A whacked-out serial killer, obsessed with the number three and telephone terrorism. A seminary student who may be his next victim. A deranged aunt who layers on her makeup with a trowel. Riddles that, if answered properly, might keep death at bay.
"Phone Booth." "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" "Se7en." "Saw." Most of the fun to be had with "Thr3e" is to spot the movies from which it cribs. Beyond that, what one has is a conventional psychological thriller that cheats too often and depends on actors determined to play only one note. All this leads up to an ending that explains things far too conveniently, with a tacked-on coda resolving a plot thread that really didn't need resolving.
In a Seattle where the headlines are dominated by a murderer known as the Riddle Killer, the latest soon-to-be victim is seminarian Kevin Parson (Marc Blucas, Sarah Michelle Gellar's human boyfriend on TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). The murderer, who seems to be perennially looking over his intended victim's shoulder, demands that Parson confess some unspecified sin, lest he die in a fiery explosion.
Fortunately, help is at hand. There's a detective, Jennifer Peters (Justine Waddell), whose brother was one of the Riddler Killer's earlier victims. She's obsessed with finding the guy. And then there's Parson's childhood friend, Samantha (Laura Jordan), who's back in the picture after an absence of many years, just in time to provide moral support and trusted counsel.
Hovering in the background is Hudson's family: an aunt, uncle and brother (or cousin, one can't be sure) who act as though they've strayed onto the set from the latest Rob Zombie horror flick. Leading the merry band is deranged Aunt Belinda, who raised Parson in isolation (because the world is full of evil) and treated him cruelly. As played by Priscilla Barnes, Aunt Belinda looks like a reject from "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" and certainly seems out of place here.
"Thr3e" is among the initial releases from FoxFaith Films, a label that promises to release movies consistent with Christian values or the work of Christian filmmakers.
In that vein, the movie is refreshingly free of graphic violence, abusive language or overt sexuality. The characters discuss the nature of good and evil on occasion; it's the subject of Parson's student thesis, of which he has written three drafts. And God's name is invoked -- in a good way -- in the film's closing scene.
All of that bodes well for FoxFaith, suggesting its release schedule won't be overburdened with biblical epics and heavy-handed message films. Still, "Thr3e" (which refers, we are told, to the three natures of man) is too much of a pastiche to be embraced unreservedly.
The actors, especially Waddell and Jordan, seem capable of showing only one emotion: worry. And though director Robby Henson maintains a brisk pace and keeps the visual tricks to a minimum, the narrative is drawn out and padded, with scenes that simply go on too long to be effective.
And then there's the needlessly contrived title, which has caused any number of Internet scribes to believe this movie is a prequel to David Fincher's "Se7en." It isn't, but the title does lead to speculation: Would a sequel be titled "Fo4r"? A prequel "2wo"? Let's hope this, at least, is a trend that has run its course.
"Thr3e." MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and terror. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. In selected theaters.