As trashy, pointless slice-and-dicers go, a grotesque chamber of horrors called Maniac has arty production values and features a creepy but sincere central performance by Elijah Wood (best known as Frodo in the Lord of the Rings cycle). But eventually it collapses in a gore fest of nauseating brutality that makes you wonder why they bothered at all.
In a perpetually dark, sinister and virtually deserted Los Angeles that looks like a foreign planet, there’s a serial killer on the loose, stalking girls to their homes, cutting off their electricity, driving an assortment of straight-blade razors and butcher knives through their jugulars, then scalping them. This fiend is freaky, blue-eyed Elijah Wood, a baby-faced actor who thinks all you have to do to play a homicidal maniac is stop shaving. He is a restorer of storefront dummies who lives in a combination bedroom-warehouse and mannequin shop among the severed heads and amputated limbs of his victims. There is never a sense of any other people around. The parking garages, subways and streets where he traps and tortures his future mannequins are always deserted. The focus is on him and his need to kill screaming women begging for mercy and turn them into his own personal wax museum.
Then he meets a girl named Anna whose career focus is photographing mannequins for a bizarre art gallery opening. She thinks he’s got talent and he thinks he has found a soul mate at last. But you can’t keep a good maniac in milk and cookies forever. As soon as she shows the first sign of suspicion, he arrives at her studio with a new collection of designer cutlery, batters her manly, protective neighbor into steak tartare with a baseball bat, and turns her into the prize possession of his collection. No spoilers, but this movie is just gearing up for a wild finale that makes Psycho look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
Director Franck Khalfoun obviously has ambitions beyond limited showings on Midnight Madness programs. He even names his maniac Frank. Whatever motivation this killer has for drawing and quartering women you have to piece together in flashbacks to his childhood, watching his nymphomaniac mother entertain multiple sex partners. Drawing its inspiration from Silence of the Lambs, which was also about a fiend with a mother complex and a fondness for skinning women alive, Maniac is shot at odd angles from the killer’s viewpoint, his face reflected in glass windows, rearview mirrors and hubcaps. Elijah Wood looks strange, myopic and mentally unhinged, and there is some indication that newcomer Nora Arnezeder, who plays Anna, might have a future as soon as she changes her name into something that will fit on a marquee. Unfortunately, with only the bare outline of a script, no acting is required. The structure of the film is 89 minutes of brutality with a college degree. This is a warning, not a recommendation.
Written by Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell
Directed by Franck Khalfoun
Starring Elijah Wood, America Olivo and Liane Balaban
Running time: 89 mins.