Somewhere deep within noble, valiant, hairy-footed Frodo Baggins, or rather the actor who portrays him, lies the soul of a serial killer. When he’s not bearing rings or slaying orcs in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Hobbit,” Elijah Wood has taken on such villainous roles as Kevin, the ghoulish nerd who enjoys eating people in Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City” (2005), or Frank Zito, the creep who kills women and attaches their scalps to mannequins in Franck Khalfoun’s remake of William Lustig’s notorious 1980 slasher flick, “Maniac.”
No doubt Wood is attracted to these films not because he’s a part-time psychopath, but because they have ambitions beyond being merely exploitative. Rodriguez’s film, more than most in the genre, re-created on the big screen the look and style of a grisly graphic novel. The makers of “Maniac” have higher aspirations in mind, too. Khalfoun and his screenwriters clearly know a lot about film history and theory, and the movie deserves consideration accordingly. Unfortunately, these loftier intentions don’t augment the genre’s fundamental purpose: to scare the hell out of people and indulge their darkest fantasies with gleeful abandon.
Take, for example, the first-person point of view, which is maintained almost throughout the entire movie. A strange effect occurs with the use of this technique; you’d think it would intensify identification with the character whose viewpoint we share. Instead, in most cases it draws sympathy to the one being watched — the victim, usually.
Such is the case in many horror films, and Khalfoun seems to be alluding in particular to the opening of Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” (1960). For those so inclined, the tactic will bring to mind such intriguing academic issues as scopophilia, the male gaze, and female objectification, while Frank’s whiny voice-over (he’s seen occasionally in reflective surfaces — Wood looks alarmingly like Gollum) provides enough Oedipal double talk to make “Psycho” (1960) seem like a Mother’s Day greeting card.
Plenty to think about, perhaps, but meanwhile what’s happening on the screen takes on the morbid intensity of a first-person video shooter game, with its litany of stalkings, slashings, scalpings, and staplings (“This will sting a little,” says Frank in one of the funnier lines). As for Frank, he becomes more annoying than sympathetic, and a lot less scary. The intrusion of Anna (an appealing Nora Arnezeder), a photographer who appreciates Frank’s mannequin “art,” heightens the mood and raises the dramatic stakes. Much more than the ongoing commentary from the killer, her gentle conversations with Frank almost humanize him and make him more a figure of pity than terror. But it’s too little, too late, or maybe a case of hair today, gore tomorrow. This remake, like Frank’s horrible hobby, remains an exercise in empty repetition.