Review: 'Maniac'

After breaking out with his thoroughly grisly, ultimately goofy “High Tension,” Alexandre Aja has made a name for himself on horror remakes: 2006’s “The Hills Have Eyes,” 2008’s “Mirrors,” 2010’s “Piranha.” Acting as a producer and co-writer this time out, Aja hands the reins over to Franck Khalfoun, director of the Aja-produced parking-garage thriller “P2,” as they put a first-person spin on William Lustig’s cult classic, “Maniac.”

The chief gimmick here is that everything we see is from the eyes -- or at least the mind -- of Frank (Elijah Wood), a mannequin aficionado with a penchant for stalking and scalping young beauties so as to better adorn his lifeless companions. His voice is a panicky constant, his vision an occasional blur on account of migraines, with the perspective only dropped for flashbacks to Frank’s typically trashy childhood and whenever he finally lands the thrill of a kill. By the time he falls for cute photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) and attempts a proper courtship, we know that the track record isn’t exactly in his favor...

Khalfoun’s technique may be cinema’s most thuddingly literal attempt to put viewers inside the head of a psychopath, complete with Norman Bates-worthy mommy issues, but as a technical feat, it makes for a remarkably dedicated experience while minimizing concerns over Wood’s less-than-intimidating stature. (“Sin City,” this is not.) Our lead doesn’t resemble Joe Spinell in the original, nor should he. Spinell played a very particular kind of brute ideal for the seediness of late-‘70s NYC; Wood plays the type of shy guy that present-day Angelenos aren’t necessarily afraid to take home before it’s too late.

There are callbacks nonetheless, some of which are just a touch too on-the-nose, and the synth-heavy score by Rob helps to keep the film out of its own time, but just as the original “Maniac” was chiefly remarkable for its groundbreaking gore effects by Tom Savini, the gruesomeness here is almost proudly impeccable in its seamlessness. Now and then, the subjectivity of Frank’s mind is eerie enough, as when the patrons of a restaurant all seem to stop and stare him down while his date prattles on, but more often than not, Khalfoun and Aja are all about working the gag reflex – a questionable goal, to be sure, but one that’s effectively achieved.

For some, the moral vacuum in which this plays out will prove insurmountable, and understandably so. Apathy virtually scalps empathy at every turn. For others, though, “Maniac” is a bit like watching an amputee play hopscotch: there’s no way that it’s polite to stare for this long, but you just have to see if this guy’s gonna make it to the end.

SCORE: 6.6 / 10

“Maniac” is now available on VOD, iTunes and in select theaters.