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'Maniac' remakes a sleazy classic with a questionable gimmick

The remake of William Lustig's 1980 slasher classic "Maniac" stars Elijah Wood and a gimmick in which the whole film is shot in first-person POV.

Elijah Wood plays a psycho killer who's usually not seen in the remake of "Maniac." Credit: La Petite Reine/Daniel McFadden Elijah Wood plays a psycho killer who's usually not seen in the remake of "Maniac."
Credit: La Petite Reine/Daniel McFadden

‘Maniac’
Director: Franck Khalfoun
Stars: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder
Rating: NR
1 Globe(out of 5)

William Lustig’s 1980 “Maniac” is a sleazy, vomit-colored stomach-churner about a conflicted loner scalping attractive women. It’s a time capsule of a different New York, a bygone era of roaming psychos and grindhouse theaters that would thread up unsightly films about them. Extreme cinema now lives on in On Demand culture, and the gore designed by specialist Tom Savini has been replaced by clean digital effects. Early in the unnecessary “Maniac” remake, Elijah Wood’s rampaging sadist abruptly shoves a blade up through an innocent hottie’s chin. The effect looks as inauthentic as a Savini makeup job, but it has a fraction of the impact. It’s the wrong kind of fake.

For what little it’s worth, this “Maniac” — shepherded, but not directed, by retro gorehound Alexandre Aja (“High Tension,” “Piranha”) — isn’t a faithful update. It embraces modern technology to employ a simple, film-long gimmick: The entire movie is shot in first-person point of view. The camera, in other words, is Wood’s eyes. We see what he sees, which is often a lot of stalking, stabbing and other bloody deeds.

In interviews, director Franck Khalfoun has said first-person POV goes back to “Peeping Tom.” It’s telling that he’s not aware that POV goes back to the infancy of cinema, but of the other films that have used it at length. Orson Welles initially wanted to kick off his film career with an all-POV film. Luckily he didn’t, as 1944’s “Lady in the Lake,” which put “you” in the body of Philip Marlowe, is an awkward, unintentionally funny disaster. Some films respect the gimmick's limits: “Dark Passage,” a Bogie-Bacall noir, wisely abandons it after 40 minutes, while "Enter the Void" turns our hero into a dead, free-floating soul.

Not only does “Maniac” fare no better than “Lady in the Lake,” it does it wrong. There are constant cuts, chopping up action or jumping to closer views, mucking up the idea that we’re peering through another’s eyes. It’s as though Khalfoun wanted to do a POV film, but was too ADD to see it through. Putting us in a psycho’s perspective offers no real insight, and no profound audience implication, particularly since the murders lack the realism to really turn stomachs. The casting of Wood, though, is inspired. Only seen through mirrors (and there are, conveniently, a lot of mirrors), we only hear his tremulous, unsure voice, cracking as he tries to intimidate his prey. He has a vulnerability that compromises a film in somewhat interesting ways, even if it only succeeds in turning it from incompetent to merely stupid.

 
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