Yesterday I attempted to plow through some films. I thought I’d start out with something a bit more straight-forward horror–Rabid.
Unfortunately, I had to bail. Rabid is a 70s David Cronenberg film staring pornstar Marilyn Chambers. It was one of those ‘we’re afraid of what feminism might mean’ 70s horror flicks. I last saw this in college, but this time I just grew bored with it. In fact, it just made me think about how much better of a film The Brood was and how I’d rather be watching it. You have to be in the right mood to watch anything Croneberg, and I wasn’t in the mood.
So, I shifted my focus to a subgenre of horror–the serial killer. Now, this is a bit dodgy because serial killer films usually make up the bulk of genre suspense or thrillers, which may or may not overlap with horror in much the same was sci-fi does. You’re in safer waters, genre-wise, when the killer is supernatural or some kind of gory enthusiast. For that, I have little to no interest.
But a good serial killer story is most definitely a horror film because it’s about how the seemingly ordinary around you being riddled with terror just below the surface. So seeing that terror operating unknown to anyone and seeing how ordinary people attempt to reveal that terror make for horror, which just happens to be suspenseful and thrilling.
Thrills (and, therefore, horror) also comes in the form of shock, being stunned or overwhelmed in a situation. There are a slew of subgenres relying on this usually with supernatural creatures (vampires, zombies, etc.) whose goal is the extermination of the human element.
Kevin Costner plays Earl Brooks, Portland’s Man of the Year. Yet, Mr. Brooks suffers from a personality disorder compelling him to kill. His disassociation, the imaginary Marshall, is portrayed by William Hurt. Only Mr. Brooks can see Marshall, and the two actors do a brilliant job of playing off each other to develop the psychosis. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story, Brooks attempting to overcome the part of himself he knows is corrupt but one he still loves.
Throw into this a subtle, growing fear of his daughter (played superbly by Danielle Panabaker of The Flash) and we have a deeper film than what the superficial plot is–putting up with Dane Cook and avoiding the police adequately played by Demi Moore. I think Mr. Brooks is a grossly underrated film and ought to be seen by more people. Is it great cinema? No. Is is better than the vast majority of similar fare? Absolutely.
There is one scene in particular making this serial killer film a horror film for me (other than the killing and final third bloody murder scenes). It’s early on when Mr. Brooks uses a simple looking tool to remove the chain lock on the door of his first victims. The ease with which this breaking and entering is done, its quiet, practiced deliberateness, is unsettling. Therein lies the pragmatic terror of Mr. Brooks heightening the cerebral terror of the film.
A good movie on the inner life of a serial killer.
David Fincher has slowly become a great filmmaker. You can watch each of his movies tracking a clear improvement in each of technique and storytelling. Zodiac comes on the heels of his massive success with Fight Club but before moving into the high status he deservedly has now.
The Zodiac Killer crippled northern California in the 70s. It was a cultural phenomenon going on to lay the grounds for how the media and the creative world imagine the idea and fact of the serial killer. When Fincher’s movie succeeds we get glimpses of a sort of proto-mass media reaction in the process of forming itself as well as a fascinating police procedural unmasking the deficiencies inherent in law enforcement. It is the character pairings that make this film work as they try to make sense of the motivations, past and future actions, of a vicious psychopath. Fincher achieves this without really giving us anything substantive of the Zodiac Killer himself.
What makes this movie work is the back-and-forth between the characters of Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Unfortunately, when Avery exits the story, Graysmith is not enough to carry the story. The final third of Zodiac is almost unbearably dull and often too hackneyed to rise to the quality of the first half of the film. In fact, this final third comes dangerously close to b-movie horror fare, yet still manages to slowly, slowly peter out to an aggressively unsatisfying end. Unlike The Ninth Gate‘s ending, which many disliked, Zodiac just stops because not only has it gone on too long, it too seems bored with the story being told.
How the gravity of serial killer alters those around it, but, ultimately, a weak film.
From Dusk Till Dawn
From Dusk Till Dawn directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by Quentin Tarantino is a supernatural siege horror story carried by novelty and cartoonish ultra-violence. Released in 1996, this felt at the time as a kind of swan song for what a portion of my generation loved of the early 90s–Tarantino, vampires, an unrelentingly erotic Salma Hayek, and quirky soundtracks. Was it entertaining? Absolutely. Was it good? No.
Tarantino and George Clooney play the criminal Gecko brothers taking Harvey Keitel and family hostage in order to get into Mexico where they are to meet a gangster who has a reward for the brothers. That story is merely a means to get us to the action core of the film. In fact, the recently made streaming series From Dusk Till Dawn does a better job of flushing out the superficial storyline making it something actually interesting without damaging the fantastical element.
Whereas I think I have to make a case for Mr. Brooks and Zodiac as horror movies, the gory and the fact the conflict is between humans and Aztec vampires makes From Dusk Till Dawn firmly placed in the genre. It was also, weirdly, a nice palate cleanser from the serial killer films. The weaknesses of this flick are myriad; it has to simply be watched and taken on its own nonsensical merits. The nitpicky Virgo in me is most annoyed by the fact that Rodriguez’s vampires seems to be at once bat-like, lizard-like, and hag-like in body and facial features. While potentially an interesting variation on the vampire, it comes off as rather slipshod. But all this is allowed to slide because four minutes of Salma Hayek.
A farcical gorefest meant to appeal to your lizard brain.