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Maika Monroe and Nicolas Cage’s Pulp Nightmare

Maika Monroe and Nicolas Cage’s Pulp Nightmare

There’s an unofficial but almost universally accepted convention that every film critic signs. It states that we should never spoil the plot of a movie before it comes out. And even then, for at least a few years, we should issue a major “spoiler” warning ahead of time. Of course, what qualifies as a “spoiler” may vary from person to person, but I’m 100% certain that the solution to a murder mystery qualifies, and that makes talking about “Longlegs” a little difficult. At least for now.

“Longlegs” stars Maika Monroe as a rookie FBI agent named Lee Harker. The Bureau immediately identifies Lee Harker as, if not psychic, at least highly intuitive. So — presumably because the film is set in the mid-1990s and everyone has recently seen “Silence of the Lambs” — they immediately throw him into an unsolved serial killer case under the watchful elder statesman Agent Carter (Blair Underwood), in the hopes that he’ll see something no one else has.

The serial killer known only as Longlegs has a disturbing and seemingly impossible MO. He somehow convinces people in a family to kill each other, without ever touching them, speaking to them, or entering their homes. There is physical evidence, such as a Zodiac-style cipher code that ties all the crimes together. But nothing points to a single culprit or a clear methodology. Just strangedamn it.

One suspects that “only” strange“Holy shit,” might have been one of the instructions writer/director Osgood Perkins gave his crew. Perkins is unquestionably the modern master of horror. His films “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” and “Gretel and Hansel” are almost sweat-inducing. His style consists of semi-dreamy camera movements and frames that look only slightly out of alignment. Andrés Arochi is the cinematographer, and together they’ve made one of the scariest-looking movies in recent history. Even an establishing shot of a house in “Longlegs” can send you into a panic.

For much of “Longlegs,” Perkins’s lurid imagery and mysterious storytelling bore into you until you’re paralyzed. Over the course of four feature films, he’s somehow filtered all the human decency out of his atmosphere, leaving only fear and oppression. Goddamn, this movie is disturbing.

But what actually inhabits that atmosphere? That’s a more complicated question. “Longlegs” begins as a serial-killer procedural, but as the story progresses, it becomes unclear how literally we should interpret its eerie imagery and whether the story is meant to actually make sense or leave you off-balance and uncertain.

It would be appropriate to talk about the ending at this point, but there’s no point in spoiling it now. Suffice it to say, your preconceived notions about airplane novel serial killer stories will be challenged once you enter the world of “Longlegs.” The more open you are to its strangeness, the more you will get out of this movie.

Whether or not you like where “Longlegs” takes you, you’re in for a spooky time when you get there. Monroe cuts through her scenes like a knife, this typically energetic performer holding anything resembling joy back deep down. Or maybe she’s just let it all out. Harker is a somber tour guide in this cold, unforgiving world of loneliness and violence. When we meet her mother, Ruth (Alicia Witt), we get a glimpse of how Agent Harker got here, locked in a hoarding of mysteries and clues, until we learn more. Maybe too much.

And then of course there’s Nicolas Cage, who plays the lead villain, covered in thick white makeup and an old wig. It’s amazing how much Osgood Perkins has overdone the Longlegs character. His appearance is like something out of a Tim Burton movie, his motivations like they’re from the pages of a Satanic Panic Jack T. Chick pamphlet, and his methods like they’ve come straight out of a Silver Age comic book. He’s an over-the-top villain in a film otherwise defined by seriousness and gravitas. The film almost breaks loose with his arrival, turning into something completely unexpected, but not necessarily more effective.

“Longlegs” doesn’t ask you to find your bearings. I watched it over a week ago and I’m still searching for mine. What’s clear is that as a stylist, Perkins is at the top of his game. Maybe he’s at the top of everyone’s game. As a storyteller, he’s either a daring innovator or just a dream logic slapping on old-fashioned pulp. Either way, “Longlegs” is Perkins’ most striking, if not his best, film, a terrifying piece of cinema. And when it hits, it leaves a mark.

(tags to translate)Long legs