The Holy Grail of Hollywood Thrillers?

Sigourney Weaver, Holly Hunter, Dermot Mulroney, William McNamara, Harry Connick Jr., J.E. Freeman, Will Patton. Directed by Jon Amiel. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround (French). 123 minutes. 1995. Warner Home Video 14168. Rated R. $24.98.

Hollywood churns out plenty of thrillers each year, but really good ones remain as elusive as the Holy Grail. Copycat is among those Hollywood rarities---a top-notch thriller that doesn't underestimate its audience and delivers a story as realistic as it is scary.

Sigourney Weaver stars as a noted criminal psychologist who ends up a virtual basket case after being viciously attacked by a serial killer she helped bring to justice. Holly Hunter is a homicide detective whose tenacity and drive are effectively masked by a façade of girlish charm. The two are brought together by a serial killer stalking the San Francisco area. While the police have no leads, the psychologist's ability to connect the crimes based on the bits of information released to the media make her a valuable tool for Hunter's detective to exploit.

With all the evidence at her disposal, the good doctor soon discovers that this new serial killer is re-creating the crimes of the Boston Strangler. However, it turns out that re-creating the Boston Strangler is just the killer's way of getting her attention. To keep her and the police guessing, he quickly switches to the modus operandi of another famous serial killer. As things progress, Helen (Weaver) comes to realize that the killer is playing a deadly game with her.

Director Jon Amiel brilliantly cast his lead actors against type, affording each the opportunity to deliver unexpected but riveting performances. Weaver's impressive stature makes her a natural for portraying strong female leads, and her Oscar-nominated turn as Ellen Ripley in Aliens ensures that she will forever be identified as a tough-as-nails icon.

But in Copycat, Weaver's character is a psychological disaster area---a woman so traumatized by the attempt on her life that the very thought of leaving the safety of her apartment sends her into panic attacks. Weaver is able to convey the horror of being trapped by one's own personal demons despite having a brilliant, analytical mind that should easily overcome such fears.

Holly Hunter is the complete physical opposite of Weaver, yet despite her diminutive size, you never question her authority as the lead homicide investigator tracking the killer. Hunter's M.J. Monahan might play at being coy, but all you have to do is look in her eyes and at her body language to know she's deadly serious.

Copycat also features another unexpected standout performance from Harry Connick Jr., who is downright frightening as Daryll Lee Cullum, the serial killer whose brutal attack leaves the psychologist's psyche in a shambles. Thanks to Connick's fascinating performance, Cullum is one of the screen's most frightening apparitions of pure evil.

Amiel wrings the maximum suspense out of most of the sequences. Instead of going for the kind of visceral shocks one expects from a Hollywood thriller these days, he allows the tension to build slowly to unbearable levels. Suspense is why Copycat succeeds where so many other thrillers fail.

Warner Home Video gives DVD consumers a choice of viewing the film in a cropped or widescreen anamorphic presentation. However, because Copycat was intended by its director to be viewed in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, I'll restrict my comments to the widescreen version---a glorious reproduction of impressive cinematography. The use of light, shadow, and color is nothing short of dazzling as Amiel creates a number of widely contrasting environments that greatly enhance the impact of the film. Never has bright white been so brutal or so scary. Both hot and cold colors reproduce effortlessly on this DVD, without the kind of noise and distortion inherent in analog video sources. Image detail remains high throughout, even in the most intricate lighting situations.

The film's Dolby Digital soundtrack is quite effective. Dialog is crisp and precise, while music and sound effects are deployed through the discrete channels to build and relieve tension.

Chief among this DVD's supplements is a full-length audio commentary featuring director Amiel. His comments are highly accessible and filled with interesting bits about the production. Using the DVD's interactive menus, you can also view a theatrical trailer, production notes, and biographical information about the cast and crew.