Director and cowriter H.S. Miller's ambitions exceed his grasp in this serial-killer thriller about a haunted cop and the grotesquely creative murderer playing games with him.
Five years ago, NYPD detective Stan Aubray (Willem Dafoe) hunted down and killed a vicious sociopath nicknamed "Uncle Eddie," who turned the bodies of his victims into elaborate works of art riddled with anamorphic messages. Closing the case made Aubray's career, but also plunged him into a guilt-ridden walking depression; for all his status, he's been doing more drinking than detecting for years. Now New Yorkers are again being terrorized by a series of similar crimes: Is there a copycat killer at work, or did Aubray make a mistake the first time around? Aubray is hauled away from his cush gig teaching younger cops to read the "aesthetic, if you will," of crime scenes and finds himself teamed with eager beaver Carl Uffner (Scott Speedman). As they simultaneously investigate the new case and reinvestigate the old one, a new complication appears: Prostitute Sandy Strickland (Clea DuVall), a close friend of the last original murder victim, Crystal, whom Aubray might have saved if he hadn't been so relentlessly focused on luring the killer into the open. The trauma sent Sandy into an alcohol- and drug-induced spiral from which she's only now recovering, but Aubray's constant, probing questions threaten to derail her fragile sobriety.
Miller and cowriter Tom Phelan deserve credit for trying to concoct something more than a slash-and-hack picture, and their project attracted an eclectic and better-than-average cast that includes DuVall, Dafoe, Deborah Harry, James Rebhorn, former professional wrestler Mick "Mankind" Foley, Yul Vazquez and Peter Stormare as the art historian/dealer who supplies Aubray with antique chairs. Their primary influences appear to have been Italian gialli -- baroque murder mysteries built around elaborately gory set pieces -- and '70s cop movies, but the unfortunate fact is that it's more than a little dull when it isn't preposterous. The scene in which Aubray contaminates evidence to get into the killer's mindset as other cops watch simply defies belief, especially since the victim is a fellow police officer. A note to parents: This film is in no way connected to the popular Animorphs children's books, about shapeshifting youngsters.
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