FBI agent Maika Monroe and serial killer Nicolas Cage face off in Osgood Perkins’ horror of human depravity


Source: Neon


Dir/scr: Osgood Perkins. US. 2023. 101mins

Myriad horror films create a sense of dread, but few manage to evoke the palpable evil that emanates from Longlegs. Writer-director Osgood Perkins’ sinister fourth feature envelops the viewer in the story of a gifted FBI agent pursuing an elusive serial killer, her growing anxiety and disorientation shared by the audience. Maika Monroe, who previously starred in It Follows and Watcher, continues to demonstrate her skill as a horror-thriller actress, playing a woman whose troubled past will end up providing clues to this investigation, while Nicolas Cage delivers one of his most genuinely troubling performances as a Satanic mass murderer.

Unvarnished bleakness

Longlegs opens in the UK (through Black Bear) and US (Neon) on July 12 and Cage’s fans should help boost grosses, as will strong reviews and good buzz. Mixing Satanism and the creeping anguish of beloved crime procedurals like Se7en, the film offers the sort of unvarnished bleakness that may scare away mainstream moviegoers. But those who love being properly unnerved won’t be deterred.

In the mid-1990s in Oregon, FBI agent Lee (Monroe) has been assigned to find a serial killer who goes by the moniker Longlegs. Leaving cryptic messages, Longlegs has a peculiar MO: murdering young women whose birthday is the 14th of the month, as well as killing their parents inside their homes — although he leaves behind no evidence of committing the crimes himself. (It always appears that the father killed the rest of the family and then died by suicide.) The withdrawn but brilliant Lee, who has inconsistent psychic powers, eventually realises that the killer is the same terrifying man (Cage) she once met as a child. 

Perkins (Gretel & Hansel, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) crafts a world of perpetual grey skies and drab interiors which contribute to the film’s air of relentless despair. Cinematographer Andres Arochi Tinajero works with a subdued colour palette to emphasise the feeling that life has been drained from this community, with Longlegs’ wave of terror leaving a scar across the landscape. Random killings — some associated with this mass murderer, some not — dot Longlegs, underlining just how fraught, unpredictable (and, occasionally, darkly funny) Lee’s investigation will prove to be. Even when she does come face-to-face with Longlegs, the film is far from finished springing surprises, for Lee must also determine his motives — and if he has an accomplice. 

Monroe’s muted performance fits the taut, dour mood perfectly. Lee may be very good at her job, but she exudes an almost cripplingly haunted demeanour as if she is not fully there, batting back repressed memories of her childhood (editors Greg Ng and Graham Fortin give Longlegs a jagged energy while inserting micro-flashbacks to hint at what befell her as a girl). Monroe treats Lee’s unreliable physic powers as both a gift and a curse, portraying a determined character whose composure belies a quiet unravelling underneath. The film grows in intensity as this FBI agent comes to understand that getting to the bottom of Longlegs’ crimes also means confronting the mysteries of her own childhood.

But, ultimately, it is the small details that make Longlegs such a gripping depiction of moral depravity. Sound designer Eugenio Battaglia and composer Zilgi produce a menacing aural environment, with the occasional inclusion of T. Rex on the soundtrack heightening the unease. But kudos must go to Cage, who is known for his cheekily over-the-top turns. That is not the case with Longlegs, in which his patented showiness is in service of a character so devoid of humanity that there is no exuberance to the performance. Rather, his Longlegs is an ugly, wretched creature — when he nonchalantly declares, “Hail Satan”, there is no camp pleasure in the delivery. Some of the picture’s most gripping moments are the simplest, with Lee and Longlegs squaring off in conversation across a table, her search to understand his inexplicable evil running counter to his coiled chaos.

Despite the fact that Longlegs dabbles in Satanism and psychic powers, Perkins brings a bracing realism which only makes the sometimes-graphic horror much more upsetting. In due course, Lee will unlock her past and deduce Longlegs’ plan, and the explanations are refreshingly airtight; an impressive achievement considering so many horror films struggle to explain their riddles. Perkins exerts an almost Fincher-ian level of tonal control over this material, and the supporting players — especially Blair Underwood as Lee’s weary boss and Alicia Witt playing her conservative religious mother — are expertly used. In Longlegs, Lee may solve the mystery, but she does not find any satisfaction along the way. Something wicked is still out there – and it is only getting closer.

Production companies: Traffic, Range, Oddfellows, Saturn Films

International sales: Black Bear International, info@blackbearpictures.com 

Producers: Dan Kagan, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Nicolas Cage, Dave Caplan, Chris Ferguson 

Cinematography: Andres Arochi Tinajero

Production design: Danny Vermette

Editing: Greg Ng, Graham Fortin 

Music: Zilgi

Main cast: Maika Monroe, Blair Underwood, Alicia Witt, Nicolas Cage