Longlegs: Nicolas Cage gives a monstrous performance as a ritualistic serial killer in this gruesome occult horror

Director Osgood Perkins’s enigmatic horror follows a rookie FBI agent on the case of an occultist serial killer known as Longlegs, played by a terrifying Nicolas Cage in full ‘nouveau shamanic’ acting mode.

Longlegs (2024)

Osgood Perkins’s latest feature is a significant leap in his engagement with horror. I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016) and Gretel and Hansel (2020) were atmospheric arthouse excursions into haunting and folkloresque, beautifully framed and considered, yet slow-paced and airless, with directive voice-overs. Longlegs strips out the languorous edits and exposition for a leaner, off-kilter energy, powered by the central performances of a spooked Maika Monroe as an FBI investigator and a wigged out (in every sense) Nicolas Cage as the killer she pursues.

Monroe – who played the iconic young lead of the seminal horror It Follows (2014) – plays Lee Harker, an oppressed and anxious rookie FBI agent whose flashes of uncanny psychic intuition crack open the impenetrable thickets of signs and sigils around a gruesome series of incidents of families who appear to have slaughtered themselves over the past twenty years. Each time, the families seem manoeuvred into death by a manipulative mastermind who signs himself as ‘Longlegs.’ 

Of course, the young agent has more to do with this snare of occult ritualistic murders than it initially seems, as her fragmented early memory of an encounter with the killer in her childhood suggests in the pre-credit sequence. He is an incomprehensible figure that the camera can hardly bear to hold in the frame (we only see half his face, the rest cut off from the screen). This encounter effectively suffuses the film with dread, as does the skewed framing by cinematographer Andrés Arochi, all deep corridors, doorways and voids.

If this serial killer scenario sounds familiar, the film actively embraces those echoes. It is set in the 1990s, with flashbacks to the 1970s, the era before the internet and the society of surveillance helped lessen opportunities in baroque serial killing. Retro stylings evoke the slow horrors of Ti West’s recent trilogy of films or David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and Mindhunter (2017-19), with the strongest reverberation being Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Increasingly, the case accrues an atmosphere of the supernatural and malignant evil and there are touches of the Manson Family slayings and any number of demonic possession movies also bubbling away. 

Lauren Acala as the young Lee Harker in Longlegs (2024)

Monroe’s performance conveys a tightly suppressed, traumatised protagonist, menaced by wide-screen but trapped in a boxier frame for her 1970s Kodachrome memories. There’s no glimmer of the steely determination we see in Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling. She plays it with an emotional flatness and fraying calm of someone slowly realising the extent of psychological control they have been placed under. It is, of course, in stark contrast to Nicolas Cage, who is in his full-on ‘nouveau shamanic’ mode of acting (as he insists on calling it) in a film he also co-produced through his Saturn Films company. He is always a citational actor, and in Longlegs there are wild touches of Manson, a camp Anton LaVey (founder of the Church of Satan in the 1960s), Stephen King’s clown Pennywise from It, and a big dollop of Marc Bolan, who features heavily on the soundtrack, and in a poster tacked above Longlegs in his lair. T-Rex’s Bang a Gong gets the full Lynchian re-purposing from glam rock song into a hymn to creepy manipulation. Cage is suitably grotesque and barely recognisable underneath prosthetics.

The film gained buzz in anticipation of another expressionist Cage performance, more at the deranged Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, 2018) end of the spectrum than the repressed rage all the better for never being really released in The Colour Out of Space (Richard Stanley, 2019) or Pig (Michael Sarnosky, 2021). Osgood Perkins, however, has found a way of framing Cage’s monstrous killer to strong advantage – monstrous enough to wrench the frame out of ever quite being able to grasp him, except for a final confrontation with the aghast Harker. 

In the closing scenes, it looks like Perkins has given in to exposition, and a voice-over comes in to offer some sort of explanation (a weakness that reminded me of the last scenes of Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), which rather blew that film’s potential ambiguities). But this is only the outer shell of an explanation in Longlegs: the central occult mechanism that drives this demonic plot, housed in unnerving dolls built by the puppet-master Longlegs, remains enigmatic, closed off from anyone not caught in its fiendish snares.

 ► Longlegs is in UK cinemas 12 July.