Maniac Review

Where does one start when talking about the gob smackingly brilliant, blood curdling monster that is Maniac? Franck Khalfoun returns with a remake of the 1980 cult classic, originally directed by William Lustig and starring Joe Spinell in the role, which former hobbit Elijah Wood, now so sweetly slithers his way into. It’s about redefining the story for another generation and opening up the horrors of Maniac to those who may not have heard of the original film, according to Khalfoun, regarding why he decided to work on this remake. I, for one, hadn’t heard of the original before I saw this version but it most certainly opened up a new world of horrors; showcasing the best in art house horror filmmaking.

Maniac follows Frank (in the most thrilling performance of a career by Elijah Wood) a mentally ill loner, who surrounds himself with the mannequins that he fixes up and ‘brings back to life’. Cue odd music as we enter his little shop of horrors (see what I did there?) and find Frank convinced that the mannequins are actually communicating with him and that they are as real as you or I. This is only a small part of Frank’s life, but the other part is somewhat darker and more exciting (darker than believing inanimate objects are really alive, I hear you ask?) for Frank is a professional serial killer, who enjoys capturing women, toying with them for a little bit and then murdering them by scalping their heads off completely. What does he do with these scalps from these innocent women? He completes his other hobby (mannequin restoration) with these scalps, adding just a little more reality to his decrepit, dream world.

But no good quality horror film would be complete without the Hitchcock ‘mummy issues’ and cue flashbacks to scenes of Frank’s mother, apparently a drug addled

prostitute who is rather happy to have sex in front of her son and let him watch men treat her like a piece of meat; an object they can chuck around and abuse at their own free will. Therefore, a multitude of issues arises from this including Frank’s lack of boundaries in life, why he cannot form relationships with women and why he feels he can hurt women in anyway he wishes.

This all seems quite fine for Frank until he meets Anna (the truly beautiful Nora Arnezeder), a local photographer who finds herself amused by the ‘safe’ mannequinsin the front of Frank’s restoration workshop (just don’t tell her about the rotting corpse heads in the back room) and wants to use them for an exhibition herself, to use as allegory around her photos. The two grow close and it seems that Frank lets some of his inhibitions go, hides his brutality from Anna and really tries to form a relationship with her. But as with most horror films, these things simply don’t work and what follows is one of the most suspenseful and tantalising chase sequences in recent cinema where Anna realises Frank for everything he is.

But enough on the story, there are certain parts of this film I would like to briefly discuss to illustrate, why I feel this is one of the strongest and most beautiful classic horror stories of our generation.

Maniac is visually and audibly stunning, where LA is filled with neon lights and electronic noises that ultimately you wouldn’t expect anywhere else in the world and certainly not within a horror film. Frank moves through a city filled with smog, and yet there is something alluring and provocative about everything in site. The colour drags you in and makes you feel safe, before contrasting with the maniacal colours of the scalp being ripped from someone’s head. The sound is perfect, understated to build a sense of ease and paranoia throughout the film, it never goes over the top but always manages to just keep the audience on the edge of their seat throughout. Ultimately, once you have seen one murder, you pretty much understand how the rest of the film is going to work and yet, every murder is just that little bit more unsettling and sensual.

Khalfoun also fills Maniac with dark and grimy colours, reminiscent of 80s cinema, which makes the audience feel alienated and dirty by the end of the viewing but I can assure you, it is totally worth it. The biggest technical flourish of the film is the fact that almost the entire film is from POV of Frank. In other words, we see everything, the good and the bad from the killer’s eyes and this, by the end makes us sympathise with him (or was that just me?). We are there for every murder, getting down and dirty with Frank, and therefore making the audience complicit in the murders. I know that by the end of the film, I was looking for objects in the scenes that I could pick up and murder someone with – I feel this was one of the most amazing things about Maniac – it made me feel like a killer! The only times we see the face of Frank is his reflection in mirrors and windows. Khalfoun’s use of the reflection is skilfully used and keeps the audience wondering what the face of a killer looks like throughout. It helps that Wood is so baby faced, because ultimately, is this what we were expecting?

Considering sound just a little further, the editing of Maniac is second to none, proving that a very technically skilled sound engineer really can make all the difference. Whether it’s the shallow breathing of Frank or the head of a women slowly being ripped, the noise is realistic but haunting. It lulls you in but then alienates you.

Furthermore, the performances from both Wood and Arnezeder are powerhouses, clearly cementing themselves in the thrones of modern American horror cinema. Truly doing what the best horror cinema does, and making the audience just comfortable enough to relax before throwing all the rules out of the window and throwing the kitchen sink with it as well. Wood makes killing look easy, and after his performance as Kevin in Sin City, it certainly makes sense to think he could one day portray a mad psychotic killer – and he does it so damn well!

Returning back briefly to the story, as well as the serial murder aspect of Maniac, it is also one of the most intimate portrayals of mental derangement that I have seen in recent cinema. The swift flashbacks represent moments in Frank’s life, where he is starting to learn life skills that one day will lead him to where he now finds himself. By surrounding himself with mannequins as his only companions, he finds himself allowing his own mind to close in on him and this leads to one of the most sensational and fulfilling finales in horror cinema. The final sequence where Frank is completely losing it and remembers all the women he killed, now coming to get him, shows that payback can be a bitch and that he never really got anything out of his killings but instead really couldn’t control them.

So Frank in Maniac is another character to add to the new generation of ‘angry young men’, along with films like Simon Killer and We Need To Talk About Kevin, a new generation of filmmakers are telling audiences, we aren’t alright and there are issues that need to be addressed. There are so many different ways to be able to represent these characters, and Maniac stands apart from so many other horror films and once again gives the genre value. It stands up to say, ‘Look at me, I am scary but I am making some really important fucking points, so listen!’ It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it surely made me walk away smiling because I knew that Maniac will cement itself as one of the most important, scariest, thrilling and brilliant arthouse horror classics of all time. Worth a watch and certainly worth a second.

Don’t forget to read our interview with director, Franck Khalfoun and enter our competition to win one of the beautiful Maniac posters, here.

About The Author

Reviews Editor, Contributor and Festival Coordinator

Ollie has written for Front Row Reviews pretty much since its inception about seven years ago whilst still studying Film & Television. Since then, he was trust into the world of independent film distribution and has recently started working with Picturehouse Entertainment in their Marketing Department. Having written and produced two radio series, he is moving hoping to (one day) write a web series/short film/feature (delete as appropriate ;)). His favourite director is David Lynch (which makes him make a lot of sense!) and his favourite films are The Hours, Mulholland Drive, Volver, Blade Runner and Bridget Jones Diary.

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