The acting profession is littered with the half forgotten careers of stars who, in order to escape the roles which made their names (often in some child-friendly blockbuster), take on shocking or controversial parts to prove that they aren’t just a one trick (or one franchise) pony. Some like Daniel Radcliffe, who laid the ghost of Harry Potter resoundingly to rest when he bared all in Equus on London’s West End stage in 2007, appear to have managed the Herculean task with reasonable ease. Others such as the legendary Julie Andrews haven’t been as successful – audiences never quite accepted it when she tried to cast off the saccharine coated image she had worked so hard to hone in Mary Poppins (1964) in dubious sex comedies like 10 (1979) and S.O.B (1981). More often than not these stars accept the inevitable and end up returning to the family favourites they do best.
Which brings us to Elijah Wood, the cutesy little hobbit Frodo, from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Being fair to Wood he has starred in over eighty roles not including his periodic returns to Middle Earth. However having been so central to Jackson’s phenomenal visualisation of Tolkien’s fantasy, he will likely be burdened with it to some extent for the rest of his career. Baring this in mind one can only imagine that he took on his latest role in order to block the memory of Frodo from the public consciousness as much as possible. For his character in Maniac (2012) – which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and showed to rave reviews at London’s Film4 FrightFest – is as different from Frodo as night from day.
Frank (Wood) owns a business, in a run-down area of central Los Angeles, where he rescues and refurbishes vintage shop window mannequins. However Frank also has a dark side which only surfaces when he gets really upset – which unfortunately for the women of downtown LA is happening with increasing frequency. You see Frank has a thing for beautiful ladies – or rather their hair. After meeting, stalking or simply happening upon his unfortunate victims, he murders them, scalps them, and takes their hair home as a trophy, using it to dress his own private mannequin collection. Things come to a grisly climax after he meets and falls in love with photographic artist Anna (Nora Arnezeder). She persuades Frank to let her use some of his refurbished mannequins in her latest exhibition with disastrous results.
Those well read in the lore of the video nasty will need no introduction to the infamous Maniac (1980), of which this updated nightmare is a clever and twisted reimagining. The action may have been transposed from New York to LA, the homicidal serial killer may no longer be a pot-bellied, middle-aged loner (so disturbingly brought to life in the original by native New Yorker Joe Spinell), and he may this time have the pretence of a respectable, artistic job – previously he was the dodgy landlord of an equally dodgy apartment block. But beneath the surface nothing much has changed. This new film is still as dark and grimy as the original (memorable for its poster art and the debatable acting skills of its female lead Caroline Munroe) – which may actually prove its saving grace.
During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s films such as Abel Ferrara’s seminal Driller Killer (1979) and Ruggero Deodato’s sleazy The House on the Edge of the Park (1980), made their names as much because of their pervading sense of despair and realistic depiction of inner city America as for any of the actual violence and gore, though this was and still is admittedly hard to watch. The same feeling was evident in the original Maniac, which director Franck Khalfoun now effectively transfers to 21st century LA.
That the story works equally well today as it did over thirty years ago will come as no surprise. The main reasons behind Frank’s disturbed behaviour stem from the mental abuse he received at the hands of his mother when he was a child – something which is the same no matter which period it happens in. Couple this with the keys which trigger his schizophrenia and the resulting murderous rampages could take place anywhere, anytime.
This is a film which will not disappoint those who like their gore full-on, leaving nothing to the imagination, as it focuses lovingly on the demise of each of Frank’s unfortunate victims, of which there are several. One particularly memorable murder is stunningly played out amidst the glitzy glory of a rich art dealer’s apartment, its floor to ceiling glass windows looking out on the floodlit skyscrapers of mid-town LA. The juxtaposition of this decadence with Frank’s humbler accommodation merely heightens the depravity of his damaged existence.
The cast, the majority of whose characters are unpleasant enough to deserve their fates, are marvellous, whilst Arnezeder gives a believably distressed performance as Anna whose initial enthusiasm for Frank’s work soon turns to horror and desperation when she discovers what he is really up to. It is Wood however, to give him his dues, who stands out, turning in a chilling display as the demented Frank, in a role which the filmmakers have imaginatively shot completely from his point-of-view – the viewer only sees Frank’s character in reflection, adding a novel twist to the proceedings.
Whether or not Wood can put the memory of Frodo behind him remains to be seen. However, with films like Maniac on his résumé, he could always find work as a serial killer should the acting roles dry up.
Maniac opened in Germany and France recently and will reach UK screens on March 15, 2013.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.