Sorry, folks, but I couldn’t tell you anything off the top of my head about the 1980 original of MANIAC. In fact, I’m not entirely certain that I’ve seen it. I suspect – based on what I’ve read – if I had I’d remember it, but let me also confess that my mind isn’t as fertile as it once was. In any event, if you’re looking for some intellectual comparison between ‘then’ and ‘now,’ I’ll not be able to provide it. What I can tell you is that coming into MANIC (2012) with very little foreknowledge of what to expect probably helped my critical take on the film; had I known in any way what I’ll discuss below, I can tell you I most likely might’ve taken away a slightly different impression than I did.
In other words, knowing as little as possible about this one might increase the entertainment factor; I stand by that especially when it comes to knowing what I know now about the film’s unique narrative viewpoint. So, seriously, if you don’t want to be spoiled about cinema techniques, turn away now. Otherwise, you know the drill.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Frank (played by the perennially fresh-faced Elijah Wood) lives a life restoring antique department store mannequins to their former beauty and glory, but, underneath that innocent exterior, he’s harboring a dark secret indeed. In truth, he’s a cold-blooded killer, one raised by a mother who wasn’t quite the maternal type but instead exposed him to some of her own curiously ribald obsessions. As a consequence, Frank’s grown into a young man troubled by visions he controls through medication. It’s when he’s off his meds that his true nature comes to life, and that’s when he’s more alive by robbing the beautiful women he comes into contact with of their lives.
It’d be easy to dismiss MANIAC as just another slasher film. Heck, one might even make a solid case for the fact that hiring the constantly doe-eyed Wood as a deranged lunatic is little more than stunt casting, hoping that bringing in some talent clearly ‘across-type’ might fuel greater interest in one’s picture. However, that’d be a serious disservice to what director Franck Khalfoun and screenwriter Alexandre Aja have accomplished here; this is a deftly constructed flick, one that relies on pulling the audience in through clever camera trickery as almost all of this is captured (artistically) in a first person recording. You see the tale unfold as it does from the killer’s eyes – through whatever prism Frank has in his head, with occasionally even the spoken words of what he’s thinking as he goes about his day – and while this certainly isn’t the first film to use that device it may end up being one of the finer examples of it.
I’ve read that Wood fans were increasingly dissatisfied with the picture because despite his prominent appearance in the advertising and packaging he legitimately gets very little screen time. What you do see of him is fleeting – there he is reflected in a mirror over here, and there’s his face faintly in a glass over there, and whoopsy daisy that TV-mounted video camera captured his awe-struck expression as he considers the blood on his body. As a consequent, his fans are understandably disappointed; they showed up hoping to see the Woodster turn in a virtuoso performance of one man’s descent into his self-made nightmare. That happens, mind you, but not by way of Wood’s usual stripes; it happens by the narrative.
Consider this: this MANIAC is a twisted tale told by the camera and not necessarily by the main actor. True, Wood’s costars get vastly more screen time than he does – even his least significant victims – but that’s because they’re really the threads in this unique tapestry. Wood is on display when it matters most to the story, and he’s definitely there to suffer his character’s grand comeuppance in the closing moments.
So if you want a horror story, then this is a good one. If you think you’re being treated to the latest Elijah Wood tour de force, then you’re likely to come away jaded.
MANIAC (2012) is produced by La Petite Reine, Studio 37, Canal+, Cine+, and Blue Underground. DVD distribution is being handled through MPI Media Group on behalf of IFC Midnight. As for the technical specifications, the film looks and sounds impressive consistently with all of the in-camera and post- effects looking exceptional. For those folks who truly dive into the extras, there’s a solid handful here that should keep you happy, including an hour-long ‘Making Of’ documentary, deleted scenes, a poster gallery, the theatrical trailer, and an impressive commentary track from Elijah Wood, director Franck Khalfoun, and executive producer Alix Taylor. Well done, folks, very well done.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. As remakes go, MANIAC is impressive but, as horror films go, it likely won’t please everyone. I suspect that’s because this as much a stylish creation as it is a psychological exploration into one man’s rapidly decreasing spiral into his own, personal Hell. Methinks most folks flock to horror flicks for the glee of the experience – the pure delight in being scared silly – and while MANIAC has some impressive turns in that regard this leans heavily toward a character study. Plus, I have to wonder if the largely first person perspective turns off as many viewers as it excites. Think of it as a horror film for the eclectic or even artsy crowd, and you may enjoy this one more than most. I know I did.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MPI Media Group and IFC Midnight provided me with a DVD copy of MANIAC by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.