Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Maniac (2012) Review

Horror Remake - Starring Elijah Wood, America Olivo, Nora Arnezeder. Screenplay by Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg. Original Story & Screenplay by Joe Spinell. Directed by Frank Khalfoun (2012)

Maniac is a remake of a notorious 1980's 'video nasty' that boasts some interesting ideas or gimmicks depending on your view. 
The original followed deranged serial killer Frank Zito as he kills and scalps young women, lovely!

The remake is shot almost entirely from the point of view (POV) of Frank, now played by a Hobbit! 
Yes, casting Elijah Wood in this on the face of it seems odd when you think of the Lord of the Rings films but he has already pulled off a believable psychopath with aplomb in Sin City, so maybe not such an unlikely choice. It is a choice which broadly pays off, as I will come to later.

The most immediately striking thing about the film is the aforementioned POV style and is the juxtaposition of the camera work and casting of a big Hollywood star that initially bothered me the most. Had the film been 100% POV we would have barely seen the killer, but Elijah Wood is in the lead role here and that leads to numerous shots of him forlornly or rather blankly looking at himself in a mirror.  I do wonder whether the director specifically wanted Wood as the lead or was there some studio pressure to a) cast a name, and then b) show the star of the film as often as possible.  Had he been able to cast a relative unknown he could maybe have been braver with the use of POV and I can't help wondering if the film may have been better had he been able to go down that route.  I also found it a little jarring that on more than one occasion the film jumps from POV to some kind of out of body footage, this only served to remind me that I had previously been watching it from Franks point of view and took me somewhat out of the moment.  Saying that, I am starting off on a deliberately critical note as as I felt the film was ambitious and genuinely nasty.

Irrespective of why we see Elijah Wood more than I would have liked he is very good and worryingly convincing, the original had Joe Spinell as Frank and he tackled the role with all the subtlety of a starving bulldog eating custard. Wood, however, plays Frank with an impassive neutrality which has the surprising effect of allowing the viewer to empathize with him despite his horrific actions. He cannot, and does not, try to justify his actions, but the more we learn about his past and his relationship with his mother the more we find our self feeling somewhat sorry for him. I think even if you took the violence and horror aspects out of the film you would be left with an interesting story about a man, desperate to be loved, struggling to overcome his terrible childhood.

This is an impressive change in tone from the original for what superficially is such a brutal and uncompromising film, which brings me quite neatly on to the gore and effects. It is one of the most visceral mainstream films for a very long time and looks very convincing throughout. Scalps are removed and blood is let at regular intervals as the film builds to it's predictably bloody climax. The fact that this is shot through Franks POV enables us the feel uncomfortably close to the action. The director, Franck Khalfoun also edits the film and you get the impression he wanted the viewer to feel a little guiltily voyeuristic watching some of the drawn out violence.

Another aspect of the film which draws the viewer in is the outstanding sound design and pitch perfect soundtrack. During much of the POV footage we hear the breathing of Frank as he goes about his business, when the stress and tension builds we get to experience Franks acute migraine/tinnitus and a blurring of his vision. It's a clever and intelligently used technique, as is the reverb on his voice in many scenes aping the way our voice sounds different to ourselves than anybody else. The soundtrack itself is all 80's synth/piano and at first I felt it was too obviously lifted from the era to allow the film to move far enough away from it's roots, thankfully as the film progressed I was proven wrong and it works with the films feeling of disconnect very well.

As impressive as Elijah Wood is, the stand out for me is Nora Arnezeder, the french actress who plays Anna, you hope throughout that she is able to get Frank off his killing spree and integrate him into the world around him.  She is on screen more than Wood and their relationship is believable due to their common interests. She plays Anna as both smart yet vulnerable and their relationship is the most surprising aspect and it really carries the film.

Maniac stands up well against any recent mainstream horror and is a more layered and thoughtful piece of work 
than the rather blunt original. Wood proves again he is now a long way from Hobbiton and Franck Khalfoun will now firmly be on my watch list. Despite my minor misgivings about Khalfouns failure to go 100% POV there is a lot to be impressed by with Maniac

Rating 4 out of 5

By Dave Wheeler 

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