Maniac is a difficult film to review. As a remake of a notorious Video Nasty from 1980 of the same name, this film sets out to drag us through the mud and generally make its audience feel not just uncomfortable but nasty. It is a relentlessly, oppressively difficult film to watch, but it also extremely, even uncomfortably, well made. Maniac sets out to do something that favors a pure lurid affect over anything else, and it succeeds entirely at meeting and even possibly exceeding those goals. Many viewers, however, will be so fundamentally turned off by the goal they won’t care.
Maniac stars Elijah Wood as Frank Zito, a young man who has recently taken over his family’s mannequin business and who secretly serves as the site for a vicious internal struggle over identity. On one hand, he’s mild-mannered, quiet, and painfully socially awkward, and on the other he’s unable to control internal urges to murder and scalp any female he meets and uses them to add a dose of unnerving human detail to his precious works of art.
The most notable thing about the film is its visual construction: from beginning to end, almost every shot is presented from Zito’s point-of-view. And I don’t mean that the narrative vaguely approximates his subjective understanding of the world through visual cues. What I am referring to is the literal placing of the camera where Zito’s eyes would be for almost the entire film. The effect is uncanny and surreal, capturing not only Zito’s internal disaffection and warped sense of the male gaze, but even an intentional dose of artifice which has the unmistakable effect of constructing something not-quite believable and not quite-unbelievable. This fits the narrative’s fears and nightmares like a deranged, malformed glove: the main character is both pathetically real and, in fact, monstrously over-played and over-acted, and the filmmaking finds its footing, likewise, in being both deceptively real and knowingly, luridly, campy.
This is the film’s biggest tension, and perhaps what makes it so difficult to solidify. It is lurid and exploitative even as it is very clearly something which can bring about virtually no joy to just about anyone. It actively flaunts the expectation that we “enjoy” slasher horror and the genre’s latent misogyny, critiquing the genre by rendering it at its most elliptical, stripped-down, and bluntly direct so that the unpleasant reality of it all is left out in the cold for all to see. Even still, there is a certain lurid energy to it that will likely entice some more than it repels, making it difficult for the film to fully legitimize its distancing effect. The main character, likewise, both gets a fundamental joy in his actions and is as infinitely repulsed by them – the film doesn’t known which side to take, and it uneasily takes both. Here, however, the confusion feels undoubtedly fitting and reveals a strength of the filmmaker’s amateurish but pointed vision. This is a film that enjoys not only making its audience feel uncomfortable, but rubbing their noses in it, just as Frank does to himself.
The visual presentation of the film, along with Wood’s unnaturally enhanced vocal work and pure breathiness, are cheap and gimmicky, but they are also artistically sound and reveal hidden nuance. There are many small visual tricks within, like how the film plays around with what we see of Frank in any particular moment, all of which is undone slightly only by the fact that it’s all a little too slick and well-mannered for its own good, and too conventionally pretty to conjure up any of the grit and grim many of the Video Nasties built their nightmarish carnival-like worlds on. But it in no way desensitizes us to its violence like so many other slashers do. If it’s too crisp, perhaps that’s the point for a character like Zito who thrives on cognitive dissonance, like the kind occupying the space between the dirtiness of his actions and the oppressive cleanliness of the film. He ultimately wants everything to be prim and proper so he can hide what he’s done from himself, and the film feigns this gesture too, only to makes things that much worse when we witness what’s really going on within. But, whatever dissonance this creates, it still lacks some of the hellfire of the horror films from the early ’80s this emulates.
Now then, this is very much, so much, one of those “critiquing violence and the male gaze by showing them to us in their oppressive fury” films. As a rule, if the film is well made, I accept, uneasily, the legitimacy of a film which must portray offensive actions in order to reveal their simultaneous inhumanity and their prescient, feeble humanity at the same time. But, as per usual, this does open the film up to claims of justified misogyny – it’s hard to criticize violence and misogyny without taking part in the perceived thrill of it. Of course, by giving the audience Zito’s perspective and rendering it intentionally artificial, the film does a lot of smart work to very much make us see the dangers of the gaze. For some audiences, however, it may just be too much and the film’s well-constructed horror-fest version of bookish possessiveness among even frail men will be lost to the power of the purely garish and violent images of the film.
So, what does that leave us with? “What” the film is can include a number of descriptors ambiguous to quality, such as violent, disgusting, dangerous, challenging, difficult, agonizing, and many others. But one descriptor certainly applies: effective, and often chill-inducingly so. It is almost too well-made for what it is, but it is, undoubtedly, well-made. This is not a fun motion picture – it turns the very idea of experiencing “joy” while watching a slasher film on its head with horrific effectiveness. I must say, for whatever the film should or shouldn’t do, I do think it has something to say, or something to “feel” more appropriately, and I think it “feels” well, even as it makes you feel horrible.