Editor’s Note: Our review of Maniac originally ran as part of this year’s inaugural Stanley Film Fest coverage, but we’re re-running it now as the opens in limited theatrical release and premieres on VOD starting June 21st.
Frank (Elijah Wood) is a lonely small business owner looking for love in all the wrong places. Sure, he meets a few girls through online dating services, but none of them work out beyond the first date. Though to be fair to the women, the evenings only go sour around the point Frank decides to scalp them for not living up to his dead mother’s high standards.
His life gets a jolt and a singular chance at happiness when a photographer named Anna (Nora Arnezeder) stops by his mannequin restoration shop and asks a favor. The two develop a friendship, perhaps the first Frank has known is his life, and he begins to fall for her. It’s the closest thing to real love he’s ever felt and she’s the closest to redemption that he’ll ever get. But happiness just isn’t in the cards for Frank, and the pull of the knife begins again.
This is Maniac, and not only is it one of the best serial killer films in years, but it’s also one of the most beautiful, creative and affecting ones, too.
Franck Khalfoun’s film is the ideal kind of remake. It keeps the story mostly intact from William Lustig’s 1980 original, but it then proceeds to improve upon it in every possible way. It’s a rarity in the remake game for that to happen, but Khalfoun and writers Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur have crafted a familiar story told in an exciting new way. Nearly the entire film is done from Frank’s first-person POV, and while you’d think that would limit the presence of the lead actor, Wood’s voice-over performance and the occasional mirror glimpses of his haunted face prove otherwise.
Instead of casting a lead bearing even the slightest similarity to Joe Spinell’s large, sweaty and obvious killer, the new film lets Wood play against type to great effect. His brief turn in Sin City showed he could do creepy, and he ratchets it up several notches here while simultaneously creating a character that almost earns viewers’ empathy. Almost. Because even as his big blue eyes plead for acceptance and sanity his tiny hands are doing horrific things to women’s hair.
And by hair I mean scalps.
Lustig’s original has its strengths with the most notable being its graphic special effects work courtesy of the always incredible Tom Savini, but the new film ups the ante here as well. KNB Efx Group takes over the make-up duties, and they deliver some incredibly gory and realistic practical effects work that will leave you with your jaw on the floor and a desire to check the actresses’ IMDB page to make sure they worked again after wrapping this film.
In addition to the fantastic effects, the violence is enhanced by the film’s use of POV which, like FPS games and the best porn (from what I’ve been told), makes viewers feel a part of the onscreen world. The fear in the victims’ eyes is directed at us, and it’s our hands committing the most despicable acts. When combined with Wood’s fraught and frenzied voice-overs it serves to immerse us in Frank’s madness deeper than most films can manage, and the handful of times the camera pulls out to a more traditional third-person view offer a brief respite from our time in his head. It impresses on the technical front too as Frank converses with, pursues and tangles with his prey and others.
While there isn’t a single element responsible for the film’s success, one of the most important (and most unexpected) is the atmospheric and propulsive score by Rob (no relation). Hearing the tracks that accompany Frank’s drives through L.A.’s nighttime streets triggers an immediate comparison to Cliff Martinez’ work on Drive, but it’s due more to the tone and feel than literal similarities.
For all of these strengths, the film still boils down to a tale about a psycho with mother issues. There’s little narrative growth to speak of as the plot resembles dozens of other such thrillers. It’s the execution that makes all the difference in the world as the film’s style, visuals, performances and score make it a success despite the basic story.
Maniac will not speak to everyone, and many others simply won’t be interested in or capable of handling the brutality, but for the rest of us a bloody new bar has been set high above the serial killer riff-raff littering DVD shelves and online rental queues.
The Upside: Strangely beautiful; incredibly realistic and practical special effects; haunting yet rhythmic and addictive score; strong and unexpected performance by Elijah Wood; crazy good ending
The Downside: Brings nothing new to the narrative of “crazy guy with mother issues;” will be too grisly and harrowing for some
On the Side: America Olivo, who plays Frank’s dead mother in flashbacks, also stars in another movie (No One Lives) that played this year’s Stanley Film Fest.