DVD Review: ‘Maniac’


William Lustig’s 1980 sleazy shocker Maniac saw the American director compile a serial killer narrative not from the point of view of a pursuing detective, but that of the murderer himself. In updating said original nasty, screenwriters Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur have gone one step further and sought to place their audience directly in the head of the film’s homicidal mannequin obsessive. Directed by Franck Khalfoun, Maniac (2012) relocates the action from New York to Los Angeles and, more importantly, presents the story from the killer’s actual point of view with the camera serving as the madman’s eyes.

Elijah Wood plays Frank, replacing the original’s Joe Spinell in this slick, if not especially necessary rehash. Frank (Wood) is a lonely guy living in LA; by day he restores mannequins in a shop left to him by his mother, in the evening he finds them suitable hairpieces and adds to his own private collection. Inheriting some dubious ‘mummy issues’ from the original, he satiates his mania by night, indulging a penchant for stalking and scalping attractive women. One day a beautiful photographer, Anna (Nora Arnezeder) unwittingly befriends the depraved villain and, given his harem of mannequin paramours, things are unlikely to end well.

To say that Wood ‘stars’ as Frank would be somewhat misleading as his performance is largely restricted to glimpses in mirrors and other reflective surfaces (the blade of a sharpened knife, perhaps?). In the original, Spinell gave a performance, both captivating and repugnant, that was the fulcrum to all of the film’s unease and horror. Here that is the job of the camera. Acting as Frank’s eyes this gives the audience a hideous front row view to his vicious attacks – blood abounds – playing with concepts of voyeurism and perhaps, in some ways, even complicity. This is arguably counter-productive as being able to see Frank is the key to understanding him and really getting inside his tortured mind.

What Khalfoun’s Maniac manages to achieve is placing its viewers, physically, right in amongst the action but this also allows a little distance from this sweat-stained, leery slasher. So this new take on proceedings ups the ante in terms of front-and-centre gore, it never quite achieves the same levels of stomach-churning nausea. Transplanting the action to modern LA from grimy NYC also requires a marked visual shift.

DoP Maxime Alexandre shoots in green and violet neon hues that, along with the film’s pumping soundtrack, almost creates an aura of retro cool. Whilst this maintains a suitably creepy atmosphere, Maniac’s more grotesque elements are subdued; it’s less deeply unsettling, more gleefully entertaining. In a film about a gruesome serial killer, that’s not necessarily a good thing, but horror fans will doubtlessly enjoy the invention and the blood-letting.

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Ben Nicholson