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Our reviews of Hammer Films: The Icons Of Suspense Collection (published April 6th, 2010), Maniac (1934) (published May 4th, 2007), Maniac (1980) 30th Anniversary Edition (published October 26th, 2010), and Maniac (1980) (Blu-ray) (published October 22nd, 2010) are also available.
I warned you not to go out tonight.
"I never touched you!"
Facts of the Case
Frank (Elijah Wood, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) is a troubled young man with a particularly nasty habit: he stalks, kills and scalps young women, then attaches their hair to antique mannequins. However, the killing spree is interrupted when he meets Anna (Nora Arnezeder, The Words), an attractive photographer who treats Frank with kindness. Frank hesitantly begins something of a romantic relationship with Anna, but he finds his darker impulses constantly urging him to resume his murderous habits. How long will it be before Frank snaps and takes his new girlfriend down with him?
Maniac is a remake of William Lustig's 1980 feature of the same name, which starred Joe Spinell as the murderous Frank. The central character was large, obese and immediately sinister in that film, while this time around the role is played by the soulful, timid, doe-eyed Elijah Wood. Even so, the central gimmick is the same: the camera observes (almost) everything from the killer's point-of-view, giving the viewer an unnervingly personal look into the mind of a psychopath. The original film was grimy and scuzzy while the new one is sleek and smooth, but it more or less offers the same troubling story.
The first thing I have to give Maniac credit for is that it doesn't play its horrors for laughs. Frank's horrific actions are treated as just that, and there isn't much in the way of cutesy sight gags to keep viewers chuckling through the mayhem. There aren't enough horror movies these days that set aside the snark and aim to provide a genuinely unnerving experience, so props to director Frank Khalfoun and co-writers Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur for their uncompromising vision. The violence contained within the film is brutal and merciless, likely extreme enough to make even seasoned horror vets cringe. We really do dread whatever Frank might do next, as the nature of his crimes makes them particularly unbearable to witness.
Even so, I'm not sure that the film has a whole lot going on beneath its blood-spattered surface. Yes, eventually we learn that Frank is a killer of the Norman Bates variety, as a troubled relationship with his late mother has seemingly led to his issues with women. Some have accused the film of misogyny, which isn't an entirely unfair complaint. That isn't because it's a movie that details the brutal murder of numerous women (who happen to be Frank's victims due to the particular psychological damage he's suffered), but because the female characters are so thinly-drawn. One victim is a young woman who unconvincingly drags Frank home and demands that he have sex with her, while another is an impossibly snooty art aficionado who feels like a parody of rich snobs. Even Anna never feels like a real character. She's attractive and sweet for much of her screen time, but she never feels like more than a prop—a pretty young woman who conveniently manages to push Frank's buttons when the plot needs her to. I suppose there's an argument to be made that this is due to the fact that we're seeing everything through Frank's distorted worldview (there are several moments in which it's made clear that he's not always seeing the world as it really is), but I don't think there's quite enough here to support that notion.
Elijah Wood does solid work as Frank, delivering a serial killer whose brutality is contrasted by the panic and despair he demonstrates during his darkest moments. He's alternately apologetic and spiteful towards his victims, ping-ponging between self-loathing and self-satisfaction with alarming speed. We hear quite a lot of Wood's voice throughout the film (conveniently, he likes to talk to himself when he's stalking women), but we generally only see him when he looks in a mirror (conveniently, there are usually a lot of mirrors around). However, every now and then the camera will drop the first-person angle and swoop outside of Frank's POV to observe him for a moment. I couldn't discern a particular reason for this, but I hope there's more to it than the filmmakers finding themselves unable to convey certain moments within their film's established visual style.
Maniac (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/2.40:1 transfer (yep, Frank sees the world in widescreen!) that highlights the film's moody digital cinematography. Detail is excellent throughout, and the many darker scenes benefit from strong shading (though black levels could be a bit deeper). The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is where the disc really excels, highlighted by a terrific synth-driven score that draws on the sounds of John Carpenter, Drive and Italian horror flicks. The music (penned by a French composer simply known as "Rob") really goes a long way towards amping up the film's sense of dread and is arguably the movie's greatest attribute. Dialogue and sound design are well-handled, too. Supplements are surprisingly generous: an audio commentary with Wood, Khalfoun and producer Alix Taylor, an hour-long making-of documentary, a poster gallery, deleted scenes and a trailer.
Maniac benefits from strong craftsmanship and commitment to its ugly vision, but I'm still torn on whether the viewing experience is rewarding enough to warrant sitting through the savagery on display. It certainly offers Elijah Wood fans an opportunity to see a new side of the actor. The faint of heart need not apply at all, and everyone else should proceed with caution.
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