There’s always something a little distasteful about resurrecting a real-life gruesome serial killer for the purposes of a fictive genre thriller. Jonathan Wright’s Canadian “Awakening the Zodiac” tries to circumvent that ickiness in part by having a sense of humor — although ultimately that’s too much of a good thing, as this tale of a hick couple inadvertently rousing the long-dormant ire of the infamous titular California murderer grows increasingly silly and suspenseless. Starring three “ER” alumni and sporting sufficient pro polish if little material-elevating style, it’s destined to greater rewards as a small-screen time killer following what will doubtless prove a brief theatrical launch on June 9.
After a pedestrian prelude depicting the shooting deaths of a couple parked on a lovers’ lane in 1968 NorCal, we vault forward half a century to present-day Virginia, where Mick (Shane West) and Zoe Branson (Leslie Bibb) are struggling to make ends meet while living in a trailer park. To her exasperation, he blows three months’ rent money on the unknown contents of an abandoned storage locker, hoping to find valuables that will repay the investment and then some. Alas, this (like his previous such gambles) looks to be a washout until Mick’s pawnshop-owning partner Harvey (Matt Craven) discovers a rusty box of 8mm film cans.
Somebody else’s old home movies are hardly likely to provide a financial windfall. But once the trio take a gander, they suspect these reels — depicting seemingly unstaged violence including the previously noted double homicide — is evidence of the never-caught Zodiac Killer, who vanished without a trace in 1974 after committing five confirmed murders (he claimed 37) and taunting press and police with cryptic letters. Zoe is all for turning them over to the cops but reluctantly lets herself be convinced that if a solid connection to the legendary case can be proved, they could sell the films for big bucks.
Thus our heroes set to Nancy Drew-ing, a bit too literally so — while at first the uneducated but amiable banter between the leads is pleasant, they blunder into clues and danger alike with such wide-eyed, dim-bulb ease that “Awakening” starts feeling like a comedy that forgot it was one. As they make like a trailer-trash Nick and Nora Charles, the Bransons might’ve floated a movie that parodied “Se7en” (not to mention “Zodiac”) and similar films, just as “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” did slasher flicks.
Unfortunately, it remains impossible to take these protagonists as seriously as their movie insists on taking itself. Scant action arrives until the last half hour, and then it’s frequently preposterous; with minor fine-tuning, some climactic peril here might easily play as slapstick. Nor does it help that the “guest star” thespian tasked with playing the long-in-hiding killer raises nary a shiver, or that a rote “The terror isn’t over yet!” cliffhanger fadeout makes no sense whatsoever.
As a veteran assistant director turned helmer, Wright has largely made innocuous family comedies and romances for Hallmark, Lifetime and such. Small wonder, then, that he evinces little aptitude for building suspense or staging violence here, with occasional decent atmospherics attributable to the contributions of DP Boris Mojsovski and production designer Lisa Soper. Ontario locations stand in ably enough for rural Virginia.