Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Zodiac killings loom large over this ’80s newspaper thriller

Image for article titled The Zodiac killings loom large over this ’80s newspaper thriller

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of Spotlight, we throw a spotlight on some of our favorite films about journalism.


The Mean Season (1985)

The spirit of the Zodiac Killer hovers over Canadian director Philip Borsos’ The Mean Season, which concerns a Florida journalist (Kurt Russell) who becomes dangerously entwined with a mysterious killer. The film is based on a novel by Miami Herald scribe John Katzenbach, who drew upon his own experiences in the field but was also clearly influenced by the furor over the Zodiac in the early ’70s, when the intersection of newspaper journalism and serial murder was in formation. The conceit of a killer offering a writer “exclusive” access to the aftermath of his crimes was perfectly clever in an airport-paperback sort of way, but also resonant in a post-Watergate zeitgeist. Here, the crusading, shirt-sleeved journalist learns to be very afraid of his personal Deep-Throat-style informant.

As a thriller, The Mean Season is endearingly creaky; the grinding of the plot’s gears is almost audible beneath the dialogue, there are plenty of cheap and/or fake scares (including a gratuitous shower scene featuring Mariel Hemingway), and a late twist borrowed wholesale from Thomas Harris’ similarly themed Red Dragon (which would be adapted for the screen a year later as Manhunter). But it’s notable for Borsos’ unique commitment to authenticity: The film was shot in the actual Herald offices, with writers and staffers standing in as extras. Russell also shadowed a couple of real-life reporters in order to prepare for his role, as did Richard Masur, who is enjoyably terse as the paper’s head editor. The strong cast features vivid bit parts for Andy Garcia and Joe Pantoliano (the latter almost impossibly young-looking here) and a plum supporting role for Richard Jordan as the “Numbers Killer.” Delivering the bulk of his dialogue into a telephone receiver, Jordan deploys his honeyed voice to maximum effect. If the mid-’80s were a boom period for glossy studio movies about calculating psychopaths, Jordan’s superb verbal performance makes him the era’s keynote speaker.

Availability: The Mean Season is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, and Google Play.