Those who still pine for the Golden Age of Homo Sex-Perv-Killer Movies — as bracketed by 1980’s “Cruising” and ’92’s “Basic Instinct” — can rejoice over “Mercy,” a Canadian-shot, U.S.-funded effort torn “from the shocking bestseller” by David L. Lindsey. The only shocking thing about this glossy, sleazy erotic chiller is its tres retro inanity, in which lipstick lesbianism, sadomasochism, cross-dressing, incestuous abuse and lots of mutilated nude female corpses are served up for our titillation. Headlining Ellen Barkin as a homicide detective, pic will strike most viewers as laughable, somnambulant and/or offensive. They’ll probably have to experience those torrid emotions in the privacy of their own living rooms, however, since — mercifully — such reactionary thrills are now disdained in most prime theatrical territories.
Barkin plays Catherine Palmer, a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking homicide investigator in an unnamed city (actually Toronto) where women have begun turning up bed-bound, brutalized, eyelid-shorn and carefully cosmeticized. Last seen with the latest victim was Vickie Kittrie (TV’s “La Femme Nikita,” Peta Wilson), a blond bombshell who reluctantly admits involvement in a group of “prominent women” who are into Sapphic, sometimes S&M-tinged get-togethers. Typical of pic’s heavy-breathing silliness is one such “party” in which a few dozen spike-heeled, designer-frocked femmes, all looking like current or former models, purse their lips at each other in an ultra-moderne private home.
Detective Palmer gets outta there once the serious gal-on-gal business commences. But later she finds her nether parts quaking when Vickie springs the immortal line, “Aren’t you just a little bit curious?,” instigating some action against a kitchen counter, just as in “Fatal Attraction.”
The killer is presumed to be a man, given one victim’s Polaroid snaps of her abuse by a leather-masked hombre. Several suspects in pants arise, including Gil Reynolds (Marshall Bell), a businessman and ex-Marine sniper with peculiar sexual peccadilloes, as well as shrink Dr. Broussard (Julian Sands). While bodies pile up, it takes an inscrutably long time for Palmer to realize that all the victims were patients of the latter (who seems to employ couch shagging as part of his therapy sessions), and that all had histories of childhood abuse.
Screenplay (by helmer Damian Harris) largely hinges on coincidences and gaps in logic, as well as the kind of “psychological” mumbo-jumbo fit to ballast pic’s creaky suggestion that bad men — or bad sex with men — can “turn” women into lesbians, whether the homicidal kind or just the “Don’t tell my husband” big-haired babe-in-lingerie type.
Despite ample nudity, much of it distastefully modeled by bite-marked corpses , there’s no onscreen violence until last quarter. Epilogue sees Palmer arresting one victim’s abusive father, and “saving” his presumably also-at-risk younger daughter. This inspirational close doesn’t exactly absolve the story of crass exploitation of incest trauma. Nor does heroine’s slugging a fellow cop who says “dyke” render pic any less retro in its use of “lesbian” or “bisexual” imagery as pure hetero-male fantasy — complete with ominous this-is-sexy-but-bad!-bad!! music during same-sex-lust segs.
Thesps dutifully maintain straight faces throughout, though hackneyed dialogue must have made that difficult. Barkin can’t make lead role any more than another outwardly hard-boiled, inwardly ready-to-rut cliche, despite its fresh gender switch. Wilson likewise succumbs to stereotype as a smokin’ mama with a little wounded girl inside. Sands is even less lucky — in eventual platinum wig, high heels and makeup, he’s every bit as womanly as Ed Wood was in “Glen or Glenda?” Stephen Baldwin appears briefly as a hunky mechanic Barkin picks up for rough sex.
Helmer Harris (“The Rachel Papers,” “Deceived”) sets a rather leisurely pace that evokes minimal suspense. Pic’s upscale environs, slinky duds and sleek photography tend to underline its kitsch soft-core tenor, as do arty fantasy sequences that occur whenever protag gets some shuteye. Other design and tech contribs are polished.