Say this for Maniac: It’s got guts. And sliced tendons. And exposed brains. And numerous acts of unspeakable violence, visited almost exclusively upon women, and captured through the first-person POV of the film's psychotic protagonist/antagonist. That eyes-of-the-killer gimmick is the defining characteristic of Franck Khalfoun’s unrelenting shocker, which essentially takes the audience-implicating voyeurism of Halloween’s opening five minutes and extends it to feature-length. In an era of neutered, PG-13 horror, the sheer brutality on display here is bracing, even as a streak of sadism obliterates any faint traces of genre-movie “fun.” To put it another way, if it’s possible to be both impressed and appalled by a movie’s pull-no-punches savagery, Maniac earns that dubious distinction.
Early on, this grim thriller cracks its single joke, which only the initiated will recognize as such. The killer, a big-city prowler who scalps his female victims and affixes their hair to the plastic occupants of his mannequin store, has sat down to dinner with a woman he met on a dating site. When he asks what she expected him to look like, her description—“fat, long black hair, greasy skin with acne”—fits the profile of Joe Spinell, who played the killer in William Lustig’s infamous 1980 slasher movie of the same name. The most glaring flaw of that grimy cult classic was an improbable romance between the slovenly Spinell and a stunning Caroline Munro. Khalfoun’s remake, to which the POV angle is unique, sidesteps that problem by casting an easier-on-the-eyes Elijah Wood in the lead. But is it any more believable that this twitchy, plainly disturbed young man would earn the trust of a pretty shutterbug (Nora Arnezeder)? Glimpsed only occasionally, mostly in reflective surfaces, Wood has to convey deranged menace through strictly vocal means. He pants, he whispers, he stutters, he carries on Gollum-like conversations with the mannequins in his shop. It’s a broad performance, much less effective than the silent one the actor delivered in Sin City, which cast him as a mute but equally vicious madman.
As for the subjective perspective, it’s too inconsistent to be celebrated. Khalfoun occasionally cheats, pulling out into omniscient master shots for some of the film’s murders, and varying the closeness of his compositions mid-scene, which makes no sense in ocular terms. (Eyeballs don’t have zoom lenses.) But none of that may matter to the midnight-movie crowd, which will get more than its money’s worth of carnage. Co-written by Alexandre Aja, who made the insanely gory Piranha remake, Maniac reestablishes France as the nerve center of extreme horror. One prolonged scene of abuse, which culminates in a live scalping, may cause even jaded genre connoisseurs to wince in displeasure. For a film like this, that’s a recommendation. To the faint of heart, the weak of stomach, and those with no tolerance for hyper-stylized cruelty, it’s a warning.