Stop the presses! Beloved genre director Gary Sherman has come out of retirement to create a cinéma vérité style serial killer film! This in and of itself should be enough to get any card-carrying horror fan excited, but the really thrilling news is that the film, 39: A Film by Carroll McKane, is pretty damn good to boot.
39 is the story of Carroll McKane, an overachieving serial killer with 36 bloody notches in his belt and a desire to let his story be told. Turns out Carroll’s been documenting his murders since the beginning; now all he needs is a biographer to put his “achievements” into the proper context. Enter Dr. Martin Selby, renowned psychologist and author of several books about serial killers. Carroll decides all of Dr. Selby’s book learnin’ needs to beefed up with some real world experience, and so he kidnaps the doctor and proceeds to “educate” him…
Unlike similar films such as The Last Horror Movie or Man Bites Dog in which a documentary crew follows a serial killer around, in 39 it is the killer, Carroll, who is filming his own narcissistic documentary. Not only does this concept immediately justify the use of digital video, but it also conforms to the psychology of the killer himself. Carroll would never be stupid enough to allow someone else to film his exploits, nor would he ever trust in the abilities of anyone other than himself to get it right.
This type of multi-layered thoughtfulness permeates the film in ways that contrast the exploitative, one-note nature of faux snuff videos like August Underground. In fact, comparing 39 to any of these types of movies is a great disservice to Sherman’s film as 39 is more a carefully rendered character study of serial killer pathology than it is a faux documentary.
The faux documentary serial killer sub-genre was created out of the necessity to shoot cheaply, but Sherman has constructed a movie that could not be shot on any other medium, all the while maintaining a focus on film craft that elevates the normally amateurish DV visuals. Rather than lazily taking advantage of the ease of shooting digitally, the filmmakers erected additional hurdles by lighting and shooting a 360-degree set containing up to nine different cameras, all filming at the same time.
The tagline for the film “There is no excuse for murder, and no explanation for need” highlights the intellectual motivation behind the film, which is to present a fully fleshed out serial killer and to investigate, in gory detail, the events in his life that contributed to his psychosis. The film pulls no punches in its description of the horrors inflicted upon Carroll in his youth, nor does it shy away from showing how Carroll re-enacts his terrible childhood with his victims. The final act, in which we are forced to watch how Carroll “changes” his victims, is grueling and mean spirited in the extreme but never veers off into exploitation territory.
Nearly the entire film takes place in Carroll’s “killing room,” giving the proceedings a cramped stageplay-like feel that focuses on the interaction between Carroll and Dr. Selby. This puts a great deal of responsibility on the actors and their performances, an area where, unfortunately, the film sometimes loses credibility. Martin Cummins, who plays Carroll, is perhaps miscast given his innate charisma and good looks. Sure, Sherman uglies him up somewhat, and it’s to Cummins’ credit that by the end of the film we are genuinely afraid of Carroll, but an equivalently skilled actor with a more menacing phenotype would likely have elicited dread from the audience earlier in the film. As it stands, Cummins has to work hard to be a believable serial killer. Similarly, Dr. Selby (Lawrence MacGowan) plays it cool for the first half of the film, explainable given his training and knowledge of serial killer psychology, but not all that effective when it comes to audience empathy.
That said, the end of the film ratchets up the tension to levels so extreme as to invalidate previous criticism. All the more impressive is the fact that this level of tension is achieved without the tricks of the trade normally employed in regular films. In place of music, Oscar winning composer Joe Renzetti has built a score comprised solely of sound effects that subliminally grate the audience’s already frayed nerves. Visually, the intensity of the somewhat mundane DV visuals is augmented via editing that focuses on the victims and their punishment, contrasting the earlier parts of the film which focus exclusively on Carroll.
All of these elements, coupled with some frighteningly believable last act performances, make 39 the type of film that leaves an audience too exhausted to do anything but sit quietly through the end credits until the snap of the house lights reminds them that they’re only watching a movie.