Score: 5 out of 5
Maniac, a remake of an obscure 1980 slasher flick, is an exceptionally, astonishingly vicious film. Your opinion will very much depend on how comfortable you are being literally thrust into the shoes of a serial killer for ninety minutes, right down to seeing virtually all of the events of the film through his first-person perspective as he strangles, stabs, slashes, and scalps various women, all of it shown in unflinching detail. We've all heard the old joke about how slasher movies encourage us to root for and identify with the killer, but this is one that takes that idea to its logical conclusion. This movie is straight-up disturbing in its brutality, and how it got me to identify with the titular maniac and his neuroses. It is a film that aims to be horrifying, and it succeeds. My God, does it succeed.
Stick it out, though, and you will be treated to an astonishingly good performance by Elijah Wood as the deranged murderer Frank Zito, one that, together with some very creative direction, makes this an outstanding and chilling motion picture. It is a truly frightening look into madness, as Wood takes us on a journey through his character's twisted mind. Raised badly by a prostitute mother (played by America Olivo in flashbacks), Frank now runs a shop in Los Angeles, restoring vintage mannequins to their former glory for use in modern productions. He is also a serial killer who targets pretty young women and scalps them for their hair, the only part of the body that doesn't rot away (too bad about the flesh it's attached to), using the scalps as macabre wigs for some of his mannequins who he then keeps as "girlfriends". He desperately tries to keep this side of his life secret from Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a French photographer who he takes a particular liking to as they collaborate on an art project. Frank being Frank, of course, his "particular liking" is doomed to end very poorly.
The use of first-person perspective in virtually every scene creates a chilling feeling. We aren't just watching Frank brutally murder people, we are him as he cuts and rips the flesh of his victims. POV cams of the killer stalking his prey are a classic slasher movie technique, one that this film draws out for its entire runtime as we see his lair, his technique, and the full depths of his madness. We see what he does with the scalps, and his deranged feelings towards the opposite sex as a result of his terrible relationship with his mother. When he hides just out of his victims' sight, it feels like waiting for a snake to snatch a mouse. He sees Anna as an ethereal beauty who he is destined to be with forever, and so we see her as such, a twist on the "final girl" archetype as he cannot understand why she won't return his affection -- even though we are waiting for her to find out just what a creep he is. What truly scared me while watching this wasn't the stalking, the chase sequences, or the kills (though all of those are undoubtedly effective), but how its voyeuristic nature made me identify on a fundamental level with an utterly repulsive, psychically broken sack of shit. It was a walk on the dark side that had me staring straight into an abyss, thanks in no small part to Elijah Wood. No stranger to playing vicious psychopaths (just watch Sin City), Wood plays Frank as the sort of person who should never be around women, and carries that to the logical conclusion. Even though he himself only appears on screen sparingly, usually in reflections, his voice is heard throughout, narrating the film like the player character in a first-person shooter video game, whether he's trying to keep Anna from heading into the back of his shop where he does his work or telling a woman how beautiful she is before ramming a knife up through her jaw.
Speaking of, there is gore aplenty here if that's what you're looking for. With the whole movie being shot through Frank's eyes, we get to see everything that he sees; there is no cutting away when he takes his knife and hacks people up. The gore effects are icky and grotesque, a sight to behold that the film depicts in painstaking, up-close detail through Frank's eyes; the influence of Alexandre Aja (who co-wrote this film and produced it) is apparent in the graphic bloodshed on display. This film was not rated, and it shows. The score was exceptional; it seems that '80s-style synthwave is rapidly becoming the soundtrack of choice for modern, indie or indie-adjacent horror flicks, and here, it is put to great use. On a more technical level, it was also interesting to see how they managed to block each scene where Frank is looking at himself in a mirror, showing him but not the camera that would logically be where he is standing. The fact that there was only one scene where the camera angle did not ring true is a testament to the technical challenge that they overcame.
The Bottom Line
It's gruesome, it's sick, it's perverted, and it's a borderline-masterpiece of a brutal slasher flick that turns the point of view on its head. For those horror fans with strong stomachs out there, definitely watch this one.