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Identity, an intelligent slasher movie.

It was a dark and stormy night (I have always wanted to begin something with that, thanks to years of watching Snoopy struggle with his own writings.) By mysterious circumstances, 11 strangers are thrown together at a decaying hotel, trapped between flooded roads and hindered by downed phone lines. Included: an aging movie starlet (Rebecca DeMornay), her ex-cop chauffeur (John Cusack), a quarreling young newlywed couple (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott), a convicted killer on his way to prison and his police escort (Jake Busey and Ray Liotta), the prostitute with a heart of gold (Amanda Peet), and a young boy with his mother and stepfather (Bret Loehr, Leila Kenzle, and John C. McGinley, respectively). Oh, and the buggish hotel clerk (John Hawkes).

Everyone has a secret and a problem that complicates their otherwise nightmarish stay at this generically dismal hotel. The young mother, while fixing a flat tire, gets hit by the movie star's limo, with no hospital in sight and no way to call for help. The convict is being transported to a higher-security prison and must spend the night handcuffed to a toilet. But, as with almost all assemblies of wildly disparate individuals, people start dying horribly. Meanwhile, in another part of the state, a judge awaits the arrival of a mentally ill death-row convict who is contesting his death sentence. The storm outside provides the backdrop for some scary stories and is the odd connection between the killer in the judge's office and the unknown murderer stalking the hotel where the guests check in but don't check out.

Director James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted, Cop Land, Kate & Leopold) has assembled a fine cast of oddballs. Cusack emerges from the pack as the central figure in the fight to stay alive, and it is nice to see him gradually losing some of his baby fat and looking more adult and authoritative. At 37, he still looks like he could be holding up an "In Your Eyes"-blasting boombox outside some beautiful teen's window, but he is finally maturing vocally and physically into more of a grown-up. Liotta, however, carries with him the predestination of scariness. If he's not in a simpy comedy (Operation Dumbo Drop, Corrina Corrina), chances are he's going to scare the bejeezus out of ya. There's a twist here, and he's not the villain one would expect in a Liotta-laden film, but it's not very long before he peers those Clockwork Orange-y eyes into the sight of an impending kill. Eek! Rebecca DeMornay amuses briefly as the washed-up starlet. Upon checking in, the hotel clerk observes, "Hey, didn't you use to be that actress?" The same could be said of DeMornay, who spent the early '90s getting A-list work in titles like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Guilty As Sin, and Backdraft but disappeared from prominence and into TV and straight-to-video film. Very sad, but nice to see her back in a major release.

Identity succeeds by taking its cues from some of the greats. The environs are definitely Psycho-tic Hitchcock: Filmed somewhat obviously in a studio instead of on location, the hotel is almost archetypal in its run-downedness. It looks like people should die there, and if I were in a similar predicament (no roads, no phones), I might easily drive by it and sleep in my car, having seen too many movies where unkempt inns were hosts to murders and monsters. The plot is not unlike Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (political correctness has swept the play version of this story into a new name that hints at its story: And Then There Were None) where characters drop off one by one until the murderer is revealed. This is the same device used in just about every horror movie, though more obviously adhered to here than most: The killer's trademark is to leave the victim's hotel key under (or in or around) the body. It's a countdown 10, 9, 8, 7 . And, like The Sixth Sense, Identity lulls you into thinking you know exactly how everything works and then turns you upside down until you are again fooled into thinking you've figured it all out.

Identity is refreshing in that sense. It's a slasher movie, yes; but an intelligent one and one that both frightens and provokes. Not in a Sixth Sense way, as there are no heartstrings to pull, but on just the right level that will make you think (though not too hard) and scare you witless without giving you nightmares. It may, however, give you pause when considering where to stay for the night when you have a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, stranded in front of a Bates-y motel. Call Triple-A.

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