What’s up, horror fans? It’s week 2 of October and time for another deep-dive into a horror hit presented by Beyond the Grave, Geeks + Gamers’ horror podcast (hosted by the entity haunting this keyboard). Every week in October, I’ll be shining a spotlight on a horror favorite, describing what makes the film so great and the legacy it has left on the genre. Nothing gets me in the Halloween mood like some good ol’ Huey Lewis & the News and one of my favorite movies of all-time: the black comedy horror American Psycho.
American Psycho (2000) directed by Mary Harron
In 2000, a film adaption to one of the most controversial books ever made its way to the big screen and was, of course, met with controversy of its own. If anyone has ever visited my website or looked at the tattoo on my arm, it quickly becomes apparent how obsessed I am with American Psycho. What makes this film so fascinating? Is it Christian Bale’s tour de force performance? Is it the dark satire and social commentary featured in its runtime? The answer is simply “all of the above and more.” American Psycho follows a wealthy business banker by day, serial killer by night and has made waves even years after its first release. Between its exploration of identity and critique of the Wall Street bourgeoisie, American Psycho has been praised by critics and has developed a cult following among fans. Oh, and this thing is all kinds of bloody and twisted, making it a coveted piece in psychological horror.
What makes American Psycho so dope?
There is a lot of contributing factors to why American Psycho is a phenomenal film, but it is easiest to start at the heart. For all the things this movie is, it is first and foremost a character study. Patrick Bateman has become somewhat of a cultural icon. He is the direct representation of everything negative about our country: greed, narcissism, and excess materialism. The film is an exploration of the broken psychosis within a man who desperately wants to “fit in” by showing off all the things that make him feel empty in his job and possessions. The only time Bateman feels anything real is when he’s violently murdering homeless people and prostitutes. He’s an extremely disturbed man covered up by a fake, charming exterior. The character is terrifically written, coming from the rich source material provided by Bret Easton Ellis’ original book. However, that’s only half the battle when crafting a compelling protagonist. The next thing you need is someone extraordinarily talented to bring him to life; enter Christian Bale.
Bale was chosen by Harron, after she took the film over from David Cronenberg. At the time, since Bale was not a big star, this was a big risk to the film and Bale himself. The studio was worried he wasn’t well-known enough to sell the film and people thought it would be career suicide for Bale to take this controversial role so early in his career. Thank goodness everything worked out in the end because American Psycho would not have been the same without Bale, who is absolutely electric. There is so many layers to his character and his performance puts you right in his carefully-polished shoes. I remember seeing this film for the first time and I had never seen acting like this before. He had so much charisma in his smile, but there was nothing behind his eyes. It’s so unsettling, especially as the film goes on and Bateman’s narration gets darker. Bale’s delivery of the script written by Harron and Guinevere Turner (who also plays Elizabeth in the film) is spot on, comprising a big part of what make this film so quotable. Whether it’s one of Bateman’s snide one-liners or a description of his sadistic acts, you believe 100% of everything Bale is saying.
I could gush over Bale for this entire article, but he’s only a piece of what makes the film so great. American Psycho stands out mainly for its message. The film is a statement against consumerism. According to Bateman, things are only important if they have materialistic value, including the people around him. Everything in the film is slightly heightened as well, which hits this message home even more. His “friends” are extra obnoxious, emphasis is put on mundane things like business cards, but most important of all: it is starkly shocking how oblivious everyone is to Bateman. Much focus is put on Bateman and the script, and I think Mary Harron’s expert direction is overlooked sometimes. The overall aesthetic is there, putting you right in the late-80s New York setting with expensive suits and an iconic new wave soundtrack. I recently realized upon a rewatch how under-appreciated the John Cale score is. It’s sporadic, switching from fast, dance beats to eerie bleakness at the drop of a hat. I never noticed how reflective it was of Bateman’s inner psychosis.
Bale also isn’t the only bright spot in the cast either, which was padded by stars such as Chloë Sevigny, Willem Dafoe, Reese Witherspoon, and Jared Leto, with the latter being particularly interesting. Leto gives a rather underrated supporting performance as Paul Allen. The character is somewhat of a counterpoint to Bateman, as he’s the scummiest of all his friends and Bateman hates that he’s not “better” than Allen (the two often get mixed up). I think their interactions make for some of the best scenes in the film, like the business card scene or Paul Allen’s infamous death (pictured above). The scene stands out because it can be seen as a large representation of the film and Bateman as a whole: his in-depth analysis of Huey Lewis & the News, his fleeting thoughts of carnage, and the film killing everything that Allen stands for.
Lastly, the film’s balance is a big highlight. American Psycho succeeds as a satire, a black comedy, a psychological thriller, and a slasher film all at the same time. Not only does it juggle themes well, it also uses them purposefully. I remember the conflicting feeling I had watching this film for the first time, sincerely asking myself “am I supposed to be laughing this much?” This film is very funny, with so many quotable lines and hilarious delivery. I mentioned quotability earlier: who hasn’t told someone that they need to return some video tapes? This film is also gruesome. There are a lot of violent and sexual acts depicted in this film, which often are very graphic. They are so graphic that eighteen seconds made up the difference between garnering R and NC-17 ratings by the MPAA. Fortunately, the film balances the comedy and horror so well, choosing when to entertain and when to shock. Oftentimes many scenes have both, for example Patrick Bateman dancing around and doing the moonwalk before killing Paul Allen or the scene where Bateman tries to put a cat in an ATM during one of his mental breakdowns. Many times American Psycho has you laughing and cringing simultaneously, which isn’t always an easy task to pull off.
The film also contains a layer of ambiguity, which is common for films with an unreliable narrator. To this day, people still debate via think-pieces and video essays whether everything you see onscreen here was real or not. By the end of the film, you’re frustrated when you realize how truly psychotic Bateman really is. Will he ever face the consequences of his actions or did he do these things at all? I’ve seen this film a million times and I’m fine with both answers. I think the book and film lean more towards it being all in his head, but I personally like to believe that it was real. I think it really hits home the message that Bateman will never be satisfied and he will never learn because morality means nothing to him. The end of the film leaves you with a powerful, full circle ending that sums up the themes of the film perfectly.
The “Book vs Movie” Debate
The question inevitably comes up with every film adaptation of a book: how does it compare to source, is it faithfully adapted, etc. American Psycho is an interesting case where most fans are split down the middle. When Cronenberg was originally helming the project, Bret Easton Ellison wrote the script himself, staying very close to the book while adding in extra scenes he had in mind that didn’t make it to the book. When Harron took over, she co-wrote a new script with Turner that also follows the book pretty closely. About 90% of the dialogue, give or take, was pulled directly from the book. The difference on display mainly lies within the portrayal of Patrick Bateman. In the book, it’s a little more obvious that he’s a joke amongst his peers and not as likable. This was a conscious choice when casting Bale, who is a lot more charming and handsome than Bateman in the book. Another difference is the book is entirely from Bateman’s POV, so you get more of an insight into his mind and it puts more emphasis what makes him tick. In the book, the description of his apartment is five pages long alone, just to give you an idea.
In addition, the gore and violence is toned down in the film. Though the film is quite graphic, barely squeaking by with its R rating. However, if other scenes had been included, such as one sexually murderous act involving cheese, acid, and hamster tubes, it would have ensured the NC-17 rating in a heartbeat. The escalating violence in the film works just fine, but just know that there is way worse than what we saw on screen deep within the pages of American Psycho. I personally prefer the movie to the book, as Bale’s performance just took Bateman to a whole other level. I also think that, although the descriptions are vivid enough, it just doesn’t beat visually seeing some of Bateman’s awful acts set to its iconic score & soundtrack. There is just something so vibrant about the film as it uses a bright color palette which highlights the contrasting tones of the story. Due to the nature of the book, it gets a little more bleak and plodding as it goes on, while the film keeps me locked in a bit more. Depending on who you ask, opinions will differ but I personally believe the film was an improvement.
Fun Facts & Horror Legacy
I’ve already mentioned a few fun facts about the casting and such, but here are some more background tidbits on American Psycho!
- At one point, Harron/Bale were dropped in favor of Oliver Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio. Bale was so optimistic they’d get the film back, he kept preparing, turning down many roles in the process.
- Bale based his portrayal of Patrick Bateman around Tom Cruise, with inspirations from Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss
- American Psycho was also adapted into a musical in 2013, with Matt Smith in the lead as Bateman.
- Bateman’s famous dance moves in the Paul Allen death scene was improvised by Bale.
- Even before Cronenberg, Stuart Gordon was attached to direct an X-rated, black & white version of the film starring Johnny Depp.
American Psycho has easily cemented its place in horror history, often described as one of the best black comedies in film. The controversy swirling around the book and its long road to production have only added to this legacy, because good art doesn’t come easy. The film shot Christian Bale into stardom, showing off range that should have garnered him an Academy Award nomination. He is hypnotizing to watch and his turn as Bateman will always be my standard when it comes to performances in film. However, it is the direction of Mary Harron that really brought this book to life, who was criticized and questioned for wanting to adapt such a “misogynistic” story as a female director. American Psycho is a unique mixture of dark comedy, horror, and social commentary that is as relevant today as it was seventeen years ago. This October, make sure you pop on some Phil Collins and revisit one of my favorite films of all-time!
Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Deezus12 for more movie thoughts and check out Beyond the Grave on GeekPulse Radio, stay creepy!