We’re not in the Shire anymore, Mr. Frodo. Former hobbit Elijah Wood cuts an immeasurably darker figure in Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac (2012), a remake of William Lustwig’s original 1981 horror. Reminiscent of Wood’s homicidal turn as psychopath Kevin in 2005’s Sin City, here we are presented with a deeply disturbed individual, loaded with mummy issues and an irrepressible urge to slice and dice beautiful women. Frank (Wood) is a lonely type of guy, spending his days in his shadow-draped mannequin restoration store, lovingly caressing his inanimate subjects. However, Frank is also plagued by a plethora of insecurities.
The mentally-unstable product of a broken home, where he was forced to witness his mother’s (America Olivo) tirade of sexual partners, Frank is unable to connect with ‘real’ women, except through displays of extreme (very extreme, in fact) displays of gory violence. The situation appears to improve when he meets Anna (Nora Arnezeder), who shares Frank’s fascination with plastic and porcelain models, and it does begin to seem that this newfound love interest may just save him from his impulsive, bloodthirsty urges. Tragically, though, some wounds are simply too deep to ever truly heal.
Predominantly shot in first person, Maniac sinks its audience deep into the mind of a serial killer of women, watching a parade of grisly murders ranging from ankle-slashings to stabbings – but always culminating in a ritualistic scalping. This directorial decision does ask the film’s audience to empathise with our anti-hero to an extent, and for the most part (somewhat worryingly) we do. Prolonged, blood-drenched scenes are incredibly intense, enhanced by the effective Foley work that all too accurately captures the sound of skin peeling from bone. Wood’s complementary glassy stare also generates a surprising level of sympathy – even after a number of disturbing ordeals, you pity rather than hate Frank.
As we sit uncomfortably through Frank’s murderous rampage, we also delve deeper into his disturbed psyche, where mannequins spring to life (often decorated in his victim’s scalps) in order to either provide succour to his troubled mind, or to launch into vitriolic abuse. Frank’s is a fragile mind, oscillating wildly between overblown dominance and inflated weakness. What’s more, there is a pleasing 80s vibe to the film’s aesthetic, supplemented by a pulsating electro score that heightens the on-screen bloodshed.
Frustratingly, for all of its intensity – which keeps you firmly in the moment for the majority – this violent tale ultimately possesses scant originality of its own, even beyond its status as a remake. Maniac’s central conceit of a disturbed childhood leading to such an extreme reaction in adulthood is a plot-line audiences have seen all too often before. Khalfoun seems perfectly content to roll through countless generic conventions, whilst his film is held steadfast by Wood’s hypnotic performance – affording us a tantalising glimpse into human depravity, yet little beyond.