At first glance Elijah Wood appears to be an awful choice to fill the large shoes Joe Spinell left with the 1980 cult classic. He lacks the greasy, overweight, prototypical serial killer look that Spinell made so disturbing. Who knew the result of this atypical casting decision would result in one of the most visceral, compelling, and oddly emotional horror films of the past decade?
The first stroke of brilliance from director Franck Khalfoun lies in his decision to shoot almost the entire film from Frank Zito’s perspective (think Friday the 13th’s killer-POV moments extended to feature length). We’ll see Wood’s bloodied hand grab a steering wheel, or occasionally get a glimpse of his wide-eyed face in a mirror, but mostly we are privy only to his soft voice and obsessive, heavy breathing. In a staggering opening sequence we are thrust into Frank’s twisted world as he van-stalks a woman back to her apartment building. Rob’s musical score (another beautiful example of the 1980s finding their way into horror films once again) vibes and thrums as Frank stabs her through the neck, the blade visible inside her silent screaming mouth. He caresses her face and hair and then scalps her with his bowie knife (think Brad Pitt from Inglourious Basterds).
Maniac is a vicious, relentless film, combining 80’s sensibilities with a fresh, unique, and wholly modern execution. Brutally real practical gore effects are grotesque and nauseating without ever flirting with “torture porn” territory. Frank watches his victims, often horrified, and we are forced as well. Wood’s performance is twisted, soft, and oddly tragic. Alexandre Aja’s script develops even the most minor characters, preventing them from ever feeling like slasher fodder. Every death stings.
From a technical aspect Maniac succeeds wonderfully, simultaneously providing gruesome physical horror and inventive camera work. Frank’s eventual victims are often lit from behind, giving them an angelic quality. In this character study, as Wood develops Frank into a creepy yet tragic soul, no traditional thrills arrive with the gruesome murders. Gorehounds will be satisfied, as the gore effects are gut-wrenching and Khalfoun’s camera is unflinching, but Maniac, much like the original, compels beneath its stylish surface. As far as I’m concerned this is essential horror viewing. Note: Highly recommended, but steer clear if you have an aversion to extreme violence and gore.