As heard on One Movie Punch
Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill meets William Friedkin’s Cruising in this 1970’s inspired French slasher. Throw in a splash of Black Christmas and the concept of dealing with the heartbreak of loss, and you have this spectacularly haunting slasher. To the casual observer, this film might seem like an auteur’s masturbatory dream; but upon closer examination, the many layers to the story reveal a motion picture that is just as concerned with its messages as it is the medium through which it expresses the narrative. At the center of this film is one poignant message of social commentary: the panic of being gay in a potentially hostile world. While the killings are explicitly violent, the sexuality is not. Gonzalez keeps the focus on the mystery of the identity of the serial killer preying on the actors of the blue films within this film instead of the sexuality being in the forefront of the plot. It’s just as much a whodunit as it is a campy slasher movie.
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It’s Paris, summer of 1979, and gay porn producer Anne finds herself suddenly single when her editor and lover Lois leaves her. To win her back, Anne sets out to produce her most ambitious film yet with her assistant producer, the flamboyant Archibald. Following the brutal murder of one of Anne’s stars, she gets caught up in a bizarre “Black Dahlia” like investigation that turns her life upside-down. When more and more of her stars wind up victims of the sadistic killer, she finds herself in a whodunit of cinematic proportions.
There is also a time capsule of sorts in this film as it takes place in 1979, just before the AIDS crisis, much like Cruising. But this — what could have so easily been simple a throwback gay exploitation horror film — is a comprehensive motion picture that uses the setting of Paris 1979 to reflect upon the present state of affairs for the queer community, and the world in which they live today. As the content of this film is extremely dark, there was need to inject some comedic relief into it in order for it not to become too heavy. So while you may be cringing at the kills, especially the first few ones, you will have moments of levity that keep the emotional rollercoaster going. Moments of comedy are very important to a horror film. If a heavy horror film lacks moments that make you laugh, then it becomes too heavy and off putting.
Clearly inspired by the films of Argento, de Palma, and even Kubrick, Gonzalez shows a command of the screen and the power of the moving image coupled with emotion communicated through colors, shapes, and angles. Despite being made in the 21st century, the film has an exquisitely recreated vintage sound, look, and feel. The dream-like colors, horror tropes, and synth score composed by M83 work together to create a film that is truly “dressed to kill”. In terms of the screenwriting, the film’s opening is extremely strong and expertly hooks the audience. Following the shocking opening, the plot and characters seem to take a backseat to the imagery, emotion, messages, and directorial style.
Gonzalez may look similar to de Palma and Friedkin, but he lacks their emphasis on a narrative that showcased exemplary character drive supported by the action plot. Evidence of this lack of direction and plot can be witnessed in the film’s repetitive scenes in acts two and three. After such a terrific first act, the second and third acts don’t play out as effectively, and often feel like they’re in a holding pattern. Even the kills eventually lose shock value because the uniqueness fades after a while. While the film successfully depicts the horrors of being gay in a world that wants to see you dead, the plot feels thinly stretched.
However, holding the film together, and keeping it gripping, is the character of Anne, because her performance is outstanding. We may not fully buy into why she does what she does, because so much seems to be so unrealistic even for that time; but she definitely comes across as a real person through whom we connect to the story. We’ve all been heartbroken, so we can identify with her trauma following being dumped by Lois.
In short, “Knife + Heart” does so many things very well, but the plot is not executed with the same caliber as the film’s visuals. Perhaps it is due to having bits and pieces of so many different genres and even plots. Essentially, Gonzalez tries to balance a tormented lesbian love story against a homophobic serial killer movie. Both point to the message of being gay in a hostile world; but had the focus been on one or the other, instead of both, then narratively, the film would have worked better. Thankfully, the artistic achievement of this film works to compensate for the lack of proper pacing and plot development. For fans of immersive artistic horror or erotic whodunit films like the original Suspiria, The Black Dahlia, Cruising, or Muholland Drive, this is definitely one to check out.
Knife + Heart is included with Shudder (highly recommended for horror fiends like me) or available for rent on Amazon Prime.
- Rotten Tomatoes: 82% (Certified Fresh)
- Metacritic: 69
- IMDb: 6.3
- One Movie Punch: 6.0/10
Ryan teaches film studies and screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!