If you were to ask any horror aficionado about the first half of the 1990s, they would probably sigh wistfully and refer to it as a dark and formless time, in which the horror genre had succumbed to countless BASIC INSTINCT and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS knockoffs, along with the occasional goofy throwback, like VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN. And they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but I think it’s fair to say that this mentality – basically, writing off half a decade of horror as just a bunch of copycats – has resulted in quite the tragic body count, consisting of some decent and even a few genuinely great motion pictures that deserve a lot more recognition and a much larger audience.
Because it’s easy to forget that some of the best movies ever made were once a part of a zeitgeist, and what’s more, that they didn’t necessarily start one. The classic serial killer movie SE7EN, for example, may seem noteworthy and artistically significant now, but at the time of its release, many had dismissed it as a stylish SILENCE OF THE LAMBS knockoff. Fortunately for David Fincher’s film, time has proved those early critics wrong, and SE7EN now enjoys a vaunted reputation as one of the best motion pictures of the 1990s. But not all of its peers were so lucky.
Case in point: COPYCAT, an impressively acted and smartly written serial killer thriller directed by genre filmmaker Jon Amiel (ENTRAPMENT). The film stars Holly Hunter as a San Francisco homicide detective who teams up with an agoraphobic psychologist, played by Sigourney Weaver, to catch a homicidal maniac whose modus operandi is stealing the modus operandi from other, more famous serial killers.
It’s a clever idea for a movie, but COPYCAT struggled to find an audience in the fall of 1995, in part because that same season saw the release of multiple, seemingly unoriginal thrillers with titles like THE TIE THAT BINDS, NEVER TALK TO STRANGERS and JADE. It probably shouldn’t have been surprising that in a time period mostly notable for its unremarkable copycat movies, a movie actually called COPYCAT would fall victim to unremarkable expectations.
But those who missed the film in theaters, and younger audiences who haven’t even heard of it nowadays, are missing out on one of the best thrillers of the 1990s. In spite of the name and storyline, COPYCAT plays unlike most of its contemporary serial killer movies, and first and foremost, credit should go to the film’s co-stars Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver.
Protagonists like Inspector M.J. Monahan (Hunter) and Dr. Helen Hudson (Weaver) were in very short supply in the 1990s, and frankly they’re still in short supply now. Two capable women at the center of a mainstream studio thriller, both of them capable without veering into fan service, both of them vulnerable without ever teetering into victimhood, both of them sexual without resorting to the role of “love interest.”
As Inspector M.J. Monahan, Holly Hunter demonstrates confidence and guile, manipulating her interview subjects and responding genuinely to her peers. She is a moral and responsible police officer, who early in the film playfully lectures her young partner, Reuben Goetz (Dermot Mulroney) on the importance of human life, even the one you might one day be shooting at. Over the course of the film she finds those values tested, but through success rather than failure. At a key moment in COPYCAT she does every single thing right, only to get the wrong result anyway, and that’s the sort of existential crisis that sends her character reeling into a dangerous situation that could get multiple people killed. It’s a dramatic arc that could have been reduced to DEATH WISH sequel nonsensicality, but one that is instead portrayed with a thoughtful performance and measured direction.
As Dr. Helen Hudson, Sigourney Weaver has the showier role in COPYCAT. Hudson was a psychologist who specialized in profiling serial killers, only to become the target of a maniac played by Harry Connick Jr. after one of her lectures. It’s a sequence that Jon Amiel films in widescreen detail, with stark colors, arguably more dramatically than any other moment in COPYCAT. This is in part because it starts the film off with a bang, in part because the scene will be revisited later in the film (it’s called “COPYCAT” for a reason) and in part because this moment will inform everything else about Weaver’s character.
Dr. Helen Hudson spends the majority of COPYCAT trapped inside her lavish apartment, incapable of venturing outside a few feet to pick up the newspaper without experiencing a paralyzing sense of vertigo. What could have been a gimmicky concept is instead played entirely straight, and Weaver turns in one of her very best performances as an otherwise sensible woman now prone to panic attacks, mood swings and paranoia as she struggles with the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress. And thanks to Amiel’s bravura realization of her attack, it’s nearly impossible not to identify with her plight.
What may be most impressive about COPYCAT is the film’s portrayal of characters who actually give a damn, about each other and about their responsibilities. Scenes at the police precinct are full of casual conversation and humorous detail, with lunch orders and cigarettes becoming useful props that reveal just how affectionate these co-workers really are. And when tragedy strikes, a character who seemed defined by jealousy, played by Will Patton, reveals that he’s actually ashamed of his ongoing behavior. A stock “jerk” stereotype is given a much richer texture in COPYCAT than you might expect.
But it just wouldn’t be a 1990s thriller without at least one embarrassing scene about computers, in this case involving videos that won’t play back and “hacking” into a thing that you just simply don’t hack into. The 1990s were an awkward period to incorporate technology into a motion picture: the internet had obvious promise as a narrative tool, but none of that promise was plausible with the contemporary technology, and cell phones were so uncommon that using them at all was often portrayed as an important plot point.
Still, it’s fascinating to watch films from the era that treat what we now think of as commonplace conveniences as a superpower. The original SCREAM was released just one year later, and made it seem like a serial killer with a cell phone was damn near omnipotent (since he could call from anywhere). And then there’s COPYCAT, which features a deadly duel between a killer with what are supposed to be awe-inspiring Photoshop skills and a psychologist who has unparalleled access to what we’d now just call Wikipedia. Fortunately the film doesn’t entirely rely on dated technology to push the story forward, or it would come across more today as a time capsule than a drama (see also: DISCLOSURE, or THE NET).
Besides, every film is a product of its time, and the 1990s were simply a very weird time to be making films. And sure enough COPYCAT is a very weird motion picture. It boasts all the classy performances and dramatic weight of an Oscar-worthy drama, but all the seedy violence and high-concept crime of a b-movie. It obviously wouldn’t have been made if THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS wasn’t successful but it also doesn’t play like a hackneyed rip-off of anyone’s earlier work. It’s too familiar at a glance to be well-remembered, and too damned good to be ignored.
I suspect that if Jon Amiel’s movie had been fortunate enough to come first, it might be hailed as a classic. Instead, COPYCAT is written off as a copycat, and ironically, that couldn’t be further from the truth. COPYCAT is a great thriller featuring two genuinely brilliant performances, and if you’ve never seen it, or heard of it, or given it another thought after the original release, I highly recommend checking it out today.