Saturday, November 27, 2010

When you're on a good thing.... : Serial killer films of the 90s

There's a joke that comedians tell each other, a kind of jazz standard. It goes like this:

A guy goes into a an agent's office and says I've got a family act for you. The agent says, "sure, tell me about it."
And the guy describes a series of increasingly depraved acts perpetrated by family members on each other. The agent is stunned at the end of it but manages to gasp, "that's insane what do you call it?" The guy says, "the Aristocrats."
I didn't laugh either but I left something out. The description of the act is where the comedian puts their own schtick on the joke, makes it their own the same as if they were a jazz soloist recreating My Funny Valentine: the structure's all there you just need to walk around in it. If you fail, meh, just another cover version. If you shine, it'll be a version prefaced with your name.

Big Hollywood's 1990s began with Silence of the Lambs. It was an okay effort, pushing buttons and running through the checks until it had everything on the list covered, including a high profile cast. Would have come and gone and been remembered as a step along the road of crime thrillers but for one unfortunate thing: it scooped the oscar pool for 1991. This wasn't as horrible an outcome as 1994 when Mel Gibson won with Braveheart against a field that included Leaving Las Vegas and Casino. Silence of the Lambs isn't such a bad piece of work but that's not the point. The point is that a dark mooded thriller suddenly looked like money and so began the 1990s genre-in-chief.

Film after film of rising mediocrity levels appeared for the rest of the decade, each promising more intensity than the previous one until, as will happen in all genres, they all looked and danced pretty much the same way. Like the comedians outdoing each other with descriptions of intra-familial outrage, the fashioners of serial killer movies wanted the central monster to be less and less human, more untouchably terrifying, his (almost exclusively a male) crimes crueller, his IQ higher, his daring more audacious. On the other side the detective had to be more prone to mistake and human frailty than Clarice in Silence.

So what, all genres are like that, live with it. Well, no they aren't. The central problem I have with this one is that the sleaze, the exploitation, the call to the audience's baseness coupled with a band-aided appeal to its sense of justice was coming not from the grindhouse merchants but from the big suits. They wanted our money as they always do but with serial killer movies they also dug how directly identifiable the monsters were. They knew the audience would get with the strength and however much emotional rallying around the detective hero there was at the end it was really us and the bad guy, slicing up everyone we wanted dead.

Now, if I sound like a grandstander here let me attempt some assuagement by claiming that the resulting danger I mean here is not moral but aesthetic. If the clumsily manipulative Silence of the Lambs hadn't scooped its year's oscars the cinema of a decade might not have been stuffed with the kind of pop hysteria it suffered. So megabudgeted rubbish like Braveheart, The English Patient, Forrest Gump and Titanic didn't just get guernseys they got made. The kind of simplistic pandering to the lynch mob inside every multiplex audience rode high and while it might not have been the fault of Jonathon Demme and Hannibal Lecter, the high sheen garbage that their efforts engendered appears indistinguishable from the award winners of the time. If the 80's was Hollywod's teen decade, the 90s was its freak show era. I hated the serial killer genre not for being a genre but for its rabble rousing carnival cynicism.

Some exceptions you might find enjoyable:

Seven? But you said... I know, it lines up with all the other toes, with the world wise retiring detective and the puppish young rookie and the icecold monster and the relished depravity of his crimes. But it also has some unusually strong performances (I don't think Kevin Spacey has topped his performance in this film) and, best of all, it questions the value of cynicism. Oh, and by omitting the race against time common to all other entries in the genre it broke the mold. Didn't matter to the factory which kept filling and pressing out the same old sausages. I am fond of Se7en and very glad that its director's contribution to the great year of 1999 was Fight Club.

The Ugly
A dark and stormy night. An asylum (not a mental health facility, an asylum) whose filthy corridors are ice blue and haunted by raving, toy clutching spectres and male nurses who look like they've been outcast from the Bouncers Federation for excessive aggression. Into the unstaffed reception comes a beautiful young woman to see one of the inmates. She's a star forensic psychiatrist and is here to see a human monster and test his insanity defence with an examination. So far we're so deep in genre territory it's beginning to look like Walpurgis Nacht. But...

This isn't downtown Chicago it's Auckland and the bad guy isn't a big threatening nasty like Hannibal, he's a shy gaze avoiding wimp with a weedy little voice. Almost immediately, as the examination begins and he begins to talk about his life and crimes we are given a series of clues to suspect the point of view the film is projecting. As in the recent The Fall, as a story is told we see it being imagined by a character. In The Ugly elements conjured by the teller or listener appear in the present reality until Simon, the serial killer, sees his examiner surrounded by his slashed victims demanding that he: "kill the bitch". The Ugly is the closest thing I have seen to stream of consciousness cinema. Add to that its refusal to either condemn or acquit its central criminal figure, preferring to invite its audience to reach beyond these simple pleasures and do a little thinking. There's no avoidance of thinking by the film's conclusion which, with a very simple optical effect, we are being asked to wonder rather than decide.

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer

A year before Silence walked away with all the statuettes, this little film received six nominations in the Independent Spirit Awards. If its fortunes had switched with those of Silence of the Lambs the 90s might have looked very very different.They might have had the courage of the Taxi Driver 70s and the sheer punch of Sam Fuller's 50s. Henry is loosely based on the crimes of Henry Lee Lucas and his cohort Otis Toole.

What you get is a no budget character study of a pathological murderer. He's not a would be Hitler with an Einstein IQ and the wealth to build elaborate torture chambers in remote woodlands, he's just a bloke. When he gets angry or frustrated he kills someone. More, finding a fellow ex con eking out a living in a blue collar drudge job supplemented with a little pot dealing, Henry creates a fellow murderer in circumstances that are distrubingly believable. There is no long arm of the law in this story. No world weary figure appears to hit one last nail into the coffin of the bad guy. Henry goes from life station to life station, taking it one body at a time.

Strangely, very strangely, the passionless nihilism of this film's central figure does not rub off. There is no call to enjoy a little twist of the knife ourselves. We don't even get invited in as such. We watch Henry from the wall along with all the other flies and hope he doesn't think we're worth a swatting. This is very like witnessing violence in real life, it's ugly and paralysing.

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer is not above its own exploitation but it's also not shy of being upfront about it. The complete absence of authority outside of Henry himself prevents too much ease in assuming the position (as it were). The result, the resort, is a kind of stunned fascination.

This is the kind of beside manner you only get by paying for.

The '90s serial killer gallery ended in 2000 with Tarsem Singh's The Cell. Having taken the physical depravity as far as bare credibility could stretch, The Cell went further by going into the psyche of the monster, literally. Well known real life forensic psychiatrist J Lo takes a swim in the neurones of a comatose monster to find the real him and effect a cure. This meant that anything at all went. So if the worst thing in 1990 was the sight of a torn fingernail lodged in the wall of the victim's pit, in 2000 it could be a man having his intestines hauled out of his body with a rotiserie. Couldn't happen in real life? Didn't have to. This (for me) final entry in the genre felt like a heightened aesthetic sense bashing the walls to be free of a deservedly long moribund genre. Tarsem was to redeem himself beyond all expectation in his 2006 outing The Fall. For which, see below...

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