Why do movie serial killers always need a gimmick?

That was at the front of my mind as I left the theater after seeing Bad Samaritan for my review, as one of two people in the audience I might add.

Real life serial killers aren't like that, for the most part. I mean, sure, they all have their own tells and quirks like the Zodiac Killer's notes or Ted Bundy's tendency to decapitate his victims, but they very rarely have a gimmick or a theme like they do in movies.

I bring this up because it distracted me from one of the few enjoyable parts of Bad Samaritan, that is the performance of David Tennant as serial killer Cale Erendreich. But let me back up a little.

The film starts us off by introducing us to some mop-topped Irish guy and his girlfriend, as they enjoy themselves in his artsy loft. Our hero, Sean Falco(Robert Sheehan, who was in the godawful Geostorm), is a photographer, and I only bring this up because apparently the movie itself forgets about that fact after spending something like 5 minutes establishing that he's a photographer.

Sean and his buddy Derek Sandoval(Carlito Olivero, who hilariously served as part of Menudo from 2007 to 2009) run a valet business, but they have a much more lucrative side hustle; breaking into homes and stealing stuff. Sometimes from the people they valet cars for, which seems like a great way to get caught, but whatever.

Electric Entertainment via YouTube
Electric Entertainment via YouTube

This is how we're introduced to Cale Erendreich(David Tennant, best known for being Doctor Who); he pulls up in his fancy Maserati, acts like a jerk to our "heroes", and then goes inside the restaurant. Sean decides to drive to Erendreich's home and break in, since it's conveniently less than a mile away.

However, once he's inside he discovers something horrific; a young woman chained up and gagged in the office. Sean attempts to free her, but he panics and escapes without her when he learns that Erendreich has a camera installed in the room.

What follows is what I guess I have to describe as a game of Cat-and-Mouse; Sean is trying his best to get the police to believe him when he says this rich playboy has a girl trapped in his house, while Erendreich obviously tries to prevent that.

This is where I think Bad Samaritan fails on a fundamental level; It wants me very much to care about Mr. Sean Falco and the fact that his life is spiraling down due to his attempt at a good deed, but I just don't care. I really don't. He doesn't have much of a personality at all, and his character as a whole just isn't developed enough for the film to spend so much time dedicated to making the viewer feel bad for him.

On the other hand, David Tennant's performance as Cale Erendreich is honestly gripping. He pulls off such an arrogance and confidence, that when cracks in the character's psyche start to show it makes it much more unnerving. Most times Tennant was on the screen, I found myself enjoying this film. However, there were two major flaws regarding his role in the story that really, really bothered me.

The first is that thing I mentioned at the beginning; why does he need a gimmick? Erendreich's gimmick is that he had an incident with a horse as a child, and as a result he likes to manipulate and "break" people just like you would a horse, complete with bits in the mouth and leather harnesses. This horse motif is really played up, and we're constantly reminded of it either via a horse sculpture on his wall or his wallpaper on his laptop.

Electric Entertainment via YouTube
Electric Entertainment via YouTube

My point is, was all of this necessary? I personally think David Tennant would have been just as effective as a serial killer without the obvious gimmick. It feels to me like an attempt by the filmmakers to stand out from the crowd, not via good screenwriting, but via making people remember this movie as the one with the horse serial killer.

The second major problem with Erendreich is that he's presented as almost godlike in his ability to affect events in his own favor. This man does more manipulation in five minutes than a whole crew of CIA operatives could do in half-an-hour. It becomes incredibly distracting, and I think the film would have been much better served if they tried to take a more realistic approach to his machinations.

Despite all these complaints, I will give Bad Samaritan props for creating a good atmosphere of suspense for most of the film. I did find myself tensed up for much of the running time, due to the atmosphere Tennant creates simply by scowling. As a positive consequence of Erendreich's "abilities", it does make you unsure of when he can strike next; in that way he's almost like the unkillable Jason from the Friday the 13th films.

I guess you could say I didn't hate Bad Samaritan. It's incredibly flawed, but David Tennant's performance does just enough to make you not walk out of the theater. Not exactly high praise, I know, but at least it's not Truth or Dare.

If you've already seen A Quiet Place, and your hunger for thrillers isn't satiated, it might be worth your time to see Bad Samaritan.

See the trailer below.

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