Now that most of us can agree that “vulgar auterism” is a conversation nonstarter, or rather a conversation only worth having if it calls out the superflousness of the label’s existence, let me propose a name for a new wave that’s legitimately afoot—for a collective of artists that very loosely includes Rob Zombie, Xan Cassavetes, Alexandre Aja, Franck Khalfoun, Peter Strickland, and Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. These unmistakably contemporary stylists earn their aesthetics with great purpose of intent, and with a distinctly musical regard for all things retrograde. Like “the American eccentrics,” Armond White’s label for millennial filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, and Paul Thomas Anderson, they “speak to the contemporary audience with whom they share a sensibility about culture and society,” except their similarly undisguised film savvy and sense of nostalgia is far from whimsical. And while some may be vulgar, don’t call them “vulgar auteurists,” as their work is made with much less means than that of Michael Bay. For how irresistibly they retrofit cultural, social, even pop-cultural memory using a distinctly modernist lens, perhaps “neo-analog extremists” will suffice.
We don’t need theory to help us take a genre film seriously, though it is useful in telling visionaries apart from poseurs. In Shadow Dancer, James Marsh, a kissing cousin of the neo-analog extremists, gives a rather routine story set in the waning days of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland the illusion of complexity with a tony style that’s alluringly nervy, but lacks for moral conviction, as it’s rhymed more to the audience’s anxiety about the characters’ ever-shifting loyalties than it is to any one character’s unique personal experience. Even more unhinged is Kiss of the Damned, whose enshrinement of its maker’s cinephilia is so extreme, so beside the point of its characters’ sexual and violent proclivities, as to be almost pathological. Conversely, a more impressive stunt like Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer, less film than semiotics lecture, thrillingly rhymes its hieratic aesthetic to its main character’s sexual identity and hang-ups, but does so without the sense of fun that typifies the many gialli it counts as inspiration.
The neo-analog extremists, often dismissed for just being trash-horror enthusiasts, or melodramatists in the case of Xavier “2 or 3 Things I Know About Rainer Werner Fassbinder” Dolan, build vintage-seeming films using newfangled technology—vintage-seeming because, while these films are designed in homage to their forebears, they’re also hyper-aware of how much the culture has changed since those forebears first transgressed upon us. These films are exaggerated throwbacks with a sly self-awareness, some dopier but no less pleasurable than others, like Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3D, while others see their makers, who clearly wanted for their MTV and whose iTunes libraries are no doubt stocked with the complete works of John Carpenter, Goblin, and Giorgio Moroder (and, no doubt, in their original LP master recordings), using a sound-centric approach to reveal and give shape to characters’ secret torments.
Made in collaboration with Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing (see also NBC’s remarkable Hannibal), Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil.
Early on, as Frank massages the breasts of a woman he meets on a dating site, the sensuality this exchange so clearly lacks is as jarring as the fixation on the juxtaposition of bruised hands against a heavily tattooed body. And throughout the film, color jumps off the screen, from the pink necklace that hangs from a porcelain bird’s beak in the tattooed girl’s bathroom to the neon lights of a monochromatic-seeming subway terminal, and everyday sounds, from the drip of morning coffee to the quacking of a pond full of ducks, suggest heightened sensations. Frank’s life is evoked as a perpetual out-of-body experience, and literally so in a scene where he appears to rise several feet off the ground when Anna (Nora Arnezeder), the type of girl who would reform him if Maniac were at all interested in behaving like a Hollywood rom-com, asks too personal a question and as such flips his crazy switch; if she doesn’t do so sooner, it’s because she isn’t his usual catch, taking a shine to his mannequins and, in turn, falling in love with his own obsession. Through ostentatious style, the filmmakers convey a man’s remove from the world and how that disconnect so readily allows him to lash out against it.
It may seem as if Maniac is itself trying to get away with murder, using its experiment in POV as a safeguard against a slew of trite female characterizations, but that would be to miss how Frank’s pathology, stemming from his firsthand view of his mother’s slutdom, is boldly given shape by Khalfoun in an unexpected flashback hauntingly scored by mononymous composer Rob that’s almost in the same discomfitingly empathetic key as Halloween II’s graphic violence as a clogged id’s flushing out. Cannier, though, is how the filmmakers conflate Frank’s inanimate view of women (he scalps them and affixes their hair onto his mannequins) with their unmistakably cocky belief in being able to one-up Lustig’s original in just about every regard. “Something was missing, something tangible relating to the concept,” says Anna at one point regarding her photographic art, though she isn’t only speaking for herself. Just as Frank struggles to relate to women is manifest in how he remixes them, Maniac’s audio-visual overload testifies to a group of filmmakers’ belief that some films are made to be remade.