Maniac (2012)

Remakes are a tricky business. When handled correctly, we get films that are great in their own right, such as 2004’s Dawn Of The Dead. But, more often than not, we’re subjected to utter dross, like 2010’s A Nightmare On Elm Street. As a result, it’s natural to wonder why the hell, aside from the obvious monetary gain, anyone would choose to remake a perfectly good horror film. Maniac is the reason. Not only is it a wonderful horror movie, it’s a fantastic remake, too, that manages to update the story perfectly to modern times, without feeling the need to flash an iPhone at every important junction.

Though he’s not the most obvious choice to play a villain, wide-eyed cutie Elijah Wood is the titular maniac. However, it should come as no surprise to those who enjoyed him as cannibalistic Kevin, in Sin City, that Wood relishes the bad guy role, even when he’s not technically onscreen. He is Frank, a lonely young man who inherited a mannequin restoration business. Though he’s passionate about his work, Frank prefers to use human hair to make his mannequins come to life. They ultimately fuel his fantasies, as he attempts to cope with the grief caused by his troubled upbringing and, in particular, his relationship with his mother.

The story is told almost entirely from Frank’s point of view, which gives a significant insight into his emotions, making him strangely sympathetic as a character. We follow as he stalks, murders and scalps young women, lovingly restoring his mannequins afterwards. Slight glimpses are given of his frantic, crazy eyes, in bathroom mirrors, or shop windows, but he is only shown fully after scalping – or, in one, very memorable sequence, midway through.

The film is essentially a twisted love story, between Frank and Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a friendly local artist, who unwittingly gets close to him after using his mannequins in a show. The two go to a special screening of the horror classic The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, after which Anna remarks that she is glad the female lead survived to the end, and it’s almost impossible not to hope that she does, too.

Although it’s rough and suitably bloody, Maniac is undeniably gorgeous to watch, especially in its lovingly dark portrayal of Los Angeles, which is handled with much the same care that Frank shows his mannequins. The score could’ve been devised by Daft Punk’s twisted cousins, as it comprises low, techno hums, or overpoweringly pounding bass, depending on whether Frank is hanging back in the shadows, or attacking. Certain scenes are so quiet, so incredibly understated, that the score almost disappears beneath the weight of it all. But, much like Frank; it’s always there, waiting to strike, and helping to establish the palpable tension throughout.

The POV shooting style is quite inventive. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and it is jarring at first. However, thanks to Wood’s strength in the central role, it feels natural and, unlike found footage, it isn’t gimmicky. Frank is fleshed out and, indeed, likable enough, that it never seems as though anything is missing, which is a common problem with found footage. In less capable hands, his character might have been almost ghost-like, but here he is perfectly three-dimensional, a terrible mixture of sadistic evil and pathetic loneliness. The first shot of his eyes in a windscreen mirror – kick-starting a shockingly sharp opening sequence that sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the film – is absolute perfection, and the same intensity is present in each glimpse of him.

Comparisons have been made between Maniac and Drive, especially as the posters were so similar that certain fans assumed that of Elijah Wood was a mock-up, inspired by the film. Maniac does bear certain similarities to Drive, mostly in the gorgeous shots of Frank driving around L.A., but it has a lot more bite to it, and the story, though similarly dark, is far more sinister and affecting. Put simply, Maniac will make you think and feel things, and it will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Maniac is a rare gem, because it is near perfect, both as a horror movie, and a piece of cinema, which is almost unheard of nowadays, especially with the omnipresence of found footage, torture porn, et al. It is gorgeously shot, wonderfully scored, expertly acted. The story is involving, heartbreaking, shocking, unsettling and moving, all at once. Elijah Wood gives the performance of his career, in spite of the fact he’s barely shown on camera for more than a few minutes. The denouement is slightly too neat, but even it cannot take anything away from what is essentially already a classic. Who knew a remake could be a must-see in its own right?

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★★

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