Just when I thought Elijah Wood was at his peak of portraying crazy by talking to a man in a dog suit as seen on FX’s Wilfred he emerges from the shadows- figuratively and literally- with his role in the remake of William Lustig’s MANIAC. Frodo has come a long way since the Shire and I assure you that his character here does at one point make use of a ring, but he also may have a scalp in his back pocket.
At first glance Frank (Wood) might seem like a normal decent looking nice guy, but underneath lies a seriously disturbed and damaged individual. Frank restores mannequins for a living and in his spare time he makes a habit of stalking women who catch his eye. He is in a constant battle in his own head as he wants to be able to make a connection with someone, but eventually his dark half takes hold and he murders the women he is infatuated with, scalps them and then takes the scalp home to staple to one of his many mannequins. Any psychologist brave enough to take Frank’s case might make a killing with the amount of psychological problems he suffers from as he consistently has migraines that lead to visions, mostly of his promiscuous mother. Eventually Frank develops a dangerous obsession with an artist that takes a liking to his mannequins.
I was super excited to check this out based on a select amount of high praise I had read in advance. To some extent I can vouch for the praise, but to be perfectly honest I didn’t really find this to be amazingly inventive nor do I think it as a film that will revitalize horror as a genre. The only praise I agree whole heartedly with is the performance by Elijah Wood and the brutality of the horror- praise for the latter is maybe a stretch. The supporting cast is at best only a smidge better than mediocre with Wood shining above and beyond everyone else he encounters. Granted there’s something to be said that the style is shooting more for realism than true performance, in which case the film definitely works on that level which I why I’m trying to not judge it entirely on the work of the supporting cast- given 90% of them are just there to die horribly.
Wood is the anchor of the film and his performance really is fantastic. I was a bit leery about rather or not I could buy him as a creepy psycho, but the opening six minutes put those thoughts to a permanent rest. The fact that the majority of this film is shot in first person perspective (not found footage) also gives something a little extra than just being yet another hack and slash- which it still kind of is. There is something very haunting about all the scenes where Frank is looking in a mirror either staring blankly before an eventual freak out and it gives us, the audience, a chance to see Wood go through a variety of emotions from blank emptiness, rage and even a confused fear of his own mind. There are layers to Wood’s character that the first person perspective doesn’t always catch visually, but you can still hear it in his voice and when you can see it, it’s pretty great.
The score also elevates the film quite a bit as well as it evokes the old school 80’s tone with a brilliant mix of synth and eerie notes. The opening scene perfectly encapsulates what you’re in for and compliments each scene in all the right ways. It never quite hid the fact that while MANIAC tends to move at a pretty brisk pace that I did feel the film dragging from time to time or becoming a bit too tedious in the excessively graphic violence. As a horror fan I don’t have an issue with violence and given that this film approaches the story from a realistic POV the violence is at time extremely unsettling in how realistic it appears to be.
MANIAC is not looking to make you enjoy revel in the horrific violence or present a character you are endeared to and want to connect with so in that sense the film is masterful in its depiction of a mentally disturbed individual and the horrible acts he commits. In the same sense the performance by Elijah Wood is haunting and infinitely memorable as so. The problem for me lies in the fact that MANIAC for all intents and purposes is joyless and at times sadistic. I am not opposed to pitch black horror and more often than not I appreciated the craft in the filmmaking and the effects work to put this together along with the performances and elements of the story. I believe MANIAC has glimpses of truly brilliant horror filmmaking, but that it also at times has the stain of a filmmaker that wants nothing more than an endurance test and it’s that perceived transparency that drags the film down for me.