Year: 2012 (2013 release)
Director: Franck Khalfoun
Writer(s): Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg, based on Joe Spinell’s original screenplay
Region of Origin: U.S.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Digital, Color, 89 mins
Synopsis: The owner of a mannequin shop develops a dangerous obsession with a young artist. (Source)
Though I’ve never seen the original Maniac, I can most assuredly say that Franck Khalfoun’s version of the material (no matter how much it takes or leaves behind) is a breathtaking work of shock and suspense. Told entirely in first person point-of-view, the film traps us into the body of it’s mentally disturbed protagonist, dragging us forcefully into an experience that’s hard to shake once the credits roll. Obviously, this isn’t for everyone, but for the gorehounds, Maniac is a tailor-made affair that includes plenty of surprises, incredible performances and a dark, nasty character study on obsession and jealousy.
The story centers around the lonely Frank Zito (Elijah Wood), a socially awkward and mentally unstable man suffering from the death of his mother whose recently taken over his family’s mannequin business. But when Frank’s not seeing to the family business, he has a darker hobby: serial killer. Understanding his psychosis and the reason why he commits the atrocious acts that he does is something that’s slowly revealed throughout the film, but well worth the wait. From online cyberstalking, awkward dates to the fixation of a local photographer named Anna (Nora Arnezeder), the film follows Frank’s downward spiral of killer depression to fatal desperation, taking us down a rabbit hole of unforgettable terror.
The first thing you notice about the film is that it actually has a story. While most horror films are just an endless progression of scares or kills, this film takes it’s time, opening with shock and then taking a few steps back to slowly get us acclimated to Frank’s sad, lonely isolation, patiently building up to it’s kills logically and presenting each act of violence as an externalization of Frank’s overflowing trauma. As we slowly peel back the layers of his broken life, we literally watch and feel as Frank’s world begins to crumble and tear at the seams, revealing deep familial wounds through dreams and hallucinations which ratchet up the suspense until everything just can’t be contained anymore. When we finally realize the meaning of Frank’s crimes (hint: they involve scalping, and not the ticket selling type), it’s a perversely cathartic revelation that crystalizes the film’s mixture of lurid obsession and poignant longing.
Making the film a totally fresh experience is the way it’s told via first person POV. Just as it’s used stunningly in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, the technique never feels gimmicky, instead using it’s voyeuristic approach to create a narrative device that mirrors the position of it’s protagonist; an outsider who can never truly interact but only stay painfully looking in on things. Each shot feels perfectly natural yet evocatively composed, only ever showing us Frank’s face through reflections at the most potent times with voice-overs to anchor us into the character’s dark fantasy. Shot around seedy back alleys, dark corridors and the neon-lit facades of Los Angeles, the film visually plays out like a nightmarish noir that would make a perverse Hitchcock proud. At times disorienting and relentlessly intriguing, the film is a taut, exposed nerve of primal impulses.
While the story relies more on emotional colors and it’s narrative technique for it’s story, that doesn’t mean the performances are a second thought. In fact, the film relies some performances that are just as unorthodox as the film’s mode of articulation. Though we only see Elijah Wood’s face briefly through reflections with an inner monologue for thoughts, his role is a seamless blend of visuals and free-flowing introspection. It’s said that Wood got to work closely with a special camera rig and a few other tricks, conveying to us his character’s thoughts and feelings without even being on camera. Wood’s obsession Anna, played by Nora Arnezeder, really carries the film in the most traditional sense but still conveys a braver performance than most, always looking directly into the camera and straight onto the viewer in a way that creates a genuine rapport with us, the audience. She really goes through the entire spectrum of emotion before the film’s done and makes the rich character study full of color and vibrancy.
With Maniac director Franck Khalfoun takes a simple premise and elevates it’s possibly gimmicky narrative style into an artful expression of brutal horror and innovative suspense. From the electro textures of the composer simply known as Rob, to it’s impressionistic approach, the film is a multi-layered exercise into the perverse that’s executed brilliantly.
Crome Rating: 4/5