The new thriller ‘The Snowman’ opens in theaters this week while ‘Mindhunter’ has been making a splash on Netflix. One of these things may be worth watching. (By all accounts, it’s not likely the frosty one.) Between those and Halloween being right around the corner, our Roundtable this week will focus on the evilest of fictional serial killers.
M. Enois Duarte
With so many possibilities to choose from, I have to go with ‘American Psycho‘. Who could better represent the inhumanely cold, apathetic indifference of the 1980s economic divide than Patrick Bateman? The investment banker, played to perfection by Christian Bale in arguably his most memorable and iconic role to date, is the epitome of almost everything wrong in a decade that encouraged the pursuit of wealth and a lifestyle of excess. Mary Harron’s now-classic black comedy beautifully captures this through Bateman’s murderous exploits and luxuriant living, which are ironically complemented by his exuberant thrill of killing and his cynical, thought-provoking moments of self-reflection. As he continues embracing his perversions and delving further into his competitive aspirations, he loses a bit of himself and his sense of individuality, slowly collapsing into a downward spiral away from reality. Although seen more as a cult horror film, ‘American Psycho’ is brilliant and deserves to be better appreciated by a wider audience.
I could go with a lot of popular choices this week, from ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ to ‘Se7en’ to ‘Zodiac’. But it’s always fun to go down the unbeaten path in the chance of getting a lesser-known movie in front of new eyes.
I’m going with ‘Jennifer 8‘, a 1992 movie from writer/director Bruce Robinson (perhaps best known as the screenwriter of ‘The Killing Fields’) starring Andy Garcia, Uma Thurman, John Malkovich and Lance Henriksen.
Garcia plays a detective who finds a severed hand in a garbage dump and traces it back to the victim: a blind woman. He soon learns that a killer is targeting women without sight and this was his seventh victim. Uma Thurman stars as the “Jennifer” of the title, and you can probably already guess what the “8” stands for.
This is a taut, dark thriller, very much in the vein of the more popular serial killer movies I mentioned above. If you’ve never seen it (pun intended), it’s worth checking out.
Tim Burton’s decision to adapt the Stephen Sondheim musical ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street‘ was a brilliant move. Most serial killer movies are so dark and twisted that many general audiences can’t stomach them. While ‘Sweeney’ isn’t exactly mainstream, it’s certainly a lot easier to digest. Johnny Depp breaks out of his rut of eccentric caricatures to play a character with some true depth. His brooding attitude matches his (so-so) singing capabilities. With loads of black comedy, the over-the-top gore doesn’t seem so graphic or disturbing.
As a movie character, Anton Chigurh looms as large as life. He’s not exactly stoic. He can easily be drawn into a lengthy diatribe, and yet he’s unlikely to ever speak without prompting. Likewise, his cold, deliberate manner could be viewed as dispassionate and even mechanical, but a concentrated fury nevertheless peeks out. His prey are obvious targets, but almost anyone he comes across may be smashed like a bug. Chigurh is zealous and full of contempt, with an intensity and ability that make him both scary and fascinating. Of course, ‘No Country for Old Men‘ is a nearly perfect frame for Chigurh to inhabit.
Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)
As far as serial killer movies go, one stands out in my mind as being the most disturbing. I saw ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer‘ at the Angelika theater in Manhattan in the early 1990s. In it, Henry (a then unknown Michael Rooker) plays an ex-con who goes on a killing spree with his cross-dressing buddy from prison, Otis. What makes the film so powerful is the banality of the story. Henry and Otis kill, not driven by some inner demons, but just to pass the time. There’s no pattern or predictability to their actions, no underlying motives we can ascertain. If you’ve heard the saying, “He’d just as soon kill you as look at you,” that seems like a good description of Henry.
Even more disturbing? The story was based on the confessions of a convicted serial killer (named Henry, of course) who, along with his buddy Ottis (with two Ts), claims to have killed over 600 people. Evidence suggests that number is probably lower, but who really knows? As a story, ‘Henry’ is chilling. As a movie, it’s a low-budget masterpiece. It was made by first-time director John McNaughton (‘Mad Dog and Glory’, ‘Wild Things’) for around $125,000 over the winter of 1985. The previously unknown cast, particularly Rooker, are so good at what they do that the movie feels more like a documentary than a drama. It’s as if you’re getting a glimpse inside the mind of a real serial killer, but there’s nothing there to see. Rooker would go on to play some memorable roles (notably, Merle Dixon in ‘The Walking Dead’ and Yondu in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), but every time I see him, I just see Henry’s empty face staring back at me.
With a bunch of Oscars to its credit, ‘The Silence of the Lambs‘ is often held up as the gold standard of serial killer movies. While I’ve always appreciated that film well enough, I still prefer Michael Mann’s ‘Manhunter‘ (which introduced movie audiences to the Hannibal Lecter character, first played by Brian Cox) over it. Honestly, the ‘Hannibal‘ TV series may be better than either of them.
The success of ‘Lambs’ spawned a long string of knockoff thrillers about dogged cops or FBI agents chasing serial killers. The best of them was David Fincher’s ‘Se7en‘, which somehow piled on a bunch of genre clichés (the aging detective a few days from retirement mentoring a cocky rookie partner, a deranged killer who taunts the police with complicated clues to his identity, etc.) and elevates them through the intelligence of Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay and Fincher’s mastery of style and form.
Do you like to watch any favorite serial killer movies before Halloween? Tell us which ones.