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Franck Khalfoun's remake of the low-budget horror classic Maniac, which began its limited theatrical run last month, has been championed for what is claimed to be its rejuvenation of the staid genre. It's a somewhat odd case: Though it's classical by design, nostalgic for the tendency of '70s horror films to be especially nasty and crude, it's also conspicuously contemporary, taking full advantage of the technical liberations of digital cinematography to better adopt the first-person camera technique used halfheartedly by the original film and more graphically realize the film's many murders. Its effects, achieved on a slender budget through largely digital means, make for some exceptionally explicit and realistic-looking gore, including a half-dozen one-slice scalpings and a rather impressive knife stab up through a young woman's jugular and chin. In the most basic sense, this material is shocking -- it's new, it's well done, it's more -- but, in nearly every other way, Khalfoun's Maniac is more of the same old horror.
No matter how extreme the execution, and no matter how stylized the aesthetic surrounding the action, a movie in which a creepy guy walks around brutally murdering women is not remarkable, challenging, or new. It can be nominally shocking -- in the most superficial sense, as Maniac is -- but it doesn't transcend the gimmick, and it doesn't undermine audience expectations in the way of truly transgressive work.
Violence against women not only has an overlong history of representation in the movies, filling screens from the dawn of the medium, it has a firm basis in reality that is not addressed or engaged with meaningfully by any of the films that play so cavalierly with the imagery. If being transgressive means challenging the status quo, depicting violence complacently but superficially "shockingly" is the furthest thing from transgression. That is the status quo. Instead of focusing on new ways to dismember women onscreen, the would-be transgressive filmmaker must devise a new subject whose dismantling might actually shock or upset people so used to its normality -- a film which targets rape culture, for instance, or patriarchy, or transphobia. A film with a progressive ideological agenda wouldn't necessarily be any better than one without, and in fact given the wrong approach even the most radical feminist treatise could fall back into tiresome didacticism. There is no one direction forward which promises guaranteed transgression, and this isn't about prescribing one. But a new direction is at least a start.
Maybe the closest a contemporary horror film has come to addressing an issue in a challenging and, yes, shocking way was the recent low-budget hit The Purge, which built questions of class, privilege, and the violence of entitlement into its high-concept premise. But the results offered such pat responses -- the rich feed off of the poor and, given the opportunity, would murder them for sport -- that it seems doubtful that anybody could have left the film thinking about these things in a new or interesting way. The Purge was not challenging, even if it brushed up against challenging ideas. And even if the antiestablishment themes of the film had been effectively developed, they were so tidily worked into the framework of the genre that they had no chance to be transgressive in a meaningful way.
These examples, of course, tend toward the mainstream, even if a film like Maniac will be relegated to limited release -- these aren't exactly the underground projects Nick Zedd was admonishing for being too safe. But one luxury of the American independent cinema, one which horror films have always taken advantage of, is that there is very little one cannot get away with: Part of the reason horror has gotten more graphic and extreme is that the boundaries of good taste are being pushed ever forward, which is to say that even mainstream filmmakers can get away with showing more today in multiplexes than ever before. (Unless it's sexual -- that's relegated to premium cable.) A filmmaker hoping to make the cost of production back on an extreme horror project can't exactly throw away narrative and spend 90 minutes focusing on genital mutilation set to circus music. But as the limitations on content and approach slip away, there are more opportunities to do something truly interesting, and genuinely transgressive. A revolution in genre convention isn't likely to happen overnight, but without any forward movement, horror cinema continues to stagnate, insistent only upon upping the ante on gruesome.
So what options are filmmakers wishing to shock their audience left with? It might help to allow an anarchic sensibility to reign. It's easy to think of the kinds of films that might genuinely upset a national audience, and productively: films in which preconceptions are challenged, complacency is disrupted, or the status quo is upturned. The reason Peter's Penis Tricks is so disturbing isn't that it features graphic genital abuse and mutilation, a kind of logical extreme to the same horror filmmaking conventions we see in practice now (and it's not hard to imagine that being the outcome of the torture porn genre a few years out). Rather, what shocks us is the pleasure experienced by the person doing it: Somebody made this film and did this to himself because, as is obvious on screen, he enjoys doing it. We're not exactly accustomed to that. It upsets us. The graphic imagery, in other words, is not transgressive alone -- it needs to mean something, too.Follow @VoiceFilmClub
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