You could say the killer finds himself in his art. You could also say you've seen that art -- and this movie -- before.
How is it that Elvis has become the go-to sign of boys' obsessions? From Nic Cage to Mystery Train to the Rock, Presley worship is a cute hint at nuttiness, a fantasy abandoned when the right girl comes along. P2 takes this incipience a step further. Here the Man Who Loves the King is full-on depraved, so fixated on the girl who's supposed to save him that he decides to kidnap her for Christmas.
The film's premise is pretty much laid out in its title: the kidnapping and abuse occur in a Manhattan office building parking garage. The setting is but one familiar piece out of the many assembled by Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, and Franck Khalfoun (the team who made Haute tension). And these pieces have a stark potential, indicated by the very first scene, as the camera glides through the parking lot, passing in and out of murky corners, leading at last to a car, in which trunk someone is trapped. The scene (a flashforward to a moment that comes late in the action) ends with a loud and satisfying jolt, a stylish use of space and dread.
Alas, the plot is not nearly as clever as Maxime Alexandre's camera. Gesturing toward the slasher film's extremely basic gender politics, it sets a malfunctioning male monster against a female victim who becomes his brutal match to survive. The first term is Elvis Boy (real name Thomas, played with some verve by Wes Bentley), the parking garage attendant. Day after day, he's been monitoring the decks and the elevators from his video surveillance booth. Over time, he's located the girl of his dreams, lovely Angela (Rachel Nichols), who wears designer outfits and drives a BMW. Like Thomas, she dedicates herself to her job -- something where she has to stare intently into her computer screen as she types expertly, even when distracted by a colleague, Jim (Simon Reynolds), who stops by to apologize for pawing at her after a few two many drinks at the office party.
Her job has Angela working late on Christmas Eve. By the time she's finally ready to leave her high-rise office -- after checking in with her sister in Jersey, who has kids and needs the Santa suit Angela's supposed to deliver -- the building is empty and spooky. As she makes her way to the car, parked on P2, she chats with the Carl the office security guy. During this exchange, you learn that despite her fine appearance, she was raised on a farm and can joke about "keeping it real" with a black man who makes maybe a tenth of her salary.
Carl's approval makes Angela generically sympathetic, so now you can feel anxious for her when her car won't start. Trundling back to the office to call a cab (cell phones conveniently do not work in the garage, where you know Angela will be spending most of the night), she carries sacks of gifts for her nieces and a huge teddy bear, in addition to the Santa suit, rented, wrapped in plastic. She's fretful and exhausted rather than festive, a condition exacerbated when her cab arrives but she finds she's locked in, helpless and pounding the unbreakable glass.
Angela's victimization is premised on a couple of factors: she's not only a desired object (for Jim and Thomas), but she's also too careerist. And so she represents both traditional slasher film positions, the chaste babysitter and the sexy best friend. Thomas' particular abuses underscore the point: when he appears out dark shadows, his pale face ghastly in slivered light, he's feminized and monstrous. But he's also aggressive in a nerdy-obsessive way: when Angela wakes after her abduction, she's chained to his Christmas dinner table and dressed in a new outfit, a slinky holiday white number, her lips painted extra-red. As her eyes go wide, Thomas warns her, "You're gonna hurt yourself, try to stay calm." She stands, falls, and pukes.
Thus begins the gore and goo portion of our program. The trick of the parking garage isn't new, but it is sustained, providing no end of sinister shadows and long-shot empty spaces. Thomas and Angela work their way into the inevitable competition, she apparently having seen enough psycho killer movies to know there are various ways to deal with such a bad wolf. While Thomas insists that he loves her and will never hurt her, she tries whimpering, cajoling, berating, and competing, no one approach being exactly right. Her efforts lead to a series of showdowns in ooky places, wherein she suffers all manner of bloody wounding. She's the updated version of Laurie Strode, hiding in versions of closets, wrangling weapons out of found objects, wondering at the uncanny persistence of her foe.
For his part, Thomas is part rejected-feeling would-have-been lover, part rehashed-Michael, part chatty torturer. "I've seen you drive out of here so many times," he informs her, as if this grants him ownership. The surveillance technology -- multiple monitors keeping track of multiple doorways and stairwells -- serves him a certain authority, and the film makes frequent use of these grainy images to approximate his point of view, indicating just how much the average parking lot attendant might be able to see.
Seeing is key to Thomas and Angela's dynamic. When she sees the tape he's made of applying that red lipstick, she's appalled, and when she realizes how he's been watching her, she takes an ax to every surveillance camera she can find. Watching has also spurred Thomas to action; seeing Angela's yucky Christmas party encounter with Jim inspires his righteous, extreme vengeance against her assailant, as well as instruction to Angela not be a "slut." No surprise: Thomas rather enjoys brutal, blood-splatting mayhem, indicated by the eerie abandon of his assaults. When he's slamming, slicing, and whomping, or imagining himself as Elvis singing "Blue Christmas," suddenly he's not so shy as when he's trying to talk to Angela. You could say he finds himself in his art. You could also say you've seen that art -- and this movie -- before.