Did Elijah Wood come home from New Zealand with the One Ring still safely tucked away in his pocket? That’s one possible explanation for the actor’s ongoing fascination with playing dark, messed-up characters since going on his heroic journey in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There was Sin City’s Kevin, Wilfred’s Ryan and now Maniac’s Frank, the most messed-up of the bunch. How messed up? Well, try this on for size: since the death of his mother — a mannequin saleslady and sometime-hooker — Frank lives by himself in her old store, surrounded only by plastic ladies. Small wonder he has trouble relating to flesh-and-blood women, an emotional problem he works through by — what else? — killing them. C’mon, this movie is called, Maniac after all.
Co-written and produced by French horror maestro Alexandre Aja (who followed up his breakthrough High Tension with two pretty good remakes, The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D) and directed by Franck Khalfoun (helmer of P2, the parking garage thriller starring Wes Bentley and Rachel Nichols’s cleavage), Maniac is a remake of a 1980 B-movie willed into being by Maniac Cop mastermind William Lustig. This version’s big innovation is to tell the story literally through the titular maniac’s eyes: the bulk of the film is shot from a first-person perspective with the camera replicating Frank’s gaze, meaning we hear Wood’s voice throughout but only see him when “Frank” glances in a mirror or another reflective surface. It’s an amusing gimmick at first, but as past attempts have shown (most famously the 1947 Philip Marlowe mystery Lady in the Lake), it’s not generally an aesthetic that can support an entire feature. (Found footage is a more successful variation on this idea as it gives the filmmakers more freedom to switch perspectives when the scene demands it.)
Even had it been filmed traditionally though, it’s hard to imagine Maniac being particularly memorable. The story is standardly written, blandly played exploitation fare, with Frank finding the one woman, Anna (Nora Arnezeder), who he doesn’t want to kill only to have his impulses eventually, inevitably overpower him. Wood tries his best to create a movie psycho on par with Norman Bates, but he’s not especially convincing on or off-camera. (That high-pitched voice of his works against him; he sounds goofy, rather than creepy. At least Kevin was a silent character.) And the movie’s rank misogyny — evident in the way at Khalfoun dwells on Frank’s slicing-and-dicing of his victims — quickly starts to grate, hard as the filmmakers strive to pretend that it’s reflecting the character’s personality and field of vision. Should Wood decide to indulge his manic side again, here’s hoping he picks a better vehicle than Maniac.