Although the serial killer movie would seem to be on the wane, “Seven” wannabes continue to sneak up when least expected. Latest addition to the once hot trend is “The Spreading Ground,” an initially promising thriller which soon becomes a bland, standard-issue item. Canadian production possesses some intrigue, not least because it reteams “Apocalypse Now” co-stars Dennis Hopper and Frederic Forrest as detectives hunting down an elusive murderer of young girls. But pic, framed by helmer-d.p. Derek Vanlint with minimal visual excitement, marches in lockstep with seemingly every convention of the genre, resulting in predictable storytelling lacking any real catharsis. Familiar item will find major difficulty hunting down theatrical markets, with a fair chance in select cable and video outlets.
Sober, procedural mode serves ghoulish subject matter well, despite the familiarity of events — a tyke’s abduction in a park right under the eye of her mom, plus subsequent gumshoe hemming and hawing. First sign that tale will fall back on hack genre ideas — as well as contorted plotting — appears when arrogant Mayor Hackett (Elizabeth Shepherd) worries that rising tide of child murders will somehow ruin her city’s chances at a football franchise. Thus, she puts pressure on police honcho Nieman (Chuck Shamata), who turns up heat on Hopper’s Ed Delongpre and Forrest’s Michael McGivern to nab a suspect in an impossible 48 hours.
The killer is shown at work, keeping the audience several paces ahead of slow detectives (Hopper and Forrest have seldom looked and sounded more lethargic). This hardly coils up the suspense, and the procedural element isn’t made at all compelling.
Mark Katsumi Nakamura’s script opts instead for another unexpected, but ultimately unrewarding, angle: The powers-that-be behind the mayor (all, curiously, elderly Irish gentlemen) decide to hire ruthless mobster Johnnie Gault (Tom McCamus) to track down the killer.
Developing irony of bad guys and good guys going after the same goal is taken only so far, however; Vanlint lacks the cinematic spirit, discipline and sheer obsession for detail of a Kurosawa, for example, which would have given pic the needed quality of putting the viewer right in the middle of the dual hunt.
Backstory elements such as Delongpre’s strained reconciliation with estranged daughter Leslie (Leslie Hope) — who just happens to work for the mayor — are intended but utterly fail to support and echo themes of the murder case. The ultimate pursuit of the killer (David Dunbar, overacting by half) is woefully derivative in every department and finally beyond belief.
Real mystery here is where this is set: Ostensible locale is fictitious Burman City, U.S.A. Actual Toronto location is made to feel like Anycity, which tends to make drama blander than it already is. (Another mystery is why Forrest is wearing a short, unbecoming ponytail.)
As main attraction, Hopper is, for one of the few times in his career, outright dull and looks uncomfortable having to play the straight man. Atom Egoyan regular McCamus is only thesp with edge or color. Tech work is fair.