‘Longlegs’ Review: Nicolas Cage Worms His Way Into Your Nightmares With Dread-Filled Serial Killer Thriller

SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains mild spoilers.

Now here’s a first: Apart from the pale-faced freak show of the film’s title, the experience of watching “Longlegs” didn’t strike me as all that frightening. At first. In the moment, it’s considerably less scary than the ecstatic early buzz — ginned up by Neon via whisper campaigns and strategic advance screenings — would have you believe. Less than 12 hours after seeing it, however, the demented Nicolas Cage character resurfaced in my nightmares, popping up out of nowhere to screech, “Hail Satan!” in that unnerving, high-pitched voice of his.

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How many horror movies can claim to hijack your subconscious? With “Longlegs,” writer-director Osgood Perkins (“The Blackcoat’s Daughter”) delivers the kind of payoff we sought out as kids, daring ourselves to watch films about boogeymen that made us want to sleep with the lights on. Here, Cage plays a clearly unwell rural dollmaker who crafts life-size effigies of his victims that inexplicably cause their families to turn homicidal. It’s one thing to fear being hacked to bits by a stranger and quite another to imagine your own parents raising an ax against you.

Probably a good thing that “Longlegs” comes with an R rating — and potentially a negative one in that such restrictions will do little to deter precocious young viewers, who don’t need a Satan-worshipping kook like Longlegs rattling around in their brains. While not always logical (and downright preposterous in the final stretch), Perkins’ film goes after your inner child, focusing on a killing spree whose victims are girls with just one thing in common: They were all born on the 14th of the month.

You know who else was born on the 14th? Lee Harker, an FBI rookie played by Maika Monroe. The “It Follows” star looks younger than her years here — like a girl who decided to dress up as Clarice Starling for Halloween. Hannibal Lecter movies “Manhunter” and “The Silence of the Lambs” were obvious influences on Perkins, who appears to have cobbled “Longlegs” together out of effective tactics from other horror movies, alternating slow, ominous scenes with disorienting elliptical cuts for maximum dread. There’s the religious fanaticism of recent nunsploitation movies, as well as the Zodiac Killer-style messages, written in cryptic runes that are indecipherable except for the signature: Longlegs.

That nickname applies to an instantly iconic Nicolas Cage creation, no less disturbing than Max Schreck’s hunchbacked Nosferatu, a performance that has been a career-long inspiration for Cage. Like that early screen vampire, Longlegs puts us on edge with his twisted body language and exaggerated gestures — that, plus odd framing that crops him off at the head, explains how the character manages to worm his way into our brains.

Visually, audiences can scarcely tell it’s Cage beneath all that makeup: With his stringy white hair, pasty foundation and faded pink uniform, he looks less like a man than an androgynous cross between Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and kindly character actor Celia Weston, who played the mom in “Junebug.” These are hardly your typical horror archetypes, and yet, once the film’s ultimate scheme is revealed, it leaves a more unsettling imprint.

We first see Longlegs driving up to an innocent girl’s white country house in a station wagon — easily the least threatening of cars, rendered ominous by DP Andres Arochi’s framing. The opening sequence is stylized to suggest a grainy home movie, with its vintage Kodak colors and rounded corners. Later, the frame expands to full anamorphic widescreen, creating a coffin-like shape that tends to isolate characters in threatening environments. As Cage interacts with what he calls “the almost birthday girl,” playing a twisted game of peekaboo, his demeanor suggests an incompetent clown or a bachelor uncle — one of those maladroit adults who grossly misjudge how to interact with kids. He’s the kind of sinister stranger little girls are well advised not to approach.

From this prologue, the film jumps forward from the ’70s to the Clinton administration to find Lee participating in an FBI search. She shows an almost psychic intuition as to the culprit’s whereabouts, but that isn’t enough to spare her partner, whose abrupt exit establishes how shocking the film’s violence can be. There’s a certain laziness to the storytelling, as Perkins relies on tired serial-killer tropes to skip over the film’s more egregious contrivances. (Lee’s personal connection to Longlegs is a coincidence too far, and the never-explained demonic orbs are more hokey than horrific.)

Rather than recycling the genre’s boilerplate elements, Perkins strips away most of the procedural bits and concentrates on distinguishing details: the eccentric mental hospital chief who dresses like a pimp, or the girl at the hardware store who might have been a victim in another movie, but instead deflates Longlegs’ menace when she quips, “Dad, that gross guy’s here again!”

Perkins understands that jump scares are but one of the pleasures of a successful horror movie (same goes for shotgun-toting figures creeping just out of focus in the background). Destabilizing audience expectations and relieving tension with unforeseen bursts of absurdity are every bit as important — both tactics he employs with expert precision. It’s a shame, then, that all these ingredients are in service of such an inadequate plot. Of course the authorities are stumped by these occult killings, since the explanation is supernatural rather than psychological. What doesn’t make sense is why they have such a hard time solving the case. Or why Longlegs exits the movie so early (but not before submitting to an unforgettable interrogation). Just don’t be surprised to see him resurface in your dreams.

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