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Maniac (2012) – film review

October 25, 2013


For sheer audacity of technique, Maniac borders on the sublime.


Directed by Franck Khalfoun. Screenplay by Alexandre Aja & Gregory Levasseur. Starring: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder and America Olivo. Running time: 89 mins.

I figured what with Halloween almost upon us, my next review should be a horror movie. And who could’ve guessed the very first out-and-out horror I review for this blog is such an insanely disturbing but brilliant film – I feel like I want to scrub my entire body with steel wool.

Frank Zito, a disturbed young man, stalks the streets of LA in search of women to scalp; using the scalps to adorn shopfront mannequins which he lovingly restores. When he meets and falls for Anna, a French photographic artist, Frank is faced with the possibility of redemption and leading a normal life. But will Frank overcome his compulsion to kill? Or is Anna ultimately fated to become his next victim?

As regular readers may have guessed, I’m not particulary enamored with the current state of contempory horror films. It’s not so much the extreme violence and gore which affects my enjoyment – but more the grimness of tone and mean-spiritedness which pervades many recent entries in the slasher genre which I find difficult to deal with. My tastes in horror lean more towards the existential (as in Frankenstein or     the works of Clive Barker) or the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft or the body horror, science-run-amok aspects of the films of David Cronenberg – than the current crop     of so-called ‘torture porn’ spawned by the likes of Saw and Hostel.

But I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. I mean, it’s not like horror films hadn’t reached these extremes before. The notorious (if amateurish) splatter films of Hershel Gordon Lewis in the 1960’s were possibly the beginnings of all-out ‘gore for gore’s sake’ exploitation (with such lurid titles as The Wizard Of Gore, Color Me Blood Red and 2000 Manics to name a few). But it really was from the late 70’s onward into the 80’s when splatter films really came into their own.

Released in 1980, William Lustig’s original Maniac was one of the first in a seemingly endless string of post Halloween cash-ins stampeding into cinemas in the wake of John Carpenter’s unprecedented success with that seminal slasher flick. Written by Joe Spinell (a character actor who had previously appeared in such celebrated movies as Taxi Driver, The Godfather and Rocky) – Maniac was conceived as a starring vehicle for himself and is most notable for its unrelentingly lurid and sleazy atmosphere, the sweaty and hysterical central performance of Spinell and the outrageously graphic special effects make-up by horror maestro Tom Savini (featuring a show-stopping shotgun-inflicted exploding head – surpassing a similar effect Savini had previously created for Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead). Lustig’s film was banned here in Australia until 1982 when it was released on video in a heavily censored version. This was in spite of the fact clips of Savini’s gore effects were shown uncut in the Fangoria Scream Greats Volume 1 video cassette released around the same time. I guess the Australian Censorship Review Board of the day deemed it less harmful to view these scenes when taken out of context. The restored film was     finally released here uncut on DVD in 2004.

Arriving in the wake of a more recent wave of extreme Gallic horror (Frontiers, Haute Tension) – this new remake of Maniac is a French co-production produced in association with Bill Lustig’s Blue Underground shingle. And while not being particulary scary in say, a Halloween kind of way (there are no jump scares here to speak of) – this new Maniac still packs a visceral intensity which is undoubtedly horrific. The main points of difference between this new version and the original Maniac are the change of setting from New York to Los Angeles, making Frank Zito appear less monstrous and more attractive to his potential victims and the idea of utilizing first-person perspective during the entire running time of the movie in order     to force the viewer into experiencing events through Frank’s eyes. In other words – virtually the entire film is shot from the killer’s point of view (POV).

The beauty of first-person POV is that it allows the viewer to vicariously experience whatever is happening to any particular character. In terms of slasher films, POV’s are most famously associated with the Giallo thrillers of Dario Argento (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Profondo Rosso, Tenebrae) and the opening murder sequence from John Carpenter’s Halloween. Movies which utilize this technique for their entire running time are less common, with a notable recent example being Gaspar Noe’s overlong, but nonetheless logistically impressive out-of-body head trip Enter The Void – where Noe even goes so far as to include little flashes of black here and there representing the character’s eye blinks. But the example which comes immediately to mind when I think of the look and tone of the POV aesthetic used in Maniac is not a movie at all – but a notorious music video directed in 1997 by Jonas Akerlund for the song ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by UK band The Prodigy. As can be expected with a song by this title – the track caused outrage upon release – as it was thought, by some,     to promote violence against women. The band responded that the title is not meant to be taken literally, and actually means ‘to do something with vigor and intensity’. And the intensely vigorous video which resulted tends to back this up. Set over the course of a night out on the town (compressed into four minutes) – we find ourselves inside the head of a protagonist (whom we assume, from the escalation of his bad behavior, to be male) – as he cruises increasingly seedy bars and clubs; getting drunk, snorting coke, shooting smack, sleazing onto women and starting fights – only to be revealed (in a mirror reflection at the very end) to be in actual fact – an attractive, yet hopelessly trashed young woman. While this video is undoubtedly provocative, the accusations levelled at it for condoning the misogynistic actions of the protagonist are really quite baseless. In reality, it’s this first person perspective which forces us to participate in the goings-on which causes a visceral reaction in the viewer. And     it is this aspect of immersion which some find uncomfortable. It comes as no surprise then that Alexandre Aja cites this clip as being a major inspiration in his approach when developing Maniac.

Elijah Wood (best known as the diminutive Frodo in The Lord Of The Rings) was sought for the role of Frank Zito because it was felt his distinctive doll-like features would do well in evoking the wide-eyed appearance of the manniquins his character is so obsessed with. Having a life-long fascination with the psychology of serial killers, Wood leaped at the chance to become involved. And despite the fact we only glimpse him onscreen every so often – in mirrors and other reflective surfaces – his presence is strongly felt, thanks to his hands-on involvement in the blocking of scenes and being on set during every single take: signalling lenser Maxime Alexandre when to move and where to point the camera – essentially crafting a performance from the very camera itself. Considering every frame counts in terms of fleshing out Frank’s persona whenever he physically appears in glimpses, Wood does an incredible job     in generating compassion for such a despicable monster. So much so in fact that Maniac ends up less a cold-hearted character piece a la Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer and closer perhaps to Psycho or that film’s British counterpart, Peeping Tom. In fact, I dare say, in years to come, people will look back at this performance as one of the truly iconic psychopaths of horror cinema – right up there with Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.


The remainder of the Maniac cast are virtual unknowns and French newcomer Nora Arnezeder is fresh-faced and a delight as Frank’s potential love interest Anna ( a role essayed in the original by the iconic English 70’s fantasy femme, Caroline Munro). She conveys a natural sweetness and authenticity with her interactions with the camera which is immensely appealing.

The gore effects by KNB – demonstrating once again the superiority of practical     gore over CG blood-letting – are handled with an almost excrutiating attention to anatomical detail; with the camera never once flinching from the horror or averting     our gaze. The retro 80’s synth score by French composer Robin Coudert has prompted comparison with Cliff Martinez’s music for Drive, although the chord progression which runs through much of the film is clearly a brazen rip-off of ‘Paul’s theme’ from the soundtrack for the 1982 remake of Cat People – composed by disco synth legend Giorgio Moroder (Midnight Express, Scarface). I wonder if Mr. Moroder or his attorney are aware of this? Actually, now I think about it, if you’re one of the people who found Drive to be an intense and compelling experience – you may also enjoy Maniac. They would indeed make for an interesting double bill – being almost identical in tone and style.

There is no denying the horror of Maniac is nasty and brutal (you have been warned) – but it is Wood’s sympathetic portrayal of a severely damaged soul which elevates the film above the unbridled sleaze and degradation of the original. And for anyone with an appreciation for audacity in technique – Maniac is one film which borders     on the sublime.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

From → film reviews

  1. Excellent review! You’ve made me almost want to see this. But, as I’m a wuss about violence, I know I won’t. Sounds very interesting, though. And that Prodigy video is awesome. 🙂


  2. Danita permalink

    “while not being particulary scary… this new Maniac still packs a visceral intensity which is undoubtedly horrific”

    You hit the nail on the head with that statement. I love this movie and I never thought I would feel compassion for the killer. Elijah Wood does an amazing job and his performance is only amplified by the camera work and music. A+


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