Kristen Baldwin
April 14, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”How many elves do we have?”

Director Mary Harron is surveying the scene as she prepares to shoot American Psycho‘s titular killer, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), mingling at a holiday party packed with financial hotshots. Though it’s a brisk early-spring morning in Toronto, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas on the set — a private home doubling as a Manhattan penthouse — thanks to the pine garlands, red-ribboned wreaths, and two ceiling-high trees adorning the living room.

While the only scary sights in this scene are the ’80s-style hair and costumes (oversize coifs, puffy satin gowns, and boxy pinstripe suits abound), Harron still looks a bit uncomfortable. As she counts the ”elves” — Asian actors carrying serving trays and dressed in red flannel leggings, green jackets, and pointy green hats — the director turns to a visiting reporter with an apologetic look. ”In the book, it was dwarfs,” she explains. ”But I just couldn’t….”

She may be filming an adaptation of one of the most shockingly violent novels ever published, but Harron has to draw the line somewhere. Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial 1991 satire about a conspicuously consuming serial killer in 1980s New York City, the $10 million movie is Lions Gate’s biggest production to date — and one that the Canadian-based indie is banking on to transform it into a Miramax-level player. (Literally, in fact: The studio is offering cash dividends to moviegoers who invest virtual shares in American Psycho on the Hollywood Stock Exchange website — provided the film scares up at least $20 million in four weeks at the box office.)

Of course, the movie has potentially killer consequences for all involved. With his fierce and funny performance as the yuppie monster, the Welsh-born Bale could finally break out beyond his cult following of ”Baleheads” (no joke). Then there’s I Shot Andy Warhol director Harron, 47, who wrote the script with partner Guinevere Turner, 31, and battled for four years to bring Bateman to the big screen (even getting pushed off the project once), and who just may see her sophomore feature effort redeem what could be the most reviled book of the decade.

”It’s a social satire on the ’80s. American Psycho caught something about the era that nothing else had,” Harron says. ”It was a shame that the violence got in the way of the book being appreciated, so part of me feels that we’re rescuing it from its own bad reputation.”

American Psycho raised suspicions even before it hit stores. Original publisher Simon & Schuster got squeamish about the novel’s horrific content (including torture scenes involving jumper cables, sewer rats, and nail guns) and dropped it at the last minute; Vintage Contemporaries then snapped it up, and the book is now in its 34th printing. While a handful of critics praised the novel’s pitch-black skewering of the drug-fueled greed-is-good era, most screamed bloody murder about Ellis’ work, labeling it ”moronic and sadistic,” ”[potentially] dangerous to women,” and ”the exploitative rantings of a spoiled youth.”

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