Mad World: 'Psychopaths' at the Tribeca Film Festival

Mad World: 'Psychopaths' at the Tribeca Film Festival

Director Mickey Keating serves up a scary vision of America that hits close to home.

Director Mickey Keating serves up a scary vision of America that hits close to home.

Text: Joshua Lyon

It’s no secret that troubled times produce the best scary movies—think of the atomic Cold War dread creeping through the giant insect oeuvre the 1950s, or the way 1960s racial tension was subtly explored in Night of the Living Dead. The runaway success of Get Out proves that almost 50 years later we require cathartic outlets for that same subject more than ever, but it seems futile to try and nail a storyline that accurately reflects the overall insanity that makes up our current political climate. The tension release is greatly needed though—as Eli Roth said at a recent panel for Crypt TV at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Everybody just wants to scream.”

Luckily, we’ve got Mickey Keating. The young director has knocked out five horror films in as many years, and his latest debut, Psychopaths, is a trippy pastiche of violence that evokes a familiar feeling of late: complete loss of control. The plot—a serial killer’s execution kicks off a rampage among several maniacs whose paths sometimes cross—is little more than a loose framework to stage a series of nightmarish portraits of Americana. There’s a secret lair lurking beneath a quiet suburban home, a murderous disguise that resembles Dennis the Menace, and a sweet, Rita Hayworth-esque chanteuse named Alice (brilliantly played by Ashley Bell) whose split personality hides a stone-cold butcher.

Alice believes that she perpetually exists inside a musical revue, and croons saucy love songs to her imagined audience (and us, the viewers). But the rest of the movie mostly plays out over epic psychedelic tracks—curated by music supervisors Tim Bickford and Mandi Collier—with one major, jarring-in-a-good-way exception. During a nightclub massacre, the speakers pulse with “Handsome Killer,” by Kindest Cuts, and it’s the best use of darkwave synth in a film scene since Q Lazzarus’s “Goodbye Horses” rode through the infamous preen-and-tuck scene from Silence of the Lambs. “We feel that utilizing both modern and vintage tracks throughout the picture adds timelessness to Mickey’s initial vision,” Bickford told me via email.

The disconcerting aural choices and the color-soaked, interconnected vignettes add up to one of the most stylish horror films since the heyday of giallo, and while Keating flaunts that genre’s inspiration, along with healthy doses of Lynch and Tarantino, his influences create a surreal perspective that’s entirely his own. Some critics grumble that he’s just nodding at his heroes with an elaborate fanboy mood board, but I disagree. The genius of Psychopaths is that the gore pales in comparison to the quiet moments. A torture scene hits all the right gruesome marks, but the real fear starts when the camera turns to the perpetrator’s featureless white mask: a few lashes poke out from an eyehole, quivering and darting like spider legs. The scene masterfully represents our news cycle—relentless to the point of numbness, but once you take a moment to focus on a singular detail, the terror truly sinks in.

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