Frank (Wood) is a deranged mamma’s boy in the classic Perkins mould; by day he restores vintage mannequins, by night he stalks, murders and scalps women to provide bangs for their plastic bonces. When he meets arty photographer Anna (Arnezeder), he is delighted to find out that her favourite subject is... you guessed it... mannequins!
Alexandre Aja and friends’ screenplay cleaves closely enough to the original, though it relocates the action from New York, which in the early ’80s still had a pleasingly sleazy aesthetic redolent of Travis Bickle’s cruising cab, to a neon-flecked Los Angeles. The rancid $25 hotels and cramped apartments of Lustig’s original are replaced with funky little art spaces and bijou pieds-à-terre, while Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography recalls Newton Thomas Sigel’s work in Drive: moody, noirish and crisp, his is a Los Angeles of pools of light and distant twinkling skyscrapers. It’s a pleasingly cool retro feel bolstered by the synth score that would only need the occasional distorted shriek of “witch!” to be indistinguishable from the work of Dario Argento’s Goblin.
But Maniac’s most obvious innovation is the fact that it is entirely shot from Frank’s point of view; we only get to see his face glimpsed briefly in mirrors or reflective surfaces. While at first glance this might appear to be a desperate gimmick deployed only because found footage has finally turned up its toes, the results are surprisingly effective. Not least because they lend a Peeping Tom-ish frisson to the otherwise relentless butchery (and the effects are gruesome enough not to disgrace the legendary Tom Savini, who provided effects in 1980). Elijah Wood is set a difficult task attempting to play a character who has mere seconds of actual screen-time. His face, caught in rear-view mirrors and car surfaces, is stricken, desperate and tortured. Along with director Franck Khalfoun’s forcing the viewer to see the world through his eyes, it generates a borderline sympathy for the bug-eyed raving loony; it’s the most uncomfortable element of this stylish horror show.
At last an intelligent horror remake that understands its source material and yet brings something new to the butcher’s slab. Gritty, gory, and the best movie about Mannequins since Andrew McCarthy got the hots for his.
Reviewed by Adam Smith