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Psychopaths (2017) REVIEW – Trashy Horror Done Right

Mickey Keating has crafted an experimental exploitation film that's well worth the watch.

Mickey Keating, 27, has made six features in seven years. Not only that, but he produces, writes, and directs his own material. And yet there’s a great sense of collaboration about his movies, with his actors, sure, but also in things like the cinematography and sound design. He has an acting ensemble that he draws from, which almost always includes genre icon Larry Fessenden in at least some sort of role.

His latest, Psychopaths, is conflict without resolution. Nothing is wrapped up at the end, and we’re left with a hell of a lot of questions. This goes against one of the fundamental “rules” of screenwriting and seems to have left quite a few reviewers flummoxed. But I liked it a lot. You don’t see a ton of aesthetic experimentation in genre films, horror films especially.

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A lot of why I liked the movie comes from the style choices, especially the near-schizoid visuals, which are sometimes black and white, sometimes neon, sometimes neo-noir looking. Its constantly changing style becomes emblematic of the minds of the characters as they go on a one-night killing spree on the evening after the execution of serial killer Henry Stalkweather. The script is a launching point, not the centerpiece. The movie is a symphony of sadism where the deranged unconscious of some very bad people acts as the conductor.

Is Henry Stalkweather a metaphysical force that actually causes all this chaos the night of his execution? Or is there a more earthly explanation? Perhaps the psychopaths go on their killing sprees because they are inspired to carry on his legacy? The four main killers are certainly already disturbed, so it might all be chalked up to coincidence. The question is never answered, but who needs it to be anyway?

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I should certainly mention the sound design. It’s as experimental as the visuals, though quite a bit more subtle. Well, most of the time. Every now and again the film will lull you with silence or near silence and then there’s some big burst of sound, an all-audio jump scare.

All this adds up to a very personal vision, the kind that one doesn’t see much in genre films anymore. Some of the imagery reminded me of Lynch at his most surreal, like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. What the movie lacks in structured narrative (and who really needs that anyway?), it makes up for in atmosphere, abstraction, mood, vision. I’ll take it. I could watch this kind of stuff all day. But I’ve noticed quite a few critics, instead of judging the film by what it’s trying to accomplish, judge it by a pretty rigid set of rules, rules which make sense when applied to a traditional narrative, but don’t make any sense when dealing with experimental stuff like this. The script is more thematic than narrative. That’s the whole point. But why let a filmmaker’s intention get in the way?

Though Psychopaths is kinda-sorta set in the present day, there’s no cell phones. Also, most of the characters have a retro mode of dress, scattered across various time periods. Psychopaths is a kind of movie out of time, or rather something that could take place any time, or even better, a time, a reality of its own.

And the title is quite appropriate. Everyone is a psychopath, from the killers to the victims and even the police. You wouldn’t think this kind of thing would lend itself to a whole lot of audience sympathy, but the torture these folks go through is so brutal that, terrible people or not, you still feel for them. And maybe that’s part of the point, here.

Psychopaths was a risky film, but it completely works. It doesn’t hurt that it hits a sweet spot for me: trash cinema that intersects with an arthouse aesthetic. Really, I was the perfect mark for this flick.