This essay includes major spoilers for Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac & Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.
The pivotal scene in Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games comes about halfway through, when our ostensible protagonists — the family terrorized by two preppy murderers — gain the upper hand, killing Peter (the second in command killer). Seeing that he might now lose the game, the other source of terror, Paul, picks up a remote control and, in one of cinema’s most daring fourth wall breaks, rewinds the film to regain his power. Here, we realize that the protagonists are not the family — they are the killers, specifically Paul. He has the same power as us, home viewers, able to rewind or stop the film whenever we want, ending the family’s suffering or prolonging it. Through this, Haneke implies that as viewers of violent media, our simple choice to view violence implicates us in the violence. While being told a story, we retain agency in the story through our ability to end it. We are the killer, even if we don’t sympathize with them or see ourselves as them; the act of viewing requires our continued complacency in the killer’s actions.
This has always been the sticking point for mainstream critics towards their acceptance of horror films. In his one-star review of Friday the 13th Part 2, Roger Ebert specifically pointed out how the joy of the young adult audience at the killer’s actions made him uncomfortable. To experience horror cinema is to want to experience death, to experience fear, to experience mortality, and while we may not feel sympathy for the killer, our watching of the film is, in an abstract way, a go-ahead to the fictional killer. It’s a consequence of the form; to experience a story is to allow the story to happen, and even if a horror film makes a higher point, it implicates us in the means it used to get there. We choose to experience a movie, and when we choose to experience a movie that we know will feature violence, we implicitly give the story — and, by extension, the killer — permission to do what it wishes, i.e., permission to hurt and to kill. And since the victims in these films (especially the slashers so often taken umbrage with during the ’80s) are so often women, we implicate ourselves in more than that; we implicate ourselves in the continued harm of women, in misogyny. That’s not to say every horror film where a woman dies is misogynistic, just that they require us to engage with sexism to tell their story. The level of engagement varies, but our simple act of participation means it can never be removed.
So, even as a devout horror fan, you can understand my hesitation when I heard that the ’80s cult slasherManiac was going to be remade. Maniac is a great film: gritty, violent, fascinating, and thematically dense for a slasher. It’s also a deeply misogynistic film, one that builds a degree of sympathy in our killer — one who preys exclusively on young women and uses mannequins to explicitly objectify his victims — to allow us to enjoy his use of power and oppression to achieve his goals. A remake of this, especially in a post-torture-porn world, could spell disaster. Wallowing in filth can be fun, sure, but when so many young horror directors ask us to take filth at face value, as worthy of consideration in and of itself (not always a bad thing, mind you), we easily fall into a trap of gross oppression and a complete lack of self-awareness. Imagine my surprise when I watched the remake and found something totally different; a slow, considered slasher that uses a first-person perspective to make the audience consider their own desires as the film reflects them.
The masterstroke of Maniac, of course, is its use of first person perspective almost exclusively, putting us literally inside the head of our killer (played expertly by Elijah Wood), forcing a direct connection with the actions he takes. We, the audience, are Frank, viewing the world as he views it. To watch the movie is to be forced to act how Frank acts through a direct, focused look at the entertainment value of violence. Where a film such as, say, Cheerleader Massacre 2 (substitute any slasher of your choice of course — I just like to play favorites) implies one or more of the victims as a place to hold ourselves in, Maniac breaks down this contrivance, showing the (at least partial) lie inherent in it. This isn’t to say that we always root against our victim; that’s too reductive and simple, and ignores the strong protagonists of so many great horror films. Instead, I mean to say that the first person perspective, by requiring our emotional involvement with Frank’s character, uses the camera not as a source of objectivity but subjectivity, removing the distance much horror film framing provides. It removes the safety net that allows us to, consciously or unconsciously, deny the participation that already exists in viewing fictionalized violence.
Beyond the cinematic precedents (most notably Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom), I was reminded intensely of first person video games; most often using a cipher as a protagonist, they relate your character’s actions to your actions by providing a specific viewpoint. From here, your character’s thoughts become your thoughts, and you come to see the character as an extension of yourself (assuming the device works as intended). AsManiac goes its course, and as we see the world that Frank sees, the audience’s sympathies are made to lie with him, despite his monstrous nature. When the only perspective shown is a repellant one, the continued participation in that repellant perspective softens it, makes it easier for us, makes us complicit in it. When Frank kills, we kill, both in the way that Haneke implied and in a more direct and visceral way. On top of that, we add a literal interpretation of the “male gaze”; Frank’s objectification and predation becomes ours, and the viewer is forced into a role of sexism. Here lies one of the strengths of Maniac being a remake and not an original script: by allowing direct comparison, it shows up the sexism inherent in the original, and by extension requires us to consider the sexism the genre is often all too ready to dive deep into under the camouflage and post-modern remove of “homage” or historical genre continuity. Subversively, Frank is not a vicious monster, but seems to be a “nice guy” (holding all the cultural connotations that has come to embody), harshly implicating the direction misogyny has gone since the original: underground, pushed beneath an outward shell of compassion and tenderness.
Putting all this together, we get to the most shocking parts of the film, at least from a thematic standpoint. When we leave Frank’s perspective, when the camera moves back and looks at him critically, it pulls us violently out of the perspective we participated in and forces us to see Frank as he really is. The intrusion of objectivity breaks the spell of sympathy, allowing us to see Frank at his ugliest: just after a senseless murder, or dead, lying in his own blood. The intrusion of a reality not based in Frank’s mind forces the audience to confront what their viewing of these killings means, who Frank really is, and what they (as a viewer of violent media) were responsible for. It shows us, the accomplices, what the consequences of Frank’s actions are. The shots are tellingly cold, unsympathetic, and impersonal, making the near-rationality of Frank’s desperately hateful misogyny show up as what it really amounts to.
These shots are, effectively, the film’s thesis, as it relates both to real world violence and to violence in film; to be complicit in a viewpoint is to allow violence. Our idea of passive film watching is ignorant to the viewer’s vital role of participation that the film requires to enact its ideas. Our act of watching a horror film is an act of violence, regardless of intent or meaning. Of course, this is not to say that by simply watching a violent film that we promote violence, or that we are morally acquitting the violence involved. What’s being shown inManiac is a version of film-watching taken to an extreme; a passive action shown to be active by our involvement with the killer, and our intimate knowledge of his life and actions. When we watch through Frank’s eyes, we allow him to kill, and in many ways we ask him to kill. The larger picture here is one of complacency — just as Haneke asked us to consider our role as viewer, to remove ourselves from placid intake and realize our own part in a film, Maniac asks us to consider how much of the killer is us and how much we engage in their violence with them. When we forget that, when we don’t consider our role, we allow Frank to murder without recourse. It is only when we realize our place, as represented by the film’s final shot of Frank, dead in his bedroom, that we exert control; we take back our perspective.
Directed by Franck Khalfoun; written by Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur; based on the original screenplay by Joe Spinell; starring Elijah Wood and Nora Arnezeder; 89 minutes.