The 1980 film Maniac was a Z-grade slasher film, more or less, trying to make a quick buck in the era of Halloween and Friday the 13th. It is not immediately apparent why Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, High Tension) would want to produce a remake of it, nor is it immediately apparent what French director Franck Khalfoun is trying to say with that remake. All that is apparent is this: you won’t see another film like Maniac this year, and you will not want to.
Elijah Wood is the titular serial killer, Frank, and the cold open has him stalk and murder a club-hopping young woman in a sequence shot entirely from Frank’s point of view. It is a chilling, gruesome scene to watch, and as the title card MANIAC appears on-screen it seems that Khalfoun cannot possibly top it. Then the first scene after that title card is also from Frank’s point-of-view, and all becomes clear: this entire picture is going to be seen through his eyes.
That is an audacious move, but it’s too audacious. There’s no getting around the fact that very few non-psychopaths would enjoy seeing through the eyes of a psychopath, and thus Maniac is a rough sit. Each murder is more difficult to watch than the one before, until the anticipation of a confrontation between Frank and his girlfriend Anna (Nora Arnezeder) is a leaden weight of dread in the stomach. Wood deserves credit for devoting himself completely and utterly to the role, as the blank-eyed creepiness that was put to some use in Sin City is a hundred times more effective here. However, “effective” is not always equivalent with “good.”
Maniac name-checks The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Frank and Anna see it on a date) and references The Silence of the Lambs (one key scene has Q. Lazzarus’ song “Goodbye Horses” playing in the background), but it shares nothing of value with either film. Instead, there is an unnecessarily detailed look into Frank’s pathology: his obsession with mannequins borders upon camp, and his mommy issues are explored in unnecessary detail. Audiences ought to be offered the choice whether to sympathize with the killer or not by a neutral camera, as in the masterpiece of this sub-genre, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Instead Khalfoun over-exerts himself trying to force the audience into that sympathy, and seeing that effort being expended upon an obvious monster is deeply distasteful.
However, this is a horror film, and it is undoubtedly horrifying at times, mostly due to the technical mastery by Khalfoun and his crew. The 1980 Maniac contained one of the great moments in the history of special effects, as makeup master Tom Savini designed a shockingly gruesome simulation of a man’s head exploding as a result of a point-blank shotgun blast. The remake continues in that vein, recruiting Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead TV series, among many other credits) to create some of the most realistic-looking violence in any movie, ever. There were reports of audience members fainting or vomiting during festival-circuit screenings of Maniac, as the shockingly realistic knifings and stranglings make the horror all the more intimate.
That is the central issue at play here: this film gives an intimacy to serial murder that audiences have never previously experienced, and likely never wanted to experience. As The Cabin in The Woods showed, the victims in a slasher film are audience surrogates because they embody the audience’s desire for survival, and the audience cheers on the “last girl” as an opportunity to root for themselves. If the audience surrogate is the slasher himself, as is the case here, what is to be gained by identifying with him? Who is to be cheered on?
During the film’s third murder, a lengthy stalking through the curiously empty streets and subways of downtown Los Angeles, it’s impossible not to ask, “What joy, or intellectual challenge, or other artistic stimulation is being offered here? Who would drop $15 to watch this?” The answer may well be restricted to special effects makeup artists and readers of Fangoria magazine, who could turn this film into a cult favorite based on its technical prowess. Most other viewers will find Maniac on the wrong side of the fine line between “gut-wrenching fun” and “just plain gut-wrenching.”