Sanity and insanity are not absolutes, but belong to a dynamic spectrum. In the world of cinema, a film’s sanity is measured in terms of its narrative coherence, its clear exposition, and its stable visual style. The more you strip these away, the madder the finished product – although, of course, when a film loses its hold on reality, it can still very much keep its grip on the blissfully disoriented viewer. Take Psychopaths, the latest work to be written and directed by Mickey Keating (Pod, Darling, Carnage Park) – a film which begins with crazed mass murderer Henry Earl Starkweather (the mighty Larry Fessenden) dying on the electric chair, but not before he has ranted, Manson-like, to camera about how he is just ‘one of many’, and how his ‘children’ will be ‘vessels’ for further criminal ‘chaos’. The rest of the film traces the hours following Starkweather’s state execution, as a number of characters perform horrific violent outrages, whether under the baleful influence of the full moon, of Starkweather himself (or of the endlessly mediated recordings of his last words), or indeed of other films.
Influence is key here. For just as Starkweather is evidently named after Charlie Starkweather, the teen whose ’50s murder spree inspired Badlands (1973), Natural Born Killers (1994) and many others, so Keating’s film lifts lines and tropes wholesale from a number of other films (and not just ones about psychopaths), while reducing the narrative connections between these motifs to a bewildering (in a good way) abstraction. The archetypal psychopaths here – asylum escapee Alice (the extraordinary Ashley Bell, in a schizoid performance of a performance of a performance), a moustachioed strangler (James Landry Hébert), a silent, unstoppable masked monster (Sam Zimmerman), a badboy cop (Jeremy Gardner) and a blonde needle-happy torturer of male abusers (Angela Trimbur) – all ride parallel roads, or even cross paths, in a manner as irrational as their own unhinged actions, while the voice of a Storyteller (Jeff Daniel Phillips) is heard speculating on whether the events of this long dark night are driven by mere coincidence, or are a fulfilment of Starkweather’s raving prophecies.
Zimmerman’s killing machine receives his instructions to slaughter through the now outmoded media of a payphone and a VHS – and similarly, Psychopaths shows its own line of influence from the past, as it adopts the retro sounds and stylings of the Seventies and early Eighties. Meanwhile Alice, whose dissociative identity disorder is coupled with a stabby streak, imagines herself a Fifties-style songstress on stage with an audience, which, at least within the confines of the cinema where we watch her variety act, is paradoxically true. Confrontingly, her delusion is our reality. Cross-cutting of stories, split screens, chronological ruptures and some dizzying psychedelic in-camera effects induce in the viewer something of the schizophrenic disjunctions affecting the characters – and as the Storyteller, no doubt correctly, wonders aloud whether some might find the violence too gratuitous and the story too ambiguous, others (myself included) will just relish getting lost in the mannerisms, the mood and the madness of it all.