Please note: Maniac is an extremely violent and almost unrelentingly unsettling film. The version screening locally is unlikely to hit mainstream US cinemas; it would have to be released unrated or in an NC-17 version. You have been warned!
The original Maniac, directed in 1980 by William Lustig, was written by actor Joe Spinell, who starred as deranged serial killer Frank Zito. It was a sleazy, low-budget effort loosely inspired by the Son of Sam killings and most famous for its graphic special effects by Tom Savini; the exploding-head shotgun sequence is a real showstopper, and one of the most shocking scenes of its kind.
But Spinell – a terrific character actor who had small (but key) roles in films like The Godfather and Rocky – had intended the film to be something greater than a violent slasher movie; he had written a dark and disturbing character study, a kind of grindhouse Taxi Driver. The end result may not have been what Spinell had in mind; he reportedly broke down when he saw the exploitative, blood-soaked poster.
Something tells me that Spinell would be proud of 2012’s Maniac, which is sick, disturbing, incredibly violent – and also a significant work with genuine artistic vision that cannot be as easily dismissed as the original. Most significantly, the entire film is shot from the first-person perspective, literally placing you behind the eyes of the killer, played by Elijah Wood – who we only see reflected by a mirror, and in a few “out-of-body” experiences during the murder scenes.
The Killer POV shot has been used in just about every slasher film since it was popularized by Halloween, but Maniac is the first (and only) horror film to be exclusively shot this way. The technique isn’t just limited to horror, but only 1947’s Lady in the Lake, a gimmicky Philip Marlowe mystery, was completely shot from the first-person POV (Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void is also primarily first-person, but cheats it by being (mostly) an out-of-body experience).
In Maniac, the POV is essential: we’re inside Zito’s head, hearing him talk to himself, watching him stalk and murder women, remove their scalps and staple them the collection of mannequins he keeps at home. The experience is unnerving; we’re not just witnesses to these horrific acts, we’re unwitting accomplices. Maybe more than that.
Why do we watch violent films? The original Maniac, and other exploitation films like it, drew heavy criticism for how they were marketed by distributors and absorbed by audiences: critics were repulsed to see the films sold as “entertainment”, and to watch audiences cheer for the killers. But I don’t think many will be entertained by this film; Maniac forces viewers to confront their participation in its violent acts. Frankly, it’s a brilliant concept.
Not that it’s flawlessly executed: there isn’t much going on here other than murder, stalk, murder (actually, there are only a handful of murders in the film, though each is graphic and sickening).
A story begins to develop when we meet photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder), who comes across Frank’s mannequin shop while taking photos for a project. One quibble: just like the original, the film goes on for exactly one scene too long.
Maniac was directed by Franck Khalfoun, who previously made the parking garage thriller P2. Conceptually, I think a lot of the credit can go to co-writer and producer Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension), who has displayed (at least here and in Piranha) a subversive talent for the use of extreme violence to convey a theme in his films.
Unlike the low-budget, sleazy original, Maniac is an almost elegant production, with gorgeous cinematography by Maxime Alexandre in stark, modern LA locations (the original was set in New York City). The electronic, 70s synth soundtrack by Rob is excellent.
Like the original, Maniac is not for all audiences. It’s not for most audiences. For the more adventurous among you, the experience of watching this art-house horror film is worth having. Just be careful the next time you look at yourself in the mirror.