Psychopaths (Review)

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PSYCHOPATHS

THE SETUP

This is a review of the Region 1 (U.S Import) Dvd of “Psychopaths”, the latest Horror film from Writer/Director, Mickey Keating (Carnage Park and Darling). Psychopaths takes place in the seedy, violent underbelly of Los Angeles on the night of a full moon. Mass murderer, Henry Starkweather (played by genre king, Larry Fessenden) is set to meet his maker via the electric chair. With his final words he vows those with true evil in their hearts shall wreak havoc throughout the city on this fateful night. Enter, Mask (Sam Zimmerman) a contract style killer fueled by a traumatic past. Blondie (played by Angela Trimbur of “Trash Fire”) a psychotic femme-fatale. The Strangler (James Landry Hebert) who lures and kills his victims in a motel room, and Alice (played by Ashley Bell) an escaped mental patient with multiple personalities and who thinks she’s really a 1950’s showgirl. The film also stars Jeremy Gardner (The Battery), Mark Kassen (Puncture), Helen Rogers (Body) and Jeff Daniel Phillips (Lords Of Salem and 31). Every once in a blue moon horror and its subsequent sub-genres get reinvigorated with new life. Wes Craven (R.I.P) did it with “A Nightmare On Elm St”, and then again years later reinventing the slasher wheel, or at the very least getting said wheels on it turning again with his iconic film, “Scream”. Then came the likes of James Wan and Leigh Whannell (Saw and Insidious) with their work in both the paranormal genre and the more extreme brands of horror. So to Eli Roth when he hit the scene (Cabin Fever and Hostel), as well as the likes of Ti West (House Of The Devil) and Adam Wingard (You’re Next). I’ve personally found that in recent years it’s been the emergence of young Writer/Director, Mickey Keating whose been making his mark on the genre in new and interesting ways. Mickey’s quickly risen to great heights, churning out five feature-length films in as many years, each extremely different from the next. With that, he’s become perhaps one of the most unique and talented filmmakers on the independent circuit today.

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THE GOOD

I’ve been a fan of Keating’s ever since the meticulously crafted, psychological slow-burner “Darling”, which I think is almost the perfect film *see review* https://adamthemoviegod.com/darling-review/.  He then followed that up with an honest and ambitious love letter to 70’s American cinema with a gritty mix of Crime/Exploitation and Horror in “Carnage Park” *see review* https://adamthemoviegod.com/carnage-park-review/. I heard that Psychopaths, although still grounded in horror, was going to be a very different experience than anything he’d made prior. A Mickey Keating film is just that, an experience. That’s what I love about him as a filmmaker, the intention is that you take it all in. No single facet is prioritized over another, and if nothing else you’re sure to walk away having every one of your senses stimulated, and that my friends is a cinephiles wet dream. I’m digging the retro inspired poster art (the hardcopy artwork differs), it’s the first thing that caught my eye when I was following the progression of the film. Keating’s latest is an experimental and psychedelic presentation, though one can’t deny the hint of film-noir about it which is exhibited in a number of shots by Keating’s regular DP, Mac Fisken (who is a supreme talent). There’s a willful contrast between the intoxicating presentation and its depiction of seemingly random violence.

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Keating has previously stated that he’s first and foremost a film fan and it’s safe to say the era of the 70’s and 80’s. The inspiration behind his previous works would support that. Darling felt like the more accomplished lovechild of Polanski (Repulsion), Kubrick (The Shining) and Hitchcock (Psycho) and the same can be said about “Carnage Park” and its various tips of the hat to Tarantino (namely Reservoir Dogs), Sam Peckinpah (The Getaway) and John Boorman (Deliverance) as well as films like “Apocalypse Now” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. With Psychopaths, Keating draws motivation from a new batch of film makers but still makes it feel as though he’s doing something true to himself. Sure, there are set pieces reminiscent of David Lynch and “Lost Highway”, characters stepping outside their skin in the same way they do in Terry Gilliam’s “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas”, and stylish editing techniques akin to the likes of Brian De Palma (Dressed To Kill) but it all feels like part of a world Keating set out to create. The audio track is clean, and yet again Mac’s camera work screams panache. That said, everything is still nicely framed and the addition of a couple of overhead shots and some gentle zooming adds some variance. The handful of sideways shots are cool though they don’t necessarily serve a purpose.

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If there was ever any confusion as to what Psychopaths was going for, the neon soaked lighting and 70’s style soundtrack should more than clear that up. Everything is intentionally over saturated with vivid coloring, but this is perhaps Mickey’s best lit film, it looks superb. Our introduction to Hebert as The Strangler, takes place in a motel room laced with reds and greens, further amplified by bright light illuminating between the windows and bouncing off the walls. Gorgeous pinks and blues are utilized in a very “Boogie Nights” esq club sequence involving the masked contract killer and later, a shady cop (played by Gardner). The infusion of some film noir flair comes carefully displayed in the shadowing around Hebert’s eyes and mouth, in turn making him hard to read as he rolls up on Blondie down some back alley in the city. I was a little disappointed when I saw that composer, Giona Ostinelli wasn’t behind the music in Psychopaths (he was responsible for two of my favourite scores in Keating’s previous films). I deduced the reason for that was due to Psychopaths having virtually no conventional score. Keating instead opted for conventional music that was very 70’s in nature. There’s a cool blues guitar and keyboard theme in the beginning and a lot of new wave electro pop music that surprisingly fits the atmosphere. There is one section with some originally composed score and it builds around percussive drums and clattering strings.

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As expected, Keating’s regulars make up most of the cast in Psychopaths. Michael Villar and Larry Fessenden (who also produces) have small roles but it’s really the return of the talented Ashley Bell and James Landry Hebert (both of Carnage Park) that fans of Mickey’s work will appreciate. The acting is pretty consistent right across the board and the film is satisfyingly narrated by Jeff Daniel Phillips, although I wish Keating took the opportunity to disperse with more discourse through that narration. While James and Larry got their shining moment in lieu of some of the other actors, as luck would have it its Bell that ultimately steals the show with her take on Anna. It’s a sporadic front that she’s able to explore in perhaps the only character with somewhat of an arc. Glamorous one minute, cold calculated and deranged the next, culminating with an intense outburst requiring a range of facial expressions and emotions. Fessenden was perfect for the role of Starkweather, practically spitting at the lens while spewing venom about the evil that had come to pass and that would once again. James made his screen time in Carnage Park memorable and here he gets to tap into a truly violent character, harnessing one of the most unnerving dead stares and creepy smiles that I’ve seen in a long while. There’s early action and plenty of practical blood and gore but some may be surprised to find that it’s not as violent as the title and taglines would suggest. The masks are effective though and the two standout set pieces involve a violent stabbing and a cringe inducing fingernail sequence.

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THE BAD

I don’t think the cinematography is as grand or diverse in Psychopaths as it was in Keating’s two previous films. Perhaps it’s that the locations and material better lended itself to the aforementioned. Most of the vignettes take place in either confined spaces or against dark backdrops, almost always trailing off into oblivion so you never quite get the full range of Fisken’s repertoire. There’s some momentary shaky cam depicting Alice’s escape from a group of orderlies, it only stood out because the rest of the film was so cleanly shot. The De Palma style split screen shots don’t appear to have a reason for existing. That scene in “500 Days Of Summer” comes to mind because it was used to great effect. In Psychopaths, Keating opts to use it after Blondie traps a victim in a box and then has to answer the door. We see her conversation with a police officer, as well as the victim’s struggle. Now if he escaped or something crucial happened in those moments, e.g he found a weapon etc, then I could understand it, but alas. I found the sequence depicting The Strangler tripping out and looking back at himself totally meaningless, it was purely just a visual stimuli that added nothing to the mix. The same can be said about the closing scenes with Alice. Her mindset being externalized was never going to transcend what we’d already seen from her in earlier scenes.

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It seemed odd that only one particular character’s arc was presented out of sequence. The portion of the film involves a cop who unfortunately we learn absolutely nothing about. He has some kind of connection to one of the club girls but the character just never raises any interest. Perhaps there were questions surrounding whether he was even a cop or not, maybe he just killed a cop, who knows? I felt like I was supposed to read between the lines between him and the masked man, though I had nothing to go on in order to do so, other than he simply let on like he knew more. Keating often gets panned by ill-informed critics who I believe fail to grasp the importance of the filmmakers intent. They often say his films have paper-thin premises and a script consisting of little to no dialogue. I suppose that is true, they do. That basis is often the very reason I like his films, though this time I’m inclined to agree with the masses. Sadly Psychopaths spends its 78 minute run time attempting to ripen from the vaguest roots of a concept that never quite comes together to form a cohesive narrative. There’s no appreciation, or at the very least understanding for these psychopaths because their threads are so extremely tenuous and therefore nothing can be extracted (with the exception of Alice).

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With Keating having set the bar so high with films like “Darling” and “Carnage Park”, I was always going to have unrealistically high expectations for this latest piece of work, I know that. Still, this one feels like a 70’s soaked Lynchian/De Palma like “Natural Born Killers” meets “The Strangers”. The audio is sharp, Fisken’s photography is crisp and that lighting palette is unbelievably alluring and reminiscent of something like Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives”. The 70’s soundtrack is a fresh inclusion for a horror film and perhaps one of the best I’ve heard in a while. Keating’s regulars are back and they deliver consistent performances. Herbert and Fessenden are great to watch, but it’s most certainly Ashley Bell that makes every second of screen time count. This just might be her best performance to date. I’m a sucker for film nods and there’s an abundance of them here. From faces in jars calling to mind, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, a bandaged man straight out of, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” and even Blondie’s mask looks similar to that worn by a girl in De Palma’s film, “Passion”. The on-screen violence and blood spray is there but it feels lacking given the movie is called, “Psychopaths”. Some of the camera techniques appear to have no function and other shot choices aren’t as diverse as I’m used to seeing from Keating. There’s a couple of seemingly pointless sequences that only visually convey what the audience already knows. One arc is jarring because of it’s non-linear presentation, in addition to being the least interesting segment (for lack of a better word). I’d prefer to have seen Mickey spend that 10 or 15 minutes fleshing out his characters more which might have provided some much-needed substance, in turn bringing this whole thing together in a much more tangible way. I can still revel all day in how stylish Psychopaths looks and feels, it’s just a shame one can’t go digging into a crux that simply isn’t there.

My rating for “Psychopaths” is 6/10

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