Imagine an episode of Peep Show in which Mark is possessed by too many negative orgones and decides to scalp Dobby and her megafringe for being such a doe-eyed little flirt with his flatmate Jeremy. That provides a stylistic approximation of the intriguing new horror remake Maniac, which adopts a similarly distinctive POV format to uncomfortably immerse the viewer inside the head of Elijah Wood's serial killer.
An absorbing rather than enjoyable experience, Maniac revels in its own capacity to induce repulsion. We're forced to witness a procession of extremely gory slayings unfold in downtown Los Angeles through the eyes of the perpetrator Frank (Wood), who indulges in his fetish for slicing the tops of the heads of young women as if they're soft-boiled eggs, then placing their scalps on the mannequins he owns. It's unlikely to be the next step in Wayne Rooney's ongoing hair replacement treatment programme.
Frank soon attracts the affection of young artist Anna (Nora Arnezeder), who is interested in his mannequin collection and blissfully unaware of his murderous tendencies. As their friendship escalates, the story quickly boils down to whether Frank can curb his urges and leave Anna's flowing blonde hair on her own bonce. But to paraphrase a well-known shampoo commercial – is she worth it?
Given the nature of the plot, you'd expect audiences would be rooting for Anna to flee from Frank. Yet Maniac's form, which differs wildly from the 1980 original, steers clear of explicitly judging Frank – and instead equips the audience with flashbacks to his traumatic childhood, allows you access to hear his self-doubting thoughts and witness moments of self-loathing introspection. You can't escape a feeling of complicity with his actions. The casting of babyfaced Elijah Wood, who is seen regularly but briefly in mirrors and reflections, also muddies these waters.
That's not to say the central depiction is psychologically complex or revelatory, as it's far too flimsy for that. The same can be applied to the female supporting characters, who are mostly sexually objectified fodder who conform to horror movie conventions by doing dumb things that lead to their downfall and whipping their tops off at the earliest available opportunity. This seems a deliberate strategy, for the filmmakers want to push your buttons in the most calculating and challenging manner possible, leading to interesting if not wholly satisfying results. In that sense, there are echoes of Michael Haneke's similarly postmodern Funny Games.
Maniac is certainly a technical triumph, with the camerawork seamlessly showing Frank's perspective without being too off-putting. An aesthetic and synthy score reminiscent of Drive also help to sustain interest in the face of the horrific acts that are explicitly and unrelentingly portrayed.
A curious career choice for Elijah Wood, whose creepily disorientated voice dominates proceedings alongside the camerawork, Maniac is a disturbing and grim movie that ultimately fails to offer the exploration of voyeurism found in the classic Peeping Tom. It's far too busy doing the filmic equivalent of poking you with a stick to see how much you flinch, and unashamedly so.