Thursday, June 20, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: MANIAC Is A Masterful Plunge Into Utter Madness

Not all films should be enjoyable. Some should be unnerving, disturbing, and should force the viewer to stare directly into the most abysmal corners of the human condition. Maniac (a remake of the 1980 cult favorite of the same name) is most certainly this kind of film: a character study of one man and his murderous compulsion, told from his own perspective. And I don't mean narrated by him in some cheesy voice-over, but rather filmed from his point of view. Almost 90% of the movie has us looking at the world through the eyes of Frank (Elijah Wood) as he stalks and scalps helpless young women on the city streets.

Immediately (and I mean that literally, from the very first scene during the credits), this film is going to turn a lot of people off, and in a way, that's a very good thing. The idea to shoot the film from Frank's perspective may seem gimmicky to some, but what it does is turn the audience into the killer, and I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who will be heavily put-off by this. It's extremely difficult for most people to step into the head of a deranged person, and this movie makes it a mandatory aspect of the experience. I almost envy those who have the kind of moral fortitude that makes them incapable of feeling empathy for a truly demented character, but those people would be missing out on a captivating (in the darkest way possible) and even tragic performance by Elijah Wood as Frank. This isn't a character who enjoys killing, but is driven to it by his heavily fractured psyche. We get hallucinogenic glimpses into Frank's past that show how his relationship with his mother helped turn him into the monster he is. While these bits of backstory do help us to sympathize with Frank somewhat, they aren't making excuses or forgiving his murderous acts. They are simply presenting things as they are, and leaving it to the viewer to be either repelled or pulled in.

Repulsion is a perfectly natural response to this movie, and that's why I'm so captivated by it. It's putting you into the mind and body of a deeply disturbing character and daring you to walk a mile in his shoes. The original film (a great piece of work in its own right) was also based around this conceit, but thanks to the traditional camera work, you were still an outside observer. With this new iteration of the story, director Franck Khalfoun crafts an even more morbid intimacy with the POV tactic. While this is the central concept that the movie rests on, it's certainly not the only thing the film has going for it. Elijah Wood's performance is astounding, managing to shift from sad to creepy to downright terrifying all in the span of a few minutes. We mostly see Frank in mirrors and reflections, but we do get a look at him a few times outside of his own purview, and it helps to reinforce the boyish innocence of Wood's looks. This only makes his dark nature much more perfect, and really hammers home the idea of a wolf in a sheep's skin. Wood's voice is what his performance hangs on, and it has this cool cadence that keeps you eerily mesmerized. It's my favorite Elijah Wood performance since his silent turn in Frank Miller's Sin City.

The cinematography has this wonderful polish about it, which also helps to differentiate it from the grungy aesthetic of the original film. It also makes the violence standout in a starker way, and the violence in this movie is brutal. With the exception of one brief moment near the end (and it's actually the only sliver of levity in the film, and it's still twisted and violent), nothing is played for laughs or "look at this special effect!" exploitation. The murders are visceral and harsh, making the film all that more insatiably difficult to endure. I've never enjoyed feeling this awful during a cinematic experience before.

I'm also a fan of the score (credited to the monosyllabic Rob) which has this 80's synth heavy vibe, and it probably wasn't an intended effect, but it gave the film a kind of video game feel for me. The proliferation of first person shooter games has made a large generation numb to experiencing violence from a point of view position, and this film almost feels like a mean-spirited comment on that phenomena. It certainly adds another layer to the film, and makes for an interesting debate on the relationship between the viewer (or gamer) and the acts being committed on screen.

If there is one weak link in the chain, it would have to be the performance by Nora Arnezder as Anna, the girl Frank is infatuated with. She's not entirely bad, but there's a stilted quality to some of her delivery, which is an unfortunate side effect from her accent. Still, she does have moments of genuine tenderness that actually give you a small bit of hope for Frank's future. But, this is the bleakest of tales and only has one real ending. And the ending (almost exactly like the original) is phantasmagoric and haunting as hell.

Maniac is a modern horror masterpiece, and I'm not exaggerating that. The places that it forces you to go are some of the darkest imaginable, but the ways in which it makes that journey are expertly crafted and viciously unique. Held aloft by a landmark performance by Elijah Wood and an aura filled with tension, Maniac is the rare horror film that actually induces that very emotion: horror. For many, it will be far beyond what they can handle. But, if you have the stomach for it, enjoy staring into the abyss and seeing what stares back.


  1. I watched the movie and I suggest that Maniac is strictly for the horror obsessed among people.

    1. It certainly takes a very high level of tolerance and a strong stomach to get through this movie, but it's more than worth it, in my opinion.