Film Review: Maniac

For those who like their slasher movies with a frisson of arty pretension.

There’s nothing cuddly or Frodo-ish about Elijah Wood’s psycho killer in French director Franck Khalfoun’s haute-horreur remake of the low-budget 1980 William Lustig movie that’s become something of a grubby touchstone among genre fans. Wood’s limpid saucer eyes are used here to telegraph unhinged bloodlust and insanity, even if only sporadically, as he plays a sicko with mommy issues who scalps his female victims. The twist, and what helps elevate the nasty, no-holds-barred Maniac from the grindhouse, is that the entire movie is shot from the killer’s POV—we only glimpse Wood in reflection and in photographs.

It’s a daring decision, potentially stripping the film of the suspense of not knowing where the killer is and obliquely inviting the audience to have empathy with him. For the most part Khalfoun and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre pull it off, although the technique more than once tips over from inventively arty to film-school-grad pretentious.

Slasher-movie fans, however, need not be put off by the stylized camerawork and arty patina: This is down and dirty genre filmmaking, and the various slaughters, excruciatingly detailed scalpings and other atrocities are no less gruesome because of the highfalutin approach.

Khalfoun worked as an actor on the similarly stylized 2005 French horror movie High Tension, written and directed by Alxandre Aja, who serves here as co-scriptwriter and producer. Both have evidently watched a lot of Dario Argento movies.

In Lustig’s original Maniac, Joe Spinell played the serial killer Frank as a sweaty, overweight and overwhelmingly physical monster who terrorized the women of grimy ’80s-era New York. Khalfoun shifts the action to downtown Los Angeles (Disney-fied New York being far too clean and shiny now) and, taking advantage of Wood’s ethereal delicacy, makes him a slender, shy, creative type who is, in the end, no less creepy.

Frank works alone in a store that once belonged to his mother, restoring vintage mannequins. He has some issues. He’s completely deranged, in fact, stalking his female victims, stabbing or strangling them and sawing off their scalps to bring home in the belief it will bring the mannequins to life and thus fill the void left by his neglectful, promiscuous mother. Or something.

When he meets Anna (French actress Nora Arnezeder, who starred with Ryan Reynolds in Safe House), an artist who specializes in photographing mannequins, they form an attachment based on their mutual interest in plastic people. But then Frank’s headaches start up and things go off the rails.

The movie is essentially a sadistic art-house bloodbath, with opera music and ballet dancers and funky little art galleries. The nerve-shredding score, by the mono-monikered Rob, salutes the music Italian prog-rockers Goblin provided for Argento’s early horror thrillers, the 1980s electronica lending a deeply melancholic city-at-night vibe.
The Hollywood Reporter