Everybody in Ho’wood wants to be a serial killer. What’s up with all these flicks about ingenious murderers and the creative ways they find to mutilate their victims? The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en started something terrible that hasn’t stopped yet. The only interesting thing about Anamorph, the latest liberal arts killer movie, is its apparent ambition to teach arts and crafts. Everybody in Ho’wood is a nerd.
But maybe this one is some kind of thrill kill milestone: The killer’s fine arts education seems far ahead of Kevin Spacey’s theological savvy in Se7en or the snuff freak’s cinéma-vérité chops in 8MM. Each crime scene in Anamorph provides a lesson in art history and technique: sculptures, murals, animation flip books, tattoos and, of course, the killer’s specialty, anamorphosis—the use of special optics or vantage points to transform one image into another. Styles and influences vary, from action painting to Bacon to Bosch, but the media remain blood, bone and flesh. At one point, our world-weary, brilliant detective (Willem Dafoe) takes up a paintbrush and dips it into the freshly peeled guts of his old partner to complete the killer’s wall-sized Baconesque painting. Other cops gather round with their mouths hanging open, like, this guy’s deep, instead of hauling him in to see the precinct shrink or Internal Affairs.
Does scary-looking Dafoe have something to do with the killings? I doubt that the makers of Anamorph really care. They clearly have higher aspirations, to say something about the mystery and rapture of art while piggybacking a horror subgenre in the way that Peeping Tom serenaded cinema and Ganja and Hess regarded African spirituality adrift in America. Anamorph wants you to feel how grand and mesmerizing art-making can be—a wonderful, terrible compulsion akin to shooting dope and committing high crimes. Both an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and an art appreciation class play pivotal roles in this flick.
The wonder and terror never take. Anamorph is so committed to honoring ’90s serial killer movie laws (police squad rooms with shafts of sunlight obliterating the house lights; depressive cop just about to retire when an unsolved murder case pulls him back in; wiseass coroner full of stale gallows humor; mournful, paranoid musical score) that all the art stuff becomes upscale decoration. The film ends up simply cataloging genre tropes rather than subverting or interrogating them. (Even that sentence sounds like something I read somewhere in 1992. This shit is contagious.) Every line Dafoe utters is a hollow echo of cop talk in 12,015 other catch-a-killer procedurals. Each time he gets mobbed by flashbulbs or bickers with the sassy girl reporter elicits a sick, sad sigh.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.