Longlegs, billed as 2024’s scariest horror movie, is actually pretty hilarious

A woman wearing an FBI ID lanyard stands in what seems to be a dim, blood-splattered room in Longlegs.
Image: Neon

There’s a big difference between scary and creepy

If you’ve heard anything at all about Longlegs, the new horror movie starring Nicolas Cage, you’ve probably seen someone claiming it’s one of the scariest movies ever made. From the movie’s excellent marketing to the avalanche of disturbed reactions from early screenings, all of the buzz ahead of this movie is that it’s utterly terrifying. It isn’t, though. Most horror fans aren’t likely to find it scary at all — which doesn’t stop it from being a great, supremely creepy movie. Longlegs situates itself in the long line of classic horror-thrillers like The Shining and The Silence of the Lambs — movies that are better at making people squirm than making them jump. Director Osgood Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) is clearly more interested in hearing audiences’ nervous laughs than just their screams.

On its face, the movie is a fairly straightforward serial-killer hunt with a few supernatural twists. Horror veteran Maika Monroe (It Follows) plays Lee Harker, a young FBI agent who seems unusually talented and intuitive. As a result, she gets assigned to investigate one of the FBI’s longest-standing mysteries: a series of brutal killings in which a father murdered his family in their own home, then killed himself as well. The only things linking these killings is that a daughter in the family has a birthday on the 14th of the month and that at each of the crime scenes is an encoded, seemingly Satanist note from someone who calls himself Longlegs. But there’s no evidence that anyone outside the family was ever at any of the homes when the crimes occurred.

A dark figure in a ghostly habit shape fills up most of the frame while standing in front of a doorway with a cross above it in Longlegs
Image: Neon

Perkins’ script plays out all this setup with a deft hand, pulling in visual and narrative references from movies like Zodiac, Seven, and The Silence of the Lambs to help orient the audience as quickly as possible. Within the first 20 minutes or so, we already know all the details about the case and everyone involved, which frees Perkins to start infusing the movie with his unique brand of off-kilter creepiness.

Take Lee Harker, a character visually patterned after The Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling, but lacking her put-upon steeliness. Monroe plays Lee with an off-putting vacantness. She’s unquestionably brilliant, but her interpersonal demeanor is uncomfortably terse, as if talking to people or even looking at them is an unpleasant chore for her, and a distraction from finding her next clue. This dynamic makes every scene she’s in disquietingly awkward, cleverly making viewers uneasy even when there aren’t brutal crimes on screen, and adding to the movie’s ever-building sense of tension.

Perkins isn’t afraid to leverage Monroe’s fantastically strange performance for comedy, either. In one early scene, Lee meets the daughter of her FBI boss, Agent Carter (Blair Underwood). Lee sits on the girl’s bed with her whole body locked in tension, examining the room like a crime scene, desperate for something to talk about. Finally, after drawing the awkwardness out, she picks up a ballet trophy that’s missing its head. When Carter’s daughter says she doesn’t know where the head is, Lee comments, straight-faced, that locating a missing head would be her job, not the girl’s. It’s a pitch-perfect joke about her own strangeness, and Lee is the only one who isn’t in on it.

Blair Underwood as Agent Carter in Longlegs holding a cloth up to his nose and looking toward a crime scene that’s off-screen
Image: Neon

It’s a genuinely funny scene, but in a way that feels refreshingly antagonistic. It’s like Perkins is daring us to laugh our way through the characters’ awkward discomfort. Longlegs is full of these inappropriate little punchlines — and as the movie’s violence increases, and its tone becomes darker, they get even more effective. Each one is a little challenge to see just how disturbing a scene can be while still forcing an uneasy chuckle out of the audience.

Balancing a mood like this, equal parts terrifying and funny, feels nearly impossible, particularly when falling too far to either side would topple the movie entirely. But Perkins never slips — he keeps the tension and discomfort perfectly measured throughout. That tone is exactly what makes Longlegs creepy, rather than scary.

Scary, in this case, is something physical a movie does to you: an increased heart rate, a nervous sweat, muscles tensing in anticipation of an inevitable jump. Scary comes in waves. It ebbs and flows, coils and releases in a steady rhythm. Creepiness, on the other hand, is dread that constantly builds on itself. While the fear from a scary movie comes from the anticipation of the tension releasing, creepy movies find fear in the idea that that tension might never release at all.

Maika Monroe alone in a car as Lee Harker in Longlegs, screaming at the top of her lungs and gripping the steering wheel
Image: Neon

Perkins has frequently brought up David Lynch as a source of inspiration, and movies like Mulholland Drive or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me are prime examples of the heights of this kind of creepiness on film. In Longlegs’ case, every inch of the movie feels crafted to heighten this oppressively discomforting mood and the uneasy feeling that you might never escape its particular brand of off-kilter, Satanic strangeness. In no place is that more straightforwardly clear than in Nicolas Cage’s performance as Longlegs himself.

Far from the perfected psychopath that generally defines the serial-killer mold, Cage’s performance is built on discomforting goofiness. He screams in his car to hard rock music, speaks with a clownish voice that feels more fit for a character on a children’s TV show from hell, and generally floats around scenes with a perverse giddiness that suggests he’s confident that he has Satan’s full backing. It’s a thoroughly unnerving performance, but also a hilarious one. Perkins allows Cage to play up Longlegs’ silliness for laughs, only to juxtapose it with his grisly murders immediately afterward. The humor and horror enhance rather than undercut each other, making each chuckle feel like you’re slipping deeper into Longlegs’ own twisted, gross reality.

The back of Nicolas Cage’s head in Longlegs, as he sits at an metal table in an interrogation room
Image: Neon

All that said, Cage’s performance is unmistakably big, and full of bold choices. It’s likely to be a litmus test for whether you’re on the movie’s wavelength. Longlegs’ lack of direct scares combined with Cage’s performance and the script’s sense of humor is likely to put some viewers off the movie right away, particularly when combined with the marketing’s overinflation of the movie’s terror.

Longlegs isn’t the generationally terrifying movie it’s been sold as. It’s funny, strange, and creepy in exactly the right measures, but that won’t stop some viewers from being disappointed over having their expectations set incorrectly. With Longlegs, Perkins doesn’t want viewers to flinch in the theater; he wants to make them flinch later, anytime they hear a noise in the dark. Or to spend a few days wondering what made them laugh at something so grotesque, even though the movie invited those laughs in the first place. When we’re far enough away from Longlegs’ marketing push to forget it entirely, we’ll still feel lucky to have the film asking those questions on its own terms.

Longlegs debuts in theaters on July 12.

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