Maniac is a dirty feeling film. It’s the 2012 remake of the 1980 film of the same name, which was widely regarded as a particularly nasty piece of cinema in it’s own right. So, is the remake any good?
Well, for starters the choice of Elijah Wood for the role of Frank, the titular maniac, has mixed results. On one hand, Wood posses exactly the sort of creepy air required to make a convincing serial killer. Of course, on the other hand he can also look like a total wet lettuce at times, which is what made him such a convincing hobbit. The end result of this combination is that most of the time you are relatively ‘in the film’ – engaged with his increasingly fucked up world-view and accompanying journey down the spiral of rampant psychosis, whereas at other times you just find yourself thinking ‘Man, Frodo is being pretty fucked up right here’ or ‘Why doesn’t he just use his invisibility cloak if he wants to kill this chick so badly?’ and ‘Gandalf’s gonna be pissed when he hears about this.’
But back to the beginning. The set up of this film is great. The first scene plays out with Frank behind the wheel of a car stalking a potential victim. Straight in, no credits. We are in a POV shot. We are Frank. We can hear him breathing. We are instantly made complicit as he chooses and follows his target as she stumbles from a club. We hear him talking to her, while she does not. She notices the car following her and starts to hurry. She stumbles, afraid. She knows something is wrong, gets up and starts to run. Just as we become as convinced as she is that she’s about to be murdered, Frank pulls off the chase and drives down a different street, quietly explaining to her that ‘Its OK. I know where you live, Judy. I’ll see you later.’ The camera pans, and we see his eyes in the rear-view mirror. They are clearly psychotic. We know at this point that Frank is very badly damaged, and that we are in for a ride. Boom. 3 minutes of perfect tone setting, and a killer (hur hur) first scene. The rest of the film, however, doesn’t quite match the pacing or direction of the set up.
We don’t have to wait long before Frank gets to kill and scalp his victim for the first time. Yep. Frank loves hair. Like, a lot. Really. You have no idea just how much he wants hair. This is because Frank is a refurbisher of mannequins (thank you auto-correct), having taken over the family business following the death of his sometime prostitute mother. Frank fantasizes visions of his mother through the course of the film – either instructing and berating him, or sometimes in the form of flashbacks of watching her fuck strangers from the darkness of the doorway of his room as a child. These visions provide motivation for Frank to go and get hair to complete his mannequins, so that he can turn them into real girls to be with him forever, and silence the visions.
This quest takes Frank into the worlds of internet dating, and art. Neither goes particularly well, but the art world forms the main plot. The film reminded me of American Psycho’s premise that truly self-absorbed people would never notice a murderer in their midst because they are all, essentially, psychopaths in their own right. So when a young photographer called Anna one day wakes Frank at home while she is snapping pictures of the mannequins in the front of his shop, we can tell that her breathless enthusiasm about his art will likely get her into some trouble further down the line.
Frank and Anna start to work together. Frank produces mannequins for her art installations in her gallery, while she waxes lyrical about the authenticity of his dolls. It is clear to us that Frank is repressing his more murderous inclinations in order to become close to the woman he thinks could understand him, as if she could be his salvation. But repressing his urges damages him further, sending him spiralling into the abyss of insanity.
At this point the film becomes disjointed, clearly with the intent of echoing Frank’s broken understanding of the world and difficulty in determining the difference between reality and fantasy. Unfortunately, the end result of this is that it separates you from the involvement offered by the POV film style. That is to say that Frank becomes so fucked up, it is impossible to empathise with the situation. We could have been forced to engage with some fairly deep questions about ourselves and the culpability of the spectator through a serial killer film shot entirely in POV, but instead we have to constantly detach ourselves because oops, there’s another fucking PCP nightmare happening, filled with dolls with human hair and flies and his dead mother yelling at him.
This was my main complaint with the film. It failed to capitalise on its strengths, which were the stalking scenes and the brutal efficiency of the kills and scalpings, while focusing its weaknesses in the prolonged and over frequent hallucination scenes. Also the final act is almost farcical at times. I genuinely laughed out loud at one point in the scene where Anna is hiding in the room, which is not, i suspect, what they were going for.
To sum up. This could have been a great film that forced the viewer to question the role they were playing in consuming a film of this nature, but instead we get a driller killer style pseudo art-house exploitation flick about a fucking angry hobbit with bloody knuckles, and a few too many breaks in the POV to make it believable for any amount of time.
The first 6 minutes though? They’re pretty badass.
Maniac: 3 unpleasant wig collections out of 5