We’re baa-aack!

Wolves howl and blood runs cold and leaves crunch underfoot, and once again, the Bureau runs its annual Halloween countdown. In addition to the usual weekend movie reviews of horrorfilms past (and one on the big night), we’ll also be running a lot of scaaary videogame reviews and gothic comic reviews and seasonal surprises.

We start this weekend with a real-world thriller from the director of Fight Club and Seven and Panic Room.

The Zodiac was real. He did terrible things. The police never got him.

Title: Zodiac

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by David Fincher
Written by James Vanderbilt and Robert Graysmith

Cast

Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith
Mark Ruffalo as David Toschi
Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery
Anthony Edwards as William Armstrong
John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen
Chloë Sevigny as Melanie
Elias Koteas as Sgt. Jack Mulanax.
Brian Cox as Melvin Belli
Dermot Mulroney as Captain Marty
Donal Logue as Ken Narlow
John Getz as Templeton Peck
John Terry as Charles Thieriot
Philip Baker Hall as Sherwood Morrill
Adam Goldberg as Duffy Jennings
Ed Setrakian as Al Hyman
Candy Clark as Carol Fisher
Richmond Arquette as Zodiac
Bob Stephenson as Zodiac
John Lacy as Zodiac

Full Cast and Crew information is here.

Available in DVD and Blu-Ray.

Premise:

People investigate Zodiac, a serial killer who murdered a handful of people in the 1960s and 70s and bragged about crimes real and imagined in letters to the media.

High Points:

The film opens in the late 1960s with night skies, fireworks, and a memorable use of Donovan’s psychedelic Hurdy-Gurdy Man, a song at once, because of its hippie happening lyrics, at odds with the scene, and, due to its creepily off-kilter tune, strangely appropriate. Death strikes with a terrifying believability.

The film meanders in tone and pace afterwards, but this conventionally horrific scene sets the stage perfectly. Zodiac spends a good deal of time on procedures, investigations, and dead ends, which sporadically turn up terror. The effect is something much more powerful and disturbing than the conventional serial killer film it might have been.

Low Points:

The film’s ambiguities and uncertain directions accurately reflect the numerous uncertainties of the actual case. Fincher even cast multiple actors to portray Zodiac, reflecting the varying descriptions and interpretations of the killer.

The script, adapted from Graysmith’s books on the subject, undercuts that ambiguity by strongly skewering the evidence towards Graysmith’s favorite suspect. For all I know, that individual was the killer (and if he wasn’t, we can still be thankful he’s dead. He was a vile human being regardless), but the case against him isn’t as solid as the film would have you believe and, more to my point here, the hint of certainly doesn’t serve the film. Like Jack the Ripper, the terror of the Zodiac lies with the fact that he really existed, his identity will probably never be known for certain, and we can never know when someone like him may cross our paths.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 The film adapts existing sources based on true-life events and it features more than a few conventions of the police procedural, but the wandering narrative doesn’t play quite like any other serial killer movie I’ve seen.

Effects: 4/6

Story: 4/6 See High and Low Points.

Acting: 5/6. Jake Gyllenhaal does an extraordinary job of depicting Graysmith’s transformation from nerdy cartoonist who seems destined to play a small part, to strong-willed, obsessed investigator who makes key contributions to the investigation. Robert Downey, Jr. knows how to play people who lose themselves to addiction. Zodiac left more than a few wrecks in his wake, beyond the killings.

Production: 6/6 The film didn’t make the expected killing at the box office, but it represents Hollywood production at its strongest.

Emotional Response: 5/6 Zodiac has its shortcomings. However, both my wife and I had nightmares after seeing it. No movie, including many technically superior horror films, has done this to me since I was a child.

Overall: 5/6 Perhaps the remarkable thing: despite the film’s presentation of the fear the Zodiac inspired, we get a real sense of the largely off-screen killer as someone terrifically alienated from reality, desperate for attention, and wholly unable to connect meaningfully with anyone. And, despite the legend that grew around him, he took his inspiration from banal sources and owed his freedom more to investigative difficulties than to his supposed criminal genius. For all the terror he spread, Zodiac seems the psychopathic equivalent of a little kid waving his arms and yelling “look at me!”

In total, Zodiac receives 32/42.