Heavily hyped horror movie Longlegs follows through on its promise of terror

click to enlarge Heavily hyped horror movie Longlegs follows through on its promise of terror
Twisted terror is constantly palpable in Longlegs.

With all the expertly curated hype leading up to the release of writer/director Osgood Perkins' horror film Longlegs, it seems almost inevitable that the film itself would turn out to be a disappointment. While Perkins doesn't sustain the exact same sense of disorienting terror evoked by the early clips and trailers for a full 100 minutes, he does come about as close as could be reasonably expected. Longlegs is consistently unsettling and occasionally viscerally upsetting, although it's also often balanced just at the edge between horrifying and laughable.

That dichotomy is perfectly embodied by Nicolas Cage's performance as the titular serial killer character, which is broad and bizarre in the way only a Cage performance can be. Buried under prosthetics and adorned with a stringy white wig, Cage looks like a cross between Marilyn Manson and a demented grandma, and he speaks in a high-pitched whine that sounds a bit like cult comedian Emo Philips. Cage knows how to make this absurd character menacing, and Perkins adds to the unease by keeping Longlegs' face obscured for the first half of the movie.

Although getting the full Cage experience is a major draw, the actual star of Longlegs is Maika Monroe as FBI Special Agent Lee Harker, a rookie whose first assignment is knocking on doors to look for witnesses after the latest Longlegs murder. The mysterious figure has been leaving behind unintelligible notes at murder scenes for three decades, although he himself doesn't appear to kill anyone directly. Instead, he somehow convinces men to murder their entire families, always near the birthdays of young girls born on the 14th day of a given month.

Harker, who's dubbed "half psychic" by her supportive supervisor Agent Carter (Blair Underwood), uses her apparent intuition about Longlegs to revive the case, decoding his cipher and tracking down the only person who ever survived a Longlegs attack. The movie is set in the 1990s, and Harker is at least partially modeled on Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs, although Harker's investigation takes a supernatural turn that Starling never faced when tracking Buffalo Bill. In that way, Longlegs owes more to The X-Files, given the killer's method of exerting influence on his victims, and it's easy to imagine him as a monster of the week on the classic sci-fi procedural.

Although Harker follows clues and collects evidence, Perkins isn't interested in making a standard procedural, and Longlegs is more about a pervasive sense of existential dread than solving a mystery. Perkins' previous films (The Blackcoat's Daughter, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, Gretel and Hansel) could be described as horror tone poems, and while Longlegs is more plot-heavy, it's equally vibes-driven.

Every location, even mundane offices and living rooms, feels like the setting for a nightmare that will haunt you long after you wake up. There's no normalcy here, despite the familiar trappings of the police investigation, and that means no relief for Harker or the audience. Monroe plays Harker with the dull stare and clenched jaw of someone who's been through unspeakable trauma, even though this is her first case. It's obvious that she has a connection to Longlegs somewhere in her murky past, and her stern mother Ruth (Alicia Witt) cryptically admonishes her about saying her prayers when she asks about her childhood.

There's eventually a rush of exposition that explains the ties between Harker and Longlegs, but the movie doesn't provide straightforward answers, and part of what's scary about it is the enduring uncertainty over why any of this is happening. No one attempts to create a psychological profile for Longlegs, and he's not concerned about being arrested or facing prison time. He's a force of nature rather than a person, and Cage's off-putting performance emphasizes the character's aggressive inhumanity.

Perkins matches the intense performances with an immersive visual style, framing flashbacks in a square aspect ratio with rounded corners, like old home movies, giving them a claustrophobic feel that mirrors the way Longlegs traps his victims. When the frame expands during transitions to the main time period, it's like the past is intruding on the present, a visual representation of Longlegs' insidious impact.

That lurking fear remains with the characters and the audience from the beginning of the movie all the way through the terrifying finale. For viewers who were primed by inexplicable arcane snippets online, Longlegs makes the most of its ingenious marketing campaign. Like Cage's committed performance, it's unhinged in the best way — a singular, relentless vision of maniacal torment.

Three Stars Longlegs
Rated R
Directed by Osgood Perkins
Starring Maika Monroe, Blair Underwood, Nicolas Cage

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