Say what you will about The Purge movies, but that franchise delivers on its premise: One auspicious night a year, the darkest dregs of society tap into their base impulses for a gory night out on the town. Mickey Keating’s Psychopaths all but pledges to do the same, except instead of a government mandate, it’s the prison execution of serial killer Henry Earl Starkweather (Larry Fessenden), who with his dying words proclaims that his death will trigger the dispersal of evil into the world. Unfortunately, Starkweather’s final moments sum up the rest of this horror film. All buildup and no follow-through.
The night unfolds in a series of vignettes, as the eponymous serial killers rack up victims and only occasionally cross paths, in such a way as to seem more accidental than fated. Each has his or her particular look and methodology: The Strangler (James Landry Hébert) stops twirling his moustache long enough to wrap his hands around pretty girls’ necks; Blondie (Angela Trimbur) utilizes fluttering eyelashes and a stash of syringes to play victim and then flip the script; mental hospital escapee Alice (The Last Exorcism’s Ashley Bell) descends upon an unsuspecting couple at home while imagining herself onstage performing in the cabaret; and Mask (Sam Zimmerman) carries out a typical contract killing, only to see things go cock-eyed.
It’s frustratingly unclear if these killers were activated by some release of dark psychic energy, or if this is a normal night out for them. The latter seems more likely, as they are clearly seasoned pros, with their own brands to boot. And yet, there’s something disingenuous about the fact that each embodies a distinctive archetype, presented without the crucial commentary to infuse the style with some substance.
Take Mask. You can put a creepy child mask on a killer without explaining it if you’re The Strangers. You can’t put a creepy child mask to cover some grotesque facial injury and not explain that. Psychopaths could have been an opportunity to do a reverse Cabin in the Woods and interrogate, through some higher power, a crew of archetypal killers—what made them act like this, and how can they push back against their established narratives?
But writer/director Keating’s influences clearly don’t tend toward the Joss Whedon brand of horror. Psychopaths is an homage to Brian De Palma, Gaspar Noé, and Michael Haneke, among many others, through an ambitious but muddled combination of split screens, color filters, and a hodgepodge (metal/classical/rock) soundtrack. This assault on the senses drowns out any potential narrative through-line, trapping viewers like one of Blondie’s victims: locked in a cramped box in her basement, far from help.
If only less time were spent on the visuals and more on Starkweather’s supposed vessels. There are flickers of engagement in some of the killers—specifically, and interestingly, in the women’s performances: Using just her expressive eyebrows and murmuring out of the side of her mouth, Blondie masterfully flirts her way around an unwelcome search of her home by a greasy cop (Jeremy Gardner) who seems to have been activated by this night as well.
Then there’s Alice, who mocks the hapless husband whose home she has invaded, in one of the film’s rare funny moments. And in a fascinating mirror sequence in which she embodies her warring personalities with split-second facial shifts and a girlish giggle that drops into an ominous growl, Bell performs the kind of chilling duality we haven’t seen since Norman Bates at the end of Psycho.
Yet ultimately these moments mean nothing, as the night—aside from its increasing the body count—leaves almost none of its night stalkers changed.
Starkweather has a brief moment of humanity at the very moment that his life is snuffed out: For all of his bravado, he dies as ignominiously as anyone else in the electric chair. Instead of his evil, he should have channeled his humanity into the psychopaths. Then we would have had a reason to root for them.
Psychopaths premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.