‘Longlegs’ Review: Maika Monroe and Nicolas Cage in a Mesmerizing Serial Killer Chiller That Burns With Satanic Power

The unease lurking in a quiet Pacific Northwest town plagued by a series of murders is a distant second to the fears churning inside the protagonist’s head in Longlegs. Writer-director Osgood Perkins’ serial killer chiller fully acknowledges a debt to The Silence of the Lambs in its chronicle of a young female rookie agent pulled into the FBI manhunt for a killer wiping out entire families. But the movie is also its own freaky trip, a darkly disturbing experience pulsing with an evil that’s unrelenting in its subcutaneous creepiness.

Technically, I guess this could be considered a spoiler, so if you continue reading, don’t complain. But the film allows Nicolas Cage to add another Hall of Fame entry to his gallery of psychos, one that won’t soon be forgotten. If you cast Cage in genre material like this and then only hint at his presence in the trailers, it’s a given that he’s not going to be playing warm and cuddly. The fun in Longlegs is in discovering that Cage’s title character is just one part of the horrific reality behind a growing string of violent deaths.

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The full extent of that horror is revealed to be alarmingly close to home for Maika Monroe’s Agent Lee Harker, who first encountered Longlegs when she was a child, 25 years earlier.

In that attention-grabbing prologue — unfolding a day before the ninth birthday of the young Lee (Lauren Acala) and shown in snug 4:3 aspect ratio with the rounded corners of an old home movie — Perkins adopts the Jaws principle of giving the audience only an unsettling partial glimpse of the monster without being able to form a full picture. What does stay with us is the voice — a fluttery quasi-falsetto of indeterminate gender — as the stranger approaches Lee in the snowy grounds outside her isolated home.

The main action, set around 2000, opens with the adult Lee and her partner Agent Fisk (Dakota Daulby) on their first day out in the field. As they case a suburban cul-de-sac looking for a house they believe is connected to the murders, Lee focuses on an attic window. She informs Fisk, with a tone of absolute certainty, that she has identified the house and that the killer is inside. Her partner brushes off her suggestion of calling for backup, approaching the door full of misplaced confidence.

A Bureau psych evaluation finds Harker to have heightened intuitive abilities, prompting her boss, Agent Carter (Blair Underwood), to make her a key member of the investigative team on the murders. Ten houses and ten different families have been hit, with husbands killing wives and children before taking their own lives, using weapons that were already in the house. There are no signs of forced entry or outsider DNA but at the scene of each crime, a note is left behind, written in code and signed “Longlegs.”

As Lee pores over case files and graphic crime-scene photographs, she makes the connection that all the families had daughters whose birthdays fell on the 14th of any given month. She keeps some of her findings to herself, not mentioning to Carter the figure she sees watching her from the woods outside her house, or the cryptic note she later finds on her desk, which helps her crack the code.

Even before Lee’s mother, Ruth (Alicia Witt), urges her daughter to keep saying her prayers to protect her from evil, Perkins has begun insinuating hints of religious horror into the film’s hallucinatory mood. When the killings are traced back to a farm family in 1966, whose sole survivor (Kiernan Shipka in a chilling extended cameo) is in a psychiatric institution, it emerges that the elusive Longlegs is a devil worshipper and a dollmaker.

You don’t need to have seen the Annabelle or Chucky movies or the deliciously campy M3GAN (what’s happening with that sequel?) to know that dolls in a horror movie are seldom benign playthings. Accepting one as a gift is foolishness. But even with many of the key elements in place, the movie keeps you guessing for a good long while about how the murders are being orchestrated and who else is involved.

There’s also the fear that Harker, whose heavily medicated mother suggests a family history of mental instability, might be susceptible to the subliminal influences that appear to be part of the killer’s method.

This is gripping stuff that steadily cranks up its nightmarish feeling of dread. Even if the identity of the family that will lead to a conclusive break in the case is telegraphed way too early, the movie continues to work its way under your skin for the duration.

Perkins’ stroke of genius is waiting more than 40 minutes before giving us full visual access to Cage’s Longlegs, whose look is signaled by the lyrics from the pervy T. Rex banger “Get It On” that appear as text on the screen at the start: “Well you’re slim and you’re weak / You’ve got the teeth of the hydra upon you / You’re dirty, sweet and you’re my girl.”

Virtually unrecognizable under heavy facial prosthetics, Cage is like a cross between Marc Bolan and Tiny Tim, a gone-to-seed glam rock casualty with a mop of straggly silver hair, pasty skin and smeared traces of eye makeup and lipstick. That aspect finds sly echoes in album-cover shots of T. Rex’s The Slider and Lou Reed’s Transformer. The weird sing-song voice Cage adopts, often on the brink of hysteria, is unnerving enough, but his physical presence is something else entirely. His mentions of “My friend downstairs” will send shivers down your spine.

Perkins takes his cue from the interviews between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, and the face-to-face confrontation of Lee with Longlegs doesn’t disappoint. It also opens a path for the murder investigation to veer in another direction, one that heightens Lee’s already off-the-charts anxiety levels.

Monroe’s desperate attempts to outrun evil in David Robert Mitchell’s creepy cult hit It Follows seem to have been good training for her character’s ordeal here. Unlike the always direct Carter or fellow agent Browning (Michelle Choi-Lee), who considers Harker too green to be so central to the investigation, Lee is brooding and uncommunicative, her delivery affectless; she seems petrified by all that she uncovers and at the same time somewhat in thrall to a malignant force and in denial about the lingering trauma of that enigmatic childhood encounter.

Underwood brings gravitas but also family-man affability to Carter, allowing him to gain the trust of wary Harker, while Witt takes her mother Ruth from semi-absent and mildly off-kilter to messed-up beyond repair.

As much as the actors, what gives Longlegs its cursed power is the shivery atmosphere of Andrés Arochi Tinajero’s cinematography, often shooting through doorways or windows that frame our view from insidious angles. Eugenio Battaglia’s dense sound design is another big plus, dialing up jump scares derived from music or other sonic cues rather than leaning on the usual visual tricks. At 101 minutes divided into three chapters, the movie is tautly paced, making deft use of the shifting aspect ratios between past and present and of an eerie score.

Perkins has traveled down sinister roads before, in his 2015 feature debut The Blackcoat’s Daughter, in his more uneven follow-up, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, and in his 2020 contribution to the subgenre of gruesomely reimagined fairy tales, Gretel & Hansel. It might be argued that he stirs too many elements into the mix here — crime procedural, occult mystery, mind manipulation, Satanic worship, scary dolls, a Faustian bargain and a “nun” not fit for any convent. But Longlegs is his most fully realized and relentlessly effective film to date.

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