Thursday, October 11, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 8: Copycat (Jon Amiel, 1995)

31 days of Halloween day 8: Copycat (Jon Amiel, 1995)

There was a period, in the early-to-mid 1990s, when there just weren’t a ton of good, mainstream, American horror movies being made.  The cycle of modern horror that had begun with Night of the Living Dead in 1969 had more-or-less run through its lifecycle, with the slasher film dominating horror for much of the 80s, but running out of steam as characters like Freddy and Jason became more camp than scary in their latest incarnations.
Around the same time, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs- a slick, intelligent, gorgeous and gory horror movie (from a Roger Corman protege no less) in thriller’s clothing- kicked off a cycle of psycho-thrillers, basically slasher films for adults.  They were both a by-product of horror audiences growing older and more mature, and the rising public awareness of and fascination with serial killers in the wake of the very public Ted Bunny and Jeffrey Dahmer trials.
Psycho-thrillers tended to be stylish and self-serious, and though the genre eventually wore itself with repetition and, later, an overindulgence of style over substance- a cynicism standing in for substance- in films like Seven and its many imitators.  As the psycho-thriller went into decline, proper horror films experienced a resurgence in the mid-to-late 1990’s after the success of Scream.
Personally, I love the psycho-thriller.  There’s something comforting about their pallid tones and earnest detectives always two steps behind a mastermind killer who, more often that not, turns out to be some gross regular schlub.  Such is the case with Copycat, directed by Jon Amiel and written by Ann Biderman and Davis Madsen, possibly my favorite of the genre.
Despite its high production value and impressive cast, Copycat is, itself, a copycat of Silence of the Lambs (and to some extend its sort-of-prequel Manhunter).  Holly Hunter plays the Jode Foster-esque earnestly tight jawed detective on the trail of a killer who turns to a damaged, traumatized mentor (ala William Peterson as Will Graham in Manhunter, here played as an agoraphobic professor by Sigourney Weaver) and the guidance of an imprisoned killer (obviously Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter, here played a bit over the top but grimily enough by Harry Connick Jr.).

There are some twists- the killer emulates murders committed by famous serial killers of the past, and some fleshing out of the characters- Hunter’s friendship with her partner, played by Dermot Mulroney, is especially nice, and underrated character actor Will Patton has a good turn as well as a protective colleague and former boyfriend.  
What sets Copycat apart, though, isn’t really any of its more sensational elements.  You can watch the movie and forget about the Copycat angle of the killings, forget about the similarities to Silence of the Lambs, forget about a lot of the more conventional elements of the film because its the rare thriller- really the rare mainstream genre film in general- where you really care about the characters.
Some of it is in the script, but most of it comes from the actors.  Hunter and Weaver- already two of the best actresses of their generation- bring life to characters who might not have registered, or come off as phony or even insulting, by broader and more histrionic performers.  The film is theirs (though Hunter and Mulroney play off each other fairly perfectly and make a pretty irresistible pair) and they command it with believability and a lived-in sense of wary comradeship.

With its women protagonists, a sympathetically portrayed gay supporting character and an underlying theme that unassuming young white men can be the most dangerous threats of all (and that the greatest horror often comes wrapped in the most banal package), Copycat may play better today, or at least resonate stronger, than it did when it came out more than 20 years ago.

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