Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Recasting 1995: "Copycat"

I've had a morbid fascination with serial killers since I was in my early teens. Maybe it was my affinity for The Silence of the Lambs. Or perhaps the fact that I can remember Jeffrey Dahmer being in the news so much the summer before I entered sixth grade. Horror films of the 80s ran rampant with boogeymen-like slashers like Jason Voorhies, Michael Myers, and my all-time favorite, Freddy Krueger. But those depictions were such stylized, almost campy portrayals that, while probably based on real killers, felt a bit clowny as I got older. 

With the advent of more realistic, and ultimately scary murderers on screen in the 90s like Hannibal Lecter, there was more focus on the minds and motivations of these elusive creatures--a character who makes us think a bit more about how a human being can turn out like that. We could imagine the real possibility that we might actually know one of these guys (or girls) without ever knowing it.

The 1995 films Seven and Copycat captured this appeal for me. Both are films I actually saw in the theater, with Copycat being the first from this recasting project. Sigourney Weaver has commented that she is most proud of her work in this film, portraying the agoraphobic criminal psychologist, Dr. Helen Hudson. I think it would be a delicious role for Meryl. 

After Helen is nearly killed by escaped prisoner Daryll Lee Cullum (creepily played by Harry Connick Jr.), she secludes herself in a fancy apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area. Holly Hunter and Dermot Mulroney are detectives who seek Helen's help in catching a serial killer, whose modus operandi is copying famous serial killers like the Boston Strangler, the Hillside Strangler, and Son of Sam.  Helen is very reluctant at first, spending her days with the shades drawn, a drink in her hand, and her computers logged in to chat rooms (which by the way seemed SUPER advanced at the time this film was released). But she eventually relents, and ends up realizing she's the main muse of the killer they're all trying to capture.

I probably watched this movie about fifty times before going to college. I loved how it gave us a bit a history on a few of the more notorious serial killers of the 20th century. And nothing's scarier than being able to imagine so vividly a dangerous thing realistically happening. The scenes where the killer is actually in Helen's apartment, both with and without her knowing, were particularly intense for me. It seemed so easy to think "just get the hell out!" But Helen can't. She's paralyzed by her fear of the outside, to the point of almost losing consciousness if she tries to take even a few steps beyond the threshold of the front door. I can't even imagine the terror of being a prisoner in your own home, on top of the overwhelming anxiety already present that serves as the watchful guard preventing you from escaping.  

I would've loved to see Meryl and Holly Hunter going head to head in this. Their interaction starts out a bit cold, and I absolutely love how prickly Weaver portrays Hudson at times. The snotty head movements she gives when having to field a question she finds either too naive or too bold. But they form a great team eventually. 

It's easy to see how Meryl would not have been the first choice for this film. She hasn't historically done thriller or action or gun movies. But there's a lot to do with the character of Dr. Helen Hudson. I'm having trouble thinking of role where Streep would have to portray fear this often. And it's a complicated fear. of course, especially when portraying a brilliant woman who was probably excruciatingly rational and in control prior to her violent encounter with Cullum. There's a paradox in that which I bet Meryl would've enjoyed negotiating. 

Weaver bemoaned the fact that Copycat sort of got "lost in the shuffle of thrillers" at the time. No doubt she's referring to David Fincher's Seven, one of my all time favs and a superior film to Copycat in my opinion. But she's probably right. Copycat is under-remembered and underappreciated. It had a decent show at the box office, again something that likely would've been stronger had it not been up against films in a similar genre at the exact same time. And it was generally well-received by critics, many of them praising the dynamite performances of its two tough, female leads. 



  1. Excellent choice for 1995 Jeff and well done to Michael for getting it right!

    As I said to Michael, I really like this movie and also have a deep interest in the psychopathology of serial killers.
    I was never really into slasher thrillers, preferring something more cerebral like this underrated gem.

    1995 was a really strong year for actresses, pushing out great performances like Sigorney's and Kathy's from awards attention. Again, if this had a 1994 release who knows what it could have done?

    I'm now moving my guess of "The American President" to 1996. You said we would have 3 comedies/dark comedies coming up and this one did well.

    My own choice for 1996 would be "Fargo". Still a well remembered trip. I have no interest in seeing Meryl in "The First Wives Club"!

    1. I was taking a look at '95 in general and I literally thought to myself, "If I could only watch movies from one year this would be it." Braveheart, Bridges, Copycat, Dolores Claiborne, Clueless, Sense & Sensibility, Seven, Casino, The Net, Mr. Holland's Opus, Crimson Tide, To Wong Foo, Apollo 13, Tommy Boy.

      I'm guessing you mean to push American President to '97? My choices for '94-'96 are all movies released in '95. I'm actually really looking forward to the writing about the next eight years.

    2. Sorry, I mean "THE American President" from 95, with Michael Douglas. But I'm obviously wrong in this guess! :) :)

  2. Great choice Jeff, in a beautifully-written article in its own right! I had a hunch you'd pick 'Copycat' but I pushed my choice a bit further for the other lead.

    You're absolutely right, it really is an underrated film in so many ways, and I just couldn't take the role from Weaver because I reckon her resume in the 1990s was so much better than many gave her credit for. She displayed an incredible range, the peak being 'The Ice Storm' which should have won her a supporting actress Oscar; and then 'Galaxy Quest', one of the best comedy movies of that era.

    My choice for 1996 is the role of Goody Proctor in 'The Crucible', but I am really looking forward to seeing what you're picking. You've given us plenty of clues but I am stumped. The only left-field guess I can offer is 'Evita' but in a Jessica Lange/'Blue Sky' way it was on delayed release, having been shot a few years earlier by Oliver Stone with Streep.

  3. As a side note about 1995, my imaginary Meryl Filmography has her using that amazing hair and face to play Suzanne Stone in "To Die For" in 1984 (first foray into dramedy), if only the book was written a decade sooner!