Maniac (Franck Khalfoun, 2012)
I have long been antipathetic to the work of Alexandre Aja; Haute Tension, his first film to get wide American releases, is an overrated, boring thriller with plot holes large enough for the nuclear mutants in his horrific The Hills Have Eyes remake to drag tourists through. Franck Khalfoun is Alexandre Aja (and Aja’s partner Gregory Lavasseur)’s protege, and there are times when I think the servant is easily going to overshadow the master; 2007’s P2 is an amusing if forgettable piece of fluff, but it’s a hundred times better than any Aja-helmed film I’ve seen to date. Which gives you an idea of where I’m coming from when I saw Maniac start showing up on a number of Best of 2013 lists, including topping Dread Central’s Best Horror Movies of the Year consensus. And, from my perspective, I was right; this isn’t even as good as P2, though once again it’s acres better than much of Aja’s own offerings (Aja and Levasseur, as with P2, wrote the script and passed it off to Khalfoun).
Plot: Frank (Elijah Wood, once again trying to shed the lingering spectre of Frodo Baggins) is a mannequin restorer who has a thing for women’s hair—especially when he’s skinned it from their heads, scalp intact, and puts it on his mannequins. Yeah, he’s got a few issues, examined in enough detail to be really creepy in flashbacks featuring Frank as a young boy (Eli Dupont in his first screen appearance) watching his mother (America Olivo from the recent remake of Friday the 13th), presumably a prostitute, plying her trade. (The whole psychology-of-the-killer thing here, as is often the case, is somewhat shockingly reactionary, pop psychology 101 without doing anything new or interesting, and it just feels tiresome.) Things get slightly more interesting when a lovely young artist named Anna (Safe House‘s Nora Arnezeder) notices some of Frank’s creations in the window and asks if she could commission some of them for one of her upcoming shows. Frank has, shall we say, always had problems connecting with women on a human level (thus his mannequin obsession—though that is not to say they don’t talk back); perhaps Anna will be the one to break through?
Even if you’ve never seen the original—and I have started watching it maybe half a dozen times over the years and never made it past the twenty-minute mark—if you’ve seen a half-dozen slasher films at all, you know exactly where this is going, don’t you? You should. The original film may have broken some sort of mold as far as the psychology of the killer blah blah blah (though I would call that highly arguable; this ground had been well-trod by giallo long before 1980), but even if you buy into that argument, the idea of a remake of it in 2012 is, well, pretty senseless. The saving graces here are the two principals (for most of the film, at least); Wood plays his role to the hilt, and Arnezeder comes off with the perfect blend of innocence and sexiness-in-passing to really put the chemical screws to Frank. Problem is, the script tears all that up and forces these square pegs into hexagonal holes in the last ten minutes-ish of the movie, because that is what plot demands. (And just forget about the last sequence. Turn the movie off about five minutes before the end and you’ll have a better time with it than I did.) But still, those first eighty minutes are kind of good, if you think of them as a dramatic reading rather than a fully-formed movie. **
Red band trailer.