To celebrate the UK DVD release of THE CALLING we take a look at some of the best serial killer movie horrors around…
Great news for UK horror and film fans, oscar winning actress Susan Sarandon’s latest offering THE CALLING is out on DVD on February 16th 2015. In the film, Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef (Susan Sarandon) leads a quiet life with her mother (Ellen Burstyn), her painkillers, and an occasional drink. But when she checks on an ill neighbour, she stumbles upon a gruesome murder that shatters her peaceful existence. With the help of a fellow detective (Gil Bellows) and a transfer cop (Topher Grace), she unearths a series of similar killings across the country. When a local priest (Donald Sutherland) suggests a link to an ancient ritual, Hazel focuses her search on a religious madman with a deadly higher calling. Based on the novel by Inger Ash Wolfe, it’s a journey to the shadowy landscape between faith and fear..
It seems as a culture we just can’t resist the curiosity of exploring the darker side of human nature. There is nothing that plunges the depths perhaps as much as the fractured psyche of the serial killer. It makes sense that both cinema and the media have always been adept to capitalise on the natural inquisitiveness to explore what drives humanity to the dark side. As a result we have entire TV channels devoted to churning out programmes on real life crime – the main focus being on killers, especially those so warped they continue to kill racking up multiple victims-; newspaper reporting revels in the gritty details of violent crime; the same thematic concepts have been explored time and time again to become a best-selling area for books- both fictional thrillers and non-fiction ‘true life’ reporting; cinema has devoted entire sub-genres to murder and mayhem- notably the slasher, the giallo and noir based thrillers. While you only have to look at the popularity of recent TV show Dexter if you want an example of how the public continue to hanker for a bit of on-screen carnage and death at the hands of a lone killer. Under these terms killing means big business when it comes to the media and it appears that we just love to languish in all the gory details, seemingly unable to get enough, as the subject never appears to be off our screens or away from our popular choices of reading material. If the media is trying to send us any message it appears to be that serial killers make exciting and interesting subjects. In line with this ongoing trend an entire myriad of cinema has travelled along the serial killer riff; so much so that it is difficult not to get lost in the melee when it comes to trawling through the good, the bad and the downright ugly, as a host of filmmakers try and outdo each other to create the ultimate killer. Never fear though SCREAM examines FIVE of the BEST serial killer horror films to discover what just makes them irresistible.
Norman Bates, the fictional character immortalised in Robert Bloch’s original ground breaking novel PSYCHO, is a name so engrained in popular culture that it is often used in everyday conversation to describe someone who might be a bit ‘out there’, someone potentially weird in a dangerous way, someone who perhaps has a bit of a strange relationship with their mother that might provoke them to do awful things. Everyone seems to know who Norman Bates is, but then it’s not difficult given Alfred Hitchcock’s ground breaking PSYCHO-the screenplay adapted from Bloch’s novel by Joseph Stefano- is now widely considered one of the most important pieces of cinema ever made- regardless of genre. It can never be underestimated how daring it was for its day, how inspirational it became for countless future film makers. If it wasn’t for PSYCHO there might have never been the slasher, or the giallo. If it wasn’t for PSYCHO the genre would have developed very differently indeed. Who knows what that might have meant, but if one thing is for sure we as horror fans owe a huge debt to director Hitchcock, for having the balls to push that envelope. In the process history was made.
The film started with a modest budget of well under a million dollars, and was filmed in black and white. While the themes might seem slightly tame to a modern audience they were considered shocking at the time and annoyed censors the world over- not only the on-screen murder, including the cleaning of a bloody knife, but *shock horror* a full graphic shot of paper being flushed down a toilet . Although in essence the cleverness of PSYCHO is it’s all about what you think you see, rather than anything luridly graphic on screen. The story of a woman, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)- the type of woman who steals from her boss, and has illicit love affairs- who goes on the run with a large sum of money and hides out at the ominous Bates Motel. The result of which proves fatal for Marion Crane. After meeting the well-mannered and seemingly helpful motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), Marion is cruelly hacked to pieces with a carving knife while taking a shower by an unseen killer. When Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) appears a while later looking for her sister, she discovers all it not as it seems at the Bates Motel. There is something sinister about Norman and unbeknownst to her the things going on in the creepy looking house that overshadows the motel grounds is the stuff nightmares are made of. What hold does Norman’s mother Mrs. Bates have on her son, and just where is Marion Crane? If Lila isn’t careful she might just find out.
PSYCHO is a film that trades in the dark corners of human nature. The tale of a damaged individual who is the product of their warped environment is a theme that has been explored many times since. Yet here it was revolutionary, to present a killer’s psychological landscape Hitchcock broke the good versus evil rules and gave us a ‘bad guy’ who was in some part sympathetic. Someone as damaged and fragile as their potential victims, and suddenly the clear distinction between black and white wasn’t so easy to distinguish- PSYCHO teaches its audience there is no black and white, only shades of grey; a victim who was a thief, a killer who couldn’t be wholly blamed for their actions, transgressive messages for the time. Twinned with Bernard Herrmann’s exceptional score this made for a heady brew of murder, sexual innuendo and deep dark messages the likes of which audiences at the time had never encountered before.
It’s likely most of you reading this are going to have seen PSYCHO but maybe it’s time to revisit it again soon. If only to remember why Alfred Hitchcock really was the Master of the Macabre, and just how much we owe him for all the wonderful horror he continues to inspire.
PEEPING TOM (1960)
Made the same year as Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, PEEPING TOM is a film that delivers a similar sentiment, yet remains largely on the fringes of mainstream consciousness when it comes to talking about best serial killer films. The portrayal of the seedy underbelly of British culture and adult photo market, the depiction of prostitution, the aspects of murder, voyeurism, a plot that delves into the effects of child abuse to explore complexity of the human psyche, and the unflinching portrayal of a killer who is also a victim, were highly controversial for the time. If anything PEEPING TOM was slightly more gratuitous for its day- including owning the dubious honour of housing one of the first ever nude scenes in a British flick (a flash of a breast)- and therefore could be considered more of a bar pusher than PSYCHO when it came to dealing in graphic themes; this makes it even more unfortunate the film tends to get criminally ignored. The fury that surrounded the film’s initial release all but put paid to director Michael Powell continuing his career in film. However, as with all cinema that is ahead of its time, now PEEPING TOM has finally become, on some level, appreciated for the artful triumph it really is.
The tale- again like PSYCHO- explores the depths of what makes someone kill in a way that hadn’t really been seen before in cinema of its time and place. Mark Lewis (Calm Boehm) is a photographer obsessed with capturing life through his lens. By day, when not working on film sets as a cameraman, Mark cobbles together some extra cash by working on the nudie photo market; capturing burlesque beauties in their natural form and selling the photos to dodgy newsagents to be passed on to certain discerning gentlemen- making this side line quite a lucrative little venture. Not that Mark needs the money; he has inherited an adequate estate from his late father, a professor; including a reasonably sized Victorian town house in which he rents rooms to tenants. It is Mark’s relationship with the daughter of one of these tenants- Helen (Anna Massey) – that starts unravelling the twisted tale. Mark on the surface is a polite, shy, easy going chap- the perfect ‘boy next door’- but scratch beneath the surface and you might just discover his penchant for stabbing young women to death with a custom spike on his camera tripod and his love for watching the action unfold through his lens – immortalising those final moments on film for his private collection.
PEEPING TOM is an extremely complex film. As tragic as it is thrilling it also sends the message that anyone could be turned to kill if the circumstance dictated. It examines the Father/son relationship and aspects of power to demonstrate how someone can easily become ‘broken’ during childhood. On that level it makes it one of the most intelligent examples of the serial killer themed film, and a worthy contender for one of the best in its field.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer turned cannibal with a penchant for good living and gourmet recipes was about as far cry away from the 70’s/ 80’s cannibal circuit of horrors- Cannibal Holocaust et al – as you could possibly get. In contrast to the well-trodden tribal variety of flesh eaters THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS introduced Lecter as a highly functioning sociopath, with a sophisticated palette when it came to chowing down on a feast of human meat. This allowed the injection of extremely unsettling horrific ideas into what, at first glance, was a pretty straight forward thriller narrative. Thus making director Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of Thomas Harris’ original 1988 novel of the same name- THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS- a perfect hybrid of a thriller/horror cross-over, which comes delivered with some ghoulish tropes and ideas to whet the appetites of those who like their killing with a twist of the deliciously macabre. Although this wasn’t novelist Harris’ first brush with cinema- his 1981 novel RED DRAGON, was re-worked for the 1986 horror/thriller MANHUNTER; a film worth checking out for fans of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. And RED DRAGON of course became the foundation of the 2002 film of the same name. But it doesn’t stop there; HANNIBAL (2001) was another title that focused on the titular character in more depth- mapping his dastardly deeds in somewhat graphic detail, and HANNIBAL RISING (2007)- again from another Harris novel of the same name- examined the slick killer’s disturbing past. Last but not least a highly entertaining genre themed TV series HANNIBAL has been on-going and proving to pull in a strong fan base of horror lovers (on that note SCREAM MAGAZINE have recently interviewed series writer Bryan Fuller for our NOVEMBER 2014 issue). As they say from small acorns…
Jonathan Demme’s reasonable- in terms of a blockbuster film- 18 million dollar budget for his cinematic adaptation of Harris’ text smashed the box offices and racked up a staggering 272 million dollars in the process. The film aced the Academy Awards across the board at the time of its release. No small feat for a film that predominately works with horrific themes- something the Academy are famous for ignoring in favour of more straight up drama; with the onus being that horror is somehow of lesser status than other works considered more serious cinema, being a widespread belief among mainstream critics.
What is interesting is the murders in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS are not even by the hand of character Lecter, despite the fact the character went on to become the enduring poster boy for the piece- which is mainly down to Anthony Hopkin’s suave Oscar Winning performance. The focus for events to unfold being on the investigation undertaken by tenacious detective Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster)- in another Oscar winning performance. Starling is tracking a killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine)- a serial killer who traps and kills women for their skin. Starling goes to an incarcerated Lecter in the vain hope he may help her in understanding the psychology behind Bill- using bribes for privileges to gain an insight. It is through the conversations between cop and doctor turned psycho that the real games of cat and mouse begins- Lecter using Starling as a source for his own twisted entertainment.
While the film has not been without its own controversy- becoming slated recently by the trans-community for what is seen as a negative depiction of a transsexual central character as a murderer, it is still important to appreciate the impact the film had, and continues to have, on audiences.
You can’t have a decent list of serial killer horror without at least one slasher. Here to represent the ever popular sub-genre is forerunner John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978). Carpenter’s original low-budget atmosphere laden slash and hack affair went on to become one of the most-loved horror films of all time. A film that spawned a ridiculous amount of sequels to make one of the first serious franchises; that went on to include the modern- day marmite flavoured Rob Zombie reboots. It is safe to say if there is one central idea that has earned its horror air miles, they belong to the foundations behind HALLOWEEN. It is a film that continues to provide inspiration to countless generations of new filmmakers, having established many of the tropes that have now become slasher standard. Carpenter working from the foundations laid out in the Italian gialli melded horrific imagery with a strong, haunting score to build up an unsettling piece of horror that proved genuinely frightening for its day. While the first three films on this list have delved into the tortured souls of the serial killers and what drives them to kill, Carpenter’s- now iconic- creation Michael Myers was, in good old slasher tradition, motiveless. A lone lunatic, driven to kill by instinct, making him a truly horrifying presence and without redemption; which is perhaps the biggest pull of the slasher, you don’t need to explain why, and therefore anything becomes possible- thus allowing for all manner of gory and gruesome death and carnage.
The film pierces into the core of middle class suburbia with its central premise- set in the fictional town of Haddonsfield portrayed in its autumnal glow. Based around the typically family friendly holiday- Halloween- when neighbours are enjoying fun costume based parties and young kids amble freely trick or treating, Carpenter throws in a beserk killing machine to upset the status quo. Inverting imagery of the safe suburban environment and imbibing horror in every corner- a shadowy figure lurking behind a bush, there one minute, only to disappear the next- no one is safe; although drink, sex or drugs are liable to ramp up the stakes to meeting a grisly end. Having a masked killer is perfect for the setting, Myers can ably blend in when everyone is dressed up, infusing further paranoia into the mix. What was shocking for the time is the story starts off with a killer’s POV as a young woman is brutally stabbed to death only to reveal her killer is a young child decked out in a fairly innocent looking clown costume. Fast forward to then late seventies present day, we discover the killer- Michael Myers- who famously slaughtered his sister on Halloween, for no reason other than insanity, has escaped from the mental institution that has housed him for most of his life. We realise he still poses a threat, as Doctor Samuel Loomis from the institution- played in gloriously hysterical style by genre stalwart Donald Pleasance- is quick to return to Michael’s home town to warn everyone. Myers evades capture, racking up a respectable headcount on the way. But the killer has his attentions set on nice girl Lawrie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the role that made her one of the genre’s enduring Scream Queens.
While the tale of Myers might have been over-saturated in modern times it is important to remember just how ground-breaking Carpenter’s original movie was in setting down the tracks for the genre to progress, and therefore it rightly owns a coveted place on our list of top serial killer films.
Just like the slasher it would be a great injustice to this list to leave out another serial killer based sub-genre- the giallo. Forerunning the slasher genre, gialli focused on lurid and highly stylised violence- usually at the hands of an unseen black gloved killer. The result of which resulted in a spate of films that blended the thrilling aspects of classic noir cinema, and the sixties German Krimi films, into something provocative and uniquely horrific; the bulk of which encompassed a slick seventies vibe that took advantage of the lowering of censorship to chock in a heavy dose of sex and nudity in amongst the graphic death . In recent times there has been a renewed interest in gialli, their artful compositions and stunning musical scores, setting them out as prime examples of retro cult cinema.
There is one name that stands out as something of a maestro in the field. Whatever your opinion on the director’s modern day works it has to be said Dario Argento was something of a big thing when it came to crafting the perfect giallo. His debut giallo THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), Argento reigned supreme when it came to demonstrating the art of Italian violence. As the director progressed in his career he garnered a reputation as a director with a keen eye for creating murderous visions that revelled in glorious decadence creating beauty in bloodshed and didn’t skimp on the details either.
You could technically pick any one of Argento’s early giallo cycle and it would deserve a place on this list, however as we can only have one for today then former video nasty TENEBRAE is perhaps the most complex and serpentine in terms of plot. It also demonstrates the filmmaker at his most reflective. This was Argento’s early 80’s return to form after moving into more fantastical realms during the late seventies including making his masterwork SUSPIRIA (1977). The interesting thing about TENEBRAE is the underlying premise. The story of a crime writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) who is stalked by a serial killer who causes carnage around him; Argento has openly admitted in interviews that the idea came to him when he experienced a real life stalker himself. Being in danger he had to go into hiding but in a true case of silver linings, out of a potentially terrifying experience the idea for the film was born. The director has come under fire many times during his career; his unflinching depiction of violence being the main source of criticism- with many commentators also labelling his work misogynistic. Here the filmmaker instils his central character Neal with semi-biographical facets. We have a writer who produces violence based fictional work and attracts a fair amount of controversy in the process- note SEMI-biographical given some of the outcomes! This gave Argento the perfect chance to purge his frustrations at the critics while also carving out some of his most exceptionally outstanding set-pieces of his lengthy career. These set pieces include a woman who has her arm hacked off only to be left flailing in the throes of death around a white tiled kitchen with blood spraying everywhere. It also contains one of the most impressive tracking shots to ever be committed to celluloid as a camera preys on the outside of a house containing two soon to be viciously murdered, scantily clad lesbians- probing into windows and lingering painfully on each detail adding to the tension. All while prog-rock based – Argento favourites- Goblin’s addictive retro-futuristic electro score belts on in the background-further adding to the atmosphere. Impressive stuff, and a perfect starting point for anyone wanting to begin their exploration of the Italian Maestro’s exceptional contribution to the genre.
Words: Kat Ellinger
If you are in the mood for more serial killing movie fun then check out THE CALLING. The DVD is out now courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film is directed by Jason Stone and stars Susan Sarandon, Gil Bellows, Donald Sutherland and Ellen Burstyn.