Sunday, 17 March 2013

He whips their hair back and forth - Maniac Review

It can no longer be doubted - Video Nasties are back. Franck Khalfoun’s remake of the notorious 1980 Slasher flick Maniac is a genuinely grisly piece of cinema that will appeal only to the most iron constitutions. For those that can take the pain, this latest foray into the mind of a killer is a solid, if overdressed exercise in the genre that functions largely as a figurehead for the bloody gore revival currently occurring in horror cinema.

 Written by Splat Pack member Alexandre Aja, Maniac is a loose adaptation of William Lustig’s similarly titled feature, retaining the central figure’s love for women’s hair and mannequins to disturbing effect. In this instance however, the overweight landlord Frank Zito is now a youthful Elijah Wood, an impish loner who is struggling to recover from his mother’s (America Olivo) absence. Frank lets off steam by tracking down whichever woman of the day has taken his fancy, and...”inviting” them to join his range of antique dolls, perhaps in the hope of finding his mother again amongst them. However, when photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) takes an interest in his collection, Frank sees a new avenue for companionship that is at odds with his night-time tendencies.

 So far, so textbook – this is the same old story we’ve seen a thousand times over from the likes of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer down to Psycho. Aja’s work as a scriptist has never been exactly groundbreaking, but, as in the case of former Khalfoun / Aja collaboration P2, the intrigue comes about in the execution of what is an otherwise formulaic approach to the genre. Taking place in a poverty-stricken, trash-soaked Los Angeles, Maniac is told almost entirely from the point of view of Frank himself, as he drives around the city and hides within its dark corners.

 For the most part, this first person approach offers an interesting new angle on the Slasher film, as we are forced to watch Frank first identify, stalk, and then murder his victims, tracking them down as they try to hide away and outwit him. Quite whether this is intended to offer a criticism of horror and its voyeuristic tendencies is debatable, for whilst much of the film’s material is punishingly graphic (it’s the first film I’ve seen where audience members walked out in disgust), in other areas it offers lewd gratification for those joining Frank on his stalk-spree. It’s an uneasy mix that at least manages to avoid the worthy didacticism that normally accompanies such post-modern efforts in the genre. Nevertheless, by the fourth killing it was all beginning to get a little dreary. Thankfully, the plot takes an about-turn shortly after as we begin a nasty race to the bottom for the climactic showdown.

  Maniac  threatens to buckle under its derivativeness in other areas, borrowing more than a little of its stylistic edge from last year’s hit genre mash-up Drive – particularly in its opening credits. This threat is allayed however once Raphael Hamburger’s soundtrack moves beyond the Kavinsky-like synths into its own, guttural beast. Hamburger’s ambient tracks offer an ideal companion to Khalfoun’s lingering shots on the unwanted corners of LA; the places and the people best swept under the carpet. Shots of roadside tents and drifters in particular linger, helping evoke a Reagan era city in the 21st Century. It’s a thread I hope to return to more generally in an upcoming post. Elijah’s take on Zito is suitably memorable, treading a line between pathetic loner and deranged killer with ease – it’s nice to see the actor return to the vicious places that inspired his turn in Sin City. Like that film, Maniac is largely a show of style over substance, but similarly lingers after viewing. It’s hardly a pleasant experience, but it’s a well-crafted one, and a nice sign of the continued (sick) health of new horror after last year’s dearth.