Zodiac courtesy Paramount Home Video
David Fincher's Zodiac (2007) strikes me as a fascinating companion piece to last week's DVD Tuesday pick, Manhunter (1986). While both are about the hunt for a serial killer and the toll it takes on the investigators, Manhunter is pure fiction inspired by the work of the FBI's behavioral science unit, while Zodiac (unlike 1971's Dirty Harry or the 2006 Zodiac, which also took their inspiration from the case) hews closely to the facts of a nearly 40-year-old unsolved case.

The killer dubbed "Zodiac" - after a cryptic symbol with which he signed a series of taunting letters to the media and the police - is credited with seven murderous attacks committed between December 1968 and October 1969 in and around the San Francisco Bay Area; two victims survived and five died. Zodiac (and/or one or more copycats) played ruthless games with the police, claiming dozens of victims who died or vanished both before and after the acknowledged 1968-'69 spree. He or they sent ciphers, postcards, poems and various other communications through the mail, made taunting calls and even arranged a televised telephone conversation with noted attorney Marvin "King of Torts" Belli (perhaps better known today for his appearance on the Star Trek episode "And the Children Shall Lead" than for his then-stellar roster of celebrity clients, and played by Brian Cox, Manhunter's Dr. Lector).

Zodiac played on popular fears of the counterculture, cults, Satanism, sex- and drug-crazed hippies, and the general unraveling of conservative, law-abiding mores like a pro. Fincher's film was a critical hit, but audiences didn't warm to it; I suspect part of the reason is that a lot of younger moviegoers weren't familiar with the case and, having no idea it was unsolved, were disappointed when the film ends on an ambiguous, unresolved note.

I think if you go in knowing there's no resolution in the offing, you're in a better position to focus on the personal turmoil of the cops, reporters and forensic experts who immersed themselves in the hunt for a vicious killer who got away and publicly humiliated them in the process.

Fincher opens with the 1969 lover's-lane shootings of Michael Renault Mageau and Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin (he survived, she didn't) and ends more than 20 years later with the tantalizing suggestion that one of the suspects ( John Carroll Lynch) interviewed during the original investigation may well have been the killer. Fincher re-creates the killings, but his focus is the men in the eye of the storm: San Francisco PD inspector David Toschi ( Mark Ruffalo) - the model for Steve McQueen's character in Bullit (1968) - and his partner, Inspector William Armstrong ( Anthony Edwards), Vallejo Police Department Sergeant Jack Mulanax ( Elias Koteas), hard-drinking and -drugging San Francisco Examiner reporter Paul Avery ( Robert Downey Jr.) and Avery's colleague editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith ( Jake Gyllenhaal), whose gift for working puzzles thrust him into the forefront of the investigation (his books about the Zodiac killer were among Fincher's primary source materials). All emerged from the investigation changed men, touched by a malignant darkness they could neither understand nor escape.

And just as Manhunter owns "Innagadadavida" for all time, Zodiac now owns Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man," whose slyly insinuating tune and hippie-dippy lyrics will now forever sound to me eerie and faintly menacing.

Things to consider:

What are your thoughts about the argument that people like crime movies because they deliver a sense of closure and the restoration of order that's all too often missing in real life?

What true-crime cause haunts or fascinates you?

Send your movie questions to FlickChick.

Hear Maitland on the weekly podcast TV Guide Talk.

See Maitland McDonagh and Ken Fox review this week's new flicks on the Movie Talk vodcast.

Previously in DVD Tuesday:
A Simple Plan
Taxi Driver
Hot Fuzz
Ace in the Hole
Eyes Without a Face
Citizen Kane
La Jetée
Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
Bob le Flambeur
Near Dark
Perfect Blue
Pan's Labyrinth
Les Girls
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
The Queen
Expresso Bongo
I'm Not Scared
Shocking Grindhouse Double Bill! - Scanners and The Candy Snatchers
Don't Look Now
Casino Royale
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The Prestige
13 Tzameti
The Departed
Kiss and Make Up
Kiss Me Deadly
The Long Good Friday
What Alice Found
The Devil's Backbone
The Descent
The Devil Wears Prada
Pandora's Box
The Thief and the Cobbler
Panic in the Streets/Jack Palance Interview
The Pusher Trilogy
Sunset Blvd.
In Cold Blood
Also: This week's new DVD releases