The killer's point of view is a time-honored shot in thrillers and scary movies, from cheapie slasher flicks to more artful fare like The Silence of the Lambs. What better way to heighten the horror of the kill, after all, than to make the viewer unwillingly complicit in the demise of the victim, who looks directly into the camera — into the killer's eyes and our own — as they voice their final screams?
Now comes Maniac, a remake of a notoriously violent 1980 cult classic of the same name, in which director Franck Khalfoun looks to test the limits of whether one can have too much of a scary thing when it comes to those POV shots.
Elijah Wood stars as Frank, a socially awkward loner who runs a one-man mannequin-restoration business in Los Angeles. It's his inheritance from his mother, along with a complicated relationship with his childhood memories of the woman — memories that alternate between tender flashbacks to brushing her hair and less innocent recollections of peeking into her room while she had drug-fueled sex with random strangers. In response to his lingering emotional trauma, Frank begins killing women and taking their scalps to use as wigs for the dead-eyed plastic companions that populate his shop and his apartment.
Despite Wood's star billing, he has precious little screen time; nearly all of Maniac is shot from Frank's point of view. Apart from a couple of brief moments in which Khalfoun breaks with this convention, the only time Frank is seen on screen is when he's looking in a mirror, often with a look as blank as the faces of his mannequins.
It may be a gimmick, but it's not one without a purpose. As in William Lustig's low-budget original, Khalfoun looks to make the material work both as gory gut-level shocker and as character study in obsessive psychosis. In that context, filming from Frank's point of view isn't just a device to unsettle the viewer during the murders, but also one that builds a thin thread of empathy with Frank — undeniably a monster, but also a victim of his past. Lustig did so with voice-over conversations between Frank and his dead mother; Khalfoun's device is more elegant, and fascinating to see carried out from a technical perspective, even if it isn't necessarily more effective.
The newer Maniac does manage to improve upon the look of its source material — though part of the lingering appeal of Lustig's film was how its cheap flash accentuated the grime and dark danger of a 1980 New York City, so that's a questionable improvement. What did need overhauling was the original's reliance on clichéd slasher tropes — and Khalfoun's film, alas, fails just as surely on that count.
Here, it's characters like the promiscuous young woman Frank meets through his victim-finder of choice, an online dating site. After dinner, she's quick to invite this total stranger back to her place and strip off her clothes, despite Frank's showing every sign of being just the sort of sketchy Internet hookup her mother ever warned her about. It's a lazy excuse for titillation and sexual violence, and typical of the sort of moviemaking Maniac seems to want to transcend.
Things do improve somewhat when Frank meets Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a fetching, friendly photographer who wants to use some of his mannequins for a gallery show she has coming up. The development of their relationship provides some internal conflict for Frank, a tension between his honest affinity for this woman and his constant urge to kill.
That makes the latter portion of the film much more successful than what precedes it, an improvement aided by the fact that the POV device eventually feels less like the director trying to show off and more like an integral part of the story. But it's still not enough to save a remake that, rather than trying to fix the deep flaws of its source, just covers them in a shinier coat of paint.