By MICHAEL GINGOLD
It’s likely you haven’t seen as many different kinds of insanity in one film as you have in PSYCHOPATHS, which hits theaters this Friday, December 1. It’s the latest and most ambitious film from rising horror auteur Mickey Keating (DARLING, CARNAGE PARK), who talks about it with RUE MORGUE below, along with two of his stars.
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films, PSYCHOPATHS was produced by Glass Eye Pix, whose CEO Larry Fessenden plays serial killer Henry Earl Starkweather. He introduces us to the film’s bizarre world, inhabited by characters including Alice (THE LAST EXORCISM’s Ashley Bell), whose deranged alter ego resides in a mindscape modeled on vintage musicals. Other crazy folks whose stories crisscross through the movie are played by James Landry Hébert, THE BATTERY director/star Jeremy Gardner, TRASH FIRE’s Angela Trimbur and Sam Zimmerman, curator of the Shudder streaming network, which premiered Keating’s in-depth horror talk show THE CORE this month. For the filmmaker, who has homaged numerous scary subgenres in his past features, PSYCHOPATHS was an opportunity to explore a different kind of narrative, one as fractured as its antagonists’ minds. We spoke with Keating, Fessenden and Bell following the movie’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year.
PSYCHOPATHS has a more avant-garde style than we’ve seen in your previous movies. How did you arrive at that approach, and what was that process like?
MICKEY KEATING: Well, with DARLING, CARNAGE PARK and now this film, we created a sense of freedom. On my first two movies [RITUAL and POD], I was finding my rhythm as a director, and I was like, “It has to be like this; the script is the movie and the movie is the script.” But slowly but surely, we found a way to create, to build that freedom and have it be mostly about the characters. What really intrigued me with PSYCHOPATHS was this kind of Robert Altman-esque mentality, where if it got boring, or something didn’t work, we could cut to another character and switch things around. So the editing process took longer than on any of my other films, because we had to watch it all the way through with as many people as possible, and figure out where the rhythm was and where people were shuffling in their seats. It was very interesting in that regard.
The movie takes a risk in having no “normal” characters as points of identification; everyone in it is insane! How do you hook the audience into a film about such despicable people?
MK: That was the fun challenge: Finding a kind of humanity, or even just something to latch onto, in people who are completely bonkers. Obviously, the pinnacle is Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER, because from minute one, you’re like, “There’s something wrong with that guy.” That was the game we tried to play, figuring out a way to make a film where even if people don’t like the characters, they still grab the audience by the throat and drag them on this journey. This movie is so much about madness, and the craziness of one night, and I wanted to pull people along for the rollercoaster ride and see where they end up. What I wanted to do with this movie was create something so beautiful at first, and then immediately cut to the most jarring thing possible.
LARRY FESSENDEN: It’s also just about cinema, and the way the shots go together. It’s like listening to Stravinsky: The notes are discordant, but there’s something so seductive about it. The way PSYCHOPATHS is shot, you think, “Oh, this guy’s crazy, but I feel like he’s picking me up in the car”—you know, the shot where he’s like, “Hey…” [laughs], and you’re like, “I don’t know, it’s kind of seductive.” It feels like the cinematic language is in contrast to the content, which is a bunch of maniacs, and it’s beautiful to look at.
ASHLEY BELL: It’s mesmerizing. [The premiere] was my second time seeing it, and it’s like a violent ballet. It’s exquisite in every single frame; you’re watching horrific things, but the way they’re backlit and presented, they’re all three-dimensional characters that these great actors are bringing to life.
LF: You said avant-garde, and to me it is; it’s like a piece of pop art. It’s sort of in-your-face, with bold colors and the music and all of that. Which is cool, because you usually say, “Oh, I liked it when she and the guy got together,” you know? You talk about movies in terms of plot, but this has more of a sensibility from the ’60s.
The musical component is another interesting factor, especially when it comes to Alice and her song numbers. What inspired that side of the film?
MK: I had previously had a kind of groundwork for what I thought PSYCHOPATHS was going to be, and then as soon as I met Ashley and we did CARNAGE PARK, we started talking about it, and then I wrote Alice specifically for her. I’m obsessed with Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR, and the opening scene of the woman dancing is just incredible to me; that is total cinema. So when I knew there was a glimmer of hope that I could have Ashley in this film, as this character, I knew we had to try that, because if there was anyone who could do it, it was her.
AB: With Mickey, it’s like, if he says “Jump,” I’ll ask, “How high? Tell me.” I’d heard that he works with the same group of actors and keeps a tight family, and I prayed to be asked back after CARNAGE PARK. When Alice came along, it was the kind of role you dream to get as an actor—one that pushes you to every limit, and that you can have so much fun with at the same time.
Did you shoot all of your scenes separate from the other actors, and if so, how much of a sense of the movie’s whole world did you have while you were doing your scenes?
AB: My stuff was just with Mark [Kassen] and Ivana [Shein], pretty much. It was like, every week, a new movie began. I was privy to seeing a look book for all the different worlds of the film, so I got a sense of how Alice’s environment would look and feel in contrast to the others. That was such a gift to look at. But I pretty much met everyone for the first time at the premiere last night [laughs]!
LF: One psychopath would drift away into the night, and then another one would show up and we’d start all over again! [Everyone laughs]
With so many characters and storylines, did you shoot a lot of footage that didn’t wind up in the film?
MK: I think the first cut ran about 95 minutes, and nothing we changed or took out really changed the direction of the film; it was just about balance and timing. There weren’t any specific scenes that were lifted out entirely; it was mostly about boiling down and condensing.
The name Henry Earl Starkweather obviously recalls famous serial killers from the past. Where any other characters inspired by real people?
MK: They came from several different places; there are cinematic references in a lot of them. I obsessed over serial-killer interviews, because that’s their spotlight; that’s their moment to shine, so we talked a lot about that. With Starkweather specifically, he was my real-world serial killer, and then everyone else is his figment and his vessel in that regard.
There’s a lot of Charles Manson in there; Larry, did you model the performance on anyone else?
LF: Well, also Aileen Wuornos; those were the two. As far as the lilt in the voice, Manson is so hard to resist, once you get into his head and the way he spoke. There are these great interviews where he’s totally controlling the interviewer, and he goes on these flights of fancy with this slight Southern drawl. I don’t even know if he was putting that on, but it was part of his delivery. We also looked at Ted Bundy; there’s nothing flamboyant about him, but when you think about what he did, and how cool he was in the courtroom, it’s very chilling. That’s the thing about horror: You go into these worlds and do a little research, and you’re like, “Whoa!” It’s really alarming.
AB: It is, yeah. I found this kind of sourcebook on schizophrenia, and a woman’s descent when she had her break, and I used her journal entries as a kind of backbone for Alice—something to root the character in. Because when I first read her, I was like, “She’s just misunderstood,” you know what I mean [laughs]. “I’m not going to say she’s bad, things are just getting misdirected and misfired out of her, but she has the best intentions in this situation.”
I always feel that about horror too; it’s almost the experimental world of film, and it can and should reinvent itself. That’s what Mickey does; he knows cinema history so well, and has seen everything, and he can break all those rules.
LF: I think one of Mickey’s secrets is that obviously he’s very influenced, and his films are referential, but then when you put in real performances, that kind of flips it. It’s not just like, “Doesn’t this remind you of a certain movie?” He also finds the humanity through genuine performances—Ashley’s in particular being so nuanced—and that creates a tension. You’re like, “Well, this is a trope, and I sort of recognize it from another movie, but I’m also into it because it feels like it’s actually unfolding.” It’s very cool.