Warner Bros. // 1995 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // August 18th, 2011
One man is copying the most notorious killers in history.
One at a time.
Together, two women must stop him from killing again.
Or they're next.
With the critical and commercial success of The Silence of the Lambs, along with interest in real-life murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Aileen Wuornos, serial killers found a bit of high-minded respectability in '90s films. No longer the provenance of slasher and straight-to-video bogs, even Woody Allen made a serial killer movie.
1995 saw two well-produced serial killer films released within weeks of each other. David Fincher's Se7en was the better received and more memorable, and its success overshadowed Copycat, a perfectly fine serial killer film in its own right.
Dr. Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver, The Ice Storm), an expert on serial killers, has been afraid to leave her San Francisco apartment for over a year. Thirteen months earlier, she was almost murdered by Daryll Lee Cullum (Harry Connick Jr., Bug), an escaped killer she'd helped put away. Even though he's back in prison, Helen lives in constant fear that he's coming back. Her only contact with the outside world is through the Internet and her assistant, Andy (John Rothman, Adam).
Detectives MJ Monahan (Holly Hunter, The Piano) and Reuben Goetz (Dermot Mulroney, Must Love Dogs) are hunting a serial killer. One day, they get a call from a woman who seems to have information but doesn't leave her name. The call is traced, and it turns out to be Helen.
Monahan and Goetz want Helen on the case, but not only do their superiors object, Helen herself claims not to be up to it. She does look at some crime scene photos for them and notices a pattern: this serial killer is a Copycat, setting his crime scenes to look exactly like the crime scenes of serial killers past.
But when the killer realizes Helen is involved, it adds a new element to his game; after all, as an expert, she's something of a star in the serial killer world. Soon, our killer is not only reaching out to her and previewing his crimes...he's also viewing her as a trophy.
Copycat is a well-made film that falls just short of being really great. Part of the problem was the timing of its release, when it was compared with superior predecessors, The Silence of the Lambs and, especially, Se7en. While Fincher's film, released just a month before this, was dazzlingly creative and brutal, Copycat just comes across as a bit too conventional, and a bit unfocused.
A good serial killer film works not because of the gore, but because of the gamesmanship. In this aspect, Copycat is pretty successful. The killer's schtick -- re-creating famous crime scenes -- is clever and well-played, particularly with Helen to fill in the information for us ("It's the Boston Strangler").
Weaver is excellent here, the actress's imposing frame serving as a counterpoint to her character's fragility. Helen is a pill-popping, brandy-guzzling, ill-tempered neurotic, and despite the terrible event that brought her to this place, Weaver doesn't play the character for pity or even understanding; there's a sense that Helen was no more likable before her nervous breakdown. Weaver is always interesting to watch, an actress who isn't afraid to explore the dark sides of the characters she plays. Her performance is what makes Copycat work as well as it does.
Unfortunately, Copycat the film is not as clever as Copycat the killer. Ideas and characters are introduced and then dropped to the point of distraction; there's a lot of extraneous stuff here. In a surprising and unwelcome turn, a significant character is killed randomly, and not by the main killer. This bit of business makes little sense in terms of the story, although it does tie into something kind of marginal that happens earlier in the film.
The film also makes poor use of its location; these killings could be happening anywhere. I also wish they'd given the killer more to do. The idea is fine, but his output is slim, and at least one of his killings -- his tribute to Dahmer -- has almost nothing to do with the killer he's aping.
While Weaver is great, Hunter is less than impressive. Her Detective Monahan is a smug know-it-all who speaks in an odd, flat monotone; she's the SFPD's answer to Dennis the Menace's dumb ol' Margaret. Mulroney is appealingly boy scoutish in a role that would have been played by an actress had this film been cast with males in the leads, and Connick is quite good, if underused, as a psychotic.
Warner Bros.' Blu-ray is a pretty tired affair. The image is ho-hum, clean, with a reasonable amount of detail, but it doesn't really grab you. Audio is a serviceable DTS lossless track. The only supplement in a commentary track from director Jon Amiel, ported over from the DVD release.
Yes, this could have been a better film if more care had gone into the script, but on its own terms, it's a perfectly agreeable suspense film -- slick, straightforward, not too gory or upsetting, and smart enough not to leave the audience feeling cheated or dumb.
An entertaining if underwhelming serial killer movie gets an underwhelming Blu-ray release.
Not guilty, but close.
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Portuguese)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R