Of all the films shown at this year's FrightFest, this one seems to have been the most divisive. While the overwhelming majority appeared to love Sinister and only a scant few appeared to love Hidden In The Woods, there's plenty of both love and hate for this hugely problematic remake of William Lustig's repugnant 1980 sleaze "classic" (which even executive producer Judd Hamilton described as "a bad piece of blood and gore" and to this day it still has nearly a minute of footage cut by the BBFC). And I'm left puzzled by it on so many levels - the reasons for making it, the camera technique employed, precisely who it's aimed at, matters of censorship and casting.
This considerably slicker new version of Maniac has Elijah Wood, of all people, as Frank, a deeply disturbed individual who works in his mother's antique mannequin repair shop in Los Angeles (the original was set in New York), but at night becomes a psychotic killer who scalps his victims (sourced from online chats) and fixes these bloody trophies on the dummies in his grotty bedroom, his cracked mind transforming them into real women. He develops a friendship, one which might develop into a proper relationship, with artist/photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) - or is it an increasing obsession that can only end in blood and murder?
It's certainly a more watchable film than Lustig's. Maniac starts off in arresting fashion, with a Tangerine Dream-esque score recalling the synth soundtracks of the video nasty era, and the title filling the screen in huge red capital letters. And the POV technique is carried off with flair, and some ingenuity in getting Elijah Wood reflected in the mirrors and windows but not the camera without it becoming too much of a distraction. But I'm still puzzled as to what end. There's also the small matter of the BBFC's decision when (or if) the film comes up for a UK release: one rumour is that a whopping four minutes of violence (presumably sexualised or eroticised violence, though there's no rape in the film) could be lost.
For some reason, director Franck Khalfoun (who made the enjoyable enough psycho-chases-woman-round-car-park thriller P2) has opted to shoot all but a few seconds of his Maniac as POV: this makes the whole thing look like a very expensive ultra-hi-def found footage movie, although it's really harking back to the dodgy "unseen killer's POV" trope from a hundred cheap 70s and 80s slashers, merely expanding the device to fill the entire running time. It also has the curious effect of leaving Elijah Wood, nominally the star of the film, as little more than an extra and voiceover artiste: he's only ever seen in reflections and photographs but only very briefly does the camera move away from his point of view. Possibly this device is the factor dividing audiences: is the POV technique making audiences feel complicit in the murders, is it creating greater empathy with Frank's problems, or is it just trying to do something different?
I actually wondered if it was done this way so the nice man out of the Lord Of The Rings movies could say he wasn't really the star of a full-on bloody slashfest, even though he was playing a deeply disturbed individual who scalps his victims in loving closeup. Wood's Frank is absolutely not Joe Spinell's: rather than the frustrated, burbling and intimidating character of the original, a man from whom most women would run screaming long before he started waving knives around, Frank is now a perfectly personable, approachable and "normal" guy that no-one would ever feel the need to back away from.
And I am still unsure how I feel about it. I know I didn't love it and I know I didn't hate it; I have mixed views on it and would probably need to see it again, except that I'm not sure I really want to. Is it going to open up the eternal debate about screen violence and the role of women in exploitation movies yet again? (It can't do that if it doesn't get released.) For everything that's interesting about it, it's still a nasty piece of work and I'm not sure who the target audience is. Elijah Wood fans are in for a surprise, given his fairly non-confrontational CV thus far, while admirers of the original Maniac may remain loyal to the grindhouse horrors of 1980 than the shinier subjective camera terrors of 2012. Until it comes round again, and I'm in the mood, I'm genuinely on the fence on this one.