Think back to some of the most frightening film moments you can remember, and I’ll bet a decent portion of them utilized the by now rote Point Of View shooting technique. Evil Dead most readily comes to mind, with its nearly comical though still chilling POV shots racing through the creepy foggy woods at night. Presumably of the opinion that it’s impossible to get too much of a good thing, director Franck Khalfoun decided to shoot his reimagining of the 1980 classic slasher film Maniac almost entirely from the POV of Elijah Wood’s character. The result is at times maddeningly overdone, but still undeniably effective at others, the audience trapped as it is behind the eyes of a thoroughly troubled (and maybe schizophrenic) young man.
Wood plays Frank, the socially awkward proprietor of a mannequin restoration business in downtown LA. We meet Frank right in the middle of stalking some doomed attractive young inebriated woman leaving a club late at night. The way in which he dispatches his victim is genuinely shocking, as we’re forced to watch the life drain from her eyes and, soon after that, her scalp leave her skull. This opening suggests a continuation of the cheap, gritty, senseless violence that enshrined its source material, but the filmmakers opted instead to attempt a smart overhaul of the slasher genre, with some seriously mixed results.
In the 1980 original, famously grisly version of Maniac, Frank was the child of a prostitute whose obsession with mannequins was never adequately explained and was actually way more creepy because of it. In the modern retelling, Frank’s mother owned the mannequin restoration business while he was growing up. She was an artist (or at least a gifted craftsperson) whose care for her creations rivaled the amount of time spent doing coke and having weird sex with weird dudes while Frank watched. Soon enough, Frank encounters Anna (Nora Arnezeder) a photographer whose primary subject happens to be mannequins. As a mutual respect for each others’ artistic talents and choices begins to develop into something more between Frank and Anna, the need he feels to brutally kill women and take their scalps as decoration for his mannequins begins to escalate, to predictably cringe-worthy results.
Writing team Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur choose to provide Frank with a certain number of sympathetic qualities. He’s an expert craftsman with knowledge of the arts and a passion for beauty, in stark contrast to the big lug schizophrenic, animalistic Frank of the original. This kind of works, but also seems kind of pointless in its moralism. Regardless of some poor choices, Mr. Khalfoun and the rest of his creative team do manage to pull off some super cool atmospheric pieces, most notably an early scene that manages to completely re-contextualize Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses.” The movie works best when it functions as pure, senselessly violent eye-candy. Trying to explain why Frank’s obsessed with murder and almost completely asexual through some pop-psych drivel is only going to detract from how totally messed up it is that we have to watch as he does all this horrible shit.
Maniac is almost definitely going to become a cult classic. The sheer brutality of its violence, the vague nostalgia for the 1980s of its soundtrack, ridiculous dialogue, and genuinely good performances will be enough to sustain the film through multiple viewings. Where Khalfoun, Aja, and Levasseur stumble is in trying to gild the lily. By inserting cumbersome and faux intellectual dialogue between Frank and his primary target, the filmmakers lose the tension that pervades so many of the parts of this movie that actually work. Although, to be honest, the constant POV sort of drags on.