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Tribeca Film Review: ‘Psychopaths’

Variety logo Variety 4/26/2017 Nick Schager
© Provided by Variety

Devoid of characters or a story about which one might care, “Psychopaths” proves to be a fright-free pastiche without purpose — save, that is, for unimaginatively paying homage to a string of superior genre predecessors. As in his prior “Carnage Park,” writer-director Mickey Keating offers up a schizo nightmare that’s narratively splintered to pieces and rife with nods toward his favorite ’70s and ’80s horror movies. However, there’s so little substance or originality to this lurid, abstract affair that it comes off as simply a faded grindhouse collage. Even in the midnight-movie arena, its dull derivativeness will likely spell its doom.

An introductory video recording of death-row killer Starkweather (Larry Fessenden) ranting and raving about how his “children will inherit the Earth” sets the hysterical and nonsensical tone of “Psychopaths,” whose narrator (Jeff Daniel Phillips) informs us that Starkweather’s prophesy — namely, that his evil spirit will possess other “vessels” after he perishes by electric chair — has come true. In particular, it’s spawned a tide of “chaos” that’s sweeping the land, driving a twirly-mustached nutjob (James Landry Hebert) to strangle a woman in a motel, and an unstoppable fiend (Sam Zimmerman) in a plastic mask made to look like a young blonde-haired ’50s boy to kill and bury an unknown man, and then set fire to a police car.

That basic plot description makes “Psychopaths” seem far more lucid than it actually is, what with Keating seguing between several figures — also including a cabaret performer (Ashley Bell) who likes to rehearse her lines to the camera; a cop with a homicidal streak as wild as his greasy hair; and a blonde streetwalker (Angela Trimbur) with a thing for needles — with scattershot abandon. As in his earlier work, chronology is of little concern, the better to create a sense of disorienting, all-consuming, and infectious craziness. Yet since Keating’s gore-splattered players are thin types, his set pieces involving murder and mayhem in a brothel, and the home of a fighting couple, have a hollowness that negates any possibility for terror.

Compounding matters, Keating employs more aesthetic gimmicks than any single film should rightfully indulge. Split screens, color filters, slow-motion, overlapping imagery, and compositions turned on their side are all embellished by a soundtrack full of heavy metal, classical music, and rock and pop tunes from various eras. Such a psychosexualized stylistic smorgasbord is then further compounded by the director’s analog-media fetishism, with pay phones, VHS tapes, and vinyl turntables rendering the proceedings one giant old-school throwback, tethered together only by its maker’s apparent everything-reminiscent-of-my-childhood whims.

As femmes fatales torture madmen, chipper lunatics slice and dice innocent victims, and unstoppable back-from-the-dead killers embark on bloody rampages of revenge, “Psychopaths” shouts out to a string of cine-inspirations, including “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th,” “Alice Sweet Alice,” “Black Christmas,” “The Strangers,” “Halloween,” “Psycho,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Lost Highway,” “The Devil’s Rejects,” “Opera,” and “Pet Sematary,” to name a few. What all these tributes have in common is a misplaced sense of complacency; it’s as if Keating believes that the mere act of tipping his cap to past classics is somehow good enough to legitimize his film. As it doubles back on itself in a pointless circle, however, the dearth of unique sights and sounds reduces it to a conceptual stunt whose every element feels only halfway conceived.

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