Stars: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, Liane Balaban, America Oliva, Morgane Slemp, Genevieve Alexander, Sammi Rotibi and Dan Hunter.
Writers: Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur and C.A. Rosenberg.
Director: Franck Khalfoun
MELBOURNE FILM FESTIVAL Screenings - Sat 11 Aug 11.30pm; Sat 17 Aug 11.30pm.
The super-slickness of the modern movie aesthetic meets the zenith of 80’s video nasty mythology in Franck Khalfoun’s abrasive, thoroughly unpleasant remake of William Lustig’s Maniac.
Khalfoun exhibits both the technique of a skilled craftsman and the eye of a true auteur in his third feature. After the troubled production Wrong Turn at Tahoe arrived DOA, Maniac is a return to the sort of form and promise he exhibited in his car-park stalker debut, P2. He has one of the best modern exponents of stomach-churning horror in his corner in writer/producer Alexandre Aja, a long-time collaborator (he penned P2) and proven genre master (Haute Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors, Pirahna).
The biggest gamble Khalfoun undertakes is to place the audience entirely within the head of the film’s anti-hero, Frank. The film is shot in the first-person perspective, with the camera seeing all that the killer sees, but we also register the hallucinations and blurred perception that define the homicidal rages he embarks upon. We don’t just see the kills through his eyes, but also experience them via his psyche.
There is some inconsistency in its use that dilutes the insight into Frank’s mental illness the film purports to reveal; sometimes when he kills, he is outside his head looking on, other times not. But overall, it is a device that challenges the viewer and results in a unique and horrifying experience.
As Frank, the eternally youthful Elijah Wood is a baby-face killer with a suitably infantile obsession with his mother (played in flashback by America Olivo). Wood’s voice is heard far more than his face is seen, yet he resonates as both a truly scary murderer and a slightly pathetic nobody gripped by a crippling psychosis. Frank is a fitting companion to Woods’ Sin City psychopath, Kevin; the actors ability to have his silvery eyes glaze over when the madness kicks in helps him play evil particularly well.
Star and writer of Lustig’s original, the late Joe Spinell, played Frank (whose ethno-centric surname ‘Zito’ is gone) as the archetypal fat, sweaty late-night NYC stalker; Woods’ killer is a sensitive Los Angelino who crafts one-of-a-kind mannequins that he dresses with the scalps of his victims. The character’s skill at creating the lifeless female form counterpoints the savagery with which he takes real female life. His fibreglass artistry is what attracts photographic artist Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a young woman who Franck hopes will represent a turning point in his life.
The ‘Mommy made me do it!’ serial-killer cliché might have played with resonance in 1980, but it’s a bit pat in 2012. That said, Wood, Aja and Khalfoun play out the conceit with freshness and, more importantly, frankness. The first-person perspective holds strong to the final telling frames, imbuing the film with an existential, even soulful, thoughtfulness.
Gorehounds, don’t be discouraged by all this high-falutin’ theorising; the killings are graphic, disturbing and bloody, just like you like it. Maniac is alternately a sickening and beautiful work, a film that asks audiences to counter the on-screen horrors with their own compassion.