“Sometimes I think they have more personality than most people.”- Photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) describing the subjects of her camera and the object of shared affection between herself and the maniac Frank: mannequins.
As it goes in Dead Can Dance’s Black Sun: it’s all sex and death, as far as I can tell.
I have heard Maniac described as the Drive of horror cinema. Now that I’ve seen it, I have to say that while the statement is a bit reductionist: sure. It works. An emotionally disturbed and often emotionless main character cruises around a cold neon world, punctuated with blasts of violence and a flickering, dim connection to one woman.
Maniac opens on a gritty street corner, and we are witness to a man’s attempts to pick up a party girl who is on her way home. The shot soon resolves into a first person perspective – we’re in the maniac’s (Elijah Wood) head now, hearing his mutterings, party to every late night stalking depravity. The night city of Maniac is all cold sodium light, neons, the bloody crimson of stoplamps. The streets are flooded with homeless, stumbling raucous partiers, mounds of trash – perhaps director Franck Khalfoun intends to imply there is no difference between them, the wasted and the waste, a disposable empty world. Frank, the titular maniac, spends his time in two ways: restoring mannequins (in either more gruesome, personal ways, or in the more traditional sense), or looking for victims. When he’s driving around, Frank only has eyes for women – the city is a landscape of glass, steel, and short skirts, concrete and flesh. He mutters to himself – Elijah Wood is effectively creepy, and well cast against type (although there are a few people I know who found his visage pretty creepy pre-Maniac). There’s a fracture in his personality – Frodo is the Gollum here – reflected in the broken mirror in his home that he often gazes into, in the diverging of the tale he tells Anna about his past and the ugly reality, when he talks to his other personality. Maniac, then, is a tragedy of sorts, the story of a monster created through childhood horrors who knows only how to express intimacy through violence. Can Anna pull Frank’s Gollum back into the Smeagol he once was?
Often beautifully shot, Khalfoun shows us the world through Frank’s eyes effectively and very stylishly. The practical effects are often remarkable – each knife slash is lovingly rendered, bodily fluids run as far as the eye can see – yeah, the film is graphic and gory, but it’s a testament to Khalfoun’s vision that Frank’s memories of his mother and his mental anguish are the moments that resonate as the most disturbing. The 80s-styled synth score by Rob – Robin Coudert of the great band Phoenix – is glorious; I’ve since cued it up on my chosen streaming service and it’s soundtracked more than one workday.
A side-note: I’m a fan of great title cards – if used correctly, they can often set the tone for what is to come in a kind of shorthand, and Maniac has a wonderful one – the maniac, empty-eyed, haunted, arm upraised, claiming a trophy scalp as the title appears. Nice.
Maniac is stylish, pulsing, fascinating spin through the world as seen through a broken mind, and a fine remake. Recommended.