Based on a sleazy 1980 crime thriller, Maniac is the latest film to capitalise on the resurgence of a faux-exploitation aesthetic (see Tarantino’s recent catalogue). Elijah Wood stars as Frank (the eponymous Maniac) who intersperses a lonely existence restoring his collection of antique mannequins with brutal murders of women whose scalps he collects for the aforementioned mannequins. Cue beautiful photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) who just can’t get enough of photographing Frank’s creations. Will she discover his murderous hobby before it’s too late? Will she be his next victim? Will she teach him to love as their eyes meet over a mangled mannequin? Truth be told, it’s hard to imagine that anybody will care about the answers to any of these questions. This is gratuitous gore galore and not much else. Wood phones in a flat performance as a killer whose main claim to character development is that he didn’t like his mother much. Of course, Oedipal drama has been used before to explain psychotic behaviour (and quite famously in Psycho) but never with such predictable, tepid results.
To say that Maniac is derivative, two-dimensional and just plain anachronistic (is restoring mannequins even a real job anymore?) doesn’t even begin to explain what went wrong with this film. The fundamental problem is that the sexual politics just don’t add up. It’s not enough to just mimic exploitation cinema, swallow its misogynistic conventions uncritically and call it an homage. While Tarantino got into a lot of trouble for the exploitation tropes of his Grindhouse thriller, Deathproof , the film was at least more than just copycat exploitation, it experimented with the transgressive sub-genre to create a film that was self-consciously post-exploitation. Not so for Maniac director Franck Khalfoun, who clearly felt that there just weren’t enough films glorifying and (most worryingly of all) eroticising violence against women. The film plays out entirely from Frank’s perspective and Khalfoun wastes no time laying a prurient eye on Frank’s scantily clad victims. Do we really need another slasher telling us that women fall into two categories; victims and virgins? Essentially, this is a film that can’t quite decide if it wants you to be aroused or disgusted by the violence portrayed on screen so if you’re looking for a trip back to the 1980s when using women’s bodies as a canvas for voyeuristic counted as genuine entertainment then Maniac is just the film for you. If not, I would give it a miss – which I suspect is exactly what most people will do.
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