The individually well-executed but mismatched elements of “The Alphabet Killer,” helmer Rob Schmidt’s latest thriller, are glued together in such a slapdash manner that they still seem to bear the stamps of their origins. Within an open-ended, “Zodiac”-style mystery structure, “Sixth Sense” ghosts get grafted onto “Silence of the Lambs”-style psycho bonding. As a cop obsessed with cracking the case of a serial killer preying on little girls, Eliza Dushku commands the screen but cannot reconcile the script’s conflicted and increasingly idiotic agendas. R-rated but non-gory psychological suspenser opened Dec. 12 for a limited New York run.
Though set in the present, pic is loosely based on an actual unsolved case that took place in Rochester, N.Y., in the 1970s. Homicide detective Megan Paige (Dushku), becomes fixated on solving the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl whom, she’s convinced, was the victim of a serial killer stalking prepubescents with double initials.
When her analytical genius veers toward madness, Megan is removed from duty and is hospitalized for schizophrenia, losing fellow-cop/fiance Ken (Cary Elwes) and picking up wheelchair-bound fellow loony Richard (Timothy Hutton) along the way. But the killer strikes again, and Megan soon finds herself in the thick of the chase, paired with skeptical cop partner Harper (scripter Tom Malloy), despite trembly hands and runaway hallucinations.
The exact nature of Megan’s hallucinations never crystallizes. They start at the very beginning, when the first dead girl opens her eyes and stares at Megan, and quickly escalate into full-bodied paranormal visitations, complete with cadaverous faces and disintegrating garments. But the link between the paranormal and schizophrenia is never articulated; nor does helmer Schmidt incorporate that ambiguity into any psychologically satisfying seer/seen aesthetic (Schmidt’s 2003 “Wrong Turn,” also starring Dushku, emitted its own mixed signals).
Nevertheless, pic boasts memorable moments. A single scene with Martin Donovan and Melissa Leo, in brief cameos as parents of the second victim, takes full advantage of the talent on tap as Donovan skates along the edge of a breakdown. Unfortunately, Schmidt fails to link the madness in the air to Megan’s mental fragility. Similarly, a strong, highly suspenseful hostage showdown between Megan and a suspect, ending in shocking violence, cannot sustain its emotional charge into the ensuing interdepartmental ass-saving.
Despite his firm visual command of individual scenes, Schmidt seems unconcerned with tonal or emotional consistency and allows pic to spiral into ludicrousness, presumably for the sake of a sequel.
Excellent tech credits and vet character actors belie pic’s low-budget indie roots.