By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Ashley Bell, James Landry Hébert and Angela Trimbur
Written and directed by Mickey Keating
Glass Eye Pix
Rising horror director Mickey Keating has been exploring insanity for his last few films, and after the monochromatic psychodrama of DARLING and the desert dementia of CARNAGE PARK, he goes full-blown crazy with PSYCHOPATHS, abandoning conventional storytelling to plunge into the avant-garde.
A world premiere at the current Tribeca Film Festival, PSYCHOPATHS was described by Keating during the post-screening Q&A as “a collage of violence and glamour,” and that’s a pretty accurate and succinct summation. To detail: the movie begins with the rants of serial killer Henry Earl Starkweather (Larry Fessenden), who promises that his impending execution will unleash an explosion of violent mania across the land. And sure enough, the ensemble we meet following his introduction is chock full o’ nuts. There’s Alice (PARK’s Ashley Bell), with a murderous split personality who dwells in a fantasy world modeled on 1950s musicals; the Midnight Strangler (James Landry Hébert), first seen claiming a victim in a seedy motel; and a killer (Shudder curator Samuel D. Zimmerman) who wears a series of plastic masks.
Then there are those who victimize these victimizers, including Blondie (TRASH FIRE’s Angela Trimbur), a would-be Midnight Stranglee who turns the tables on her attacker and subjects him to even worse treatment than he had in mind for her, and an out-of-control cop (THE BATTERY filmmaker/star Jeremy Gardner) determined to nail the masked man. As we follow this gallery of maniacs, a couple of their exploits intersect, though Keating’s intent is less to create a shared-world narrative and more to present an overall environment of insanity, a kaleidoscope of bizarre behavior and shocking bloodshed.
To do so, the writer/director applies a very loose approach to narrative that might confound viewers expecting a traditional portrait of some serial killers, and will fascinate others who’ll find themselves caught up in the accumulating, accelerating madness. Keating is after impact via imagery and sound, and both are as varied and off-kilter as the psyches on display, while he once again pays homage to past cinematic favorites. With cinematographer Mac Fisken, he adopts different lighting and color schemes from character to character, ranging from noirish shadow play to giallo-esque primary colors, and editor Valerie Krulfeifer assembles it all with echoes of David Lynch surrealism. That feeling is furthered by the soundtrack, including a mix of hypnotic original compositions by Shayfer James and others and some well-chosen vintage songs.
More than just a technical exercise, PSYCHOPATHS is also a showcase for several different styles of unhinged acting, which is what truly holds the attention. All the leads convincingly convey their variously disturbed states of mind, but Bell commands the most attention as the singing and dancing, slicing and dicing Alice. From THE LAST EXORCISM through the underseen THE DAY and now her one-two punch with Keating, she has proven herself a genre actress with true range and a willingness to play any role to the hilt. It has always been interesting to see which fear stream Keating will head down next, and one hopes he will continue to take Bell with him.