Director: Franck Khalfoun
Writer: Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur
Producer: Alexandre Aja, Thomas Langmann, William Lustig
Stars: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, Genevieve Alexandra, Jan Broberg, Megan Duffy, Liane Balaban, Joshua De La Garza, America Olivo, Sammi Rotibi
A serial killer known for scalping his victims befriends an art photographer who is unaware of his true identity.
Remakes are usually a dicey proposition. Some become such slavish reproductions of the initial incarnation that they lack any discernible identity of their own. Others begin with source material so universally revered that they stand little chance of being accepted in the same world where the original exists. Only in very rare cases, there are films like director Franck Khalfoun’s 2012 version of “Maniac” that skillfully avoid such traps. His is a remake that ably walks a tightrope between successfully channeling the spirit of the 1980 cult classic and creating an interpretation of the original screenplay that stands as a completely separate entity.
The newer version of “Maniac” supplants the coastline by trading New York City for Los Angeles. Aside from a montage sequence or two depicting the downtown skyline, the location could really be anywhere. There are some cameos from notable theaters like the Orpheum, but “Maniac” generally avoids shots of Hollywood landmarks or any other identifiable tethers that would make it uniquely chained to its California setting.
In that vein of depicting a nondescript version of the City of Angeles, “Maniac” similarly employs ambiguity in its timeline. If not for the singular use of a cellular phone, the story could theoretically take place in just about any era.
This is a story told in a daring way. Nearly the entire movie is captured from a first person perspective. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the technique does not fully translate into a pure behind the killer’s eye view of events. The sensation is somewhere in between participant and voyeur, but it certainly works as a novel way to invest the viewer and to give the onscreen action a perspective seldom seen in cinema.
In a mostly disembodied role, Elijah Wood plays Frank, a creepy loner who restores antique mannequins by day and scalps women by night. Unaware of his true nature as a serial killer, a young photographer named Anna becomes friends with the Oedipus wrecked man and they start up a relationship that obsessively saps Frank’s remaining shreds of sanity.
Since his performance is primarily achieved through voiceover, there are moments that leave a noticeable vacancy in the emotion. Wood was likely acting alone in a sound booth at times, which stunts a few scenes where lines are delivered too flatly. Yet casting babyfaced Elijah Wood so far against type is already a brilliant move. The choice for him as an actor is even bolder because he rarely appears onscreen. And the familiarity of his voice from so many appearances as a child star and as Frodo from “Lord of the Rings” lends his bizarre character an even stranger quality by playing off a placid association in the viewer’s brain.
The other marquee headliner of “Maniac” is the cinematography. Camera angles and movements are carefully crafted and thoughtfully planned to keep the first person illusion alive. Long tracking shots and single takes capture the unease of women trapped in Frank’s crosshairs. And the disorienting point of view ingeniously amplifies moments like an unexpected blade jammed through a victim’s jaw.
From the imagery to the audio, the throwback slasher feeling is unmistakable. A synth music score by Rob delivers a retro vibe that also feels modern and heightens the unsettling visuals. It is as if the entire experience has a gorgeous layer of uncomfortable grime over everything. Yet that feeling is entirely necessary to achieve the desired effect of being immersed in a diseased mind’s nightmarish reality.
“Maniac” trips briefly on indulgent moments. A murder sequence set to an operatic rendition of “Ave Maria” is more than a little on the nose. And the final scene depicting the close of Frank’s story in reality is superfluous given the far superior fantasy event that transpires immediately beforehand. Still, no one should deny that “Maniac” is a stylish serial killer film that is beautifully presented and brutally depicted. The movie is delightfully skin crawling in the way that it sets up its horror. Even from a vantage point behind the killer’s eyes, there is never a feeling of being safe or in control. After all, any time the opening notes of “Goodbye Horses” start playing, you just know there is about to be inescapable terror.
Review Score: 85