The hugely anticipated MANIAC, a remake of the so-called video nasty, had its UK premiere at FrightFest last night.
The plot concerns Frank (Elijah Wood), a mannequin restorer whose point of view we steal as he scalps his female victims for use in schizophrenic home tableaux. He leads a secluded existence until Anna (Nora Arnezeder) enters his shop and sees beauty and life in his transfixed creations. What then occurs is an extraordinarily twisted and beautiful story of love and longing between the artist and the ladies in his world.
Fans of gialli can breathe a sigh of relief – MANIAC is true to its roots and has a scuzziness similar to films such as NEW YORK RIPPER. Right from the opening credits and first murder, the ghosts of the smell of take away cartons, the taste of smoky night air and the grit beneath Wood's fingers become immediate experiences for the viewer. The art direction and camerawork for this film are absolutely sensational, giving both the characters and locations in this cityscape their individuality, enabling you to empathise with them whilst also drawing out the similarities that causes them to be drawn to or despise each other. Often, this is achieved through something as simple as a pair of low-slung, purple briefs or a slick of coppery eye-shadow, but it works beautifully and ensures all of the characters are drowning in a visual sea of their own desperations and perceived inadequacies.
The violence is similarly vital in its approach. It is vicious, and this from a reviewer who loves extreme films. Superb foley art, exquisite camera angles and an almost scientific willingness to show what physically is under our skin combine to create more impact on the screen than buckets of blood ever could. The film is also wonderful at hoodwinking us – what seems like a typical stalk-in-the-car-park scene actually becomes an incredibly savage sequence that earned a reverential round of applause from the FrightFest audience. The BBFC are also going to have a field day with this and one later sequence involving a stunning level of role-based humiliation in which pity and disgust are aroused in equal measure while clever camerawork ensures that sex – the cause of Frank’s problems – is tethered, but teases and leers from a distance.
Sadly, MANIAC does have its faults, surprisingly enough in the acting. It is debatable whether Wood manages to connect to the character enough to make you really care or often be truly afraid. On one hand, his sadness and dislocation are searing, particularly when bedded by an ageing, damaged rock chick, on the other hand the violent aspects of the performance often feel forced. It could be argued that this is simply a method of showing how trapped he is in his mental mirror-world and is going through the motions in order to try and feel, but then it feels as though the violent aspects appear play acted, forcing you to focus emotionally on his relationship with the people who come into his life (including the ingeniously filmed mannequins), rather than on him as a character. Either way, it leaves the film feeling rather too cold at times.
The same cannot be said for the supporting characters, from Anna whose radiance matches the additional lighting halo that follows her through the scenes, to Megan Duffy as the desperate Lucie and America Olivo who convinces as Frank’s mother rather than just going through the giallo-whore motions.
These characters help us to understand who Frank is and how people live in the faceless urban cityscape. The supposed dichotomy of success and popularity versus failure and isolation leaves each individual to interact with the world either by projecting their own values on to it and creating it in their image or by becoming what people envision or enable them to be. It is a disarming concept that can only increase the audiences’ own empathy and sense of relationship with the film and the real world that can be seen in its fragments.
The joyous aspect of MANIAC is that it works on a number of different levels. You could take it simply as a rather severe stalk ‘n’ slash thriller of the old school variety. Alternatively, it is a comment on urban alienation and the reconstruction of individual identity. Finally, it is a master class in the technical aspects of film making. In any of these instances however, its unforgiving nature, beauty and sheer sleaze shine through. It is a technical triumph.
Dr Karen Oughton
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