Active Ingredients: Emotional intimacy within horror context; Score
Side Effects: Single-character perspective; Visual glossiness
Based on William Lustig’s sweaty, pulpy and genuinely disturbing 1980 film, this horror remake feels markedly different from many other contemporary genre updates. Unlike the Platinum Dunes horror remakes, such as 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Maniac‘s visual palate mercifully extends beyond the suffocating dinginess and drab grays and browns that so many recent films equate with creepiness. Simply by reversing this aesthetic Maniac stands out from the crowd, but on the strength of its source material it succeeds as an effective and offbeat thriller.
The remake from producer/writer Alexandre Aja and director Franck Khalfoun loses some of the nastiness and grime of the original, but both films benefit from an uncomfortable intimacy with its main character, a serial killer who targets women and uses their scalps to work through some particularly troubling mother issues. The differing tactics of each version, however, demonstrate just how complicated the audience’s identification with a film really is.
In Lustig’s film, the physical intensity of actor Joe Spinelli forces the viewer to identify with the killer. We can’t escape him, and we even hear his heavy breathing amplified over the soundtrack as he stalks his victims. Somehow, we find ourselves sympathizing with him as he falls for a woman who could become either his lover or just another wig.
Khalfoun’s film wisely keeps this fertile emotional tension, but it also literalizes our identification with the killer by restricting the film to the point-of-view of the main character, played by Elijah Wood. We see the world around him as he sees it, only catching glimpses of Wood’s hands or his face reflected in mirrors (with a few exceptions). The idea strikes me as an unnecessarily complex gimmick, but with some clever editing it becomes only minimally distracting.
Still, this curious tactic shows that Aja and Khalfoun have misunderstood and greatly oversimplified the concept of subjectivity in cinema. By constructing the film entirely from the perspective of a single protagonist, the filmmakers necessarily limit our visual identification with that protagonist. We don’t fear the killer because we are him, and we are robbed of the suspense of his crimes for the same reason.
Perhaps, then, viewers don’t identify with the formal subjectivity of camera perspective, but with something much more basic: faces. The 1980 version of Maniac is so unsettling because we feel a frightening intimacy with the monster: Spinelli is almost always onscreen. We have no problem identifying with characters in other films because we identify with what the camera shows, not what object its position is meant to represent. (How, for example, could Maniac force us to identify with the killer—and perhaps even reexamine its gender politics—if it were told entirely from the perspective of the victims?)
If nothing else, Maniac proves the complexity of subjectivity in cinema, particularly in the horror genre. Cinema provides us with multiple visual elements and asks to integrate all of them into a single “objective” perspective. In doing so, however, it plays with our emotions, wins our empathy and teaches us to fear dark basements where the killer may lurk just offscreen. Even with Maniac‘s single point-of-view, these devices of identification so central to cinema are strong enough to function.