In a sordid way, serial killers make good film material as they appeal to our darker nature lurking deep within us often unawares and unacknowledged. These movies may serve as a form of catharsis both for the film-makers and the viewers and by simulating violent fantasies, both of us hopefully relinquish the need to act out any such deeds.
I have seen quite a number of such movies as they are both thrilling and fascinating, and I stumbled upon the movie Maniac (2012) through a website, which had listed this film among some of the best psychological thrillers out there. Then I read more about the film. It was a remake of the classic 1980 slasher film by the same name, which I may or may not have seen when I was younger.
There were, however, three things of interest about this remake: 1) It was supposedly shot completely from the point of view of the serial killer. 2) It was associated with some the makers of the French New Extremity cinema (more about this later). 3) It starred Elijah Wood, also known as Frodo.
The last point seemed to me a rather strange choice for casting, but why not. My wife said that there was always something creepy about this actor's eyes that she could not shake off and that made him suitable and eligible for a serial killer role. Besides, if the movie was from his POV, then there would be basically little acting required on his part anyhow.
Moreover, the first point aroused my interest, but I viewed it as a doubtful procedure, cinematically speaking. How would they manage to pull this off throughout the film without making it too gimmicky and, more importantly, without becoming tedious, I asked myself. Although it would make it interesting to see events through the eyes of the protagonist, this technique seemed to be killing (ha!) some suspense as we would know exactly where the serial killer was at all times.
As to the second point, I feel a kind of love-hate relationship (actually positioned more firmly on the hate spectrum) in relation to the French New Wave of Extremity Cinema. Although I think arts should be generally free of censorship, (note the use of “generally”), there ought to be certain limits. Films like A Serbian Film (2010), with its depiction of violence and unspeakably brutal acts against infants and children are in no ways my cup of tea or in any ways worthy of cinematic depiction in my view. (I have not seen the film and only read about it in reviews whose critics for the most part told me in unequivocal ways to stay away from this one like hell!)
Yes, I have my limits. It took me a long time to get ready to watch Happiness (1998) by Todd Solondz, mainly because it had a pedophilic character in it and the film-maker was one who would not shy away from showing the dark side of humanity. I read articles, I asked friends, and finally got myself to watch it (after first seeing Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), which by the way I found somewhat disturbing but also strangely funny).
And it turns out that I simply loved Happiness! Depressing it was, but it was handled with skill, and it was strangely enough very funny too. I watched it again this time with my wife who also enjoyed the film. It turned out that my fear was out of proportion. Don't get me wrong, there is one particularly heartbreakingly sad moment in the film, but overall it is worth watching because it shows us the dark side of humanity without being too bleak (though borderline) or preachy.
But there are still a number of films, mainly from the French New Wave of Extreme Horror that I still shy away from. They include Gaspar Noe's shocking and prolonged rape scene in Irreversible (2002) (again based on hearsay) as well as shockers like Martyrs (2008) or Inside (2007). It seems that these movies have the following things in common: They push the envelope and show graphic scenes of violence and sex. Mostly, they are attacks on the body, hence the pun with extremity.
They can be seen as a criticism of how we view, relate to or treat our bodies or those of others in the modern world. Not unlike the film Salò (1975)(again another film I have not seen nor probably will) where characters are forced to eat excrement (again based on hearsay) reflecting Pasolini's take on our careless consumption of food. But again, there are things I would read about but I would have no specific desire to view them on the screen.
(Do not despair, I will eventually talk about the movie Maniac and serial killers! But in the meantime my prelude or digression shall continue.)
One regret I have is the watching of Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009). The problem is I should have listened to those who warned me! I mostly like what Trier brings forth, even his Boss of it All (2006) I quite enjoyed and I know that his films can be disturbing. Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000) left me in temporary states of daze and depression. But those films were very good, whereas Antichrist was not.
I do not think that Trier is a misogynist nor a Nazi for that matter, and I do not think he should have received the anti-humanitarian award of Cannes. The film starts off rather well, but goes off track and gets completely lost in the final twenty minutes or so. There are graphic depictions of sex and violence, and the ending of the film is rather silly. But the graphic scenes were uncomfortable, not to say bordering on disgust, and I cannot unwatch those scenes. Needless to say, I do not plan to re-watch it nor have I seen this one with my wife.
One director who does give me the creeps and who I approach oh so cautiously is Michael Haneke. His Piano Teacher (2001) is very disturbing, but unlike Trier's film Antichrist, it is also very good although I have no immediate plans of re-watching it. His Funny Games (2007) I did not watch until I had read almost every possible review on it online and when I finally watched it I found it less shocking than expected (Haneke does not overplay it, and I was more shocked about the blasé reactions of the parents than the movie itself.) In this film, Haneke breaks the fourth wall and makes us accomplices with these evil and twisted serial killers, but there is generally an underlying sense of dark humor that eases off some of the tension.
Finally, let us get to the Maniac remake. The main reason I wanted to watch it was my general interest in (movies about) serial killers as mentioned above. When they are well done, those films are disturbing in a good entertaining way. What had pulled me back a bit was the involvement of Alexandre Aja, who wrote the script and had had a hand in quite brutal flicks like the remake of the Hills have Eyes (2006) (not seen). And my sources told me (as was to be expected) that the movie Maniac does not hold back in nor pull its punches when it comes to the depiction of violence.
So the movie started and before the opening credits, there is a sudden scene of violence that left me speechless. It turned out that the whole POV was rather unsettling. We get glimpses of the protagonist in mirrors or rear-view reflections, but more ingeniously, which makes it even more disturbing, are the scenes of his hallucinations. In those situations, the killer has out-of-body experiences and in which he sees himself committing the acts from the outside.
Yet apart from the gore, there is also the element of somewhat identifying and empathizing with this demented character. We see the world through his eyes, how he feels compelled to commit atrocious acts due to his schizophrenia and his troubled past with his imposing and frightening mother.
Freud would have had a field day with this film as it deals with the protagonist's obsessions of sex and death in a way I had not seen on the screen previously. In another intense moment of hallucination, he sees himself as sexless just like his mannequins. He kills and then scalps his women because hair is what endures longer than other body parts and he places (and staples!) the hair of his victims on top of his immaculately cared-for mannequins.
Off and on, the mannequins come to life and talk to him, often reprimanding him. Although we know this is another one of his hallucinations, all we get is his point of view, and we cannot seem to be able to get out of his head. In other words, we alongside the killer feel compelled to kill and this is what makes this film unique in my eyes. The whole POV is used both skillfully and with purpose, and although the director cheats a couple of times, it is a poignant technique. Unlike other horror films where the women do not know when they will be attacked, we are waiting in the bushes to attack with the killer so-to-speak.
It sure helps to have a killer (ha!) soundtrack that is both moving and haunting by a French musician who simply calls himself Rob. If you are into psychological movies and can handle your level of gore with a good dose of unease, or if you simply want to see what goes on in the mind of a serial killer, this movie is one to watch. As to the other movies mentioned here, especially the ones pertaining to the Extremity Wave, I have currently no intention of watching, let alone recommending them. If I do bring myself around to watching them (curiosity is a strong emotion after all that can even kill cats), I will let you know in an upcoming post.