Bret Easton Ellis' novel "American Psycho" rocked the literary world in 1991 with all the subtlety of a tidal wave. Infamous even before publication, moral watchdog groups went on the offensive, filling talk show stages for weeks with outraged commentators, leading Ellis' original publisher Simon & Schuster to eventually drop the project. Of course, the controversy only stoked sales when the book ultimately did hit store shelves, and 'Psycho' quickly became another best-seller for wunderkind Ellis, then still red-hot after the one-two punch of "Less Than Zero" and "The Rules of Attraction." If time hasn't exactly been kind toward the novel -- few remember it for its fantastic prose or complex storytelling -- 'American Psycho' remains one of the most infamous publishing stories in modern history.
So, why the freak-out? It certainly wasn't because 'Psycho's anti-hero Patrick Bateman was a serial killer fond of sexually assaulting and chopping up beautiful young women. Basing a novel on a monster is nothing new, of course (after all, Thomas Harris has made a respectable cottage industry out of it with the Hannibal Lecter series). But we expect the bad guy to get his in the end -- or if he does get away with his crimes, there has to be some Big Moral Lesson in there to reaffirm our accepted worldview of what is good and what is evil. Ellis offers nothing of the sort in 'American Psycho.' Instead, his novel is simply twelve chapters describing increasingly horrific acts, with little in the way of a beginning, middle, or an end. Patrick does what he does (which is recounted to the reader in graphic detail) and he gets away with it. The end.
Truth be told, 'American Psycho' is a pretty dismal read. Clearly meant to be a very, very dark satire (which seemed to escape the comprehension of most of its critics), it still fails on almost every single level as a work of fiction. Ellis offers endless descriptions of clothes, music, cultural and empty characters, but it's a one-joke concept barely able to sustain a single chapter, let alone a dozen. It reads as distanced, smug and arrogant -- the writings of someone who seems to have no apparent experience with the kind of criminal mind he's attempting to satirize. Worse, the book's violence is really a gimmick. It's too calculated to be truly offensive -- instead it's just boring, which in many ways is the worst kind of exploitation. We don't even get the illicit thrills of a carnival freak show, just the tedium of ugliness masquerading as art. 'American Psycho,' despite the claims of its author, is not about a character borne of a dispassionate and dehumanized culture. It is itself dispassionate and dehumanized.
All of this clearly must have posed a real problem for the makers of 'American Psycho,' the movie. How do you adapt a book that has no story, and no characters, and whose tortures are so graphic they could never be shown in even the harshest R-rated picture? Indie filmmaker Mary Harron ('I Shot Andy Warhol') did perhaps the only thing she could -- she ups the satire, and points as much fun at Bateman as the culture that spawned him. The violence is way toned down in terms of visceral gruel, but pumped up in visual excess, so it becomes surreal (even comic book-like), making it not only palatable, but justifiable as an artistic device through which to explore the book's themes of misogyny, wanton violence and amorality.
Though I don't think it is a great movie, Harron's version of 'American Psycho' is definitely superior to the novel. In Harron's hands, 'Psycho' is smart, challenging and witty -- and best of all, it actually has a plot. That it is also an overt parody is clear from the get-go. Taking on the uneviable role of Bateman, Christian Bale brings layers of complexity that were completely absent in Ellis' description, playing him as a kind of well-dressed and wealthy version of Andrew Dice Clay. His status in life blinds all those around him to the fact that he is a serial killer, which is actually quite humorous. The pretty boys and girls around him are all vacant, like Walt Stillman's 'Metropolitan' populated with zombies. Chloe Sevigny, Samantha Mathis, a young Reese Witherspoon and Justin Theroux are all very well cast and able to wring out the sly, biting black humor in their characters without being condescending. It's a tough tight-wire act, but Director Harron manages to walk it almost effortlessly.
Unfortunately, despite this heroic effort, 'American Psycho' was a box office failure. While it received mostly kind notices from critics upon its release, it was marketed as a thriller/horror film, even though the murder sequences are not the film's highlights, nor are they particularly suspenseful or gory. The ending, too, is somewhat ambiguous, raising more questions than it answers. Clearly none of this engendered the film to its intended audience of fright fans. Ironically, those who hate horror movies appear to be the ones who have most championed the film, giving it a cult following on home video that it failed to enjoy theatrically.
'American Psycho' has had a somewhat twisty history on disc. First released by Universal Studios Home Entertainment in 2000 in separate Unrated and R-rated versions, it was later snapped up by Lionsgate, who reissued the film in a more feature-packed special edition in 2005, also available in separate uncut and still-safe-for-theaters configurations. For the film's Blu-ray debut, Lionsgate is pulling out the unrated version only, utilizing the same master as the 2005 special edition release.
'American Psycho' was shot in Super35, and is presented here in 2.35:1 widescreen and 1080p/MPEG-2 video. Unfortunately, the source just isn't pristine. The first sign of trouble appears right during the opening credits over a set of impeccable white silk cloth, where a bit of speckling and pronounced grain are immediately evident. Though the image does clean up as the film progresses, there are still moments that are noticeably more ragged, with excessive grain and even dirt. I was particularly surprised to see a bit of fading in some of the nighttime exteriors later in the movie -- for a film that's only about seven years old, this is highly unusual.
Otherwise, other aspects of the presentation hold up. The film has a very Hitchcock-meets-Kubrick feeling of sterility, with a great deal of whites and other clean surfaces, accented by hard blue and deep red. Color reproduction is good, with rather vivid hues that are stable and don't bleed. Contrast is slightly hot, but appropriate given the "clean" visual style, and detail is also fairly strong, since the film is generally quite brightly lit. And while there are no major compression problems such as macroblocking, I did notice some slight edginess on sharply contrasted-objects, most noticeably some blinds in Bateman's apartment, which shimmy a bit. All in all, a decent transfer, but nothing more.
Lionsgate offers DTS-HD High Resolution 6.1 Matrixed Surround and Dolby Digital EX Surround options for 'American Psycho.' Unfortunately, the film's sound design just isn't very exciting -- it's mostly front-heavy, with little surround presence to liven up the grisly proceedings.
Tech specs hold up fairly well for a polished medium-budget indie. Dialogue is front and center and nicely recorded, though sometimes secondary effects (such as restaurant voices, etc.) sound a bit canned. Frequency response is solid across the entire spectrum, but highs sounded a bit harsh to me, though not incredibly shrill. Deep bass is also present but nothing exceptional. Surrounds rarely open up -- ambiance is very minor. The music helps, with the rears finally kicking in a bit, and there are also a few noticeable discrete effects during Bateman's more raging moments, particularly the "chasing girl out of apartment with chainsaw" sequence. But that's about as exciting as this gets aurally.
The extras that appeared on Universal's original DVD editions of 'American Psycho' do not appear here; Lionsgate tossed them aside on their recent standard-def release as well, though, so that's not much of a surprise. (The Uni extras only included a short and dull EPK thing plus some production notes, so they are not terribly missed). Instead, Lionsgate produced a fresh batch of supplements for their 2005 "Killer Collector's Edition," and about 75 percent of them are ported over to this Blu-ray version.
The effort is something a mixed bag. First we have two separate audio commentaries, one with director Mary Harron and the second with actress and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner ('Go Fish,' 'The L Word'). Harron's is probably the stronger track, but there is a lot of overlap between both in terms of production stories (such as the much-publicized Christian Bale-Leonardo DiCaprio casting, the fact that neither Harron nor Turner are really 'horror people," the handling of the violence, etc). Turner certainly wins points for her biting critiques, such as an intriguing comparison of today's indie movie scene with the greed and excess satirized in 'Psycho.' ("A whole breed of people are trying to make independent films with the idea of making money and getting laid," says Turner. "Everything is fucking corrupt!") Meanbwhile, Harron's track is unique in that she admits upfront that at the time of the commentary's recording, she hadn't seen the film in many years. What's fascinating about both, though, is how the two female filmmakers were greeted for tackling a book so controversial for its alleged misogyny. Each makes a strong case for why they wanted to adapt the book to film, what they wanted to change, and what they didn't. It is very rare we get a distaff perspective on the horror genre, so even if you only listen to Harron's commentary, it's worth it.
Next we have a collection of five Deleted Scenes, also with optional Harron commentary. Each is centered around a "Featured Character," and Harron also provides a brief introduction to each. The whole collection runs about 12 minutes, and the quality is just fair.
The last feature is the most unique. While the Lionsgate standard-def DVD featured a trio of Video Essays (including the indispensable but sadly absent 45-minute "From Book to Screen"), only one is carried over here. "The '80s Downtown" is a very intriguingly shot 32-minute assemblage of hazy recollections, documenting the merging and mingling of Wall Street Yuppie culture and the decadent, drug-fueled club scene that formed the background for 'Psycho' (as well as Ellis' earlier "Less Than Zero" and Jay Mcinerney's "Bright Lights, Big City"). This piece is a bit pretentious, and being only marginally familiar with the scene, I didn't recognize half of the names or faces here. But I do love supplementary material that delves beyond just the production to give us background, so for that reason alone, "The '80s Downtown" is most welcome. Too bad Lionsgate couldn't have gone with a BD-50 dual-layer disc for this release and squeezed in the rest of the extras.
'American Psycho' is an interesting curio. Based on a controversial best-seller, but produced several years after the book's buzz had faded (and then mis-marketed as a horror flick instead of the satire it really is), it is now a true cult film, and worth investigating for those with a taste for very acerbic black humor. Unfortunately, Lionsgate has delivered a somewhat lackluster Blu-ray release for this one. The soundtrack is okay, but the transfer is a bit ragged, and the extras are a mixed bag.