‘Longlegs’ review: A chilling thriller that delves into horror clichés

‘Longlegs’ review: A chilling thriller that delves into horror clichés

A chilling, half-remembered encounter from my childhood looms over Osgood Perkins’ elegantly composed 1990s horror film “Longlegs” film It tells the story of a young FBI agent (Maika Monroe) whose past holds the key to a decades-long suburban serial killer spree.

In the opening flashback scene of “Longlegs,” a young girl leaves her house to meet a stranger in her snow-covered yard. We never see more than the lower half of her face, but the sense of eerieness is overwhelming. The footage, which includes a scream, cuts away before “Longlegs” proper begins.

Twenty-five years later, that girl (Monroe’s Lee Harker) is now grown and brought into the investigation. She’s preternaturally good at solving the serial killer’s choreographed targets, but her psychological acumen has a blind spot. In Osgood’s gripping but hackneyed horror about an elusive man of terror, the most vexing mystery is the foggy, fragmented nature of childhood memory.

“Longlegs,” which opens in theaters on Thursday, is coming with its own wave of mystery, thanks to a long and mysterious marketing campaign. Is the excitement justified? That may depend on your tolerance for a very serious procedural that’s remarkably adept at building an ominous slow burn but still delivers a slew of horror clichés: Satan worship, scary dolls and a strange Nicolas Cage.

The film’s disappointing third act is a tribute to the heartbreakingly fascinating first half of “Longlegs,” and to Monroe herself. After that prologue, presented in a boxy proportion with rounded edges, the screen widens, as if seen through an overhead projector. Harker, a laconic, solitary detective, is part of a larger task force set up to track down a killer behind the deaths of 10 families over a 30-year period. Sent to knock on a door, he looks up at a second-floor window and immediately knows. “It’s him,” he tells his partner (Dakota Daulby), whose lack of faith in his intuition is immediately regrettable.

Harker is brought in for a psych evaluation, which demonstrates his uncanny clairvoyance. Agent Carter (Blair Underwood) gives him all the evidence he’s accumulated, which points to the same killer—a coded letter signed by Longlegs at each murder scene—but there were no intruders in the homes of those killed at the time. Carter remembers Charles Manson. “Manson had accomplices,” Harker reminds him. Also disturbing: all of the victims had a daughter whose birthday was on the 14th, a trait Harker naturally shares.

Families also figure prominently in the narrative. Harker occasionally visits his withdrawn mother (Alicia Witt), and their brief interactions suggest an awareness of the harshness of the world. On one occasion, over the phone, Harker tells her that he is busy with “work.”

“Disgusting things?” the mother asks. “Yes,” she replies.

As they hunt for the killer in rural Oregon, scenes of terror ensue. They frequent the usual locations: an old crime scene, a locked barn, an elderly witness in a psychiatric hospital. Longlegs (Cage) also sneaks around and leaves a letter for Harker. We see him briefly at first. He is a pale figure with long white hair, and he looks increasingly buffoonish as we get closer to him. If Manson is from the 60s, Longlegs is Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue whitefaceIt looks more like a product of the ’70s, with a T. Rex opening and closing the movie, and Lou Reed’s “Transformer” album cover hanging over his mirror.

Perkins (“Gretel & Hansel”) is the filmmaker son of Anthony Perkins, who played one of the most disturbing characters in the movies, played by Norman Bates in “Psycho.” The roots of “Longlegs,” which Perkins wrote, have personal connections for the director, Perkins has said about his own upbringing and his father’s complicated personal life. But something deeper is trying to penetrate “Longlegs.” The sense of dread doesn’t seem to come from much else besides his other films. “Seven” and “The Silence of the Lambs” are clear touchstones. Longlegs feels more like a horror movie and a big-screen vessel for Cage.

In any case, this is Monroe’s movie. Her impressive screen presence in films like “It Follows” and “The Night” “Observer” has earned her the title of today’s preeminent “Scream Queen.” But she’s much more than a single-genre talent. In “Longlegs,” Monroe’s Harker is repeatedly confronted with a singularly disturbing scenario and immediately dives right in. That’s not to say she’s not tense; her heavy breathing is part of Eugenio Battaglia’s masterful sound design. Monroe, steely and powerful, cuts through this almost cartoonishly tough film like a knife. The bad stuff? Yes.

Neon’s “Longlegs” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for bloody violence, disturbing images and some strong language. Running time: 101 minutes. Two and a half out of four stars.