1 Hr., 27 Mins.
Maniac / Maniac
Jan Broberg Felt
Megan M. Duffy
Joshua De La Garza
1 Hr., 27 Mins.
In 2012, Maniac was remade by Franck Kalfoun, off a script by frequent collaborators Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur. Whereas POV photography was an embellishment in the 1980 film, in the 2012 rendition is it a constant. Here, we exclusively see the world through Frank’s twitching eyes, which entails there be some hallucinations and brief out-of-body experiences.
Movies entirely or mostly shot from the perspective of the lead isn’t novel. Neither is the stylistic device, though intriguing, mostly not working. In the 1947 detective movie Lady in the Lake, the conceit was that, for once, we would feel like we were solving a case as the shamus. But after a while, the approach felt unnecessary. Few people, after all, watch detective films and think it'd be better if they were wearing the fedora and carrying around the magnifying glass.
Another 1947 movie, Dark Passage, put us in the shoes of a fugitive protagonist for nearly two acts. But once the conventionally shot final stretch began — after the character gets identity-altering plastic surgery and is suddenly played by Humphrey Bogart — the stylistic choice suddenly seemed to be more about saving money. Why hire two men to play the same role when you could just give the cinematographer more to do?
In 2015, an action movie called Hardcore Henry debuted internationally, and was marketed as a high-octane adventure that let you be the hero. It was neither a critical nor a commercial success. The failure of this movie and the ones preceding remind me of the reason why choose-your-own-adventure-style books don’t work, either: When we watch films or read stories, it’s often because we want to become submerged in, or entertained by, someone else’s experience, all the while keeping a safe distance. When we’re essentially inside our entertainment, or when we’re in charge of deciding where we move next in the narrative, the pleasures of passivity are rendered unimportant.
The 2012 Maniac again proves that films shot from a first-person persepctive lack pleasure. But its photographic choice is incisive. Horror, by nature, encourages us to take on the role of the voyeur and/or the enabler; to generate suspense, the genre more often than not necessitates sequences depicting stalking, sex, and brutal violence — all things that are certifiably personal, therefore making our watching of it (or not stopping of it) feel akin to intrusiveness, in a way.
An orthodox shooting style in many cases allows us to be comfortably detached, strictly thrilled. But this version of Maniac is unconcerned with soothing conventionality: Because of its photography, there’s an extra layer of urgency that discourages us from being passive or slightly removed.
In the 2012 remake, Frank is no longer stout and grubby. Here he’s played by Elijah Wood, that skinny actor with the creepy tarsier eyes. The character’s demons remain the same, but his circumstances slightly deviate. Frank runs a mannequin-restoration business, which gives him some connection to the outside world. (In the forebear, he was comprehensively anonymous.)
The film again uses a killing spree as its foundation, but more pronounced in the narrative is a friendship Frank builds with a photographer named Anna (Nora Arnezeder), who is provoked by his operation and eventually decides that she would like to use the models in an upcoming exhibit. (The same character was featured in the preceding film, and was played by Caroline Munro, but made far less sense in the story.)
Like in the 1980 movie, the modern Maniac doesn’t care to feel wrong-headed compassion for its lead. It, rather, underlines the whirlpool that is Frank’s life to ensure a major visceral impact. That little traditional suspense can be generated — never is the killer hiding and waiting to jump out; never is motivation, identity, unclear — deglamorizes on-screen violence in a refreshingly rarefied way. Maniac, though eventually becoming fatigued in its visual approach, cannily, and unexpectedly, reexamines horrific display.
here's a moment in Maniac where Frank stops to stare at mannequins in a front-of-store window display. Several gawking sessions are then strung together to make a montage. The entire sequence is shot in first-person. Though much of Maniac gives us the chance to try to get inside Frank’s head if we wanted to, this stretch makes for the moment when it’s easiest, when his moan-like mouth-breathing almost feels like
evening, they'd come to look at the experience as the undoubted nadir of their lives. When they entered the bungalow that sat on the edges of Gein’s 200-acre estate, which stank of decay from a distance, it was immediately apparent that Gein was an atypical criminal. Body parts in abundance were scattered about the home. Many were integrated into chairs, wastebaskets, lampshades, and other structures, as if they were as natural as buttons or wooden legs. Later on, Worden’s almost-unrecognizable body was found precariously hanging from the ceiling of one of Gein’s sheds.
When you read about what was discovered on Gein’s farm some six decades later, you can vividly picture the nightmare — and not just because his deeds, and home-decorating style, were mimicked in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
In Maniac, William Lustig’s no-budget slasher movie from 1980, I often thought about Gein and the environment in which he lived. Its main character, a serial killer named Frank (Joe Spinell), is partly distinguished in our eyes for his home base, which is similarly inundated with grisly keepsakes.
Frank is a New Yorker in his 40s. He’s fleshy, hairy, and covered in mysterious scars. He lives alone in a purple-walled apartment in the middle of a seamy, badly lit alley. His existence is fraught. The son of a now-dead sex-worker mother, who often brought johns home without ensuring her developing son be shielded, and who is suggested to have abused him, Frank has grown up to become a homicidal misogynist.
When Maniac opens, he has apparently recently begun a career as a serial murderer. His modus operandi is a bit shaky, but recurring in his crimes is the way in which he collects his "trophies." After killing his latest victim — usually a blonde woman between the ages of 20 and 30 — he affixes their bloodied tresses to mannequins, which decorate his pad like family photographs.
Maniac is bewilderingly, but convincingly, antic and grimy. Take into account its narrative, which is little more than a series of brutal murders fastened together by scenes of Frank wildly talking to himself and his treasured dolls. Take into account its locales, which make for an assembly of smelly, dangerous downtown settings. Or take into account the way it was made: on a shoestring budget, often in guerilla style, and directed by a man who at that point had primarily worked in the squalid world of pornography. In Maniac, crud is like a gloss, which helps it be a fairly persuasive serial killer-centric horror movie.
Movies using veritable monsters as their protagonist are tricky. Their makers run the risk of romanticization or minimizing the harms depicted by trying to “understand” a beast. But Maniac doesn’t attempt to sympathize with its anti-hero, and it doesn’t much adhere to the misogynist staple in slasher movies that if a woman acts a particular way — usually pertaining to her sexual expression — that she will and even subtextually deserves to be killed. Though it enlivens a number of slasher-movie platitudes, the movie's narrative ultimately doesn’t altogether care about formula.
Maniac drops us off, and then leaves us unmoored, in a setting where violence is rife and senseless, devoid of the subliminal messaging plaguing so many slasher movies. Keeping us in such close proximity to the Frank character seems less an attempt to get us to try to grasp him and more a way for screenwriters Spinell and C.A. Rosenberg to underscore that you could be minding your business and someone like Frank — deranged, out of touch — could very well claim you his next means of a catharsis. That's what makes it so chilling.
he Waushara County Sheriff's Department first searched the farm of the body snatcher and gravedigger Ed Gein in November, 1957. Gein was suspected of murdering hardware-store owner Bernice Worden, and, earlier that day, had been taken into custody shortly after her disappearance. I imagine that, after the deputy and his cohorts finally got around to venturing onto the prime suspect's property that autumn