The Zodiac Killer, like many prolific serial murderers, is one that permeated pop culture in a way that both fascinates people and transcends his era of rampant brutality. Because of this, every few years we get a new film that taps into the ever present gloom and doom of the real life sociopath and attempts to add something new to it. This is exactly what Jonathan Wright and crew attempt with AWAKENING THE ZODIAC.
The premise has some silly air about it but for the purpose of the movie, it works well enough. After a short replaying of the real life Lovers Lane murders committed in Northern California by the still unidentified killer, we are dropped into rural West Virginia and introduced to our two protagonists Mick and Zoe Branson, played charmingly and charismatically by Shane West and Leslie Bibb. Mick and Zoe are your typical trailer park couple who are just one step away from moving onto bigger and better things. Zoe has more of a level head on her shoulders but Mick is always looking for something beyond his grasp, searching for that lucky break. After Mick blows most of their savings after buying out a storage unit, it seems that he has ran the couple into a dead end. When his pawn shop owning pal Harvey (played by Matt Craven) discovers some old film reel, however, the real plot gets moving. The couple has stumbled across home video of the Zodiac Killer in the middle of his killing spree. It soon becomes apparent that the Killer has made his way east, away from California, and may still be alive and well. As the trio starts looking to uncover the identity of the famed killer, they realize he may be onto them as well.
Straight up, this movie doesn’t work without Shane West and Leslie Bibb. They carry the majority of it on their back and are almost oozing charm from their down-and-out couple turned Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy. They have a chemistry that clicks from the moment they are on screen together which instantly helps the movie anytime the two are sharing the screen, though they manage to do just fine on their own. Matt Craven is fun to watch, his eccentric and oft-wily Harvey brings some life into what could have been an otherwise stale role, but even the veteran actor can’t bring some of the hardened seriousness that Harvey is supposed to portray when he isn’t busy being comic relief. Nicholas Campbell plays the role of Ray, who might as well be named Red Herring, and Stephen McHattie commands the small amount of screen time he gets as a nosy neighbor.
The story itself is an interesting notion to entertain. The group is able to use the video to find the cipher for the Zodiac’s strange cryptic messages. It could have been played around with more than it was, the key is only used to uncover an address and a name, so the pay off feels a little bit unrewarding. They do a decent job at piecing together the why’s and how’s and though some of it is far reaching, it’s never outlandish. In the same sense, unfortunately, it’s also never captivating. In the same vein, the suspense never ramps up high enough to really get the blood pumping or your nerves on end and the third act is such a pratfall that it almost knocks the wind out of the rest of the film.
Where the movie, and director Jonathan Wright, fall short is failing to ever make anything memorable. The gimmick at the center of the plot is neat but isn’t enough to draw viewers in. Kills are mostly non-existent and take place off screen, the mystery isn’t scintillating, and the conclusion falls flat on it’s face. Apart from a few solid moments of building dread (both of which can be seen in the trailer), AWAKENING THE ZODIAC ends up boiling down to a middle of the road thriller that will most likely be viewed in the middle of the afternoon some day on the USA Network.
AWAKENING THE ZODIAC will be in select theaters June 9, 2017