"Bates had to die. There will be more" Zodiac - April 30th, 1967
And so it begins, a new review series at The Movie Sleuth. This is True Horror.
Last month we were chronicling, reviewing, and comparing horror films. Yet, nothing is quite as scary as the terror that takes place in real life. Now that Halloween is over, I'm going to be taking a look at reality based stories that have made their way to film, giving audiences an inside look at crime tales and the way they were represented at the cineplex.
For years, I studied and read about the Zodiac Killer case. Decades after the murders, the mystery remains unsolved and people are still coming forward claiming to know the identity of the Zodiac. Like the conclusion of the movie, nothing is solved and the perpetrator remains nameless and most likely dead while amateur detectives still try to decypher the code of the Zodiac's murders.
Diving headlong into research, it became an obsession for me that spanned over several years. Books, websites, and various filmed incarnations tried to capture the murders and investigation of one of the most notorious and mysterious serial killers to ever live. Multiple theories exist about the masked murderer. Did he die in prison? Was the Zodiac in actuality a cultist group made up of numerous people? Was he a police officer that used his training to slaughter men and women? How did he learn to use cyphers to mislead and distract frustrated detectives and hobbyist investigators? No one has ever cracked the case although there have been instances where they think they've come close.
Throughout all the different media representations of the case, only one really holds ground when it comes to the story of Zodiac. David Fincher's 2007 film that was adapted from the Robert Graysmith novels is as close as we've been to the seedy tale of the killer. Starring an array of great actors including Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Mark Ruffalo, and the uber creepy John Carroll Lynch, the film nails the tone of the era while capturing the essence of Graysmith's novels. Zodiac takes specific aim at long time suspect Arthur Leigh Allen but also casts a dark light on some of the other key players in the story. Graysmith's obsessive personality is on full display as is Paul Avery's bouts with alcoholism and drug addiction. All the actors do stellar work with Lynch taking the cake as one of the scariest and socially awkward filmed antagonists of the last decade.
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What's striking about Fincher's Zodiac is its stark realism and attention to fine detail. Throughout the two and a half hour run time, Fincher quite possibly offers the best motion picture of his career. While he's mostly relegated himself to straight fiction and brooding dramatic films like his remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and his domestic version of Gone Girl. Zodiac spins a deep web that shows us how the unraveling story gripped the country as a whole and how it still remains one of the most diabolical police investigations to ever exist. With Zodiac, he breaks from the norm and renders a verifiably artistic version of the happenings of the case as he also shows us the human side of the main players.
Nearly ten years later, Zodiac still remains a great watch. Slow but even pacing, beautiful cinematography, strong character development, excellent performances all around, and a calculated dramatic version of real life incidents is portrayed in a semi-cynical and nearly perfect realization that spotlights Fincher's grasp on filmmaking. Although it failed at the box office, Zodiac shows us exactly why the story is so compelling. The flaws of the main characters are not hidden and the dark nature of a faceless murderer take center stage in this movie based on tangible horror.
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