Finding a good horror movie is a lot like panning for gold in the American West in the 1840s. You sift and sift and search. You spend days sorting through things that are worthless. Occasionally you find something worthwhile, or maybe an outright Mother Lode, and it gives you the resolve to find more. To continue that metaphor, Maniac, a new horror film starring Elijah Wood, is pyrite, or Fool’s Gold. It looks good at first, but it ultimately proves to have no real value.
Frank (Elijah Wood) restores vintage mannequins for a living. The business has been in his family for generations, and with the recent death of his mother, Frank is the only person left to carry on the family tradition. There’s just one problem: Frank is also a serial killer who is losing his grip on reality (if he ever really had one to begin with). He spends his evenings prowling the streets, stalking his victims, scalping them and appropriating their hair for his little family of mannequins.
Then one morning Frank spies a photographer taking pictures of his work through his store window. Her name is Anna (Nora Arnezeder), and she is interested in using some of his mannequins in her next exhibit. The two gradually become friends, and questions begin to arise. Could a serial killer stop his evil deeds if he found someone who understood him? Could he turn away from his obsession with death if he found something to live for? Those answers could form the basis of an interesting film. But, just as you think Maniac may become a really unique twist on the slasher genre, the story degenerates into the usual blood, torture and mayhem that have defined lazy horror films for the past ten or fifteen years.
Even the motivation behind Frank’s murderous spree comes from the same Oedipal/Freudian psychological soup that screenwriters have been serving for years to give their villains “depth”. Frank’s mother was a prostitute. She used to conduct business in her home around Frank. He witnessed her liaisons with her clients (cue the gratuitous nudity). He’s warped and can’t relate to women. He sees them only as objects, hence the mannequin theme. Been there, done that, repeatedly, in the world of horror films.
Even the look of the film is based around one central gimmick that becomes increasingly distracting and finally outright irritating – everything is shot from Frank’s first person point-of-view. The viewer only hears his voice as he interacts with people who are staring directly into the camera. The audience is constantly reminded of how clever this staging is by the frequent glimpses we catch of Elijah Wood in every car mirror, store window and other reflective surface in the film. I hate to break it to the director, producer or whomever clearly finds this device so clever and original, but the very first murder in John Carpenter’s Halloween is shot from the first person perspective of the killer through the holes of his Halloween mask, and it wasn’t that interesting in 1978. Over the course of an entire 90-minute film, it becomes exceedingly tedious.
While I was watching Maniac and reflecting on the sad state of the horror film in the 21st century, I tried to remember the precise point when suspense left the horror genre. The films are no longer about who is going to die and who is going to survive, but rather who is going to die in the most horrific way. They’re all going to die, just give us some time to hack our way through the entire cast. They’re simply anonymous cannon fodder so the make-up effects crew can show off their skills.
The slasher and suspense films of old worked because you became invested in the supporting characters. They had personalities, and you rooted for them to survive, although you knew many of them would not. The films had a nice little streak of dark humor to relieve the tension a little before the next onslaught of scares. Maniac and similar sub-standard films that came before it revel in the violence and the bleak depravity of it all, forgetting that these films are intended to be escapist fun.
I refer to some films as Eye of the Beholder films. If you are a lover of a specific genre (like horror film fans are), then you will feel compelled to judge a given movie for yourself. If you fall in that category, then I may not be able to persuade you to skip Maniac altogether. Let me assure that it is not a diamond in the rough. It is not the sought-after, elusive Mother Lode. In fact, it’s a load of a completely different kind.
5 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.