An unremarkable accountant (Jim O’Heir) sets out to become a stand-up comic in Ned Crowley’s feverish farce about a killing spree that fuels hit monologues. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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Familiar movie and pop-cultural references whirl maniacally by in Ned Crowley’s sinister “Middle Man,” like a circling carousel of friendly horse figures erupting into terrifying hyperspeed.

Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” and “Shutter Island,” hitchhiker thriller films, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and even the linguistic oddity of describing a successful stand-up comedian as routinely “killing” people all are evoked as we absorb Crowley’s psychologically layered thriller. But each of these touchstones eventually bursts as “Middle Man” proves to be far darker than the sum of its parts.

Crowley even fools us into thinking, initially, that his first feature as a writer-director is destined to be a comedy. Certainly it begins that way, as portly accountant Lenny (Jim O’Heir) inherits his mom’s vintage car and decides to pursue his unlikely fantasy of becoming a stand-up comic.

Movie Review ★★★  

Middle Man,’ with Jim O’Heir, Andrew J. West, Anne Dudek. Written and directed by Ned Crowley. 104 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains violence, blood and gore).

Making his way to a Las Vegas showcase, he picks up mysterious wanderer Hitch (Andrew J. West), who instantly (and with canny obviousness on Crowley’s part) becomes Lenny’s real or imagined id monster in the film’s extended, Grand Guignol mirage. When the deceptively laid-back Hitch agrees, in his cobra fashion, to become Lenny’s manager, mayhem and bloodshed soon follow.

Performing at an open-microphone night in a desert bar, Lenny’s less-than-stellar act ushers in an extended killing spree that fuels his funnier, subsequent stage routines with confessional material. In time, a waitress (Anne Dudek) he fancies becomes caught up in the story’s expanding fever dream, which begins to resemble an elusive, cosmic joke on the hapless Lenny until Crowley ends “Middle Man” with a more monstrous horror.

In more careless hands, “Middle Man’s” deranged farce could have resulted in an unchecked, undisciplined movie with nothing to say. But beneath the roller-coaster madness here is an earthbound terror that art is meant to reveal.