There’s just something about mannequins. Human forms utterly devoid of humanity, they can be made to fit the projection of any desire, whether harmless or nightmarish. In Franck Khalfoun’s remake of the 1980 horror-thriller classic, Maniac, they fall squarely in the latter category, the playthings of a deranged serial killer who stalks women on the streets of Los Angeles.
That killer is Frank (Elijah Wood). Wood’s performance is chilling and powerful, but too often overwhelmed by a point of view camera that leaves him off screen. As Maniac opens, we hear Frank’s disembodied voice as we see a woman across the street; our eyes track her as she moves. At this moment we realize that we’re not just seeing a scene and hearing the voice of a killer. We are the killer, watching the woman through his eyes.
As we might contemplate the moral and emotional repercussions of our rather literal alignment with the killer, Frank’s commentary continues during this first scene, and even when he isn’t speaking, we can hear his carefully controlled breathing. The effect is incredibly disturbing: instead of viewing the crime from a distance and so, maybe, empathizing with the victim, we’re forced up close to her while she is killed. There is no way to retreat from the violence, which includes a graphic scalping. This detail leads in the next scene to a similar point of view shot, as Frank attempts to staple the scalp onto a mannequin back at his home, a small apartment behind a mannequin restoration shop.
As Maniac aligns your view with Frank’s targeting of women, it also introduces flashbacks of his childhood, reinforcing your connection to him. These scenes are as familiar as the stalker shots, featuring yet another bad mother figure, one of those women who have been ruining their children in scary movies for decades. Frank’s mother (America Olivo) appears in a variety of compromising situations, scenes he remembers either immediately before or after he attacks women. Her disregard for her child encourages a bizarre sympathy for the killer he’s become.
Frank is caught up in visions of his mother when Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a French photographer, stumbles upon his shop. He spots her snapping pictures of his mannequins through the partially open door, then reluctantly agrees to let her come inside and take some more. Predictably, Frank becomes entranced with the artist and enthusiastically talks to her about his own creative efforts in the area of mannequin restoration. As they meet in the park and talk about Anna’s upcoming gallery show, we see this increasingly strange relationship from only Frank’s perspective. Anna remains as much a mystery to the audience as she does to Frank.
This limited vision has the peculiar effect of making Anna seem more like a mannequin than a human being. Even more peculiar, Frank’s mannequins occasionally pop to life, showing that he can no longer differentiate between them and the flesh-and-blood women he knows or has killed. And when these scenes are followed by close ups of the women he has killed, accompanied by Frank’s sexual sighs and grunts, we can only be disturbed by the pleasure he derives from his violence.
Maniac employs the old tactic of connecting women’s empowerment to their consequent downfall. All of Frank’s victims are either financially successful and have stable careers or are sexually confident, women on whom display window mannequins are so often modeled. Each time one of these women is killed, the viewer is asked to adopt Frank’s subject position. In the shots leading up to each murder, we experience the victims as sexual objects: they are the subjects of our gazes whether we like it or not.
Though the violence shown in Maniac is comparable to that shown in other horror films, the presence of Frank’s disembodied voice expressing pleasure as we watch long shots of dead women reads as a gruesome example of women’s victimization. After all, the audience isn’t asked only to bear witness to Frank’s violence. We see the world from his eyes and encounter his deepest desires, perverse desires that also underlie the symbolic universe that we inhabit in our daily lives—in the transformation of women into images, into mannequins, into objects. As it represents the monster’s view as ours, the movie straddles a line between the visually challenging and morally abhorrent.