Monday, July 29, 2013

BANNED in New Zealand: What Makes Franck Khalfoun's Maniac So Twisted?

While I may be a little late to the party on this one, I finally got around to watching Franck Khalfoun and Alexandre Aja's remake of the 1980 slasher film Maniac, starring Elijah Wood, which made the festival circuit last year and saw a limited theatrical release earlier this month. I was finally spurred to check this one of the long, long list of films I've been meaning to see by the news circulating this week that New Zealand's Office of Film and Literature Classification had banned the film from being screened outside of film festivals or academic study. And while I do not in any way whatsoever condone the banning of films or other artistic materials, I wanted to take a minute to examine some of the things that set Maniac apart from other violent and disturbing horror films, and look for some insight into why the OFLC chose to keep this film from the eyes of New Zealand's viewing public.

The shooting style of this film makes it unlike any other in that nearly the entire film is shot in first-person perspective through serial killer Frank Zito's eyes. This is of course a very literal interpretation of an effect that many directors try to achieve through storytelling, and it takes some getting used to in the beginning of the film. However, the murders and violent mutilations that Frank performs on his victims become that much more disturbing up close from his perspective, and the effect achieved as the women look into the camera with pleading eyes, attempting to fend off attacks coming from the viewer's perspective, is genuinely disturbing. Being quite literally inside of the killer's head also helps lend a sympathetic bent to his character, as we see through his own eyes flashbacks to his childhood, and watch his mother bring strange men into their home and her bed.

And the particulars of the violent murders depicted in Maniac are definitely outside the parameters of what the modern horror fan has seen a hundred times. As in William Lustig's original, Frank's signature when killing is to remove the women's scalps, which he then affixes to his collection of mannequins to create lifelike companions. Outside of the 1980 Maniac, the only other film with a scalping scene that immediately comes to mind for me is Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses. The idea is certainly not done-to-death, but what really made these scenes difficult for me to watch was the speed at which the act was shown. Modern horror leans a lot on quick slicings and dicings with giant arcs of blood spraying all over. However, Frank performs his scalpings slowly and with great care, in order to keep his trophies intact. Thick, dark blood pools slowly around the skull as he delicately peels the scalp away, and the viewer is forced to watch the surgery right up close until he is squirming in his seat or averts his eyes.

There is absolutely no Hollywood style or flash to this film, other than perhaps the beautiful minimalist soundtrack. There is a poignant sadness to Frank Zito's insanity and the manner in which he kills that feels so much more real than the gleeful axe-wielding psychopaths we horror fans are accustomed to seeing, and it stayed with me much longer than usual. Watching this film made me feel intensely connected to its main character, and really left me feeling unclean afterward. Bearing that in mind, the New Zealand OFLC's ban comes as no surprise from a country known for censoring both games and films, the most recent of which being the 2006 documentary The Bridge, which dealt with suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge.

All that being said, I would encourage readers from countries in which the film remains widely available to give this one a watch. Khalfoun has achieved a level of emotional depth seldom found in a slasher film, and Elijah Wood gives a deeply troubling performance in a role that is sure to land him plenty of future roles in genre films.

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