the big decision to make it first person reduces the overall experience to a clinical one and not an emotional one.
What I wanted was an epic, tragic breakdown of human sanity but what I got was an endurance test with little humanity to show for all its efforts.