At the beginning of Mickey Keating’s Psychopaths, we’re introduced to incarcerated killer Henry Starkweather (Larry Fessenden). Through grainy black-and-white footage, he rambles on about notions of “evil,” coming to the conclusion that “there’s no ‘why’ to evil – [it’s] just because.” Moments later, Starkweather is executed in the electric chair, his spirit – in a nod to Eraserhead – dissipating into snowy particles that proceed to infect the titular characters over the course of one fateful night.
While Fessenden’s naturally grizzled appearance invites comparison to the demented charisma of Charles Manson, Starkweather has as much in common with Darryl Revok, the powerful telekinetic from David Cronenberg’s Scanners. The notion of a killer “influencing” from beyond the grave recalls the montage wherein Revok summons his psychic troops to assassinate a group of adversaries. The opening moments of Psychopaths also allude to the archival footage of Revok in a mental institution, where he’s drilled a hole in his head to keep “people” out.
While this imagery is crucial to the film’s setup, the Cronenberg homage is a mere springboard into even more intriguing stylistic and metaphysical terrain.
Psychopaths recalls the aesthetic sensibility of vintage Brian De Palma and Dario Argento – two filmmakers who brought a Hitchcockian sensibility to modern times, complete with boundary-pushing notions of eroticism and violence. Keating’s femmes fatales exert calculating control at every turn, while the men hide behind dime-store masks or wickedly precise facial hair as they engage in torture and murder. Much attention is paid to the subjectivity of façades, whether consciously imposed or the result of years of unchecked psychological damage. Under Keating’s astute handling, the notion of “crazy” as a matter of perception is a theme that permeates the entire film.
Adding to this symphony of madness is voice-over narration (provided by Rob Zombie regular Jeff Daniel Phillips) that, while jarring at first, becomes a necessary bit of connective tissue that teases answers and ambiguity in equal measure. The voice (credited as “The Storyteller”) becomes just another (possible) deception in a landscape of sneaky characters, and an unnerving corollary to “god” in a world given over to freewheeling bloodshed. Psychopaths‘ elliptical image of a burning cop car could be construed as either a jab at institutionalized authority, or the irrelevance of “the rule of law” when it comes to matters of the metaphysical.
Presenting “evil” as an arbitrary force adds to the stream-of-consciousness flow of Psychopaths – it’s a puzzle of disparate people interlocking in unexpected (and often unfortunate) ways, and plot is secondary to subjective motivation. While Keating is careful not to make his villains likable, he does develop them beyond one-note slashers, and the mystery as to why they do what they do is one of the film’s key attractions.
Blondie (Angela Trimbur) is a black widow who dons a mask before drugging and torturing her male victims, Audition-style. Alice (Ashley Bell) is an escaped mental patient with a homicidal streak, equal parts deluded Norma Desmond and ventriloquist dummy (there is a scene where she lapses into an argument with her “self” that’s pure horror gold). The Strangler (James Landry Hébert) is a handsome devil who runs afoul of Blondie. And Mask (Sam Zimmerman) is a phantom whose vengeance-based arc is threaded throughout the narrative.
But like I said, Psychopaths isn’t about the plot. If Keating’s stylistic heart is with De Palma and Argento, his methods of madness for this outing are pure Tobe Hooper. No filmmaker rendered chaos with as much anarchic spirit as Hooper, and Keating emulates this with surprising success, creating a bourgeois vision of hell awash in abrasive lighting, meticulous attention to the tools of destruction (needles, knives, and guns), and innovative sound design. At any given time, dialog, ambient noise, and score overlap, complementing the escalating madness of the visuals.
Despite an 82-minute run time, Psychopaths feels longer than it actually is. That’s not a criticism; on the contrary, Keating creates an atmosphere of unpleasantness that is also rife with colorful imagery and seductive performances. In all honesty, I wanted to curl up and die in this beautiful, horrible world.
Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 4 out of 5 stars