In the tradition of William Castle, here’s a new cinema gimmick: nausea-o-vision. Whether you think Maniac is misogynistic crap or playfully reflexive, Franck Khalfoun’s remake is guaranteed to make you sick. It’s a nasty piece of work that goes out of its way to confirm the worst of humanity, and the POV-only camerawork—devoted to seeing through the killer’s eyes—is stomach-churning. If the non-stop teetering doesn’t get you, its commitment to providing disturbing, realistic gore will.
All the elements of a vintage slasher are here: gleaming butcher knives, the aforementioned POV shots with heavy breathing, burning hot synth score (by the suitably mysterious “Rob”), and a impotent outcast who can’t stop chopping up the endless flow of lusty, leggy women walking the streets. The French-born Khalfoun keeps the central conceit of William Lustig’s 1980 B-picture of the same name—Frank, a man mentally and physically abused by his slutty mommy, is obsessed with mannequins and scalp-collecting—but transposes the action from “drop dead”-era Manhattan to the vestigial industrial zones of Los Angeles, and blessing every tottering frame with dazzling photographed compositions. The long shots of Frank driving around L.A., ogling and occasionally trailing women, are the most effectively creepy elements of the film, in that they replicate the casual street harassment women in urban areas experience every day. (One could also possibly draw a comparison to Vertigo; I prefer not to since it’s simply not worthy of that.) As the characters stumble through the abandoned, undeveloped streets, one cannot help but feel a certain nostalgia for a cityscape long gone—only to have those feelings immediately crushed as victims repeatedly scream for help but see no one around to stop Frank.
Khalfoun’s other principal tweak is casting the scruffy, doe-eyed Elijah Wood as Frank rather than finding a modern-day replica of the middle-aged, overweight Italian stallion from the original. This choice is decidedly less effective, less for the idea that now Frank can prowl online dating sites in search of cute victims (the one he finds puts on Lazarus Q’s “Goodbye Horses” from Silence of the Lambs before attempting to bed him), but in that Wood is not a very captivating presence, especially when reduced to voiceover alone. His lilting, creepy pronouncements are at first amusingly against type, but slowly slide into the banal. Of course, it’s hard to keep such a single-minded pursuit of flesh fresh for 89 minutes. (Oh, for simpler times!) The equally uninteresting choice of Nora Arnezeder as a dilettantish artiste who’s interested in Frank’s vintage mannequin collection (and isn’t afraid to play emotional footsie to get to use some for her gallery show) also makes it unappealing for those who want more than shock value from their horror.
Perhaps the mannequin metaphor is best: though it’s dressed to the nines, Maniac is ultimately just a piece of plastic.