Film Review – Maniac
Apparently growing up watching your mother snort lines and prostitute herself out to random strangers can lead to some pretty severe mommy issues. In Maniac, a fairly faithful remake of the 1980 cult classic, it leads to violent, homicidal urges. This gory horror film “stars” Elijah Wood, but is so consistently shot through his POV (a technique that eventually wears itself out), that we only ever see Wood’s character, Frank, when he catches glimpses of himself in reflective surfaces—or when his mind veers off into flashback or fantasy. The film is well crafted, I give it that: the cinematography and tone, the hip and moody synth score, the acting and the special effects are all top notch. But what of it? The script felt trite and cliché, and much of the dialogue was laughable. The repetitive cycle of “Frank meets girl, Frank chases girl, Frank scalps girl,” became redundant and, despite the excessive gore, I eventually felt a bit deadened to it. Maniac, through its artful direction and execution, tries so hard to be more than just a slasher film, but there’s not enough intelligence or depth to let this film rise above its genre. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Frank is the sole operator of a small mannequin store that has been in his family for three generations. In the front of his shop, he displays lovingly restored female mannequins, but the back of his shop hides something far more sinister. Frank is building a collection of his own mannequins, using those spare parts he finds through his job, but adding a quite disturbing finishing touch: women’s scalps. He stalks random women in his car, on the street, on the subway—and through an online dating service. It is for the sole convenience of plot that the woman he meets through this dating site looks past his scabbed and bloody hands and vacant face and invites him over for casual sex at her place. This isn’t the only plot convenience. There is the time a woman runs screaming through a completely empty subway terminal onto completely deserted streets into a completely deserted parking lot that has a conveniently high fence. These plot contrivances abound and mar the film with a brash artifice. An artifice that isn’t helped much by the voiceover provided by Elijah Wood.
Since we are “inside the mind” of a killer, we are subject to his thoughts and his fantasies. The thoughts are translated through the awkward voiceover, delivering such clunkers as, “You don’t have to run, Judy. I know where you live.” But this voiceover also crosses the line in other moments, such as the time we find Frank online and the words he types are read aloud as if the audience is too illiterate to read for themselves. The voiceover consistently took me out of the film. Frank is a maniac, and as such his lack of inflection belies his lack of emotion, but I needed to be able to see this. With only the voiceover, the words Frank speaks are dull and wooden and lifeless. Had I been able to see the vacant yet crazed fire in Frank’s eyes, the words might have carried more weight. Elijah Wood is an actor of tremendous talent and it feels like that talent was wasted on clumsily written voiceover, instead of a performance.
And that is one of the films weakest points: an undercooked script. Director Franck Khalfoun has made a beautiful film. The tone is dark and moody, but there are also vibrant colors and unique camera angles and transitions. Not only is there a high polish to the film, but I particularly liked the attention to detail. For instance, when Frank makes it to his date’s apartment and scans the room, there’s a trio of small keyboards in the corner and a leather drum, and you know through inference that she’s a hipster-bohemian musician. The set dressings are universally spectacular. If only so much time was put into the dreadful dialogue. Frank’s first meeting with the potential love of his life, Anna (Nora Arnezeder), is particularly painful, fake, and contrived.
This isn’t to say Maniac is a bad movie. It just isn’t the movie it so earnestly attempts to be. When it comes down to brass tacks, Maniac is simply a story about a boy traumatized by his mother who takes it out on women he meets by scalping them. That’s it. There is no higher purpose or meaning. And maybe that’s the point. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a horror movie is just a horror movie. And if you’re in the mood for a gorgeously filmed, perfectly scored, and artful (if not particularly thoughtful) horror film, then you could do worse than watch Maniac.
Final Grade: B-