OCTOBER 18, 2008
The other day I defended Hatchet’s “stunt casting” on its IMDb board, because someone said it was annoying to have so many horror stars in brief roles and that they were just there to get the film into theaters. Rather than ask this person what universe they lived in where a film with Tony Todd or Kane Hodder guaranteed a theatrical release, I simply pointed out that Hodder was in the entire movie, and that Robert Englund and Josh Leonard’s characters needed to be played by names so that their death would surprise and/or resonate (since after them, no one dies for another 45 minutes). However, in the case of The Alphabet Killer, I can’t defend the decision to cast it with so many names who only appear in one or two scenes.
NOTE - I spoil the killer's identity, but it's pretty goddamn obvious if you know the casting traditions of bad serial killer movies; see The Bone Collector for an example.
The producers said that they wanted to give you lots of red herrings, so they cast it with legendary screen psychos like Tom Noonan (Manhunter), Bill Moseley (Devil’s Rejects) Michael Ironsides (er, Visiting Hours?), and Cary Elwes (Kiss The Girls; that one is the producer's example, not mine). But with the exception of Elwes, none of them have a significant enough role to qualify as an acceptable killer (Noonan disappears entirely after the first ten minutes, and Moseley only has a single scene that could have been cut entirely with no real loss), so who does that leave? Gee, I dunno, maybe Oscar winning actor Timothy Hutton, who has absolutely NOTHING to do in the film until he is revealed as the killer. They might think its genius to cast the villain with the one “good guy” actor of the bunch, but it’s really just sort of amateurish and predictable.
The only other actor of significance (besides Eliza Dushku, more on her in a bit) is Tom Malloy. Who, you might ask? Well if you’ve read every review on this site (why?) you might recognize him as the writer/co-star of the god awful Mary Lambert movie The Attic. He also wrote this one, and once again he writes himself a nice little scene (a great throat slashing in that film, making out with Dushku here) but does little else to make the audience understand how he got either job. He’s not terrible as an actor, but he’s completely forgettable just the same, and the script is as lame as I’ve seen in this subgenre in quite some time (with extra points taken off for turning a real, unsolved mystery into such a dull film).
The biggest problem though, sadly, is Dushku. She’s hot (and offers sideboob +10% or so here), and when playing the bad girl she can shine, but writing her as a hardened detective is on a level with Tara Reid as a scientist in Alone in the Dark. The fact that she’s simply not old enough to have the sort of world-weary, “seen it all” attitude the character requires (I’m surprised she didn’t have a “I’m four days from retirement!” speech) aside, she also plays the character as mentally unhinged. And by that I mean “she cocks her head around and fidgets in just about every scene”. It’s laughably bad, and gives the impression that her character (who is supposed to be suffering from intense “feeling” of the pain the victims felt, or something of that nature) is suffering from Parkinson’s (or is just simply autistic). If there’s one thing one should never be doing in a film based on a real life tragedy, it’s laughing hysterically. Robert Downey Jr may have had some fantastic lines in Zodiac, but they weren’t related to the crime scenes. What if the mother of one of the real kidnapped/murdered children sees this film and the guy in the row (OK, on the couch) next to her begins giggling at the sight of Dushku “feeling” her daughter’s pain?
Plus, Malloy’s script never feels genuine. Some quick research reveals that they used the right town names and the same initials for the girls* and little else from the real story, but more distracting is that he didn’t bother with details on anything else either. None of the cops or procedural scenes feel authentic, and while they never bother saying the exact date, there is a seeming attempt to make it feel like the 70s (when the real case occurred) in some scenes, yet others have the internet.
The only principle who escapes relatively unscathed is director Rob Schmidt. It’s a well shot film (other than a truly horrible 360 scene – not a shot, an entire SCENE – that made me want to smack him around with the tripod he obviously wasn’t using) and with the exception of Dushku, he gets good performances out of his paycheck grabbing stars (Elwes may be packing on the pounds, but he’s a lot better here than he was in Saw at any rate). He also roped in his Right To Die star Martin Donavan to play a grieving father for one of the film’s few good scenes, so there’s something. I liked RtD, and while Wrong Turn 2 topped it in many ways, I think the original was one of that year’s best horror movies. But he hasn’t written his own material in quite some time (and it wasn’t a horror film when he did); something he should maybe consider next time around.
What say you?
*I wasn’t expecting the real names to be used, but couldn’t Malloy have come up with a better “W” name for a grieving father of a kidnapped/murdered child than Walsh?