Maniac (2012)

Maniac first published in Sight & Sound, April 2013

Review: “You are totally not what I imagined,” says Lucie (Megan Duffy), the young date whom Frank has picked up on a website called ‘Cupid’s Rejects’. She had been expecting somebody “fat, with long dark hair and greasy skin full of acne” – in other words, somebody just like Joe Spinell’s sweaty, corpulent protagonist from the original Maniac. William Lustig’s 1980 film blended the mother-loving murder of Psycho, the gutter-level New York madness of Taxi Driver (in which Spinell had actually played a small role), and aspects of recent, real serial killers like the ‘Son of Sam’ and John Wayne Gacy, to create a lurid slasher whose gory sensationalism and exploitative sleaziness were offset and uneasily elevated by the intensity of Spinell’s performance. Maniac was as schizophrenic as its titular antihero, and unlike Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (released in the same year), had in Spinell’s Frank a real, complex character to ground all the slice and dice.

That was then – but in Franck (P2) Khalfoun’s remake, transposed from the Big Apple’s long-gone ‘mean streets’ to post-millennial Downtown L.A., Frank too has changed, now played by the much younger, slighter, angel-faced Elijah Wood, merging his fantasy persona as The Lord of the Rings‘ conflicted innocent Frodo (here even brandishing a ring in the final sequence) with his cold-blooded killer from Sin City. Like his namesake director, Frank is here engaged in the art of the remake – for not only is he attempting, through the medium of artificial mannequins and real scalps, to restage his troubled past with a neglectful, meretricious mother (America Olivo), but he is also (unlike Spinell’s Frank) a professional restorer of antiques “from all styles and eras”, while seeming himself to come, as his love interest Anna (Nora Arnezeder) points out, “from another era.”

Frank is not alone in his retro qualities – for his doomed internet date Lucie, despite her hipster tattoos and thoroughly modern attitude to sex, puts on a vinyl (!) copy of QQ Lazzarus’ 1988 song Goodbye Horses (the same song to which psycho-killer Buffalo Bill danced in The Silence of the Lambs) as mood music in her apartment filled with vintage synths – while the film’s own score (by Rob) is a nostalgic pastiche of 80s electronica à la John Carpenter, Goblin and Giorgio Moroder. Anna, who expressly compares Frank to Dr Frankenstein (and will herself become his refashioned bride), is an avowed fan of ‘old films’, inviting Frank out on a date to see The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (“considered”, she observes, “to be the first horror movie”). Robert Wiene’s nightmarish psychodrama is an obvious reflex for Frank’s own experiences, and indeed all that Frank sees on the screen is a hallucinatory montage of his own traumatic memories and deviant fantasies – in a film very much preoccupied with projections both photographic and psychological. For just as artist Anna superimposes images of her own face on Frank’s old mannequins (“I try to bring them to life with light”), Frank does something similar with blood-matted hair and staple gun. No wonder Anna and Frank seem such “a perfect fit,” as her art and his murders express a similar renovation of the past in the image of the present.

Having already revisited the men’s toilet sequence from the original Maniac in their feature debut Switchblade Romance (Haute Tension, 2003), writer/producers Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur (who were also behind remakes The Hills Have Eyes and Mirrors) have here thoroughly rewritten the grammar of Lustig’s film, showing not just the occasional scene but practically everything (real and/or imagined) from Frank’s point of view, so that his face is only ever glimpsed in reflections, photos, or the odd ‘objective’ shot (in fact Frank’s own deluded or ecstatic visions of himself). This forces an uncomfortably close identification between viewer and voyeuristic killer, making us prisoners of Frank’s compulsive mindset as much as he is. Maxime Alexandre’s queasily psychogenic camerawork produces something more akin to Enter the Void (2009) than to Lady in the Lake (1947), offering a predatory perspective on a contemporary world haunted by the melancholy and madness of a mummified past. It is a tawdry, troubling tragedy, unlikely to be embraced by anyone besides hardened horror fans – but in a genre so often filled with dummies, Maniac is surprisingly smart, delivering something very different (visceral brutality aside) from what you might imagine.

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Synopsis: Downtown L.A., the present. Loner Frank Zito restores antique mannequins in an inherited workshop – and also hunts and murders women at night, nailing their scalps to his mannequins in an attempt to recreate and transcend his fraught relationship with long dead mother Angela. When conceptual photographer Anna shows up admiring the mannequins, Frank feels he has found his ‘perfect fit’. Anna, however, already has a boyfriend, the alpha-male musician Jason. Humiliated by Jason at the opening of Anna’s latest exhibition – which incorporates several of Frank’s mannequins with Anna’s face superimposed – Frank stalks older gallery owner Rita to her apartment and, insisting she is his mother, scalps her.

Comforting Anna over Rita’s death, Frank arouses her suspicions with some careless words. Frank murders Anna’s neighbour Martin and bundles unconscious Anna into his van, hoping to introduce her to his ‘mother’ back home. Anna stabs Frank and flees to a passing car. The car hits Frank before crashing. Traumatised, Frank scalps the dying Anna and, back in the workshop, refashions her as his bride – only to be exposed by his other mannequin ‘women’ as more serial ladies’ man than monogamous romantic. Frank’s harem of plastic paramours tears him limb from limb and peels off his face, revealing a mannequin underneath. Police find Frank’s corpse, surrounded by dummies.

© Anton Bitel