Maniac (2013)

It’s been quite a while since a horror film left me pleasantly disturbed and adequately intrigued. To my surprise, Maniac,directed by Frank Khalfoun, snuck up and did the trick with both shocking delight and irritating repulsion. Written and produced by Alexandre Aja (The Hills have Eyes). Maniac is a remake of the 1980 film of the same name by William Lustig.  In this new version, Frank, played by Elijah Wood, is a socially awkward storeowner that repairs old mannequins. His life changes when he meets Anna, a young French photographer, played by Nora Arnezeder.  Frank meets Anna outside his storefront where he discovers her taking pictures of the mannequins in his display window. A friendship eventually develops and he ends up assisting her with her photo exhibition. Meanwhile, however, Frank’s dark compulsion to stalk and kill escalates. Khalfoun’s uniquely stylized film has a distinct 1980s vibe and a wonderfully dark soundtrack by Rob that re-imagines ’80s new wave with eerie synthesizer-heavy sound reminiscent of ’80s horror, it feels like a Dario Argento, retro-Eighties, millennium fusion.

While I do love the horror genre, my personal dilemma with this film—and with the slasher genre—is its misogynistic, brutal treatment of women. Slasher films such as Maniac seem regressive and gratuitously sadistic. I was consumed by these thoughts during the first fifteen minutes of the film’s bloodletting—it doesn’t waste time, as the film opens with the first victim being pursued—but despite my feminist concerns I soon settled into a thrilling roller-coaster ride of shock and fear. There was something very familiar, yet, quite fresh happening on the screen.

Maniac is shot almost entirely from the killer’s point of view; the audience sees what Frank sees thus we are forced into the position of identifying with the killer. Consequently it is difficult for us to remove ourselves from that perspective and shift identity to that of the victim. The first-person point of view successfully creates an uncomfortable, yet brutally fun, viewing experience.  We, the audience, want to see blood! This has been done in other films, for example, in The Lady in the Lake (1947),  in which we only hear the voice of the lead character; and rarely see his face (except for the brief moments when he looks in a mirror). When the other characters address him, it looks and feels staged and awkward. Khalfoun was able to avoid this clumsiness by getting a naturalistic  performance from his actors, and creating more realistic shots and sequences as characters interact with each other. As in real life conversation, we don’t usually have extended, overly long eye contact with whomever we are talking to.

Elijah Wood’s performance is effective; as Frank, he’s both sweet and disturbing at the same time, which allows us to have empathy for him, despite the fact that he’s a serial killer. Not that he’s a killer with a heart of gold that deserves salvation, but he is trying, he doesn’t want to kill. Flashbacks provide a reason for his insanity, and Anna, a nice, pretty girl with a French accent has a positive effect on him which makes him even more likable. Wood has plenty of screen time through the use of fantasy sequences and a creative but controlled use of reflections (mirrors and windows). While the POV is not annoying, Wood’s voiceover often sounds unnatural as though he’s reading from a script.  It becomes more tolerable as the film progresses.

As Anna, Arnezeder has an absorbing on-screen appeal.  You want to watch her, you don’t want her to look away, and you certainly don’t want her to become his next victim—some nice tension arises out of our attraction (and Frank’s) for her. While Arnezeder is charming, Megan Duffy is seductive and sexually aggressive. Like Arnezeder, Duffy is captivating; she is successful in seducing the camera and Frank (and the viewer watching through his the eyes).  But we know what happens to girls like her in the slasher genre. No spoiler warning necessary. Who decided these rules? Directors, writers, men, women?  Maybe we are all guilty. Well, ok, mostly men.

While we watch Franck scalp his victims, are we, at the same time, identifying with him? Initially one would say no. However, in a later scene that is beautifully paced,  Khalfoun allows us to enjoy the senses: a glass of wine, a warm bath overflowing with bubbles, a classical aria, a moment of humor, and a sharp knife gliding over soft skin. All elements come together to help the viewer sensually experience what Frank is experiencing as he tortures and kills. It’s disturbing both on screen and off and makes you question your character empthy. 

Maniac will most likely not become this summer’s box office champ, but it will satisfy most horror fans, anger others, and intrigue a few horror enthusiasts who appreciate a bit of experimentation. It also just might make the slasher fan stop to reflect and ask, “Why do I enjoy watching the female bloodletting?”

– John David West

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