Reviewed by: David Graham

An example of a remake exploiting modern technology to go where the original filmmakers could only imagine, director Franck Khalfoun’s take on William Lustig’s notorious psycho-study slasher takes us behind the eyes of the titular monster and keeps us there for the suffocating duration. Where this might hint at delving deeper into the character’s psychological deterioration, the first-person perspective largely comes off as a gimmick (albeit a potent one), let down by a script at least as shallow and borderline laughable as the 1980 effort.

It’s flashy and glossy where the original was fetid and grubby, winking at the audience where Lustig wallowed in the misery to memorable effect. Most crucially, a bravely committed Elijah Wood tries his best to out-creep Joseph Spinell, but fails on every count, and lacks the everyman empathy elicited so effortlessly by the deceased character actor (who also wrote the initial script, overhauled here by Switchblade Romance duo Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur).

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Socially awkward shop owner Frank struggles to navigate LA’s superficial scene when he’s not restoring old mannequins to sell to the city’s trendy gallery-cruising types. He’s also a sociopathic serial killer of women, claiming their scalps as grisly crowns for the life-size dolls he surrounds himself with in his apartment. A chance for redemption arrives in the form of open-minded young French artiste Anna, whose potentially romantic interest in Frank temporarily sates his bloodlust. Soon though his precarious grip on reality begins to threaten their blossoming relationship, and Frank realises the insanity he suppresses through medication could be about to consume him.

Apart from the point-of-view visuals, the first thing that distinguishes this from the original is the setting: transplanting the stalk’n’slashing from the depraved NYC of yore to the gleaming, superficial LA of today implies obvious criticism of the West Coast lifestyle but doesn’t bring much to the table otherwise. While the streets of the City Of Angels are suitably cold and lifeless, they lack the oppressive atmosphere of the Big Apple; it’s an interesting change of tack that makes sense given the updated aesthetic, but it compromises the tension and believability in several places, with one of the killings taking place in a wide open car-park for no good reason other than the visual appeal of its various shiny surfaces.

Given everything that’s happened there in the 30-year interim, it could have been more illuminating to see Frank ply his trade in modern-day Manhattan, barely recognisable now as The New York Ripper’s stomping ground or Cruising’s den of iniquity. Perhaps Khalfoun wanted to distance himself from the setting of his under-whelming and poorly received debut P2, which worked a similarly voyeuristic angle (should we be worried?) and also suffered from another pin-up actor struggling to convince as crazy.

Frank here becomes something of an unsung art darling taking out his financial and social frustrations upon his more illustrious neighbours, with an unpleasant strain of misogyny underpinning his vicious attacks upon the gorgeous women that he either uncomfortably attracts or hypocritically objectifies. Khalfoun laces Frank’s genuinely unsettling slayings with knowing humour for the horror crowd, indulgently throwing in audio/visual references to other films that will be like a pat on the back to genre fans, but it encourages a level of complicity that is simultaneously the director’s trump card and the film’s biggest turn-off.

This opens up all sorts of intriguing debatable moral ground on topics such as the male gaze and our desensitisation to violence, but the script fails to do anything to address them other than pushing the envelope with how far their representation can be taken. Khalfoun thankfully stops short of something like A Serbian Film’s excessive shock tactics, but beneath all the undoubted artistry on display, there’s a sickening lack of substance for the audience to engage with. Frank is merely another obsessive momma’s boy, his rambling thoughts and dependence on medication offering up precious little psychological insight into why he’s become so damaged and dangerous.

It becomes tempting to see Frank the character as a projection of Franck the director, adorning his beloved 1980 grind-house flick with new-age trappings to try to breathe new life into it, like the timeless mannequins dressed up with fresh scalps. As with the decomposing flesh on those dummies though, this remake is unlikely to have anything like the longevity of Lustig’s original, despite Khalfoun gamely acting out his sordid fantasies in a way that cannily holds up a mirror to the audience’s involvement.

The self-reflection is sadly puddle-deep: the script too often falls back on provocation, pushing the viewer to consider their breaking point when it comes to enduring this kind of horror. At what point can you walk away from an experience like this untarnished?

A largely unseen Wood effectively embodies Frank’s contradictory sympathetic/sleazy split personality and the rest of the cast give their all but the uneven tone undermines the relatively sweet moments with appealing French actress Nora Arnezeder, while the nastier scenes gratuitously descend into predictable sexualised screamathons. If there was any convincing characterisation, audiences might actually take something away from their time in Frank’s shoes, but come the hallucinogenic climax the film feels like a formal experiment that’s been stretched past breaking point, not unlike Gus Van Sant’s ill-advised Psycho redux.

Despite all this, the lure of the visuals and novelty of the approach prove compelling, with the throbbing, retro-evocative score working perfectly to build menace and reflect the protagonist’s swelling sadism. If you’re a fan of cinematic button-pushing, this will keep you pleasurably conflicted over its merits, while gore-hounds will lap up the grotty up-close-and-personal details. Khalfoun can be commended for technical wizardry – although Maniac pales in comparison to the innovation of Gaspar Noé’s similarly-lensed Enter The Void – and even his commitment to material that challenges due to its flaws as well as its fearlessness, but ultimately his remake rings as fundamentally hollow as its murderous protagonist.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2013
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First-person perspective chiller about a serial killer with a fetish for scalping.
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Director: Franck Khalfoun

Writer: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg, Joe Spinell

Starring: Elijah Wood, Liane Balaban, Nora Arnezeder, America Olivo, Morgane Slemp, Genevieve Alexandra, Sammi Rotibi, Sal Landi, Megan Duffy, Freedom, Jan Broberg, Brian Ames, Davis Neves, Steffinnie Phrommany, Akbar Kurtha

Year: 2012

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France, US

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