Following The Silence of the Lambs‘ box office and critical success, the serial killer was omnipresent in psychological thrillers. When FBI agent Robert Ressler coined the term in the early 1980s, mass media elevated the mass murderer to ]moral panic. But Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel proved the serial killer could do better than tabloid television and B-horror. Not surprisingly, 90’s psychological thrillers put the serial killer front row and center. The Bone Collector. Se7en. Kiss The Girls. Fallen. Virtuosity. Kalifornia. Natural Born Killers. Despite a stellar cast that included Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter, the 1995 serial killer thriller, Copycat, underperformed at the box office. Maybe it got lost in a shuffle of similarly themed thrillers. Only one month earlier, Se7en ruled the box office. But Copycat – a notch above many of the above-mentioned thrillers – deserved a better box office fate.
Dr Helen Hudson is a world-renowned criminal psychologist and expert on serial killers. But her fame inevitably attracts the wrong attention. Following a guest lecture, depraved killer Daryll Lee Cullum brutally attacks Helen. Though she survives the assault, Dr. Hudson is traumatized and left trapped in her apartment, suffering from agoraphobia. Months later, a new serial killer surfaces with a bizarre twist – each of his murders is a perfect copy of an infamous serial killer’s crime scene. When Inspector MJ Monahan turns to Hudson for help, she inadvertently draws this new killer’s attention. Now Inspector Monahan and Dr Hudson find themselves as the potential prey in a killer’s twisted game.
Copycat’s Premise and Well-Staged Thrills Overcome Familiarity
Straight out of the gate, Copycat lacks the dramatic and thematic weight of either The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en. As compared to those movies, this is a glossy thriller looking to give mainstream audiences a couple of hours of white-knuckle suspense. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong this approach. While director Jon Amiel’s handle on the material is more workmanlike, he still engineers a few genuinely suspenseful moments. Both ‘bathroom stall’ scenes that bookend Copycat deliver effective shocks while leaving some doubt as to the safety of our protagonists. Despite lacking grit, Amiel certainly doesn’t sanitize the material while also avoiding too much exploitation of the subject matter. Screenwriters Ann Biderman and David Madsen’s choice to reveal their killer’s identity so early undercuts some of the thriller’s suspense. But the ‘copycat twist’, Christopher Young’s score, and pacing make up for the odd story decision.
…this is a glossy thriller looking to give mainstream audiences a couple of hours of white-knuckle suspense.
Yet where Copycat truly stands out is in its treatment of the two lead female characters. Arguably, Biderman and Madsen’s character-driven bits of the story are much better than their grasp on the serial killer narrative. Dr. Helen Hudson’s struggles with trauma and Inspector Monahan’s self-doubts make for compelling female-driven story parallels. In fact, it’s these character-rich components that enhance the thriller’s suspense in the climax. To his credit, Amiel finds creative ways of showing the audience the crippling nature of Hudson’s agoraphobia. Moreover, Amiel avoids exploiting Hudson’s illness – instead the character is fully realized with a satisfying arc. Hudson and Monahan’s initial mistrust of one another and eventual friendship also feels very organic in a movie that often conforms to familiar tropes.
Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter Class Up Copycat
Maybe Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter thought Copycat would earn them more Oscar nods. It worked for Jodie Foster. Unfortunately, neither Weaver nor Foster earned so much as a nomination for their performances. Nonetheless, both Weaver and Hunter turn in some stellar work here. As the agoraphobic and traumatized Dr. Helen Hudson, Weaver shows off her incredible range. Both actresses display an uncanny ability to show both strength and vulnerability, thus adding some much needed depth to their characters. The chemistry between the two actresses will makes audiences wish they had more time on screen together.
Though Cullum is no Hannibal Lecter, Connick Jr surprisingly menaces in this ‘against type’ performance. Too bad Connick Jr isn’t the movie’s main villain.
Several familiar faces round out Copycat’s cast. Yes, Biderman and Madsen’s screenplay wastes Dermot Mulroney and Will Patton (Halloween). Both actors are working with pretty cookie-cutter ‘cop roles’ found in just about any psychological thriller. Where Copycat runs into problems is with its titular killer. Harry Connick Jr’s Daryll Lee Cullum is loads of fun to watch for his brief amount of screen time. Though Cullum is no Hannibal Lecter, Connick Jr surprisingly menaces in this ‘against type’ performance. Too bad Connick Jr isn’t the movie’s main villain. As ‘Peter Foley, William McNamara makes for a pretty bland serial killer. Some the problem stems from the movie’s own premise – as a ‘copycat killer’ McNamara’s ‘Foley’ is not much more than a blank slate. It also doesn’t help that Foley always feels like just a proxy for someone else.
Copycat a Durable Serial Killer Movie That Exceeds Its Own Limitations
As compared to The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, Copycat doesn’t quite escape the 90’s psychological thriller mold. It’s twist on the serial killer premise isn’t enough to separate it from the pack. After all, this was the decade that saw Denzel Washington battle a virtual reality and demonic serial killer in two separate movies. Though Amiel offers some tense thrills, Copycat also follows pretty familiar beats. Still Weaver and Hunter’s performances elevate the more generic aspects of this thriller. And the suspenseful setpieces deliver some well-orchestrated thrills. Most importantly, Copycat is never dull even if it feel like there was a better movie somewhere in its premise. Still what’s on the screen makes for a remarkably durable serial killer thriller.