Participating in Terror: Director Franck Khalfoun on the point-of-view of a “MANIAC”
The long-awaited and highly curious remake of MANIAC transplants not only the action from a grimy New York to a seedy Los Angeles, but the viewer from mere observer to inhabitant of compulsive killer Frank. Elijah Wood stars as the introverted and lethal vessel which the audience effectively becomes a part of. It’s often stark, stylish, unsettling and perhaps most frightening, participatory. FANGORIA and director Franck Khalfoun spoke about the choice of POV, and its implications.
FANGORIA: When you’re mounting a POV film, how much for structure or influence are you looking at something like LADY IN THE LAKE, or even PEEPING TOM?
FRANCK KHALFOUN: PEEPING TOM, not that it was an influence, but it was something that would give us some sort of legitimacy in saying, “Look, this is one of the origins of horror and voyeur films.” I think more than LADY IN THE LAKE, it was DARK PASSAGE with Bogart that affected me because of Lauren Bacall and how mesmerizing she was in that moment where she stares in the camera. It’s so enticing and like, “Wow, this actually could work.” Especially today, with the fact that we’ve been exposed to first person shooters and so much found footage, people are more acclimated to the idea that we can be behind the camera, we can perhaps see things from inside the brain. I wanted to try and do something more like DARK PASSAGE, more classical. I want to be in a point-of-view, but not be reminded constantly.
FANG: And it seems to give you an opportunity to be really stylish.
KHALFOUN: And I think more realistic in a way. When you run down the street you’re not bouncing up and down. The idea that you are in somebody’s brain doesn’t mean that the whole thing has to be moving constantly. It can be shot certainly more static and more stylish and in a sort of classic way of seeing things. There’s establishing shots in the film, but they fit in within the concept of POV. The store, he’s across the street looking at it. You could say to yourself that he’s watching the movie. It was important to me that we forget that we’re in a POV and the whole point was to immerse the audience into the character; keep the POV concept alive, but not barraged or overwhelmed by the fact. And then you have to sustain the audience’s attention for a long time. There’s a couple of problems that happen. One, it’s hard to feel empathy for a character you don’t see and two, when you do a genre film, coverage is key in terms of creating suspense. Also keeping your villain hidden is important in creating suspense. The shots of the victim walking around, not knowing there’s a killer out to get her is gone, all of a sudden.
FANG: However, you use that to such great, simple effect in the parking lot scene. The traditional stalk scene is turned on its head. He’s under the car hiding, instead of the victim, and keeping with him, knowing it’s only a matter of time is a real exercise in dread, rather than surprise.
KHALFOUN: That’s what I’m left with. Even, when he’s following her and he’s in the locker and she’s changing, it’s like who’s going to discover who? Are you afraid for her, or are you afraid that you’re going to be discovered, as the person behind the locker? All of a sudden, you are now actively participating in what he’s doing and in participating you are now also participating in his dimension and his folly — what’s happening to him psychologically. I think at a certain point you start becoming uncomfortable, and the reason I love the theater for this movie is you are now stuck in your seat and forced to go through this in the same way the character is forced to go through what he has to do. He can’t help it, himself. You’re complicit now in these murders, because you’re not leaving.*
FANG: So is that participatory aspect where you try and create empathy, by making you complicit but also scared for him at certain points?
KHALFOUN: Absolutely. The fact that you connect with him, that first you are physically connected with him, with what he’s doing and the fact that you see he has struggles with what he’s doing. You see him wanting to get away. He doesn’t want to. Every time he starts freaking out, his first attempt is to leave. When he’s with Lucie at the restaurant, he’s not feeling good, he leaves. When he’s at her house, he wants to go, she pulls him back. When he’s at the lake with Hannah, he starts freaking out. He doesn’t want to do this, he is stuck in doing this and I think that adds empathy for the character. Also, seeing him sporadically throughout the film makes you want more. As you start wanting more, you start falling for this guy. You only get to see him in little bits and pieces and so I think the audience doesn’t consciously know this, but they look forward to the next time. That makes you like him, that makes you look forward to him. That evokes a sort of connection with the character at that point. You’re with him.
For me, the whole basis of this remake that allowed me to legitimize and say to myself, ‘Okay, I think I can pull this off,’ is the empathy that I felt for Joe Spinell. He’s amazing. It was an incredible performance and after everything he had done, I felt so bad for this guy. What a missed life, what an awful way to live your life. I had forgotten about the victims, and I was with him. I thought that was incredibly effective. That’s what struck me more about that movie, more so than even the violence. I suppose the violence had struck me the first time I’d seen it, but we’re so anesthetized nowadays to all kinds of violence. Violence doesn’t get me like I think it gets most people, because I see a lot of it. I’m not one of those guys that turns his head on the freeway, because real violence is awful to me, and terrifying. But this stuff doesn’t affect me like most audiences. I love when people cower behind their hands and are afraid to look at scenes. That’s the best audience, for me.
FANG: So, I think of that scene in SINISTER when we watch Ethan Hawke’s character watching a murder, and seeing it reflected in his glasses. Do you think onscreen violence will get to a place where it only unsettles if it’s of this participating variety that points back at us?
KHALFOUN: You’re saying in general?
FANG: Or maybe even just for horror fans?
KHALFOUN: I don’t know, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know, but I know that we have seen so much of it now, that what’s the next stage? I think the next stage is it not being exploitative. For me, in terms of horror, a lot of times you see horrible things, you laugh. There’s a sort of counter reaction. You’re unsettled by it, so it makes you laugh at the experience of having seen something horrible and scary. I think the next stage really more so than how it’s seen is the idea that it doesn’t make you laugh. I don’t know if it’s taking responsibility for it, not making it gratuitous, but making it more real. Real violence, real horror. And I think that’s where a lot of people have problems with this, because it’s so real. You’re so in it, it’s in your face.
FANG: Well, where were you drawing a line? The violence is stark and confrontational; did you ever pull back, worried it was gratuitous?
KHALFOUN: The head explosion, for example, I didn’t want to put in. I felt that was too exploitative and it’s been seen and done. It would have jarred people out of it, and it would have been a laugh moment. I wanted laugh moments, but not when you had the violence. You’re not supposed to laugh when the violence comes, you’re supposed to be terrified by it. You’re supposed to laugh throughout the movie, because there’s references and because you want the movie to have range and if you’re laughing at one moment, that makes the really violent stuff that much scarier. So there’s certainly lines drawn, but compared to other movies that are violent, that have gore, this is not the goriest — perhaps because of how the movie is crafted, but not because it’s generally so gory. It’s juxtaposition with beautiful image and very elegant music. Everything is designed to draw you in and give you this false sense of comfort and safety and security, so that then when the violence precedes that, it is that much more unsettling. It’s in the manner that it’s crafted that makes it gorier. It’s really how you manipulate the image to sort of convey the emotion and create the fear, rather than the gore. I think that’s a mistake that’s made with filmmakers now. Usually, the less you give and the more precisely you use it, the more effective I think it is.
FANG: When adapting the film, what played into crafting it around LA versus New York, considering the original film is so informed by the latter city?
KHALFOUN: When I first read the script, it mentioned the Lower East Side and she’s walking alone at one o’clock in the morning and I’m thinking, “That’s not New York anymore.” There are people everywhere. The pulse of the country is no longer New York for me. Culturally I think it’s Los Angeles, for better or for worse. For worse, right now. Culturally I think what comes out of L.A. is a lot of shit, but that’s where we turn to, that’s the cultural capital of this country. And I think that the city portrays that. There’s a duality to that city, it’s a beautiful city and if you go to a place like downtown it’s absolutely stunning. It’s a past decadence which has now been thrown to shit. Its homeless, its disparity, but also it has clubs in it and it’s hip and it resembles more New York than New York does, conceptually.
For more on MANIAC, see our exclusive chats with Elijah Wood here and in FANGORIA #324 (on sale now).