Admittedly, I have never seen the 1980 original of “Maniac,” and just recently became interested in the remake, which, for all it’s guts and gore, turns out to be a pretty decent psychological slasher movie. Physically Elijah Wood isn’t a great stand-in for the apparently imposing, plain Joe Spinell but he still manages to turn in a good (if slightly over-acted) performance as the lead psycho. Frodo ain’t here Mrs. Torrance.
Frank Zito is a disturbed, slightly stereotypical nutjob (hmm, a sexually repressed loner with mommy issues… just dress him up in a wig and a dress and call him Norman) whose Mama liked to whore around in front of her impressionable son. This has left him with some issues with members of the fairer sex, and Frank acts out by killing and scalping attractive women. Did I mention Frank owns a mannequin shop? Creepy stuff for sure. At least Frank finds a way that all those scalps aren’t wasted.
Then the unthinkable happens. Pale creeper Frank finds a girl, Anna (Nora Arnezeder) who makes him rethink his creeper life. She’s smart, pretty, and she, y’know, GETS him- an attribute that’s in short supply if you’re a psycho killer with a fetish for scalps. She even seems to like his mannequins even more than she likes him, and this makes Frank’s heart flutter with something unexpected- love, caring, a yearning for a different way of life.
Anna muses that the mannequins are beautifully unique and seem to have distinct personalities (no, she’s not crazy.) Her soft, gentle manner draws out tentative Frank- but how long can Frank keep up his facade? And it soon becomes obvious that Frank’s mask of sanity is about to slip (to borrow a all-too-overt reference to “American Psycho.”) Will Anna be repulsed when she finds out Frank’s true self?
The movie adopts the disturbing stylistic approach of forcing us to watch the crimes from Frank’s POV. Not only does that bring up all kinds of moral and ethical questions (is our fascination with violence and serial killers cathartic, or rather voyeuristic and exploitative?), it occasionally makes the killings uncomfortably sexualized, marked by Frank’s repressed libido and misogynistic rage.
I understand what the filmmaker is trying to do, but it is disturbing to watch a woman’s breasts while she is strangled. Then again, doesn’t the fact that the strangling doesn’t bother me speak volumes on Americans over-familiarity with violence and carnage? Maybe that’s what this movie is trying to say.
Frank spends a lot of time looking in mirrors, which may portray his fracturing personality (he often argues and pleads with his ‘darker half,’ which takes over when she gets the urge to kill) or it might just be there to remind us “yep, it’s Elijah Wood playing the killer, not just a camera being toted around by the crew.”
On the surface, this film is fast-paced and exciting. The psychology behind the character of Frank is a little sketchy (somewhere between Norman Bates’ exclamation of “a boy’s best friend is his mother” and Philip Larkin’s poem that begins “They fuck you up your mum and dad…”) but the movie is mostly solid.
I actually think “Tony” by Gerard Johnson, a highly underregarded film and hell of an independent production, knocks this film on it’s ass. But “Maniac” is still a solidly acted way to pass the time. Take a date- but make sure they’re not TOO into it, or we might have of a”Maniac” on your hands. Think about it. Good afternoon, everyone, and enjoy the feature.