A shocker of a remake, equal parts stylish and scuzzy, “Maniac” only marginally softens the grindhouse sleaze of William Lustig’s 1980 original, still notorious for being the “Taxi Driver” of slashers. With an intense Elijah Wood in the title role of a wigged-out psycho killer who affixes the scalps of his female victims to fly-drawing mannequins, this merciless work of anti-entertainment is arguably admirable for being as disturbingly disgusting as it wants to be. Stateside distribs might well stalk the France-U.S. co-production, but an R rating is inconceivable for anything like the version screened after midnight at Cannes.
Shot largely from the p.o.v. of heavy-breathing Los Angeles slayer Frank Zitto (Wood), director Franck Khalfoun’s faithful remake (co-written by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur) sets out to victimize the viewer, and succeeds to the extent that unsuspecting horror fans might end up running for the exits before the Grand Guignol finale. The first of the film’s handful of unwatchably ultraviolent scenes follows the maniac’s excruciatingly slow progress in hunting an innocent woman who’s eventually dispatched in gruesome fashion while trying to enter her apartment.
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Such is the pic’s devotion to subjectivity that Wood’s performance is almost exclusively vocal for the first half-hour, the audience forced to share Frank’s predatory gaze. Like Lustig’s film, Khalfoun’s surveys the city’s seedier side from the window of the psycho’s car, giving it an easily recognizable relationship to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” with all the psychotically clammy voyeurism that kinship allows.
“Psycho,” too, exerts itself on “Maniac,” as Frank recalls in hallucinatory flashback the neglect he suffered at the hands of his late prostitute mother (America Olivo), on whom he remains fixated. Other horror pics are acknowledged as well: Frank’s long, upsettingly sexual encounter with tattooed Lucie (Megan Duffy) is set to Q. Lazzarus’s “Goodbye Horses,” recalling “The Silence of the Lambs”; and the psycho’s first date with Anna (a Cybill Shepherd-esque Nora Arnezeder) has them catching a revival screening of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” referenced by Khalfoun as a reminder that savage killer films stretch back nearly a century.
Where Khalfoun’s “Maniac” fails to cut deep is in sketching the unlikely relationship between nutso Frank, who runs a mannequin shop, and sweet Anna, who somehow maintains an interest in the asocial weirdo while borrowing his dummies for her downtown L.A. gallery installation. Frank tries to control his murderous urges, declining to kill Anna when he has the chance, although the beauty-and-beast interplay rarely resembles anything emotionally authentic.
Late-reel victims Jessica (Genevieve Alexandra) and Rita (Jan Broberg) pay dearly (and, alas, memorably) in the pic, whose crisp and colorful widescreen shooting by Maxime Alexandre runs compellingly counter to the utter depravity of the material. The film’s old-school synth score by the mononymous Rob somewhat recalls that of the original “Halloween.” Sound recordist Emmanuel Augeard does a terrifically unsettling job of muffling the protag’s voice, the better for the maniac to seem supernaturally sick.