Directed by: Franck Khalfoun
Produced by: Alexandre Aja
Screenplay by: Alexandre Aja
Based on: Maniac by Joe Spinell
Starring: Elijah Wood
Megan M. Duffy
Music by: Rob
Cinematography by: Maxime Alexandre
Editing by: Baxter
La Petite Reine
Distributed by: IFC Midnight
Release date(s): May 26, 2012 (Cannes Film Festival)
January 2, 2013 (France)
March 15, 2013 (United Kingdom)
June 21, 2013 (United States - New York only)
Running time: 85 minutes
Production budget: $6 million
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $26, 826 (domestic gross only)
Alrighty then! So, after a good few weeks, I've finally got down to watching this movie only today, and following this I will post a slightly belated but nevertheless necessary Review Of The Month for July. I've also got reviews in the back-burner for Only God Forgives and Blackfish (as you'll be able to tell when I get down to posting them, I've already got a headstart), so, for all the latest in movies and my, oh my (I should really be using a registered trademark there, considering how often I use George Takei's catchphrase!), opines on them, keep your eyes posted!
Today's movie up for review is Maniac. Another horror film remake, this one attempts to at least do something different with the material, and is based on the 1980 William Lustig film of the same name, which I have failed to see but I know caused quite a stir back in the day (hello, video nasty!). The film stars Elijah Wood in the eponymous role as Frank Zito, a mentally disturbed young man who has taken over his family business in the restoration and sale of mannequins, who moonlights as a serial killer, scalping the hair off of his victims and attaching them to his mannequins. Young photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) takes an interest in his work, and from there the dramatic tension emerges from whether or not Frank is able to develop a meaningful relationship with someone and break the proverbial spell of his psychopathy. Perhaps because I never saw the original and that reviews had hailed it as "A Modern Horror Classic (Bloody Disgusting)" and "Drive's Psychotic Cousin (Zoo)," I was able to go into it more open-minded than I do with most horror remakes. At the other side of the spectrum, the old arguments of the viewer's complicity with voyeurism and misogyny have reared their head: notwithstanding a monopoly of opinion and the invention of one's own vocabulary, Kyle Smith argues that "even non-feminists, however, will find it hard to disagree that the film is exactly what it intends to be: the purest exploitational trash." It sits presently at 47% on RT's Tomatometer, so, with these things being said, let's get cracking!
To start off with the good about Maniac, as mentioned, it does do something different with the material, the central concept being that the entire film is shot from the perspective of the murderer. While it does resemble a bit of the found footage genre that has become ferociously overexposed, it is largely bereft of the limitations that come with the genre. POV shooting is a trademark of horror and thriller cinema, but Maxime Alexandre's work here is like the ne plus ultra of POV, full of ingenuity that more often than not a perfect blend of style and substance. From a stylistic standpoint, we see things from a view, while present in the likes of Dario Argento's catalogue, isn't pushed this far conceptually and provides some of the most genuinely grisly scenes in recent memory. As far as substance goes, it puts it into the head of a psychopath, making us feel hemmed in and claustrophobic, but also saying something about his (and our) own image and self-perception, questioning the very nature of his being and existence. Tying in with the cinematography is a terrific lead performance by Elijah Wood. Given the technical nature of the film, it could have gone the other and not worked at all. While he is often only glimpsed at smallest moments in reflections, Wood's presence is key to the success of the film. Since The Lord Of The Rings, Wood has proven himself a versatile character actor, and this is up there at the top. He brings an everyman quality to the part, in that he just subtly slips into the part, and we never look at him as an actor playing the part of the character, but simply accept him as Frank. Strangely, although he is never a fully tragic figure by any means, Wood plays him at the right pitch between terrifying and sympathetic, a fresh change from some of the self-mythologisation that can come with a serial killer movie. Furthermore, his voice is nigh-on unrecognisable and tonally appropriate to the character, and physically he fits the role like a glove, his depiction of Frank's psychosis at times harrowing. Another aspect of the movie worth mentioning is the original score by the French musician Rob. Even though it is a NEU! movie, in many ways it is also a throwback. Rob's score at times definitely has inflections of Goblin's work with Dario Argento by way of Giorgio Morodor and the score/soundtrack of Drive. It's an interesting and evocative hybrid score that does much to keep us engaged in the thoroughly (but appropriately) repulsive things onscreen. Perhaps I'm biased, being a fan of Krautrock and most things synthesiser, but this score did much to aurally capture the thematic qualities of the film and injected it with a real personality. Finally, although his previous work such as P2 were criticised, Franck Khalfoun in his capacities both as a director and editor (with Baxter - what is it with this film and mononymous names?) shines. This is a daring, bold and confident piece of horror filmmaking that is more than a shade or two above the curve that we expect from contemporary horror filmmaking. 2013 is shaping up to be the best year in horror film's already with the weight of this and Evil Dead alone, two remakes that take their central premises and see the filmmaker's turn it on its head for their own devices. The editing is sharp and seamless, especially impressive when it comes to alternating between reflective objects such as mirrors, and his direction is one of conviction. Much has been made in reviews of it's owing much to Nic Winding Refn's 2011 Drive, and while it bears some similarities (I'm surprised not as many directors has tried emulate the stylistic qualities of said film), Maniac is a film very much it's own beast. By the time the credits rolled after a haunting and metaphorically powerful climax, I'd say there was at least three of four moments that left me gobsmacked, a testament to the fact that if ingenuity and creativity flourish, there is still space for great genre cinema to emerge.
As I'm sure you can tell by this stage, I though that Maniac was a great horror movie, and certainly one of the best I have seen in the past few years. However, it does have a couple of problems that deny it from being a masterpiece. The first of them is, strangely enough, one of the film's strongest points, the POV concept. While a relatively minor issue and working most of the time, on occasion it does become a double-edged sword and threaten to tip the film over into the realm of self-indulgence because it is just that, a concept. The other main problem is the film's script. Written by Alexandre Aja (also producer) and Gregory Levasseur of Haute Tension fame, two people family with making horror movies with psychopaths, but while it's not a bad script, some of it just isn't up to the standard of the rest of the film. The characters, though our view of them may be clouded because it is, after all, Frank's view, remain as much, perhaps less of a caricature than the mannequins in Frank's store, only Nora Arnezeder escaping this pitfall. The big issue is the dialogue, some of which sinks lower than the depths of mere stock conversation. There's one point in the movie where I found a particular line as cringeworthy as some of the action onscreen. This is not to say that I disliked Maniac, far from it, but there are some reservations to be taken into account.
Despite these reservations regarding the double-edged sword that is the POV concept and some script defects, most specifically in the dialogue, Maniac is a great horror film. While conceptually the POV concept is occasionally problematic, is technical practice what Maxine Alexandre does is quite extraordinary, and it goes hand-in-hand with a transcendental lead performance by Elijah Wood. The score by Rob injects a flavour of real personality into the film, and director-editor Franck Khalfoun shines in both creative departments. There are some real ideas here, saying something about the human psyche, and I do think there is something very existentialist about the film. It was a real pleasure to be privileged once again with a great horror movie.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.5/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Wall-to-wall (sandwiched between work and work)
P.S. Nora Arnezeder is great in the film and has great chemistry with Elijah Wood, I just stupidly forgot to mention how good she was in this!