REVIEW BASED UPON THE METRODOME BLU-RAY RELEASE
Verdict: 8.5 out of 10
It could be argued that “Maniac” is the result of a seemingly endless remake fad that has finally run out of high profile franchises to exploit. Now that Michael, Freddy, Jason, Leatherface and all of his kin have been snapped up and shoved into the 21st century, filmmakers are no longer guaranteed the safety of an established fee paying audience. Instead, some of the lesser known genre entries are now being faced with the mainstream treatment, arguably giving the creative team more freedom to focus on the plot and execution without being concerned with meeting unrealistic expectations.
With this in mind, this Alexandre Aja co-written and produced effort manages to stand a bloody head and shoulders above its peers, establishing itself as one of the best remakes thus far – tipping its hat firmly to the 1980 source material (helped in no small part by the involvement of original Writer / Director William Lustig) whilst also carving out a unique place in the genre from a stylistic perspective. Indeed, this is arguably Aja’s best effort since his directorial debut “Switchblade Romance”, and certainly improves massively on “P2”; the last collaboration between Director Franck Khalfoun and Aja.
Frank Zito (Elijah Wood) runs a mannequin restoration store – a family business passed down to him by his recently deceased Mother, Angela. Frank is possessed by his traumatic childhood, where he was forced for years to cope with his Mother’s other life as a prostitute, and once Angela died he lost all grip on reality. Now haunted by the mannequins he surrounds himself with, Frank is driven to murder and scalp young women by a memory of brushing his Mother’s hair, dressing the marionettes with the spoils to turn them into real people within his fractured psyche. But when photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) appears outside his shop taking pictures, Frank finally seems to have connected with someone that could cure his madness. But can things ever be normal for Frank when the headaches and the urges begin to strike…?
Where “Maniac” is truly groundbreaking for a Hollywood production – arguably not surprising given the distinctly Gallic production team involved – are the two key ways in which the material has brought to life on screen.
Firstly, the whole narrative unfolds from the point of view of the antagonist, and as a result utterly submerges the viewer inside the mind of a complete psychopath. We hear his inner dialogue, see his dreams and fantasies, and experience every action from this single frame of reference. It’s certainly a brave step, not only from a narrative perspective (there are few protagonists that don’t get killed as the narrative unfolds), but also from a technical standpoint. During this movie Frank is stabbed, beaten and hit by a car – all shown with seemingly no edits or cuts whatsoever – and it is this flawlessly executed conceit that makes “Maniac” such a radical departure from the horribly generic remakes that have recently proceeded it. When watching this film it is easy to be reminded of Dario Argento’s early work where he truly pushed the envelope of cinematic trickery through dazzling camerawork. While this may not match such dizzying heights as the crawling Louma crane sequence in “Tenebrae”, the remake of “Maniac” has a visual style that references the Italian auteur on a number of levels via typical Giallo colour palettes and imagery, as well as a soundtrack heavily influenced by Goblin from frequent Aja collaborator Rob.
Secondly, the whole film is driven by the performance of Elijah Wood, and it’s fair to say that his choice of projects since “The Lord of the Rings” have undoubtedly proven that he isn’t afraid of taking risks. With “Maniac”, not only is Wood playing a role that on the face of it is wholly unsympathetic, but his total screen time is no more than a few minutes. We only get to see his face in mirrored reflections, water, shadows and the occasional dream or out of body experience – something which a typical Hollywood actor would never commit to. However, having a talented actor play Frank gives the story greater impact, as the flashbacks do enable the audience to understand his behaviour fully, even though it is never glamourised or condoned. By the end of the film after having spent so long inside Frank’s head, the audience cannot help but feel some sympathy towards him, and this huge gamble gives it a unique voice which is more akin to Powell and Pressburger’s “Peeping Tom” than a modern day slasher.
The murderous set pieces are also inspired by Dario Argento in their unflinching brutality, and the effects work is wholly convincing, adding yet another layer of realism to an already engagingly disturbing piece. Other performances are a little one-note, but arguably that’s the point; this is after all an entirely subjective film where everyone is on the periphery of Frank’s existence until he engages with them. The direction by Franck Khalfoun is truly exceptional, demonstrated through a climax that’s perfectly orchestrated as it builds to some tremendous shocks in the final 15 minutes, barraging the viewer with one thing after another in an unflinching sequence without any cuts or edits. Khalfoun ensures that there is no room to breathe as the ending plays out on screen, and while the final denouement may seem a little incongruous it really does pack a punch and continues to haunt the viewer long after the credits have rolled.
“Maniac” is one of the best remakes since 2010, and the creative team have clearly had an enjoyable time working with a lesser known genre entry that has given them more freedom. With an impressive performance from Elijah Wood and some astonishingly coordinated set pieces, this is a genre effort that tries something unique and largely succeeds. While “Maniac” isn’t for everyone, it is most certainly a logical evolution of reality efforts such as “Paranormal Activity” and “The Blair Witch Project” as it takes audience engagement to a whole new level. There’s more innovation and creativity evident here than in almost every other remake of the past two years, but it never forgets its roots – maintaining consistency with the original 1980 movie as well as referencing the likes of Argento, Fulchi, and at one point even “The Silence of the Lambs”. Aja and Khalfoun have crafted a fantastic piece which will stand the test of time, and in the current stagnant pool that is Hollywood such an achievement should never be ignored.
The Last Word:
A superior remake which looks superb and literally drips with tension. Using new techniques effectively to ensure a reaction from an audience, Alexandre Aja and Franck Khalfoun have demonstrated that they are ones to watch, and it would seem that thanks to this and his fun reboot of “Piranha” everyone can finally forgive Aja for making the godawful “Mirrors”. I’m sure that’s a blessing for all concerned