Monday, August 13, 2012

MIFF 2012 Review: Maniac

Dir. Franck Khalhoun
Country: France / USA
Aus Rating: N/A
Running Time: 100mins

Maniac does some things very well, but being a remake of William Lustig’s 1980 skeazy horror classic isn’t necessarily one of them. Sure, Franck Khalfoun’s film takes some of the bare bones of Lustig’s down-and-out slasher – the scalpings, the mannequins, the photographer – but repurposes them to a world that models itself more on the 1980s fetishisation from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive than the claustrophobic universe of the original. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; of course, remakes should try and carve their own identity rather than merely aping the predecessor’s successes, but it is a shift of such tectonic proportions that it put me off balance and was never truly able to recover.

This film is far too slick, calculated, and neatly packaged to have any of the same impact as Maniac 1980 (which, I guess, is what we’ll call it from now on for the purpose of this review). There are many reasons why Maniac 1980 is a classic, but most of all it is because of the downright filthy representation of New York that director Lustig imbued his film with. One of the most true, and sickening, depictions of a dying city ever put on film, New York and its boroughs had never, and certainly hasn’t since, looked quite so oppressive. Maniac 2012 takes a different tact, switching the action (“action”) to Los Angeles and filming the city in a glowing light that is gorgeous in execution, but confounding in reason. Like the aforementioned Drive, from which Maniac 2012 borrows heavily (to put it mildly), as well as Michael Mann’s Collateral, Khalfoun’s film makes a menacing beauty of the city of angels at many times, but you’d be forgiven for finding the horror of its locale less effective. The crystal clear digital cinematography of Maxine Alexandre only further accentuates this.

Among the many differences to the original, this so-called remake shifts the action to a first person POV. It’s as if we’re seeing through the eyes of Frank – a deliberately robotic Elijah Wood – which should make for a more disturbing experience (the mind of a killer and what not), but it instead drains the film of dread and tension. In one scene that recalls the original, set amongst the subway of Los Angeles as Frank chases an attractive woman through the station, there is nothing in the way of heart-pumping suspense. By aligning the viewer with Frank’s field of vision, the girl is rendered more or less inessential to the proceedings, which is a worrying thought. The audience is being put inside Frank’s mind and being forced to experience what he experiences. That isn’t scary. There’s never any moment of relief and elation at a potential victim’s escape because the filmmakers never lets us experience it. It’s virtually impossible to feel what the women Frank stalk and kill feel because no effort is made to represent them.

I don’t necessarily think any of this makes Maniac 2012 a misogynistic film – certainly not as much as, say, VHS - however, the reaction of some of my 11.30pm crowd made me think that they themselves may indeed be misogynist. At least initially, there were whoops and hollers at the gruesome stabbing and scalping of an attractive, scantily clad woman. I worry about their motivations for seeing something like this. Or perhaps its more an indictment on the director who wasn’t able to make the victim anything other than a vacant vessel to be offed, so much so that the especially nasty way she is disposed of is seen as little more than a giggle fest. I certainly don’t think the film is played for laughs, but what does it say about it when it elicits them? I’m not sure, I’m conflicted myself.

There are indeed moments of this movie that frazzled me, but that’s probably inevitable for a film as gory as this. The scalpings are disgusting and brutal, although the hint of CGI blood spray is off-putting. If Maniac 2012 bests the original in any way it’s in the ending, which takes the original’s idea and adds a slice of imagery that’s awfully effective, both thematically and visually. Fans of the original will know it when they see it. The director has some other neat tricks up his sleeve, sure: Using Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses, immortalised by a dick-tucked Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs; a fabulous Délé Ogundiran as a dreaded, aviator-wearing policewoman (I want a 1980s-set Policewoman movie starring her, please); Wood replicating the poster of the 1980 original in the shiny, reflective surface of a car door, post-scalping. The Drive stylisations are initially very distracting – the opening scene, especially, had my friend and I scribbling the exact same note – but the score (by whom I’m not sure, there is no name listed) is a wonderfully retro throwback that recalls Jay Chattaway’s bustling relic of a musical score from 1980.

Is it interesting that Franck Khalfoun directed P2 all set within one location, and now he’s made Maniac, which is set all within one body? Maybe, but probably not enough to make the exercise a true success. Whereas Maniac 1980 sourced many of its chills from its dead set sense of place and palpable atmosphere of incoming dread, the remake takes a different path. It’s an admirable goal of Khalfoun, as well as his high profile producer Alexandre Aja (who also co-wrote with CA Roseberg and Grégory Levasseur), to take a more European sensibility to the original film, something that was made even more abundantly clear by the humorous (accidental?) inclusion of French subtitles for the first 15 minutes. Much of what you make of Maniac 2012 will depend on whether you think the story is strong enough to work being told in such a radically different fashion. At 100 minutes it is arguable too long – maybe one of the stalks could have been cut, or maybe just tightened up some of the bits between Frank and photographer Anne, rather than including repetitive sky-gazing POV shots and migraine-induced fogginess. It’s an interesting experiment, but it was always going to be hard existing in the shadow of such a great piece of cinema as Maniac 1980 and it’s a shadow it never truly comes to close to stepping out from. C

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