How do you like your horror? Obviously it should be, well, scary. A lot of us also like our horror to deliver plenty of shock and gore. But there’s one quality that’s often overlooked when it comes to horror, and which for connoisseurs is what makes all the difference between a good movie and a truly great one: visual beauty. There is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful horror movie, and Franck Khalfoun’s MANIAC is gorgeous.
Not that this means the film soft-pedals either the gore or the horror: there’s plenty of both. The opening scenes dish up the kind of out-and-out slasher thrills that we have every right to expect from a serial-killer movie, and that were so enjoyable in 1980’s video-nasty original (directed by William Lustig, who co-produced this loving and inventive remake). Creepy little Frank (Elijah Wood, giving an astounding performance) follows young women home or picks them up on dating sites, inveigles his way into their apartments, and then does horrible things to them. But it’s when we follow him home that the extraordinary magic of this movie begins. Frank restores vintage mannequins, and what’s more, he actually lives in his workshop. His world is a fever-dream of plaster torsos, disembodied hands, and rows of heads on dusty shelves. The vivid colour palette and dreamlike visuals ramp up the nightmarish atmosphere, and recall the heyday of 1970s and ’80s giallo.
The film’s claustrophobic intensity also derives in part from its being shot almost entirely from Frank’s point of view: we see his (terrifying) hands far more often than we see his face, which appears only in reflections, or sometimes in Frank’s own fantasies. Paradoxically, it’s when we’re seeing the world from behind his eyes that we find Frank most horrifying and alien; the glimpses of his frightened, tormented face evoke our sympathy, and turn him into an object of pity as well as horror. In this respect Frank harks back not to Hannibal Lecter-style serial killers, but to classic horror monsters such as FRANKENSTEIN’s Creature – or the sleepwalking Cesare in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, a dreamlike, hypnotic classic to which this film elegantly tips its hat.
Gore, violence, fear, depravity, a dash of black humour, a stunning denouement and, above all, an unnerving gothic beauty: I can’t praise this film highly enough. MANIAC is a beautiful union of European giallo and the American slasher genre, and a properly scary horror film – just like Mother used to make.