A remake of William Lustig’s 1980 film of the same name, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac ambitiously aspires to put its audience more or less literally in the head of a psychopath, but it manages only to highlight how unpleasant that piece of real estate really is to visit. With the kind of empty brutality modern horror feebly disguises as unvarnished realism, Khalfoun’s film offers a literal first-person perspective in an attempt to create either empathy or complicity, but instead generates only repulsion, or more often, boredom.
Elijah Wood (The Hobbit) plays Frank, a bruised, hollow young man who restores mannequins when he isn’t trolling internet dating sites or following attractive young women back to their apartments. Although he’s capable of maintaining enough charm to get through a first date or banal conversation at a gallery opening, he’s plagued by voices that first cause him migraines, then tell him to kill and scalp his female victims. But after he meets a French photographer named Anna (Nora Arnezeder) whose soulful appreciation of his mannequins hints at a connection that’s more than skin deep, Frank finds himself struggling to reconcile his impulse to kill with the very real feelings that he soon develops for her.
As a single set piece, there’s something undeniably intriguing about staging a slasher-movie murder from the point of view of the killer -- and many films have created memorable scenes or sequences doing so. But viewing the world through that perspective for the entirety of a film’s 90-minute running time isn’t merely ineffective, it’s exhausting. In spite of the few moments where the camera more or less arbitrarily abandons this conceit in order to allow viewers a better angle from which to watch the carnage, Khalfoun’s fealty to first-person storytelling fails to make us “understand” Frank’s mindset, much less sympathize with it, instead forcing us to indulge his murderous behavior -- and then languish in its gruesome payoff.
There’s never a sense that he’s capable of, much less interested in, resisting the impulse to hurt the women he’s with, even Anna. Although the film casts her as the Madonna to his (eventually) hairless whores, it scarcely seems plausible that he could maintain enough charm, or even calm, to spend more than a few minutes with her before sniffing her hair or even just staring creepily. It doesn’t help that Wood’s piercing eyes seem like they’ve never seen the inside of their lids, but the infrequency with which Khalfoun actually shows us those baby blues -- or any of his facial expressions, for that matter -- only undermines the possibility that Frank could make it through a single day without totally creeping out every person around him.
While it’s mostly fair to credit the film’s deeply pejorative depiction of women as a byproduct of Frank’s twisted personality, there’s little here to disprove the notion that horror movies are too often a boys’ club, and a repository for dangerous attitudes about female sexuality. It’s less the audience or even the characters, though, than the filmmakers who seem most complicit in viewing his victims as one-dimensional; his first-date tryst with a improbably willing redhead only validates the character’s perception that the women with whom he’s obsessed are shameless degenerates, but it also offers the actresses involved only the opportunity to be stupid, superficial or otherwise weak. Even as the supposedly more sensitive “good girl,” Anna’s companionship of Frank hints at virtually no deeper substance, and moreover, feels hopelessly naive.
While the violence is mostly icky, button-pushing stuff at best, the film’s general avoidance of larger ramifications for Frank’s reign of terror is what eventually becomes truly bothersome. Although it’s relatively believable that, say, a girl could be unable to find another person to help her when she’s being chased through a subway station very late at night, it seems considerably less likely that there are simply no people on the street anywhere once Frank begins stalking his prey. It doesn’t help that his victims have the directional sense of a broken Roomba, but in two separate instances, women run away rather towards areas that might be more heavily populated, and there is virtually no mention of how Frank handles them after they’re dead, much less removes his fingerprints or other seemingly ubiquitous evidence of his work from their bodies.
Despite its problematic portrayal of female characters, blandly graphic violence and largely perfunctory depiction of mental illness, the film at least features a terrific soundtrack by French artist Rob. Like a great mid-1980s video nasty score updated with a little Goldfrapp-style sheen, Rob’s music elevates the lumbering sameness of its imagery and injects the storytelling with a mild urgency that Khalfoun’s direction almost entirely lacks. That said, that throbbing musical backdrop feels more like the music viewers might listen to through headphones while watching the film than its actual soundtrack, especially since it surpasses any enjoyment or resonance audiences might get out of the dialogue or sound effects.
Ultimately, however, Khalfoun’s film feels more like an experiment, or an homage to a time, place and style, than a bona fide exploration of this character’s mental state, or even just a visceral first-person ride through his most violent impulses. Oddly, the one thing this point-of-view portrait of psychosis lacks most is a point of view, which is why Maniac functions only as a look in the wrong direction at slasher-movie conventions, instead of offering a genuinely unique perspective -- both literal and thematic -- on the genre.
Film Score: 1/5