Editor's Note: Our contributor originally announced as James 'Barren Juden' Halstein will henceforth be known as 'The Reverend'. The Reverend has previously established himself in several communities of the same ilk as The Unkindness, so we thought it best to continue the leadership of his flock here. Backdated blog posts will be updated to reflect this change.
The killer's point of view is a time-honored shot in thrillers and scary movies. From cheapie slasher flicks to more artful fare like The Silence of the Lambs, what better way to heighten the horror of the kill than to make the viewer unwillingly complicit in the demise of the victim, who looks directly into the camera — into the killer's eyes and our own — as they voice their final screams?
Just recently added to Netflix, Maniac (a 2012 remake of a notoriously violent 1980 cult classic of the same name) director Franck Khalfoun looks to test the limits of whether one can have too much of a scary thing when it comes to POV camerawork.
Elijah Wood stars as Frank, a socially awkward loner who runs a one-man, mannequin-restoration business in Los Angeles. It's his inheritance from his mother, along with a complicated relationship with his childhood memories of the woman — memories that alternate between tender flashbacks to brushing her hair and less innocent recollections of peeking into her room while she had drug-fueled sex with strange men. In response to his lingering emotional trauma, Frank begins killing women and taking their scalps to use as wigs for the dead-eyed plastic companions that populate his shop and his apartment.
Despite Wood's star billing, he has precious little screen time; nearly all of Maniac is shot from Frank's point of view. Apart from a couple of brief moments in which Khalfoun breaks with this convention, the only time Frank is seen on screen is when he's looking in a mirror, often with a look as blank as the faces of his mannequins.
It may be a gimmick, but it's not one without a purpose. As in William Lustig's low-budget original, Khalfoun looks to make the material work both as gory, gut-level shocker and as character study in obsessive psychosis. In that context, filming from Frank's point of view isn't just a device to unsettle the viewer during the murders, but also one that builds a thin thread of empathy with Frank — undeniably a monster, but also a victim of his past. Lustig did so with voice-over conversations between Frank and his dead mother (an homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho in some ways); Khalfoun's device is more elegant, and fascinating from a technical perspective, though arguably less effective in creating setting the mood than Lustig.
The newer Maniac does manage to improve upon the look of its source material, but part of the lingering appeal of Lustig's film was how its cheap flash accentuated the grime and dark danger of a 1980 New York City, so it's a questionable improvement. What did need overhauling was the original's reliance on clichéd slasher tropes — and Khalfoun's film, alas, fails on that count.
Here, Frank meets characters like the promiscuous young woman through his victim-finder of choice, an online dating site. After dinner she's quick to invite this stranger back to her place and strip off her clothes, despite Frank showing every typical quality of a sketchy Internet hookup. It's a lazy excuse for titillation and sexual violence and typical of the sort of moviemaking Maniac seems to want to transcend.
The film does improve when Frank meets Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a fetching, friendly photographer who wants to use his mannequins for a gallery show she has coming up. The development of their relationship provides some internal conflict for Frank - a tension between his honest affinity for this woman and his constant urge to kill.
That makes the latter portion of the film much more successful, an improvement aided by the fact that the POV device eventually feels less like the director trying to show off and more like an integral part of the story. But it's still not enough to save a remake that, rather than trying to fix the deep flaws of its source, just covers them in a shinier coat of paint.
Khalfoun’s remake is genuinely unsettling and propelled by a brilliant, buzzing synth soundtrack straight out of the early 80s. He makes great use out of the advances in special effects but at the same time that ends up being the unraveling aspect of the film. The original version set new standards in gore upon it’s release, so all that's left is the question of which woman is going to be objectified and murdered next. In the end the film is reduced to a 90 minute killing spree interrupted only by awkward dates, creeping, and copious amounts of nekkid women. If that's your sort of thing, add Maniac to your queue.