When you’re presented with a film that’s produced (and co-written) by one of the most established names of New French Extremism, Alexandre Aja, you can pretty safely assume that it’s not going to be a pleasant watch. This assumption is borne out in Maniac, a film about a psychotic serial killer and mannequin shop owner who becomes fixated with a young artist called Anna.
In a bold casting decision we see Elijah Wood play the part of Frank, the movie’s maniacal serial killer. However, to say that we “see” Elijah Wood playing Frank slightly misrepresents the situation. By way of an intriguing stylistic decision, almost the entire film is shot from his point of view – Elijah only appears on screen now and again in mirror shots and dream sequences.
The film’s opening, while initially a touch too familiar in its depiction of a murderer trailing women in a car, eventually explodes into a sharp, acerbic and shockingly visceral flash of violence. Not only does this moment perfectly punctuate the opening scene of the film, but also serves to masterfully set the tone of the narrative. When this is followed by the film’s title filling the entire screen with blood red letters, one might start to get perversely enthralled by the macabre deluge of giallo-inspired extremity that’s about to follow.
When Frank meets the French artist Anna, a lady who is also obsessed with mannequins, he starts to become increasingly unstable; slowly building up his collection of women’s scalps as his schizophrenic and psycho-sexually fuelled rage overwhelms him. As you may have guessed, the blossoming romance between Anna and Frank doesn’t conclude in a particularly romantic fashion when the veil that covers of his true identity slowly starts to slip.
While Maniac’s plot is predictable, derivative and often a tad flat in its familiarity, there is some surprisingly interesting and subversive thinking going on behind the façade of this otherwise fairly straight-laced horror flick. The decision to depict most of the narrative from Frank’s point of view places the audience directly into the mind of a mentally ill murderer. We, as an audience, are both repulsed by what we experience through his eyes and strangely drawn to it. Mirroring the audience’s processes of seeing, Frank is depicted both as a scopophile and a scopophobe; a man who is both obsessed with looking at others and seemingly terrified of looking inwards.
Representations of voyeurism are nothing particularly new to the genre but their exploration within Maniac is genuinely engaging and innovative. Indeed, Maniac makes its ties to the history of cinema’s perverse voyeurs explicitly evident with some charming nods to Blue Velvet, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Silence of the Lambs to boot. Not restricting itself to visual reference points, the film’s score nicely alludes to the tone of Argento’s Goblin soundtracks whilst retaining a more contemporary feel that is bizarrely reminiscent of Drive. This blend of musical styles astutely sets up Maniac’s balancing of classical horror allusions and contemporary cinematic influences.
You can’t beat a nice nerdy intertextual reference in a horror film, however in Maniac they all too frequently remind one that this film isn’t quite up to muster with that which it alludes to. Maniac’s stylistic decisions (particularly with regard to its use of POV) are a tad alienating and all too frequently draw the audience out of the film while trying to draw them in. Wood’s performance is suitably deranged but, again due to the use of POV, most of the acting feels wooden and forced. On top of this, Frank is represented fairly inconsistently; director Franck Khalfoun clearly doesn’t know whether to steer the film as a multi-faceted character study or represent Frank as a simple 2-dimensional nut job.
In spite of some decidedly misogynistic and uneven representations, Maniac turns around to be a brave, incisive and note-worthy addition to a genre that’s become increasingly tame and uninspired. Going for an 18-certificate is easier said than done these days and, quite frankly, it’s refreshing to see a new release which actually aims to shock its audience with some good old fashioned gore. It’s an extremely violent and intensely uncomfortable experience that manages to superbly disintegrate itself into a turbulent maelstrom of surreal psychological mania come its electrifying narrative crescendo. A must-see for horror fans and a must-not-see for the faint-hearted.
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