In most horror movies, the goal is for you to identify with the victim. Scares result from feeling like it’s you that’s being chased down that dark alley, or up the stairs, or into the woods. Your pulse races and your palms sweat because you feel like it’s your life that’s in danger. But the power of Maniac, the new film from Franck Khalfoun, lies in its ability to put you inside the head of the murderer, not the victim.
Maniac — a remake of the 1980 film of the same name — stars Elijah Wood as Frank, a deranged mannequin store owner who likes to stalk and kill young, attractive women. Well, maybe “likes to” isn’t accurate. Frank is driven more by compulsion than pleasure, and if he does get any satisfaction from murdering his victims, it’s only as a brief respite from the migraines and inner voices that torment him. Wood mostly overcomes his questionable casting, holding nothing back in his portrayal of the deeply disturbed Frank. If anyone wanders into this movie expecting to see Wood play another good-natured hobbit, the bravura opening sequence makes it clear that we’re not in the Shire anymore, Frodo.
Most of Wood’s performance is heard rather than seen, thanks to Maniac‘s central gimmick: with few exceptions, the entire film is shot from Frank’s point of view (think the opening sequence from Halloween stretched to feature length). That choice does more than force the audience to empathize with Frank — it traps the viewer in his increasingly volatile headspace. When Frank is hiding in the shadows, waiting to attack his petrified prey, it’s all seen from his vantage point. When voices from Frank’s past speak to him or the mannequins in his store appear to come alive, you hear and see it as he would. And when Frank plunges his trusty hunting knife into the flesh of his victims, you can’t help but feel like their blood is on your hands as well.
Khalfoun — whose previous directing credits include 2007′s P2 and 2009′s Wrong Turn at Tahoe — is fearless in his execution throughout the film. Vampires and ghost children may be all the rage nowadays, but Khalfoun’s heart remains with the slasher films of yore. Maniac boasts the most synth-heavy, ’80s-inspired soundtrack since Drive, and the film’s angsty tone faithfully captures the go-for-broke lunacy that fueled the genre’s blood-soaked heyday. There’s even one shot that faithfully recreates the original Maniac‘s poster art, with Frank reflected briefly in a parked car, his hunting knife in one hand, the dangling scalp of his latest victim in the other.
Touches like that add to the fun, but does the 1980 Maniac — considered to be a cult classic, but just barely — really warrant that level of reverence? That’s ultimately where the remake falls flat; it expends so much energy on aping the original that it fails to bring anything new to the table. That becomes especially problematic during some of the story’s weaker elements, such as the flashbacks to Frank’s youth that are supposed to shed light on how he became a killer. That reason — his mom had sex with men in front of him — worked well enough in the context of the lo-fi original, but it’s just flimsy here. Why that leads Frank to staple the scalps of his victims to the heads of mannequins is even murkier, and the half-hearted attempt to explain his behavior is less effective than if the filmmakers had supplied no motivation at all.
But hey, no one goes to a film called Maniac looking for an intricate plot or a meditative character study. The film lives and dies by its thrills and gore, and it delivers on both counts. The tricky first-person approach and long takes are pulled off with grace by Khalfoun and his crew, and Wood makes for a game psychopath. For some, that will be enough to justify the remake’s existence, but by the time the credits roll, there’s a nagging feeling of missed potential. At their best, old-school slasher films were an outlet for that era’s anxieties — rising crime, urban decay, etc. — but Khalfoun’s movie lacks modern relevance. As a result, it ends up feeling adrift, bereft of any larger purpose or statement beyond nostalgia. What we’re left with instead is an impressive technical achievement filled with creepy suspense and some truly nauseating effects. Luckily, that’s enough.