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"Longlegs": A Masterfully Crafted Horror Thriller

“Longlegs”: A Masterfully Crafted Horror Thriller

Oz Perkins’ eerie, occultist serial killer horror thriller “Longlegs” opens with a psyche-rattling sequence, barely a minute or two long, in which he crafts a chilling sense of shock, awe and confounding humor simply through shot composition, editing and performance.

It unsettles the viewer on a bone-deep level, the tension then bursting like a bubble on a bravura music cue.

It is scary, only because of how it is presented formally, not necessarily thanks to any of the basic actions or imagery on screen, and it is thrilling, because Perkins announces from the outset his audacious approach to tone as well as his mastery of cinematic technique to create suspense.

The tension never lets up throughout “Longlegs,” though it is peppered with a dry, black humor that somehow just makes everything more disturbing.

One should know as little as possible about “Longlegs” for the best viewing experience. In fact, feel free to stop reading now if experiencing an entirely unpredictable plot and the sensation of sickening dread mixed with bleak humor for 100 minutes sounds like an appealing cinematic experience.

But we shall proceed here, because “Longlegs” is just too rich a text to unpack, and the obstacle course of writing around its true horrors is a worthy challenge.

Though it’s a facile comparison, “Longlegs” feels like Perkins’ “The Silence of the Lambs,” in that it follows a young female FBI agent as she plays cat and mouse with a serial killer (there’s also a shared enthusiasm for British ‘70s rock on behalf of our respective boogeymen).

Special Agent Lee Harker (Maika Monroe) has the preternatural skill and drive of Clarice Starling, and both characters similarly fail to mask their vulnerability with toughness, though in different ways.

Harker’s not a people person but she is highly intuitive, perhaps even a little bit psychic. She’s recruited by Special Agent Carter (Blair Underwood) for precisely that quality, to start reinvestigating the cold case of a series of possibly related family annihilations wherein a person named “Longlegs” has claimed a kind of responsibility through coded notes.

As she dives deeper into research, it’s revealed that Harker is strangely connected to these cases (is she psychic or are these memories?).

Nicolas Cage plays a strange suspect in one of his more outre and unrecognizable performances. He is brilliant and clearly having a blast committing wholeheartedly to his wacky and terrifying choices (though Cage has never not committed above and beyond in every performance).

Alicia Witt also appears as Harker’s mother, with whom the agent has a close, but complicated, relationship. Monroe, with a sort of placid sullenness, is the eye of the storm of these colorful characters, including her bombastic boss Carter.

The performances work in tandem with the astonishingly meticulous and precise filmmaking. Perkins (who is the son of “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins) has a marvelously methodical eye in crafting cinematic image and sound. With cinematographer Andres Arochi, who works magic with the structure of light, Perkins centers Harker in carefully composed shots where she is dwarfed by the environment, emphasizing her smallness and sense of overwhelm.

The camera switches between objective observation of our protagonist, and alignment with her intuitive point of view and actions. Slow, creeping zooms mimic her vision, and backwards tracking shots continuously drag her into danger, her gun always in hand.

The camera bears an omniscient, ominous knowingness that can’t always be trusted, but repeated shots and scenarios suggest connection and comparison between different characters and across time, so there is an internal rhythm to the filmmaking even as the story defies traditional kinds of logic.

Perkins also fills the cast with interesting and memorable supporting roles that make the world of “Longlegs” bigger, richer and weirder, and helps us to understand the characters further, seeing how they interact with the world around them.

However, “Longlegs” does not offer up easy answers about itself on a macro level. Watching it feels like a riddle, the film itself a code to crack, and by the time it’s done, the whole puzzle has not yet been revealed. That’s OK. Just jump on board and let Perkins guide the way — the journey is more than worth it.

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