It’s not so much that writer-director Oz Perkins’s ‘Longlegs’ is overtly scary to the point where viewers might always feel the need to carry a veil of holy water on them. Instead, it plays on what could manifest in idyllic neighborhoods and the fear of evil constantly feeding upon them. What do you mean a cryptic serial killer has been prevalent for three decades and claimed close to 40 victims? That’s why murder mysteries like 1991’s ‘Silence of The Lambs and 1995’s ‘Seven’ still prove to be bone-chilling in the fact those films present the minds and motives of these killers — yet we still can’t wrap our heads around why someone would be enthralled to inflict such depravity. There almost has to be something supernatural about it. 

Perkins provides the stage for his demented figure as more of an orchestrator of chaos. In the first of three acts broken up by title cards, we hear of a mass murder carried out by an honorable, upstanding pastor before taking his own life. A particular pattern exists between all these slayings — cryptic notes emblazoned with a made-up language signed by Longlegs (Nicolas Cage) and an obsession with birthdays as a commonality throughout. The police department still can’t crack the code in a conundrum mess, considering the killings are localized but sporadic to escape their grasp. 

Longlegs: Maika Monroe / Courtesy of NEON

In this world Perkins has created, even prayers and locked doors aren’t enough to keep the foreboding sense of despair at the wheel of a station wagon. The first visual we gain of Cage is obstructed and cut off at his upper chest by the aspect ratio as his character speaks to a little girl in her snow-dressed backyard. His high-pitched voice and animated insistence on something doubles as a bright red warning sign. But Longlegs obstructs the view of his exaggerated makeup cake face with extravagant features. It almost gives a cartoonish feel if it wasn’t so unsettling. Those relatively quick and sparse glimpses allow Cage to operate as a malignant idea rather than a physical presence. Andrés Arochi plays with the frame mostly in wide shots to provide the scope of the case when evidence is looked through and to have you feel somebody is always watching your every move. 

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FBI agent Carter (Blair Underwood) has been working on this case for a while but has yet to make any inroads. That’s where rookie Lee Harker (Maika Monroe) lends her natural hunches. Monroe plays this role with restraint, almost wholly detached from any anchor in the outside world. Harker has an uncanny amount of intuition, which strikes a fellow agent as peculiar on their first day on patrol. Perkins presents Harker and Longlegs as two sides of a delicate, breadcrumb-like balancing act holding the sides of the occult versus the procedural legwork to stop the body count from climbing. When you think Harker has a leg up, something blunt comes down her path to shake her otherwise stoic demeanor. This world plays with color and light, sometimes electing to engulf a person in their process or obscure the thing looking to pick somebody off. 

Longlegs: Alicia Witt and Lauren Acala / Courtesy of NEON

‘Longlegs’ only elects to push for jump scares sparingly, allowing this thick, melancholy atmosphere to take the oxygen out of the room. That feeling takes over the supporting characters of this film. Lee’s mother, Ruth (Alicia Witt), is locked in an almost catatonic devotion to her religion, always beckoning her daughter to say her prayers the few times they speak. An equally unsettling and excellent portrayal is Kiernan Shipka as the lone Longlegs survivor, Carrie. Carrie’s experience has rendered her almost like a devotee to the oblongly macabre doctrine of the mass killer who sparred her. Her inclusion is the physical embodiment of the phenomenon happening in this small town with no end in sight. 

Even if it doesn’t feel like Lee and Carter will break, the environment surrounding them will surely take the task of doing so. It’s the push and pull of running out of places for refuge in such an enclosed space against something you can’t quite understand. How does one make sense of whispers becoming an amalgamation of deplorable deeds? Longlegs is said not to be present when the murders happen, but something is happening beyond the realms of conventional thinking. When the film plays upon these fears like a symphony is when it’s most potent — thankfully not entirely shaken by the onslaught of revelations by the end. Longlegs’s appearance may be startling, but the character as a swaying force of nature sticks to your mind.