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Review: Maniac

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Director: Franck Khalfoun

Writers: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg

Starring: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, Liane Balaban, America Olivo, Sammi Robtibi, Joshua De La Garza

Synopsis: Frank (Wood) is the owner of a mannequin shop. In the day he runs the store and at night he travels through LA, brutally murdering and scalping young women. His lust to kill ties in with a desire of creating his own women, done by attaching the bloodied scalps onto models. One day an innocent woman (Arnezeder) comes to look at the restored mannequins for an art show, befriending Frank in the process but dangerously unaware of his psychotic alter-ego.

Elijah Wood has made it clear that he does not want to be solely remembered as a kind, loveable Hobbit all his life. During and after The Lord of the Rings trilogy he made a string of anti-Frodo films including Green Street, Sin City and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Sin City was the main game changer that showed off a very different side to him. Just after the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in which he reprises his role as Frodo Baggins, Wood returns to screens with a similarly caustically contrasting role and film – Maniac.

The main issue with Maniac (and a pull for some critics and a push for its promotion) is a nearly- unbroken point-of-view shot that hides Wood away from the audience. We hear his voice and occasionally see his face in a reflection, but his talent at embodying that character is seldom seen. Kudos to the actor despite this though; he creates a realistically eerie horror character using mostly his voice.

As the original brought the audience closer to the killer’s mindset with a narration, 2012’s remake takes it to the next level with an utterly immersive design (as well as a voice-over). The POV shot that makes Maniac appear like a FPS is handled with a decent amount of tact by director Franck Khalfoun. However, for some audiences it may be more disorientating than the shaky camera work of found-footage horror. Or, worse still, too involving for some (Maniac sets up each kill to make it seem as if you are part of it), and upsetting beyond comprehension.

The second – and last – point of praise for Maniac is frightfully realistic make-up and special effects. The scalping was gruesome enough in the original but with today’s standards the scalping shot never looked so (horribly) real. Helped with Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography (a talent seen with The Hills Have Eyes and The Crazies) the aesthetic and content of Maniac is, at times, powerfully unnerving.

The set-up and effects may not be the only aspects to confuse or unsettle viewers – the script and basic premise is never completely worked out. The reason for Frank’s serial killing is hinted at regularly though we never know the full extent of his reasoning. This wouldn’t be an issue with regular slasher flicks but for a film intent on exploring the mind of murderer, it leaves out more motive than it cares to address.

Maniac’s main strength may well be its weakness – an almost continual POV shot from the perspective of the killer that immerses you in the act of killing, yet drains the film of required tension. Knowing the whereabouts of the killer gives you very little to rely on when it comes to scaring the audience; it is the brutality that Maniac frightens you with, which it does pretty well. Wood is – when you can remember it’s him – pretty stellar. The remaining cast are banal clichés, written in with little effort or care. Try as it might to look and feel like a new cult classic (with a score that is desperate to be Drive) it will stay with you for a few hours after, but Maniac eventually becomes another forgetful modern horror.

**