A Masterful and Creepy Crime Thriller: ‘Copycat’ (1995)


Directed by Jon Amiel ,1995’s “Copycat” is an excellent (albeit fictional) look at the public’s interest in serial killers, and how this fascination — this fandom — itself potentially contributes to “copycat” killers.

In this case, we have a serial killer (portrayed by William McNamara), who duplicates famous kills rather meticulously. One great thing about the movie is how disturbingly plausible it is, given the potential for networking between fans and previously caught murderers.

Harry Connick, Jr. as Darryl Lee Cullum (Photo: Warner Bros)

He’s apparently not the blend-into-the-crowd, Patrick Bateman type of serial killer.

One of the film’s chief protagonists, Dr. Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) paradoxically was victimized by a serial killer, yet writes books on them — thus undoubtedly feeding their fandom. The killer who attacked her, Daryll Lee Cullum (Harry Connick, Jr.), may spend most of the movie in prison after getting caught, but he still has a powerful presence throughout.

In fact, his attack on Dr. Hudson after a lecture caused her intense agoraphobia, which is a major plot point throughout. Daryll Lee exudes a mix of intelligence, lowbrow sleaziness and power. It’s a memorable performance, sort of like a redneck Hannibal Lecter.

Basically, the film is filled with great performances. Even Andy (John Rothman), Helen’s gay housemate, does a compelling job for a relatively minor character. He adds dimension to Dr. Hudson’s personal life, showing that she’s not merely a true crime author and victim, but capable of being social, sweet or sassy.

Then there are the other heroes of the film — officers M.J. Monahan (Holly Hunter) and her partner Reuben Goetz (Dermot Mulroney). In addition to their three dimensional chemistry and witty moments, they convey a sense of urgency by really needing Helen’s expertise in tracking down the copycat.

Terrifying. (Photo: Warner Bros)

What develops is a game of wits — a thrilling cat and mouse-style race against time against a killer who is very intelligent, and who “keeps the game close.” In the process, we learn a little about famous serial killers, like Albert DeSalvo, The Hillside Strangler, David Berkowitz, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy. While Helen, M.J. and Reuben wonder where he’ll strike next, the copycat keeps close contact with them — taunting Helen the most.

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The killer is also disturbing in how meticulous and precise he is, or tries to be, in his methods as we get glimpses into his “handiwork.” This is another aspect of the movie that’s done well.

Many horror films are obsessed with showing as much of what’s going on as possible, whereas this one almost accentuates it by giving us only tastes (so to speak). In the process, these horror scenes are contrasted with the ordinary.

Even the police investigation and procedural scenes are interesting. The characters humanize things, seem to care about each other, and exhibit complex emotions. They are very much invested in what’s going on, and seem to actually care for the victims — past, present and future.

It defies a fairly common presentation wherein police detectives are nothing but poker-faced, by-the-book types who lack empathy, who essentially yawn at a crime scene.

Photo: Warner Bros

…although there is this character.

The movie deals with some interesting topics. This includes sadism, compulsion, and the pain and anxiety of the unconscious mind (and not just with Helen’s agoraphobia).

Toward the end of the movie, Helen attempts to thwart the killer by hanging herself, rather than let him do it himself. It’s a brilliant insight on her part, because the killer feels compelled to free her, thus giving her a chance to escape. Unfortunately for Helen, her only way out is going up the roof, out into the open air, and out into the world. It’s a very clever way of tying the film’s themes together.

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So, go ahead and watch Copycat! Just don’t be a copycat yourself by getting into these shenanigans. After all, most serial killers are caught, and there are better ways to become famous.