Directed by Franck Khalfoun.
Starring Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, Jan Broberg, Liane Balaban and America Olivo.
Frank Zito, a lonely and mentally disturbed young man, terrorises the city of Los Angeles with a vicious killing spree.
When I started this series back in 2016, one of the first films I looked at was Maniac, a controversial slasher that took us inside the mind of a serial killer. I offered measured praise for its dark tone and the chilling lead performance from Joe Spinnel, while also expressing concern over its graphic violence and general nastiness. As with many cult classics, Maniac was eventually selected for a remake which took the originals ideas of looking at the world through a psychopaths eyes to its most literal conclusion.
The main draw for this remake is that it takes us into the mind of a serial killer in the most literal way possible. To achieve this, director Franck Khalfoun decided to shoot the film almost entirely through a first-person view. This approach, while a novel one, eventually reveals itself as both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, it gives the viewer an uncomfortable front-row seat into Frank’s warped world, his increasingly vivid and nightmarish hallucinations, his creepy stalking and, of course, his killings. The murder scenes, in particular, are made all the more brutal and gruesome by the filming technique, forcing the viewer to confront these barbaric acts up close and personal.
However, in the quieter moments when Frank is interacting with other characters, the first person quickly becomes an annoying and tiresome gimmick. A scene in which Frank awkwardly mingles with guests an art gallery exhibit feels like an episode of Peep Show. And yes, I know I reused that joke from last year, but the sentiment is the same.
However, while it does come off as unnecessary at times, whenever the first-person technique is less obvious, via spooky establishing shots or scenes of Frank driving his murder van, it works brilliantly. The opening credits sequence, in particular, is brilliant at setting the mood, with the sparkling night time shots of Los Angeles perfectly melding with the sinister musical score. Moments, when the camera pulls back to reveal Frank in a third-person view, are also a welcome addition, putting some much-needed distance between the murders and the viewer while maintaining their horrific impact.
In an inspired piece of casting, Elijah Wood takes on the role of Frank, his youthful and non-threatening appearance serving as a welcome contrast to original star Joe Spinnell’s physically imposing presence. Wood casts off his Frodo baggage (almost a pun there) and creates a disturbed and disturbing portrait of a murderer, his anguished pleas to his mannequins and to his dead mother being at times tragic but always unsettling.
The weak spot in Wood’s otherwise strong performance is that he never has a moment where he is allowed to turn off the creepiness. Spinell in the original, while menacing, at least had a few moments where he acted normal, demonstrating that he could be charming and even oddly likeable. Wood, on the other hand, comes across as creepy and unsettling in nearly all of his scenes, with even his supposedly more human moments having an air of menace to them. This is, in my view, because of the filming approach. I’m confident that Wood is capable of at least making you feel a pang of empathy for Frank or portray him as having charming qualities. Yet, because we rarely see his face, Wood is limited to conveying his performance through a vocal performance that was probably recorded after filming. It’s an approach that, to his credit, Wood does fine with, although it doesn’t give him many opportunities to show off his potential versatility.
What the remake does well is to match the original films unrelentingly bleak tone, with it featuring very little in the way of relief, the grisly violence and disturbing atmosphere combining to create a suitably sinister and repulsive viewing experience. Yet, while the original was an unpleasant experience that, at times, left me feeling unclean, it at least, didn’t leave me feeling bored. The remake, on the other hand, did. The filming approach quickly becoming a source of irritation we seem to spend most of the runtime sitting and waiting for Frank to commit another murder. The tedium broken by jump scares, increasingly graphic flashbacks or another act of horrible violence. In amongst the scenes of murder, we have brief moments of Frank attempting to build a relationship with photographer Anna mirroring the originals romantic sub-plot. However, this romance suffers from a severe lack of chemistry, which I blame on the first-person approach that prevents Wood and Nora Arenzender, his co-star, from being able to develop any.
Maniac is a fascinating, vicious, nasty and intensely frustrating film. While Elijah Wood delivers a suitably creepy performance, the gimmicky filming approach holds him and the film back from developing any kind of nuance, insight or even scares in quite the same way that the grittier and nastier original managed 40 years ago. Check this one out if you’re curious, but maybe stick with the original 1980 version if you can stomach it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★