“Please don’t scream. You’re so beautiful,” shushes Frank (Elijah Wood), just before he stabs a young lady to death, scalps her, and takes her hair home to his mannequins. (Just another Thursday night in L.A.) Like the corpses he leaves strewn in his wake, Frank’s mannequins are silent, pretty, and resistless.
Obsessed yet repelled by females, Frank struggles with hallucinatory, evil urges stemming from an unorthodox upbringing by his cruel, long-dead mother (America Olivo). He strives to create the perfect mate by constructing her from pieces. (Somewhere in the afterlife, Mary Shelley and Ed Gein are collecting royalties.)
The story isn’t much. And the structure is not much different from the 1980 original (directed by William Lustig). It’s about a socially awkward, artistic misfit with OCD who somehow manages to kill with impunity but without detection as his reeking abode attracts flies by the gross. While Lustig does have credit for this version, it’s helmed Franck Khalfoun, and written by Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur (who brought us High Tension, and The Hills Have Eyes remake).
As in the original, our Maniac meets an attractive, fresh-faced female photographer, Anna (French actress Nora Arnezeder taking over the role from Bond girl Caroline Munro). Can Anna be the one to finally break through the madness, and change Frank’s freaky ways? (Spoiler: Pfffft! No.) Wood’s performance doesn’t offer much in the way of nuance – remember him in Sin City? – but in its sheer skeeve-factor, it’s brilliant. Arnezeder is compelling, even when Anna is head-shakingly clueless.
What elevates Manic from being just another sickening slasher are technique, style, pacing and mood. It’s certainly one of the best serious horror movies I’ve seen in quite some time. (I loved the Evil Dead remake too, but there was some levity between the blood drops in that one, not to mention a supernatural element which makes suspension of disbelief inherently easier.) Baxter and Khalfoun are a formidable editing team.
New York City is the prime gritty location for sinister characters who do their dirty work undercover in the night (Taxi Driver, Death Wish, and of course, the original Maniac), but in this case a sultry, sexy, black velvet and candy-neon L.A. is every bit as menacing. Reminiscent of Collateral, or more recently, Drive, it’s truly a character in the film.
Joe Spinell, the actor who originated the role, came up with the concept and co-wrote the 1980 screenplay. Wood, as Frank 2.0, also had a hand in the making of his Maniac – since the narrative relies entirely on POV, the actor was mounted with a camera to capture what he actually saw while faux-killing the victims. (Still, when it comes to artistic POV filmmaking, it’s impossible to beat Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, shot so giddily by Benoît Debie.)
Having said that, Maniac DP Maxime Alexandre does a dazzling job. His camera is insidious, a prowler. Ways of showing us glimpses of Frank’s haunted face in rather innovative ways are impressive – certainly, Alexandre is no stranger to inventive imagery (having nicely shot Mirrors a few years back, for director Aja). What’s more, the whole idea sort of subverts one of the more interesting conceits of the first one (victim’s POV).
For me, much of time, music either gets in the way of the film by overwhelming it or it’s just plain forgettable. Revving up Drive again, I have to say the music in Manic handsomely compliments, enhances, and melds with every other element of the film. It’s also reminiscent of Jay Chattaway’s 1980 Maniac score – soft, eerie and sometimes insistent techno notes evoke the psychosis of the scenarios. The same is very true of Rob’s Tangerine Dream -like melodies, along with a spot-on retro-style pop lament (“Juno”, Chloë Alper on vocals).
Along with the locations, music, costumes and other enhancements, Maniac’s production and set decoration elements are absolutely spot-on. Especially the variety of mannequins in Frank’s possession, from vintage finds to ultra-modern designs. As the owner of a mannequin myself, and an enthusiast of films which feature them (from Blood & Black Lace to Tourist Trap, I’ve seen’em all), I have to say Maniac is a real treat in that regard: there’s no skimping on the exploitation of these frozen beauties and their coolly creepy countenances.
Maniac is an elegant and carefully crafted film, from start to finish. It is not for everyone, but it is a bloodthirsty and beautiful curio — look for it on VOD and in limited theaters on June 21st.