Torture porn lovers will get their jollies from Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac, a stylish remake of William Lustig’s 1980 cult coup de coeur. A synth soundtrack from French electro maestro Rob, interesting technical choices on the part of Khalfoun et al, and a chilling Elijah Wood as the maniac himself contribute to its understandable fanfare. In truth, this film in large part adheres to the justifiably decried hunt, kill, fetishize scenario typical of the genre. However, one would be remiss not to recognize the artistic merits of Wood’s performance and the effectiveness of POV, in certain moments, in establishing empathy with Wood’s character, whose complexity, and dare say humanity, is fairly well developed. Working Author was invited to Maniac‘s LA premiere co-presented by The Woodshed Horror Company and Cinespia as part of Cinefamily’s Nightmare City Festival. Khalfoun, Wood, and a very sweet Megan Duffy, who plays the maniac’s second – and most sexually self-possessed victim – were on hand for Q&A. The late night screening was an exercise in collective squirming. The film itself raises issues about whether art and sleaze can mix and the implications of POV in a “slash her”.
It started with the first kill. Eyes were covered, heads were bowed or turned in aversion, and the theater resounded with a chorus of shudders and groans. We, looking out from the killer’s eyes, watch as a girl parts ways with a friend after a night out. Cutting electricity to her floor of her vintage apartment building, we peer out from the shadows as she fishes for her keys. We stalk up behind her. Startled, she turns to look right at us as Frank says, “Please don’t scream. You’re so beautiful.” Utterly unprepared, we watch in close up as Frank’s arm (spoiler alert!) thrusts a knife through her throat and up through the roof of her mouth, then scalps her.
Khalfoun repeatedly referred to viewers’ being “trapped” by the use of POV. With a mutated psyche that equates love with violence, Frank’s world is a maximum security prison populated by memories of his lascivious and drug-addicted mother, the ghosts of his former victims, which all take on some amorous role, and his own feelings of being inauthentic and not fully human.
Khalfoun, Wood, and Duffy talked about the complex choreography of what Wood called a “dance” between him and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, who often moved through the scenes as Wood to shoot in POV. Much like Frank himself, the production of the character is really a composite. Post-recordings of Wood’s voice, at times Alexandre’s hands, and vignettes of Frank’s childhood all contribute. Initially conscripted for two weeks of work, Wood quickly concluded, “I need to be there every day… I need to be making those choices.” Duffy mentioned the difference in “chemistry,” interacting with a camera instead of another actor.
The impact of the POV choice is notable in a scene when a post-kill Frank is scrubbing his hands with steel wool, which will give viewers a visceral feeling of pain. At next glance, Frank’s hands look like a mannequin’s as he scrubs. Frank then screams in pain, the tragedy of his psychosis becoming clear. For a moment, Frank sees himself in the same fetishized and segmented light in which he sees his victims. However briefly, viewers see Frank as not only someone who causes pain, but who is also in immense pain. Wood talked about what he viewed as “sad” about his character. Speaking of Frank’s memories of his friendship with his last victim, Wood said, “His remembered experience is so much nicer and more pleasant [than reality].” Wood called Frank’s memories an expression of Frank’s “dreams and his desires.”
Unfortunately, the depth and tragedy of Frank’s character, visible in moments, does not characterize the film as a whole. Overall, Maniac offers viewers a very sick fantasy that it never wakes up from. One such opportunity to wake up occurs when one of Frank’s victims grabs a knife, slashes him, and it looks like she’ll survive, killing him in the process. It’s in this moment that viewers might expect the film to subvert what’s typical in the genre, kill Frank, and make him the victim of his psychosis and thereby more empathetic. Unfortunately for Maniac, Frank makes the kill, slamming the briefly open door between fantasy and reality and staying on the wrong side.
Despite some artistic elements, all the same gender arguments apply to Maniac as they did 30 years ago. While the POV serves artistic purpose at times, for the most part it makes the violence more participatory. The genuinely dramatic issue of Frank’s character is lost in the kill.