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Oh, the Horror!

James Mangold's latest looks scary, plays funny, and might just be brilliant.

You can't be sure what to make of Identity for its first hour: Director James Mangold's initial foray into the horror genre plays so much like a joke, it's almost impossible to tell whether he's making you laugh on purpose or because he is director James Mangold, maker of the dopey Kate & Leopold and the dour Cop Land, and merely bumping into chuckles accidentally. Much of the movie plays like a gross-out version of Agatha Christie; in it, a group of seemingly unrelated people are picked off, one by one, by an unseen killer at a Nevada motel. It's so much an homage that one of the would-be victims, a young bride played by Clea DuVall, can't help but ask the dwindling group's members if they remember "that movie where ten strangers are stranded on an island" and begin to die.

Clearly, much of the audience at a recent screening didn't find it terribly amusing; a man, sitting behind a colleague and me laughing ourselves blind, shushed us and insisted, "This ain't a comedy." He thought he was supposed to be scared, because such are the powers of persuasion when it comes to convention; an abandoned motel drenched in sheets of rain and buckets of blood surely conjures something terrifying, doesn't it?

In this case, not really, because Identity is terribly funny -- if not an outright comedy or a yuk-yucky camp parody, like Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer, then certainly a wry, mordant and close-to-brilliant commentary on films in which people misbehave and suffer gruesome, outlandish deaths (you know, a baseball bat down the throat, heads lopped off and deposited in oversized clothes dryers...that sort of thing). For some sixty minutes, Mangold and writer Michael Cooney so overinflate the genre and its excesses that they completely obliterate the Horror Movie; it explodes like a head that's been run over by a truck -- which, more or less, also happens here.

Columbia TriStar is marketing the movie all wrong. Its trailers suggest a haunted-motel thriller with movie stars who appear to be slumming, among them John Cusack as a cop turned limo driver who keeps a tattered copy of Sartre in the front seat, Ray Liotta as a cop shlepping a con (Jake Busey, who's all teeth), Amanda Peet as a hooker with a heart of citrus (she dreams of planting an orange grove), and John C. McGinley as a nebbish with a dinged-up wife and a quiet stepson. They appear to be archetypes, and that's precisely what they are: Cusack grimly mopes about in the muck, looking for the killer; Peet tramps around in short shorts, licking whipped cream off a man's chest when we first see her; McGinley, so brilliantly manic on Scrubs, changes a flat and tends to his injured wife with anal-retentive intensity; DuVall screams incessantly about Indian burial grounds and something cold and wicked this way coming.

For a moment you might believe they're all killing time; Cusack especially seems adrift, in it for the paycheck in early scenes that suggest he has little to do and nowhere to go in the savaging thunderstorm. But it turns out they're supposed to be cardboard cutouts, stand-ins for something else -- for what, exactly, I can't say, because that blows the gimmick Cooney and Mangold have in store, but their intentions become clear toward the film's end. Theirs isn't a horror movie (it just looks like one), but a clever appraisal of our relationship to films and what we expect from them -- visceral thrills, in this case, that add up to a much larger pleasure. Identity has no intention of scaring, but of amusing, confusing and critiquing our belief in dopey genre films and the people who live and die in them.

The twist is suggested at the film's beginning, as a psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) listens to his interview with a convicted killer (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who's 24 hours from execution; new evidence has arisen to warrant a midnight hearing, which we see bits and pieces of during the motel massacre. At first it all seems so much nonsense, a distraction: What's the point? But keep in mind that Identity was written by a man who has written and directed two movies about a dead serial killer who returns as a homicidal snowman. Identity is an outright blast, so fun it's -- pardon -- scary. How can you not adore a movie in which Rebecca De Mornay is cast as petulant movie star whom no one really remembers? "Didn't you used to be that actress?" asks grimy motel manager Larry (John Hawkes); soon enough, she winds up nothing more than a head on spin cycle. Oh, the humor.

 
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