This film belongs to a a really interesting sub-genre of the serial killer movie. It occurs when a writer discovers some really interesting factoid about history and then can’t think of a way to make a movie about it, so they just include a serial killer who themes himself around that factoid. It’s a pretty common occurance among hack writers. I, for example, am currently working a screenplay about a serial killer who themes himself around the evidence that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s pays (Thrill! To the handwriting-analysis scene!).
Some recent movies that follow this formula included W-Delta-Z (or “The Killing Gene”) which was about genetic survival instincts rednering love a lie, Brutal, which was themed around the Golden Ratio, which is sometimes called the Fibbonaci sequence. Even Seven, in one of its early drafts, was one of these movies, themed as it was around medieval paintings of people suffering in hell. These elements largely disappeared as the film was rewritten to the point of actually being good.
The upside of this technique is that no matter how cliched, plodding, and poorly-written the serial killer part of the movie is, these are generally worth watching because the trivia the serial killers theme themselves around tends to be pretty interesting. It was interesting enough that the writer went to the whole trouble of writing a cliched serial killer story about it, after all.
The title refers to the villain’s theme, the painter’s technique called ‘Anamorphism’, in which the artist paints the canvas so that when viewed from directly in front, one image appears, but when viewed from a certain sharp angle, a secret secondary image is revealed. Certianly an interesting idea, and one with rich thematic opportunities. The Camera Obscura also makes a neat appearance which, while it doesn’t really impact the plot all that much, is a fantastic reminder of just how science-fiction-y optical trickery can seem.
Unfortunately, the film’s writing in no offers a plot as compelling as the visual trickery on which it’s based. I suppose I should have guessed that I was in for a hacky take on the concept when the opening credits sequence does such a poor job of explaining and utilizing the concept of anamorphism that the film’s premise is based around. Rather than legitimately hiding one image within another, the camera is forever turning and spinning as the image fades, match-cutting from one image to the next. And while it’s nice that the filmmakers were able to find crossed beams that resembled the arch supports of a church, that’s not the same thing as an image with two meanings.
The basic plot is as follows – Willem Dafoe is a cop who, five years earlier, killed a serial killer named ‘Uncle Eddie’. In one of the film’s more infuriating choices, the killer’s name is never explained – how he got it, what it means, nothing. Hell, in the end credits, the killer is just billed as ‘killer’. It made me feel like the name was a reference that I wasn’t getting, which just frustrated me further.
As the film begins, Willem Dafoe is called back from sabbatical because the police are worried that a killing bears the hallmarks of an ‘uncle eddie’ crime. Which is a little puzzling, since from the opening credits sequence, we can clean that his M.O. is killing people who can be found outside (homeless people and prostitutes), then posing their bodies, writing a little note, sometimes paiting their bodies blue, and always putting the word ‘DEAD’ in red somewhere on the body, possibly written in the victim’s own blood.
This crime, by comparison, involves a man killed in his own apartment and then hung from the ceiling, then having a set built around him, and a camera obscura built in front of him so that the image of his elaborate death is projected onto the opposite wall in the next room.
So, to recap – there’s no public murder, no blue paint, no word ‘DEAD’ written in blood, and no message anywhere near the body. Yet despite the fact that this new crime bares not one single point of commonality with the established MO, every single character in the film instantly jumps to the conclusion that this must be an ‘Uncle Eddie’ murder, if not a copycat, then the real guy, returned from a five-year absence. The only reason that they don’t immediately think it’s Uncle Eddie is that if it is, then the dirtbag Willem shot a few years ago was just a random dirtbag, which might prove embarassing.
Of course, it turns out to be an uncle eddie crime, which leads Willem to investigate it in a surprisingly private way. Seriously, he spends the entire film sneaking around, keeping the investigation oddly quiet and hanging around with his art dealer friend, Peter Stormare. It’s never entirely clear why he acts this way – yes, it would be awkward for the department if it turns out Willem killed the wrong guy, but no one has sued for wrongful death in five years, so chances are he’d gotten away with it, whatever result this new investigation brings.
More to the point, it’s not like chasing this killer requires anyone to admit that he’s Uncle Eddie – there’s no need to charge him with the old crimes. He’s done enough new killing (using an entirely different M.O.) that he could go through the entire court system without Uncle Eddie ever being officially mentioned once. Hell, Albert DeSalvo was convicted of a series of rapes, and once he was in jail, everyone just assumed the Boston Stranglings were over. Which, coincidentally, they were. Conversely, whether the guy Willem shot was Uncle Eddie or not, the killings stopped with his death, so who’s going to make a fuss about this new, seemingly unrelated killer?
What makes this dramatic choice, in re: having Willem keep things to himself, is that the film acts like it’s one of those stories where the main character is suspected of a crime and has to prove his innocence while staying under the radar, but that never happens. No, for the entire last third of the movie, when Willem Dafoe has a pretty line on the killer, at any point he could just call for some backup and get help finding him, he just elects not to, which winds up relegating his partner, Scott Speedman, to a pretty thankless role of just standing to the left and having art explained to him.
The less said about Clea DuVall’s subplot, the better. She plays a former prostitute that hangs out with Willem because she was the best friend of Uncle Eddie’s last victim, who he’d previously been friendly with. Despite the fact that the killer is clearly obsessed with Willem, and designing the murders around him, somehow it never occurs to anyone that his friend the previous almost-victim might be a target this time around.
Actually, the lack of a lot of backup around Willem at all times is a pretty huge plot hole. The killer is so clearly obsessed with Willem that not only does he telephone him to give him clues, but he actually takes a painting of one of the murders and leaves it on the street outside of Willem’s apartment. Then later, he chases Willem down an alley, leading to a foot chase. So it’s abundantly clear that whatever uncle eddie’s endgame is, it revolves entirely around Willem and his friend Clea. It’s really easy to catch a killer when you know exactly who his next target is going to be – just have some cops surrounding them and he'll walk right into your arms.
The biggest ‘wha?’ moment in the plot isn’t around the awkward ending, however. No, it’s an earlier scene in which Peter Stormare brings Willem Dafoe to an art gallery containing an exhibit clearly produced by the killer. When I watched this scene I knew I’d have to write about the film because it had a jaw-dropping mistake that I can’t believe made it into the film.
Did you catch it? In the first art gallery scene, Peter clearly establishes that no one has the slightest idea who the artist is – there’s not even a name. Since they assume it’s the killer, they even refer to the completely unknown artist as ‘him’.
In the second scene, the gallery owner (Frasier alum Edward Hibbert!) finally agrees to tell them the name he has of the artist, who he’s never met. The name he gives is ‘Jerry Hardin’. Scott Speedman’s response to this? He announce that it sounds like a ‘porn star’, and immediately starts referring to the artist as ‘she’. Watching the scene, I was puzzled. How on earth did he come to the conclusion that the artist was a woman? When I hear the name ‘Jerry Hardin’ here’s what I think of:
At the end of the clip, Willem notices that the clay mockup of the flesh vulture (don’t ask) has fingerprints on it. They run them through the computer, and get a name and address. After rushing across town, they find a workshop of the killer’s, in which a demale dummy is sitting in a chair, wearing a nametag that reads ‘Gerri Harden’.
So my confusion about the ‘she’ is resolved, but it points to a pretty hilarious mistake on the author’s part, one that’s indicative of the tunnel-vision one can get staring at a page all day. When you write the name ‘Gerri’ in a script, you know it refers to a woman, but if you don’t think about the characters in that moment, the ones within the world of your script, who can’t see the words, you’ll miss the fact that anyone hearing the name ‘Gerri’ out of the blue and apropos of nothing will assume you said ‘Jerry’ and are talking about a man.
Why create this problem at all? Why not just call the fake artist ‘Sofia Morris’ and avoid all the hassle? Well, it seems that while the writer was overlooking common sense, he was being really impressed with his own cleverness at the same time. You see, ‘Gerri Harden’ is an anagram for ‘A Red Herring’. Which is incredibly cute, except that it’s not really a red herring, which is a false, distracting lead. The artist who used the ‘Gerri Harden’ psuedonym is in fact the killer, and the warehouse he leads them to is, in fact, his supervillain lair. Hell, at the end of the movie he uses it for his planned fatal showdown with Willem. This means that the whole ‘Gerri Harden’ thing was actually an incredibly useful clue, which is pretty much the opposite of a red herring. Frankly, they could have just sat a cop car across the street from the warehouse and waited for the killer to show up – which he does – and caught him that way.
Of course, in talking about the bad use of red herring, I’m overlooking the much bigger problem – whose fingerprints were on the sculpture? Setting aside the fact that you can usually tell a man’s fingerprints from a woman’s based on the size, they got a hit in the system from them! How on earth did the killer get (presumably) his fingerprints listed in a police database as belonging to a woman named Gerri Harden, who didn’t otherwise exist? In SeSevenen the fingerprints belonged to an actual criminal, and were planted with the knowledge that the cops would be led to said criminal’s apartment. Here, it’s just another huge plot hole.
In the end, Anamorph is almost a perfect example the premise-based serial killer film. It’s the story of a writer who had such an interesting hook that he didn’t feel the need to get the procedural part of the story right, and as a result, it’s a pretty complete failure.