Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
David Fincher’s Zodiac is a film about the intoxicating nature of investigation and obsession, coupled with the horror of perpetual uncertainty. Rather than romanticize the case itself, and the deaths at the heart of the most infamous, unsolved serial killings in American history, Fincher’s film—a clear precursor to the same fascination he would follow through two seasons of Mindhunter—instead grapples with the destructive effects of losing yourself to that same fascination. Along the way, it offers a subtle critique of our distinctly American infatuation with infamy, and the very fact that the Zodiac case is still drawing so much attention today, despite thousands of other unsolved murders that draw little to no interest from investigators. Just a few weeks ago, yet another group of sleuths put forth yet another unsubstantiated claim that they’d solved the mythic case … but why exactly is it so important to us to once and for all determine the identity of a killer who may have only operated half a century ago, in 1968-1969? Can any researcher really make the claim that their work is pure altruism, or is the notoriety of finally being the one to solve such a case inevitably the prime motivator? Why can’t we let such a mystery rest, or focus on cases more likely to be solved?
These questions are all mused by Zodiac in one fashion or another, a film that has become increasingly enjoyable over the years as viewers are able to look past the surface of the case and focus on its examination of the obsessions that drive us and potentially destroy us. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith isn’t even meant to interact with this kind of reporting via his newspaper job—the man is a political cartoonist, albeit one who “enjoys puzzles,” with the initial Zodiac letters and cryptograms providing a brain teaser that he ultimately finds impossible to resist. He frantically throws himself into the project with wild abandon, possessing an almost unnatural eagerness to figure things out. Meeting his future wife Melanie (Chloë Sevigny) in the midst of his distracted research, we witness the way his offputting focus and intensity initially draws her in closer to him—she feels privy to exciting, secret information that he’s sharing with her. We’re meant to interpret her attraction as a sign that this woman is some kind of perfect match for Robert, but instead she illustrates that momentary fascination is not the same as long-term obsession. What was exciting in the initial courtship eventually becomes an anchor around your neck; a monolithic topic that dominates the entire relationship, with no hope of resolution. We’re made to see that Graysmith has long since passed the point of no return.
Zodiac likewise refuses to ever make its assertions concrete, reflecting the way that real life doesn’t deign to conform to storytelling convention. Much is made of the circumstantial evidence surrounding suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, who passed away in 1992, but the script also doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the constant contradictions that undermine the case for any would-be Zodiac candidate. The conflicting information, amplified by the confusion of dueling jurisdictions and police offices that all failed to coordinate their investigations and missed key pieces of information in the process, drives the narrative in a maddening spiral. To watch Zodiac is to ride along with people like Graysmith who are driven by seemingly indefatigable hope, constantly feeling like you’re discovering bombshells and breakthroughs, only to see each and every one of them undermined by the next revelation. For each step forward, you take two back.
When it comes to the actual depictions of the killings, meanwhile, some horror audiences might expect more grand guignol and heightened suspense given the infamy of the crimes, but Fincher instead steers into the genuinely more disturbing horror of historical realism. The Lake Berryessa murder is particularly jarring for the fact that it’s almost entirely without filmmaking artifice—there’s no soundtrack present, and we experience the events solely from the perspective of a young couple slowly approached by a strange man in a black hood in a seeming robbery. The subsequent stabbing is shown with cold, naturalistic brutality, with the true horror setting in upon the audience’s realization that these events have been reconstructed based solely on the testimony of the survivor, who was stabbed half a dozen times and left to die on an autumn afternoon in 1969. We are witnessing the unvarnished, emotionless recreation of a split-second moment that shattered two lives forever. There are viewers out there who will argue that Zodiac is not a “horror film,” but this scene in particular could scarcely be called anything else.
In addition to the collection of lives literally ended by the killer, Zodiac ultimately illustrates the way such a man’s creeping influence and the well-meaning desire to bring him to justice can drag us all down with him. Graysmith loses his marriage, thanks to his obsession, while newspaper reporter Paul Avery suffers from paranoia and substance abuse. Police Inspector Dave Toschi is even accused of forging Zodiac letters out of some desire to keep the case in the limelight, a false accusation that nonetheless permanently damaged his reputation. No one’s life is improved by engaging with the case, but still we can’t resist returning to it half a century later, in the hopes that some catharsis might finally be achieved. This is the true horror of Zodiac, the enticement of absolution that is forever out of reach.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.