Awakening The Zodiac (Movie Review)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

PLOT: A downtrodden married couple in desperate need of fast cash goes after a $100,000 reward when stumbling on the old supposed snuff films of the infamous Zodiac Killer.

REVIEW: It’s taken seven years for longtime Liverpudlian AD Jonathan Wright to return to the realm that kicked off his directorial duty back in 2010. Indeed, following the critically panned horror film NOSTROM, Wright dubiously helmed five successive annual Canadian Christmas TV movies, and a romantic Hallmark entry to boot, before mounting a rather fresh take on a stagnantly stale subject in AWAKING THE ZODIAC. Let’s just say we’re glad he’s back! Currently available via VOD ahead of it limited June 9th theatrical bow, Wright’s accrued televisual accessibility coupled with a cool-conceit of a four-decade cold case involving one of the most enigmatically infamous persons of interest, makes AWAKENING THE ZODIAC an effortlessly engrossing good time. A great film? Hardly. But for a small Canadian indie swirling amid the behemoth summer blockbusters, AWAKENING THE ZODIAC ought to open the eyes of, and appeal to more than just obsessive completists, but anyone even remotely fascinated by furtive, unapprehended mass-murderer!

After a stylish throwback double-homicide to refamiliarize us with the titular killer, we meet Mick (Shane West) and Zoe Branson (Leslie Bibb), a struggling wedded couple living in a single-wide trailer somewhere in the south, who are in dire need of some quick cash. Loathed to continue bidding on old storage lockers that may or may not yield a valuable fire-sale, a bold move must be made. Yet, when Mick shells out $1200 for an expired old lady’s hoarded remnants, his dusty pawnshop-owning pal Harvey (Matt Craven) uncovers the find of the century. See, inside a moldering old dresser, Harvey finds a cache of stashed 8mm film canisters. Home movies? More like raw authentic snuff films, ostensibly recorded by the Zodiac Killer himself some 40 odd years prior. They pop in a tape and witness the same double-murder that opens the film. Having a lifelong interest in the infamous killer, Harvey informs Mick and Zoe that a $100,000 reward remains outstanding for any legit, verifiable evidence of the Zodiac’s whereabouts. Now highly motivated and armed with hard evidence, the trio set out to not only uncover the killer’s true identity, but to achieve what everyone has failed to do for over four decades…bring the baleful bastard to justice!

But first they must prove he’s still alive. After-all, exacting his final murder in 1969 before vanishing into obscurity, the Zodiac must be pushing 65-70 years of age by now. To me, it’s this low-key amateur sleuthing that provides most of the movies enthrallment, as the trio snoops around, procedurally investigates, systematically decodes the killer’s military-grade ciphers, slowly peeling away at a granular level to uncover the prime suspect’s historical profile. The low-fi tactility of the characters in their DIY scramble for info coupled with the ever-fascinating edification of the killer himself – the weird peccadilloes and deep-seeded fetishistic urges of his that are unearthed – is where the content is at its most compelling. If nothing else, we come away with a few subsidiary details about the Zodiac that even Fincher’s definitive film wasn’t even privy to. The informative nature of the movie is invaluable in that regard. It’s when the story veers into the violent that it tends become a stock-standard genre piece, albeit raised by the qualifier that the back-story of the Zodiac Killer is a true one.

Another such clue leads the trio to the abode where the dresser full of tapes was retrieved. A prime suspect in the elderly caretaker (Kenneth Walsh) leads Zoe on a stalk-and-suss mission through the city’s local hall of records, which further leads to more incriminating documentation in relation to the Zodiac. The three seem close. But the problem with having such a great actor as Stephen McHattie – a true Canadian icon – is his high-visibility level. Attentive viewers will no doubt spot and question McHattie’s brief throwaway intro as bound to be something more. Nothing else on that front need be mention, save for the opinion that McHattie and Craven are the two performative standouts in the film. Bibb and West are perfectly passable, but it’s the nuanced oddities of the aforementioned that really give the flick the kind of characteristic multi-dimension needed to make the movie memorable. Even when the movie eventually devolves into a cliché-ridden third-act bout of violence, McHattie alone keeps things grounded in the realm of the believable. To those who don’t know who McHattie is, I suspect you’ll find the movie more effective than those who do. Ironically, the films greatest asset is also its narrative crutch.

Still, there’s an unassailable ease about the entire watch that makes the movie mildly recommendable. For those absolutely enraptured by all things Zodiac, this is as close to must see material as it can get. It’s also well worth the time of even the casually curious. As for the fiendish gore-hounds that long for stints of graphic bloodshed like a spike in the vein, you might be a bit unfixed, as there’s just enough of the viscous red goop to support the story. No gratuity. But even more than the excellently premised tale and its smoothly digestible framing, if we come away with anything beyond a skein of fascinating tidbits and factoids about the Zodiac, it’s this: Jonathan Wright has directed himself back into the proper lane. Let’s see what he yields if sticking to the path moving forward!

Source: AITH

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.