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Review: Maniac

REVIEWS - MOVIES

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The last decade or so has seen a great many old horror franchises being dusted down for a reboot. Invariably these remakes turn out to be either pale imitations of the source material, like 2009’s Friday the 13th or the following year's disappointing Nightmare On Elm Street, or are so watered down in a desperate attempt to capture the teen audience that they cease to resemble the horror movies they're supposed to be and instead become little more than mildly risqué TV movies. I’m looking at you, 2009’s The Stepfather, and you, 2005’s The Fog.

It's refreshing, then, to discover that director Franck Khalfoun's updating of William Lustig's Maniac, a nasty 1980 exploitation movie that sickened the late legendary film critic Gene Siskel so much that he walked out of a screening after thirty minutes, pulls no punches and has plunged deep into 18 certificate territory rather than play it safe with a de-clawed 15 rating.

maniac elijah wood bloody mannequinProduced by Alexandre Aja, whose own Haute Tension (2001) was inspired by the original Maniac and who co-wrote the remake's screenplay after meeting with Lustig in Paris to get his approval, the movie breaks with traditional serial killer convention by telling the entire story from the killer's point of view. This makes for an interesting and disturbing experience for the viewer as we become the ultimate psychopathic voyeur, bringing to mind the videotaped home invasion sequence from John McNaughton's classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), and are made complicit in the killings.

The point of view device works really well, placing us firmly in deranged Frank Zito's mind and allowing us to see what he sees, and to share his confusion and fascination when he meets and becomes infatuated with a pretty artist who befriends him after appearing outside his mannequin restoration store one afternoon. Elijah Wood is superb as Frank, portraying him as a vulnerable but dangerous product of a wayward and thoughtless mother, his eyes managing to simultaneously resemble those of a child and a shark in the frequent shots of them that Khalfoun employs – reflecting the former Hobbit in mirrors and shop windows, and pulling the camera back for the occasional out of body experience during the many kills.

A far cry from the overweight, middle-aged protagonist of the original (a nevertheless compelling performance from Joe Spinnell), Wood's Frank is a young, good looking loner who we can realistically imagine attracting Nora Arnezedna's Anna, a photographer who is fascinated by mannequins and who sees Frank as a fellow artist due to his loving restoration work on the vintage dummys in his shop.

As their friendship grows, we find ourselves becoming both afraid for Anna and imploring her to run away as fast as she can, and rooting for her to redeem Frank, to save him from the stranglehold of his dead mother that has shaped him into the tragic man that kills and scalps women who remind him of her in order to, somewhat ironically, bring his mannequins to life by stapling their hair to the plastic heads.

KNB guru Greg Nicotero (currently tending to the zombie army of The Walking Dead) ensures that Frank's scalpings are carried out in loving detail and that the violence involved in the various killings is both brutal and bloody. Inspired by the work of FX legend Tom Savini on the original Maniac (in which also he had a brief acting role), Nicotero’s effects are raw, visceral and thanks to the fact that we're effectively experiencing them first hand, genuinely shocking, particularly when we, from Frank's point of view, are on the receiving end of the carnage.

maniac nora arnezedarPerfectly complementing the stark visuals is the electronic score by French musician Rob. Making heavy use of synthesisers and jarring, ear piercing feedback, Maniac's score is highly reminiscent of the work by frequent Dario Argento collaborators Goblin and ensures that aside from the fact that Frank uses a computer to communicate with his early victims and that mobile phones are in use (though conveniently neutered when the plot calls for it) the movie could have been filmed at the same time as the original, and has the same grimy, abandoned feel to the neighbourhood that Frank lives and hunts in.

While Maniac is a refreshingly accurate homage to the slasher flicks of the early 80s, this also extends to the actions of some of the characters, unfortunately, particularly when while fleeing from him, one of Frank's victims inexplicably runs into a dark car park surrounded by high fences where she, inevitably, meets her end.

This is a minor annoyance, though, as Maniac succeeds in cranking up the tension despite the point of view mechanic preventing it from utilising the standard 'where's the killer' routine that ordinarily builds the suspense, and the final ten minutes of its economical (and very old school) 80 minute running time are genuine edge of your seat material.

Though Maniac will no doubt be too intense and unsettling to have mass market appeal, Khalfoun's film is a brave and well made exercise in violence and terror that will be manna to those who have enjoyed movies like Martyrs, Frontier(s) and Haute Tension by his Gallic countrymen.

Maniac is released in cinemas on 15th March.


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