An irredeemable exploitation horror movie that overplays its subjective point-of-view conceit, “Maniac” will leave viewers cold. A by-committee screenplay, contributed to by Alexandre Aja (“High Tension”), updates William Lustig’s ‘80s cult horror classic by the same title — about a serial killer with a palate for the severed scalps of women. Relative newcomer Franck Khalfoun (“P2”) directs.
The disquieting horror movie hooks its audience with a shocking preliminary knife murder, and subsequent scalping, seen through the eyes of Los Angeles serial killer Frank (Elijah Woods). From a shock value standpoint, the sequence does the trick. The woman’s bloody scalp slides off so easily — too easily — under Frank’s well-sharpened hunting knife. Wood is every bit as creepy as his malevolent killer in “Sin City,” albeit more misogynistic here. Stunt casting aside, Elijah Wood makes for a believable basket case midget consumed with hunting down and killing women on a seemingly daily basis. A lack of subplots, much less any development thereof, creates a claustrophobic narrative vacuum. What we get is gore for the sake of gore. This is filmmaking gone bad.
A childhood of abuse by his prostitute mother (America Olivo) has left deep scars on Frank’s warped psyche. Cheesy flashbacks provide abstract exposition that hardly convinces regarding the lost sanity of a killer whose face we barely glimpse during the film’s first hour. Frank’s heavy breathing and knotted voice tell the camera where to look. The effect is tedious.
As an adult, Frank restores old mannequins in his poorly lit storefront. He cuddles up with his favorite models in bed after using a staple gun to attach, and reattach, the freshly severed scalps of his recent female victims. Flies are a problem; no amount of bug spray helps. Frank perseveres. The screenwriters borrow liberally from films such as “Psycho” and “Silence of the Lambs,” but suffer a loss of suspense because there aren’t enough layers to the story.
Franck Khalfoun uses some flashy filmic techniques — an electronic-buzzing musical score and light-pulsing camera pans — but nothing to rival Gaspar Noé’s mind-boggling subjective camera work on “Irreversible” or “Enter the Void” — two far better films that clearly informed “Maniac.”
Some audiences will likely wonder at the entertainment value of being implicated in a litany of grotesque murders of young women by an anti-hero protagonist. Meanwhile, pimply-faced fanboys will celebrate the film’s graphic depiction of grotesque violence against scantily clad women.
There’s something to be said for filmmakers bending the rules of dramaturgy, but rules are rules for a reason, and misfires like this demonstrate why. Without an empathetic character to shepherd the viewer through its stomach-turning episodes of grisly violence, the story has nowhere to go. Creepy, gory, and cold as the ocean’s floor, “Maniac” seems more like a how-to guide for would-be serial killers than a scary movie to take a date to see. If you do make the mistake of ignoring my advice, don’t be surprised if your date walks out.
Not Rated. 100 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)