89 min., not rated (but equivalent to NC-17).
It's a given that a horror film should be horrific, shocking, and uncomfortable, with the integrity to just go for broke, but then there are genre films that cross the line into exploitation. A remake of the notoriously grubby, ultraviolent 1980 slasher relic, which has since gained an underground cult following, "Maniac" is what it is—cruel, ugly, repellent, distasteful, and altogether unpleasant. (Aren't adjectives fun?) Clearly, that response is playing right into the hands of director Franck Khalfoun (2007's by-the-numbers yet efficient "P2"), but there's the non-appeal of paying moviegoers having to actually, you know, watch it. That "Maniac" has attracted attention for its first-person killing-spree approach proves that many have forgotten 1960's "Peeping Tom," 1974's "Black Christmas," the gliding, one-take POV opening in 1978's "Halloween," and the surplus of found-footage films. Hardly the psychologically fascinating character study it thinks it is, this Z-grade slasher pornography with experimental pretensions is boring, gratuitously nasty, and will be undeservedly controversial.
From the heavy-breathing POV of, yes, a maniac, we assume the eyes and skin of Frank (Elijah Wood), a Los Angeles mannequin restorer and store owner who lost his nymphomaniac mother last summer. We're spared nothing, as he preys on young women, attacks and kills them, scalps them with a hunting knife, and then staple-guns their bloodied hair to mannequins for his collection. There are even the times he vomits in a toilet bowl after a murder and cleans his knife in the kitchen sink. He goes on a date with a flirty, tattooed girl he meets on an Internet dating site, but while seated, he suffers a migraine, hallucinates, and then excuses himself to the bathroom. Even from there, she invites Frank back to her place and puts on Q Lazzarus' "Goodbye Horses" (its unnerving use in "The Silence of the Lambs" still unforgettable), which is even more of a sign that she's doomed. Then, as serendipity would have it, Frank meets a stunning French photographer named Anna (a fetching Nora Arnezeder), who shoots mannequins and strives to bring life to them for her new art opening. Can Anna be the one woman who can pacify his sociopathic urges?
Mercilessly grimmer and unflinchingly sicker than most audiences are willing to experience, "Maniac" isn't afraid to get its hands dirty, albeit to a fault. It isn't without a few effectively tense set-pieces, particularly when Frank stalks a dancer and chases her through an unpopulated subway station and parking lot, or when he sits next to a snobby art agent in a bathtub set to the operatic notes of "Ave Maria." But does that make it any less unwatchable or less exploitative for exploitation's sake? Guess. Outside of an unsettling, '80s-style synth-heavy score composed by Rob and a sensory, stream-of-consciousness quality about Maxime Alexandre's sleek, moody cinematography, there's no redeeming artistic value here besides repulsion for its own sake. Whether it's a selling point or a caveat, there's no skimping on gore here, the pre-title shock making that perfectly clear and going straight for the jugular because it's so quickly brutal. Fearlessly obliterating censorship and showcasing bang-up make-up effects, every slaying (stabbings and scalpings mostly) is hideously explicit and as realistic as one will ever find.
Being co-penned by producers Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur (who are responsible for "High Tension" and the remake of "The Hills Have Eyes"), based on William Lustig's original film, there is very little to this one-note story, which mostly tracks Frank lurking the L.A. streets by van or on foot night after night to hunt the fairer sex. In this noir-ish world, the women are either poor, unsuspecting on-the-hoof victims or easy, naive, and just begging for it before they become victims themselves. Gradually, we're intended to empathize and understand what makes Frank tick, being raised none too well by a mother (America Olivo) who, in flashbacks, would have sex with men right in front of him when he was just a kid. So, yes, the creep has Mommy Issues and each woman he stalks and slices is, to him, his mother, but that's not insightful, it's just obvious. Haven't "Psycho," "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," and the Showtime series "Dexter" better examined the male gaze and the bleakest corners of a madman? This wouldn't be the first time the harmless-looking Wood has played a killer (he was creepy in "Sin City" as a cannibalistic serial killer who collected women's heads), but it's certainly the most disturbing and memorable. With Wood ruthlessly going against type and sinking to dark, deranged places as a twitchy, pathetic monster, his performance is nearly exclusively vocal (aside from his reflection in mirrors) and certainly an admirably brave feat.
Instead of being a horror film that gets under your skin and actually frightens with implied carnage, "Maniac" is really just a hardcore, voyeuristic, shamelessly misogynistic snuff exercise with artsy camera work. Allowing the viewer to live vicariously through a fetishistic serial killer for a day, it's a queasy, down-and-dirty sit that demands a bleach shower afterwards and is more akin to having a fly insistently buzz in your ear. Don't say you weren't warned.