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Not as scary as promised, but still pretty freaky

Perhaps it comes down to an individual’s own phobias, but I can’t say I experienced the profound sense of evil that Longlegs’ marketing campaign – and its most enthusiastic advocates – promised. I was told it would be like The Silence of the Lambs, or perhaps David Fincher’s Zodiac if it had been dragged direct out of Satan’s anus, with a performance by Nicolas Cage as a serial killer so traumatizing it had to be shielded from the (non-paying) public’s eyes. To be clear, it’s a fantastic ad campaign. And clearly a successful one. The film has accumulated the kind of buzz last afforded to Ari Aster’s Hereditary or David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows.

But all this noise will, for a chunk of its audience, set up the wrong expectations. For my (perhaps already cursed) sensibilities, Longlegs isn’t some unshakeable artifact of malevolence but more like a knife in the back – nasty, precise, and unexpected. From its first frame to its last, it shifts from a morbid chill to a freaky little satanic jaunt. It’s as subtle as a magic trick, and a way for writer-director Osgood Perkins (son of Psycho star Anthony, a useful heritage in this context) to have his cake and eat it, too.

Longlegs both marinates in the disquieting legacy of real-life serial murders – from Charles Manson’s accomplices to the Zodiac Killer’s ciphers and the Weepy-Voiced Killer’s frantic phone calls – and, in its latter stages, goes big and arch in a way that wouldn’t feel entirely out of place in one of those Seventies horrors with a title like “The Devil is My Neighbour and Sometimes We Go Bowling”.

Cage’s serial killer looks creepy, but also like he could plausibly breed exotic shorthair cats. The actor’s unpredictability has always best served the descent into madness, and less so characters who have comfortably made themselves at home there (that’s Willem Dafoe’s turf). And his performance here is at its best when he actually drops the “weird” affectations and speaks deeply and slowly, with a hellfire intensity.

He does so in an interview with FBI agent Lee Harker (It Follows’s Maika Monroe), whose acute perceptiveness has been tagged as a possible psychic ability, and whose interest in the case ultimately makes her the Clarice Starling to Longlegs’s Hannibal Lecter. On a slightly related note, this film is one of depressingly few horrors that can set a scene in a psychiatric hospital without cruelly and unnecessarily monsterizing mental illness.

Longlegs has left coded, but signed, notes behind at a string of family annihilations. In each case, it’s clear the father wielded the weapon, before turning the weapon on himself. He must have been compelled in some way, but there’s no sign of forced entry. Monroe makes for a fearsome investigator, crumpling the film’s terrors up in a tight ball and holding them in her fist. There’s something different about her – the bolted tight lines of her mouth, the slightly unfocused gaze, and the way she gently vibrates whenever she’s forced to interact with other people. That makes her both the investigation’s greatest asset and its biggest target. Monroe settles into a state of constant awareness that rubs off on her audience.

Longlegs suggests its greatest scares, rather than reveal them. During the opening credits, there are flashes of the unfathomable – crime scene photos, I assumed, though I couldn’t be sure. At one point, I swear I spotted something a lot more infernal. Whenever Lee is busy with her work, all unrolled maps and sprawled-out Polaroids, Perkins carefully frames her so that she’s always left with a couple of open, blurred doorways on either side. To its viewers, Longlegs whispers: have fun and fill in the gaps.

Dir: Osgood Perkins. Starring: Maika Monroe, Nicolas Cage, Blair Underwood, Alicia Witt, Michelle Choi-Lee, Dakota Daulby. 15, 101 mins.

‘Longlegs’ is in cinemas from 12 July

Source: The Independent