"Movie Review: Identity"" (***1/2)"

The Spectrum

It was a dark and stormy night and a killer was on the loose. And one by one, people began to die.

Okay, so "Identity" isn't going to score brownie points from moviegoers with a one-of-a-kind premise. But director James Mangold is aware of this slasher film's repeated role in the long-line of suspense thrillers. During one scene, "Identity" references Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None," when potential victim Ginny (Clea DuVall, in a rather obnoxious role) asks, "You know that movie where 10 strangers go on an island?"

But in this case, the "island" is a Nevada motel, isolated by heavy rainfall that has overrun the road. Despite the gimmick the film's trailer reveals - that they all have the same birthday - the 10 strangers are as diverse as their occupations imply: a limo driver (John Cusack), an actress (Rebecca De Mornay) and a convict (Jake Busey), among others. Seeking refuge from the storm, they arrive at the motel, with a lot of emotional baggage behind them.

And indeed, they do systematically kick the rain bucket. Although "Identity" is a bloody whodunit in the same sense as movies like "Scream" - "Identity" producer Stuart Besser also worked on that teen slasher trilogy - all of "Identity's" similarities end there. Instead, Mangold has made a movie steeped more in the messed-up, psychological tradition of Alfred Hitchcock. The film's overall creepiness is more derived from the atmosphere of uncertainty, rather than hearing the head of one of the victims bounce around in a dryer.

Needless to say, this isn't "Darkness Falls," and thankfully "Identity" strays away from supernatural stupidity. When Ginny suggests the motel's location to Indian burial grounds might have a role in the murders, as if dead spirits haunt the place, Rhodes (Ray Liotta, playing a jerk yet again) asks, "What, now they're coming back to life like sea monkeys?"

Which brings up the next point - slasher movies typically don't have casts as good as these. At least not with heavyweights like John Cusack and Ray Liotta, who both do more to elevate the quality of "Identity."

It's new territory for Cusack, who has never appeared in this kind of film. But unlike the more stereotypical, stock horror movie roles played by the likes of De Mornay (the spoiled actress) or DuVall (the incredibly dumb girlfriend), Cusack brings his wealth of acting experience to "Identity" as its lead.

Part of it is his vulnerability, but not in the sense that he's about to get his head whacked off by the killer. In a way, he's still Lloyd from Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything," a down-on-his-luck kind of guy without direction, but strong enough to be a kickboxer. As Ed, the ex-cop and limo driver in "Identity," only Cusack can say the following line about why he quit the LAPD without sounding forced or cheesy:

"For one second, I couldn't think of one optimistic thing to say to her. So she spread her arms and jumped," says Cusack, about how he could not stop a girl from killing herself.

But if this is new territory for Cusack, Liotta's role as Rhodes is old news. Once again, he's a shady cop, not unlike the parts he's had in "Unlawful Entry" and "Narc." In past roles, his volatility increased the tension of the film. In "Identity" he's there more for amusement, especially when he can belt out lines like:

"If there's something out there and he comes in here, I'm gonna shoot him! And if any of us tries anything, I'm gonna shoot him!" Of course, this is when Liotta is at his best, not unlike his unique performance as Tommy Vercetti in "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City."

There's also Amanda Peet. As Paris, her profession is of the kind that pays by the hour in motel rooms. Despite her occupation, she's actually a bit more of an innocent figure. But she does unleash some of the cool lines that made her famous in films like "Whipped." One of the more choice bits of dialogue occurs with a flirtatious Liotta while she's bent over a vending machine.

"You got a name?" Liotta coolly asks.

"Paris," Peet replies.

"Paris. Never been."

"Well, you ain't going tonight."

The person who pulls off the greatest cinematic twist is the director himself. After filming "Copland," Mangold took some unfortunate turns when he got in touch with his feminine side by making "Girl, Interrupted" and "Kate & Leopold."

In "Identity," the director appears more in his element. The stock horror film components like the constant rain, the behind-the-back shots of the victims as the killer creeps behind them, and the guessing game the audience inevitably plays concerning who dies next, are satisfactory.

What makes "Identity" succeed is the psychological turn it takes toward the final portion of the film. Drawing from the story's clear basis in "Psycho," "Identity" features a killer with a Norman Bates-like mentality, murdering in a motel. Other references are subtle, such as how one victim gets bumped off clinging to a shower curtain while the rain falls - this isn't really a spoiler since the audience sees is it coming a minute away.

But what is harder to catch is how Mangold is interested as to what motivates the killer, rather than just who the person is. Arguably, "Identity" reveals this person two-thirds of the way through, but his motivations are nicely kept in the dark until the final revelation at the end. To fully understand, viewers will have to pay close attention to the opening minutes of the movie and connect it to the final scenes.

But if they can't do that, it's still worth it to watch the bodies drop one at a time.

"Identity" opens this Friday in area theaters.