For those who’ve seen Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City, Elijah Wood can play creepy with an unnerving finesse. But his bespectacled turn as mute serial killer Kevin was merely a supporting stint, so Maniac‘s promise of Wood in full cur-mode, with a point-of-view of the murderer ‘gimmick’ in the camerawork, was an exciting proposition for a down and dirty genre film, a loose remake of the fan-favourite 1980 Maniac. With so much potential, what could possibly go wrong? Everything, it would seem, and the almost systematic way in which it fails deserves to be systematically picked at:
Wood plays Frank, a Los Angelite harbouring memories of a questionable upbringing by his mother and possessing an off-colour disposition toward mannequins. Through a number of increasingly implausible circumstances, he preys on women in the night and keeps their scalps for his inanimate friends. The purity of innocence that Wood brought to his roles in The Lord of the Rings and Deep Impact that would’ve inspired some kind of empathy is nowehere to be found, and even the terrifying side of Sin City‘s Kevin is evanescent; perhaps the reason he was so unfathomably scary was the fact that he never spoke. Quite the opposite here; the ropey (at the best of times) dialogue has Wood sounding like a down-on-his-luck actor rehearsing lines for a two-bit video nasty just so he can eat for another week. Wait – that’s exactly what he’s doing anyway. Oh dear.
What’s left is a talky little dredge who is impossible to like. To empathise with the protagonist is imperative, in any form, no matter how morally bereft their actions. But where Maniac excels in its awfulness is to shoehorn in an even more unlikeable character, housing a performance even worse than Woods’ into its hour and a half of acting preeminence; If you’re going to look into the camera (as the ‘inside Frank’s head’ gimmick requires), some form of self-awareness is going to be a prerequisite. Nora Arnezeder, who plays Anna – Frank’s latest obsession – doesn’t have a mote of it. It’d be fair to speculate that she’s actually slowly awakening from a long coma for the movie’s duration, the execution of her lines handled like a deer caught in headlights grappling with the concept of astrophysics, it’d probably be best to put her to sleep again. To be more fair, the dialogue is on an almost Zandalee-level of brown, and some blame has to be shifted to the writers Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur, and C.A. Rosenberg. It took three people to come up with the line, ‘do you like my nipples?’ Three!
By about the thirty-second mark, you’ll know – thanks to a quick, cheeky glance in a rear-view mirror – that Elijah Wood is starring in this film, and this film will take place from his perspective. Why, then, does director Franck Khalfoun decide to conveniently place mirrors and a myriad of other suspiciously reflective surfaces almost everywhere to keep reminding us that Elijah Wood is in this film? He’s on the poster, he’s in the trailer. Is Khalfoun expecting his audience to forget the rather palpable fact that Frodo is on a murdering rampage around LA?
At points Maniac drifts from this central contrivance in the form of dream(ish) sequences and out-of-body moments during Frank’s blood-soaked deeds, all reasonable attempts at reaching some kind of artistic height. However, it’s all so ill-informed that no one will care. Shame.
Frank’s first gruesome murder is up close and personal, but it’s difficult to feel anything because of its artifice. CGI is only your friend if you use it when you can’t replicate something in real life; Maniac takes so many effects shortcuts, it becomes void of all the gruey shocks and thrills it’s aiming for. This relatively low-budget affair never syncs with the values of the low-budget; ‘do it yourself’ apparently has no adhesion in today’s filmmaking, even on a smaller scale. Everything is done for shock, which is typically an amiable and generally fun trope of the slasher flick or similar horror picture, but in Maniac it becomes a dead-eyed folly. A slight tingle of enjoyment occurs when an ’80s synth lines kick in during sequences of depravity (think Drive for people who don’t like good films), but even then there’s a lack of judgement in timing and an overall misstep in trying to bring something that isn’t entirely rubbish into the mix. Strike three, Khalfoun. What else are you going to mess up? Oh, that’s right:
Everything that happens.
The occurrences in Maniac make no sense, and neither do they purport to. But instead of simply going ‘with the flow’ and accepting that it’s ridiculous, it’s carried out with such conviction that the final fifteen minutes actually become painful. There is a moment, in its climactic chase, that involves a stranger’s car and a concrete wall. Apologies for veering toward the descriptive, but this is a few seconds of such hilarious, wrong-headed stupidity it would be irredeemably wrong not to mention. And stupidity is Maniac’s calling card: it’s the logic which Khalfoun utilises to its full use, on which every poor-conceived character motivation, action and dumbass plot points hinges. In not giving into these idiotic urges and becoming knowing of its own ludicrousness, Maniac misses the point of the premise of its niche genre: to be fun.
Hopefully, this will serve as a reminder of the route modern horror shouldn’t take, but is anyway. It’s conceivable that Maniac will be eaten up by late-night audiences who revel in the cocktail of sickening violence and perturbed excess that Maniac exudes, but none of which serve as actual qualities – which they would be in better shot, written, directed and acted movies possessing the same gleeful dispositions (for instance, 1976’s The Driller Killer, also about a sociopathic individual). Will it be a small hit and propel a glut of similarly poor filler-killer pictures? There’s a tangible fear that it will.