The thin plotting and even thinner characterizations make the whole thing feel trivial.
An exhaustive pastiche, Mickey Keating’s chiller Psychopaths deserves points for having impressive taste even if it leaves much to be desired in the way of a distinct vision. The film unfolds across a series of set pieces, structured almost like a classic musical, and each section borrows generously from horror films both universally admired (Psycho, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th) and relatively obscure (Black Christmas, Opera, Alice, Sweet Alice, Sisters). References abound, but there isn’t much plot here. Up until the last 15 or so minutes, the movie bounces between colorful, quasi-surrealistic scenes of torture, murder and mayhem that are loosely connected by some wordy voiceover narration, but when things finally do converge, there isn’t much of an impact. The thin plotting and even thinner characterizations make the whole thing feel trivial.
The film opens with an introductory video recorded by convicted serial killer Henry Earl Starkweather, played by genre stalwart Larry Fessenden, who also serves as executive producer. He’s ranting and raving about death and infinity, setting the table for what the unseen narrator describes as a sort of murderous prophecy: Upon his execution, Starkweather’s spirit will spread across Los Angeles and enter unwitting people—“vessels,” as they’re called—who will proceed to carry out his homicidal mission. From there, a sleazy cop (Jeremy Gardner) gives in to some evil urges; a sadistic serial killer (Sam Zimmerman) with a seemingly endless collection of creepy masks stalks the streets; and a would-be victim (Angela Trimbur) turns out to be a bigger threat to her attacker (James Landry Hébert) than the other way around. Each situation—there are plenty more where these come from—is rooted in a specific and highly recognizable trope, and despite Keating’s confident visual style and technical prowess, the familiarity ultimately gets the best of the film.
The director clearly knows his way around the genre, evinced in the wealth of allusions and nods to other movies, but not only have his previous films already made that point abundantly clear, they did so with more inventiveness and personality. In Darling (2015), Keating’s episodic character study about a young woman driven slowly insane, his personal stylistic touches challenge the audience in unique and engaging ways despite the film being a pretty obvious riff on early Polanski. Here, the experience is rarely anything more than derivative, as if Keating is somehow under the assumption that simply tipping his cap to bygone classics is enough to make up for a lack of ideas. And to be sure, there aren’t many to be found in Psychopaths. Whatever inspiration it may have as a piece of pure visual chaos, it so lacks thematic substance that the whole thing just drags. One might call it an experiment, but to call it an experiment would be to suggest that it has a point. Watching Psychopaths is like having Keating walk you through his extensive horror DVD collection; it’s a boring night in with a guy who talks a lot but never really says much of anything.