Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2013


First-person slasher

Accomplished filmmaking aside, 'Maniac' can neither justify nor contextualize its point of view

IFC Midnight
Director: Franck Khalfoun
Screenplay: Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, based on a 1980 screenplay by Joe Spinell and C.A. Rosenberg
Starring: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, America Olivo, Megan Duffy, Jan Broberg, and Joshua De La Garza
Not rated / 1 hour, 29 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

Call me old-fashioned, but I'm not so sure we actually need a first-person movie about a man who kills and scalps women, then uses those scalps to dress up mannequins with which he deliriously interacts. Not to write off any film for its subject matter or even its point of view, I'm simply curious as to what exactly Franck Khalfoun's Maniac - a remake of William Lustig's 1980 cult thriller - actually offers to the horror genre at this point. Or movies in general, for that matter.

Cinema history is littered with portraits of disturbed, social inept young men preying on women and taking out all their deep-seated psychological problems on them. The only difference here is the (mostly) first-person camerawork, giving us direct access to what this killer sees, thinks and feels.

Film has always been the most voyeuristic medium, and Maniac considers itself part of the tradition of, to use the most obvious example, Michael Powell's masterpiece Peeping Tom, among others. In putting us in the position of the killer himself, we're presumably complicit, or at least empathetic. But the problem in this case is we're entirely unwilling participants, and we have no reprieve. We're in the killer's head from start to finish. We're there for the pursuit. We're there, participating, for every graphic moment of his killings. We're there for the cleanup. And because Khalfoun only abandons the POV gimmick on rare occasions (flashback dream sequences, a couple of isolated moments that turn into out-of-body experiences - like the killer watching himself commit his own crime), the film leaves itself very little space to breathe. While Peeping Tom could use a fundamentally similar premise as a comment on cinema, and voyeurism, and the aforementioned aloof young men, Maniac can't do much beyond showing us what it's like for this particular psychopath to do what he does. The movie doesn't say anything about Frank, or his actions, because there's simply nothing to be said.

Khalfoun explored similar territory in 2007's P2, about a disturbed man terrorizing a young woman in an isolated parking garage on Christmas Eve. At least that film had the good sense to give us the female target's point of view, rather than indulging entirely in the deranged psyche of the man hunting her.

This time around, Khalfoun and his writers, Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, try to mitigate the inherent flaw in their stylistic choice by turning Frank (Elijah Wood) into a psychological profile. But their attempt to explain him away - a dubious proposition in the first place - is laughable in its execution. You guessed it - Mommy issues! Impotence! Yee-haw!

Knowing all about what Frank saw Mommy doing when he was a little boy doesn't give us any real perspective; it's just an easy psychological crutch. Ditto Frank's internal conflation of his own violent and sexual impulses.

In fact, I'm not sure there's much of anything the film could tell us about Frank's upbringing that would make what he became any more interesting. There have been quite enough movies about sad, lonely, rejected, screwed-up young men killing young women for little other reason than that they're sad, lonely, rejected and screwed-up, and it's a stale act.

More often than not, a film like this comes across as little more than an excuse for its own existence. Its treatment of women is, such a film might argue, merely a byproduct of the premise. To which we might respond: What, pray tell, is the value of the premise?

I'm afraid Maniac wouldn't have much of an answer, for it has nothing to say about its titular character beyond a bit of dime-store pop psychology - and nothing of value to say about women, either. In theory, there are available avenues in which to turn the tables, but it doesn't take them. (And no, that one late scene that kind of tries to turn the tables? Doesn't count. And you know why.)

Now, in fairness, I may have buried the lead a little bit; because the truth is, Maniac - for all the complaints already listed - is also a remarkably well-made movie. The production values (the special effects and prosthetics in particular) are top-notch, and Khalfoun's work behind the camera is consistently impressive, as he takes full advantage of the possibilities and limitations of the first-person aesthetic. He knows exactly what feeling he's trying to generate with each tilt of the camera, each distorted shot, each fleeting glance of our killer in one reflective surface or another. And he gets just the right performance out of Wood, who - and please don't take this the wrong way - has gotten really good at playing creeps in the years since he rose to prominence as Frodo (Sin City and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for starters, and now Maniac.)

Likewise, his main co-star, Nora Arnezeder, as the primary object of Frank's affection/obsession, provides a presence and a warmth that far exceeds the quality of the writing, which unwittingly paints the character as a rather pretentious art-school cliche.

Ultimately, Maniac's failures don't come down to any of its technical aspects nor on-screen talent; it fails because of what it's trying to do in the first place. Strip away all the psychological posturing and aesthetic rationalizations, and you're still left with a movie in which some poor schmuck brutally murders women for 90 minutes. That the film provides no context except the killer's own should tell you all you need to know.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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