Imitation Of Death

ARE SERIAL KILLERS THE GREAT PERformance artists of our era? You might think so judging from the reverence Hollywood has bestowed on these fashionable cinematic villains. In "Silence of the Lambs," "Seven" and now the slickly scarifying _B_Copycat,_b_ serial killers have become artists of depravity, painting their masterpieces in blood (it used to be mad scientists who were evil's elite). Their appeal, dramatically, is in their twisted parody of the rational mind, which requires an adversary--part Sherlock Holmes, part Sigmund Freud-who can break the code of their demented logic.

"Copycat's" adversary is a good one: she's Dr. Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver), a criminal psychologist whose expertise in serial killers has, in her embittered words, made her their pinup girl. Also their victim. Having barely escaped death at the hands of one psycho (Harry Connick Jr., surprisingly well cast), she's become an agoraphobic wreck, afraid to leave her swank San Francisco apartment. But now a desperate homicide detective (Holly Hunter) needs her incomparable insights to stop the city's latest sicko-who, it turns out, also wants to finish the job on Dr. Hudson his predecessor bungled.

The unraveled shrink quickly cottons to the fact that this brilliant wacko is a copycat serial killer-he imitates the modus operandi of such famous predecessors as the Boston Strangler, the Hillside Strangler and the Son of Sam. This allows the screenwriters. Ann Biderman and David Madsen (with an un-credited assist from Jay Pres-son Allen), to let the real-life criminals dictate the scenario: it's a kind of serial killers' great-est-hits anthology, covered by our fictional fiend.

Fortunately, director Jon Amiel has chosen to play this for glossy Hollywood thrills, not grisly verisimilitude. "Copycat" is satisfyingly tense, but the disgusto factor is balanced by its obvious theatricality-neatly captured in the contrasting performances of Weaver and Hunter, the one playing neurotic standard poodle to the other's tightly wound terrier Instead of the usual romance, "Copycat" tries for something subtler--an unresolved flirtation both women have with Hunter's handsome young partner (Dermot Mulroney), further complicated by the jealousy of another detective (Will Patton) who once had an affair with Hunter. It doesn't really come off-you want either more or less than what the script gives-but you can appreciate the attempt.

The eclectic Amiel, whose credits range from "The Singing Detective" to "Tune In Tomorrow" to "Sommersby," knows how to wring suspense. And he gets better dramatic use out of computers than most recent movies have (check out the unthrilling "Assassins" to see how not to use them). The killer, a teehno-whiz, communicates with the housebound Dr. Hudson via PC, and when he sends her a message-fleshed out with vivid computer graphics-teasing her with the sight of his next chosen victim, the moment is genuinely chilling. For anyone who likes to stoke adrenaline with anxiety, "Copycat" delivers the goods.