“Maniac” – a first-person slasher with minimal slashing

How often do we end up disappointed, because the content of what we purchased ended up vastly different from what we were expecting? Fortunately, this time it was only a rental, so no harm was done in the long run. I don’t think I would be able to live with myself knowing I have to share my house with a piece of crap like “Maniac” on my DVD shelf.

Directed by Frank Khalfoun and written by Alexandre Aja – the Hollywood’s go-to B-horror remake guy, “Maniac” apparently is supposed to be a re-imagining of a noir slasher from 1980 (side note: according to my calculations, it is a near perfect instance of hitting the sweet spot for a ripe remake – 32 years difference between the two). I initially thought about leaving it for my Saturday horror rant, but thanks to how disappointed I was with what “Maniac” had to offer, I thought I’d better left it out… because it’s not quite a horror film at all.

Maniac-2012-poster

“Maniac” is a story, told exclusively from the point of view of the main character, about a guy with a problem. Frank (Elijah Wood) is a guy who stalks girls at nights, murders them and collects their scalps… not necessarily in that order. Once he has satiated temporarily his blood thirst, Frank goes back to his place – a mannequin restoration shop, where he puts the scalps on his life-sized dolls and pretends they are real people. Obviously, he is a seriously demented gentleman suffering from a whole variety of conditions, starting with maternal abandonment, all the way up to bipolar tendencies and psychotic episodes that prompt him to kill and mutilate women. And that just about wraps the story up…

I have not seen the original and now I don’t even think I still want to; maybe after some time has passed I’ll give it a shot, but as it stands I don’t want to have anything to do with it. Simply put, “Maniac” is just an excruciating experience that makes 90 minutes stretch to almost double the length. Maybe I could let it slide if I took it exclusively as an exercise in film-making style, because the idea of telling that kind of story through the psycho’s eyes seems to be interesting in theory. In fact, I believe it’s the reason why “Maniac” has been banned in a handful of countries, including New Zealand. Well, the reasoning behind censorship that harsh (I believe we should be able to watch any film we want, however we want it, so long as nobody is really hurt on screen) might sound ridiculous, because I don’t think the take-away message of this film is to go and scalp chicks on your way home, but there you go. The silver lining to it all is that at least some people will never get the chance to make the mistake of renting, or – God forbid – buying that pile of excrement.

I seriously failed to understand, how anybody would think “Maniac” is a horror. There’s literally nothing in that film that would make me think this was a horror story. There’s no sense of dread or threat at any time, the violence is scarce and trimmed with only little gore to show for, so there’s never enough time to actually be disgusted. Additionally, the suspense characteristic for slasher-movies is effectively neutered from the get-go, because of the POV premise of the film. We can’t get to know the victims, so we can’t really develop any emotional attachment to them, and we know where the killer is at all times. As a result, I just sat there watching a guy scalping random women and I couldn’t care less. Well, I couldn’t really care for the psycho for various reasons, mainly because I’m mentally incapable of cheering for a knife-wielding lunatic who collects human scalps and talks to inanimate objects thinking they can talk back to him.

 

As I always say, a genre film has to be reviewed in a proper context. Therefore, I don’t really think there’s much merit in profuse bashing of the obvious banality of the story, or the wooden acting of most of the victims (apart from Frank and the poor girls who met his knife, there aren’t many side line characters in the film), but I have to admit that Elijah Wood bravely held his own as a titular homicidal maniac. It wasn’t an Oscar-worthy performance of the Anthony Hopkins’ calibre, but he did make a substantial effort in making the first-person psycho experience as real as it gets. The trouble is that this particular artistic decision takes all the fun out of a horror film and makes it absolutely bland and tasteless and none of the nifty tricks this film sports can really save it.

Nonetheless, there are exactly two (maybe three, including the interesting take on a serial killer, but it both adds and subtracts a lot from the film, if that makes any sense) things about “Maniac” that I genuinely liked. Even though the film fails in setting up the vital emotional strings with the viewer, the ambiance, music and the general tone of the film is held quite nicely, so that “Maniac” feels very ominous and noir. But what I liked the most about it, was a very subtle reference to “The Silence of the Lambs”, where Frank was asked to dance with his soon-to-be next victim to “Goodbye horses” by Q Lazzarus.

Overall, I regret to say that “Maniac” didn’t live up to the premise and stepped over its own toes by having its most characteristic trait become its major liability. Who knew that shooting “Maniac” through the eyes of a loony would actually make it less scary and less disturbing? It looked like an interesting prospect, but like with many things in life, the end result came nowhere near the initial expectations…

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