JUNE 20, 2011
If you like horror movies, chances are you will find something that appeals to you in Cyrus: Mind Of A Serial Killer. It’s got good (and not just cameo) performances by Lance Henriksen and Danielle Harris, plus (sigh) cameos by some others, and it dips into several different sub-genres along the way – serial killer flick, survival/torture horror, a darkly humorous cannibal subplot... however you may feel about the flick, you can’t accuse them of trying to act like they are “above” horror movies – they present enough horror-ready elements and actors for several films over the course of its 90 minutes.
But that’s also part of the problem – it’s too disjointed. Harris’ character is the host of a true crime show called “Last Steps”, and Cyrus is the focus of her new episode (with Henriksen as Cyrus’ best friend, telling the story for him), but there are a number of brief interviews with folks like Doug Jones and Rae Dawn Chong from other "Last Steps" episodes that come/go out of nowhere and never feel fully integrated with the rest of the narrative. Chong isn’t even talking about Cyrus, but some other killer, which would have been fine for the beginning of the movie when we are being introduced to Harris’ character, but not an hour or so in when we’re fully engrossed in Cyrus’ story. And Harris doesn’t even appear in these scenes (there might be some voiceover, I forget), which makes them feel even more perfunctory. If I had to guess, the movie came up short and these things were added later once the other actors had moved on. They’re not bad scenes on their own, and it’s always nice to see Jones out of makeup, but they just don’t really fit with the movie. There’s another one after the credits that goes on for like three full minutes, with some basic death row debate – where the hell would this have fit into the movie? Cyrus wasn’t even a known serial killer, let alone one imprisoned and on death row.
And the decent serial killer stuff is sadly abandoned after a while in favor of torture scenes. Some seem to fit with his MO, such as when he brands one of his victims with an A after he accuses her of being a whore (“Scarlet Letter” reference!), as his wife’s infidelity years before is what set him on his serial killing path, but others are just pointless violence for violence sake, with Cyrus cutting out a tongue and playing Kathy Bates with a girl’s foot and what not. There are still some good creepy moments sprinkled within, such as when he demands a girl breast feed his baby (which is a mummified corpse), and I liked the idea of him “hunting” some of his victims as he was selling their meat in his butcher chop, but the lengthy and unnecessary torture stuff just came across as more padding. Also, Brian Krause as Cyrus spends most of the first half or so of the movie playing the role in silence, and he’s quite good (almost sympathetic) as he plays scenes just with his expressions, but he never shuts up during the torture parts, which makes him a little less scary in my opinion. I would have preferred that they spent more time on Cyrus’ back-story and/or Danielle’s, which would have helped elevate this one a little more above its peers.
But it IS watchable, and for the first 40 minutes or so, pretty darn good. I always enjoy the storytelling/flashback structure in these sort of films, because it allows for a less A to B story, and also allows the writer to use broad strokes or a quick voiceover to fill in backstory and focus on good bits. And not for nothing - it’s Lance Henriksen telling the story, which automatically makes it more interesting to listen to. I’ve seen the guy in probably 50 movies at this point, and I can’t think of an example where he wasn’t giving it all his effort, even in rubbish like The Seamstress, and this is no exception. There’s a great moment early on where he chastises Harris and her cameraman for being “early”, which is followed by a beat and then the chime of the clock striking the hour (thus, by “early” he was referring to mere seconds), at which point he drops his icy stare and begins talking. It’s the sort of thing that a slumming/lazy actor wouldn’t have been able to convey, but Lance nails it.
He also helps make the film’s rather clunky twist work. I won’t spoil it, but it’s one of those misdirection things that few movies try to pull off because it requires too many vague plot elements to succeed, including (in this specific case) Lance having to come across as a possible threat without going too far in either direction. In a weird way it’s sort of like his role in Aliens, where you’re half-expecting Bishop to break down and become a villain the way Ashe did in the first Alien. There’s a possible giant mistake with regards to Lance’s age compared to that of another character, but by that point the movie is seconds from ending and it’s too late to make a stink about it. Plus it’s fun enough to warrant the frequent breaks in Cyrus’ story to cut back to Lance talking to Danielle, something that could have thrown the pace off but is largely successful here.
And most of their scenes take place in the daylight, which is a good thing because this is not a very well shot film. I don’t know enough about lenses and HD models and what not to pinpoint what the exact problem is, but if I can use a technical term: it’s ugly as hell. Especially in the nighttime scenes, where everything is murky and looks like the low grade stuff you’d see on an early episode of COPS. Lighting frequently jumps all over the place; early on there’s a bit where Danielle is giving a report at “magic hour” (where everything is drenched in the orange glow of the low-hanging sun - see: every Michael Bay film), but when they show the POV of the camera shooting her, it’s bright and (normal) sunny. However, the scenes of Jones and the others being interviewed look terrific, which just further suggests that these were done later (perhaps after they noticed their footage wasn’t particularly great looking and either hired a new DP or made the one they had take a few classes).
The disc sports an above-average making of piece, featuring interviews with writer/director Mark Vadik and most of the cast, including the lovely Shawna Waldron, whose character in the movie is a drunken blubbering mess (read: annoyance) most of the time but is clearly a likable and charming woman in real life. One thing Vadik reveals is that he sort of assembled Cyrus’ tragic back-story from a bunch of different serial killers (something I picked up on from the movie, with Ed Gein being one of the most obvious inspirations), and he also explains that Lance had a different acting method than Danielle so he had to let them play around a bit so they could both get to where they needed to be... look, it’s a lot better than the usual “I loved the script and I wanted to work with (whoever happened to cross their mind first)” bullshit. We also get a look at the creation of the mummy baby, which is even freakier looking than the movie lets on – if this movie was a big release, the studio would be stupid not to make little keychains or something as a promotional item. The trailer is also included but it makes the movie look less interesting than it is, stacking the money shots up instead of hinting at the story plots, such as the nature of Cyrus’ barbecue (the one posted below is different and better, IMO).
This is where watching a horror movie a day comes in handy. If this was one of maybe 4-5 smaller horror films I saw all year, I’d probably be panning it. But with so many bland, lazy, or just flat out terrible films on the market, something like this sticks out. It’s got issues, but everyone is putting effort into doing something different, and it never gets too dull or repetitive thanks to the unusual structure. And any movie that gives Lance and Danielle (plus Tiffany Shepis, in a brief, almost unrecognizable role as Cyrus’ despicable mother) something different to do is worth a look for genre fans.
What say you?