Serial Killer

From Hell (2001)

from hell

From Hell is a film adaptation of a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell of the same name focussing on the real-life Jack the Ripper murders that occurred in London in the 1880s. The Ripper murders have always captured the general public’s imagination, particularly with the fact Jack was never caught and brought to justice. The film follows Inspector Frederick Abberline played by Johnny Depp (Sleepy Hollow, Pirates of the Caribbean) as he attempts to solve the rash of horrendous murders occurring in the Whitechapel district. Abberline uses unorthodox methods to tackle his cases relying on visions he has when ‘chasing the dragon’ to augment more usual methods.

In From Hell Jack the Ripper’s crimes focus on a group of prostitutes, namely Mary Kelly played by Heather Graham (Boogie Nights, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), and her friends. The group of unfortunate women are being terrorised for “protection money” and think their lives can’t get any worse but when one of their old friends who has found herself a rich man is kidnapped. The worst aspect of From Hell is the terrible accents. I don’t know whose is worse, Depp’s over the top attempt at cockney or Graham’s wooden Irish accent. For a film about gruesome murders, a surprisingly small amount gore is actually shown, however there is a lot of blood thrown around and people reacting to the mutilations. My favourite reaction is that of the medical examiner, who has a very weak stomach for someone in his profession.

At the very basic level, From Hell is a conspiracy film which features the classic cast of characters: the aristocracy, a secret all-powerful society (the Freemasons )as well as the maverick detective who is the only one who has the courage and ability to go against the establishment. In a lot of ways it is very similar to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code set around a series of real historical events.

The film’s origin from the graphic novel is clear in the film and it is easy to imagine stills as frames in a graphic novel. The directors, the Hughes brothers (The Book of Eli) employ the use of scrapbook-esque montages to set the scene which is both an effective means to set the scene and again links to the graphic novel style. The colour palate of the film is very dark with a strong use of red and a sickly, luminous green which adds to the ominous and claustrophobic feeling of the film. Despite this the actual film is far cleaner than realistic for 19th century London.

From Hell does not remain very true to the actual historical events but rather a dark, dramatic romp through Victorian London and a classic whodunit. If you are looking for historical accuracy I wouldn’t recommend this film, however if you are a fan of murder mysteries I think you’ll enjoy this film.

Rating: 4/5

blood4a

Fun Fact: Alan Moore, one of the authors of the graphic novel the film is based on did not enjoy this film adaptation of his work as Abberline has been changed significantly. I haven’t read the novel but wonder if any of you have and how does it compare to the film?

Advertisements

Black Christmas (1974)

black-christmas

As it is Christmas this week I thought I would review a suitably festive film and settled on Black Christmas. It opens at a very 70s Christmas party in a sorority house which handily introduces all the main characters of the film with the four sorority girls, various boyfriends and their house mother, all seen from the point of view of the killer who makes his (or her?) way up into the attic. Recently the girls have been receiving prank phone calls which escalate throughout the film, the main question I have is why haven’t they reported these phone calls before? Living in the sorority house over Christmas are Barb (Margot Kidder, Superman), a troubled girl with a drinking problem, Phyllis (Andrea Martin, SCTV), who apart from her frizzy hair and glasses is pretty non-descript, Jess (Olivia Hussey, It), the main character and Clare (Lynne Griffin, Dream House), a quiet ‘good’ girl who is the first victim. Along with the young women is Mrs. Mac, played by Marian Waldman (Phobia) the house mother who seems to permanently have a hat on and hides sherry around the house, including in the toilet cistern.

Whilst packing to go home, we see Clare suffocated from the point of view of the killer and her body hidden in the attic, but it takes over a day or so after her father turning up for people to realise that something is wrong. Despite organising a huge search party for Clare in the park nobody thinks to look in the attic, even though her body is put facing out the window! Black Christmas has all the clichés associated with slasher films including the jarring sound track, with the exception of the virgin dying first (see Scream for the serial killer “rules”).  None of the characters are particularly likeable and all react to things in really inexplicable ways, for example when worried about their friend Barb gives the telephone number of the house as beginning with the code FE for fellatio…

Disappointingly, Black Christmas is not very Christmassy, whilst it takes place at the start of the Christmas break, this seems coincidental, I was expecting with the title for Christmas to be integral, maybe the killer dressed as Santa or something. The resolution is both predictable and unsatisfactory and not worth the 90 minutes beforehand. Only watch if you are desperate for a (slightly) festive horror film.

Rating: 2/5

blood2a

With this slightly lack-lustre film I wish you all a very merry Christmas!

merry xmas

The Bat (1959)


the bat

Set primarily in “The Oaks”, a large mansion rented by murder mystery author Cornelia Van Gorder played by Agnes Moorhead (Bewitched, Citizen Kane), The Bat is a quintessential 1950s murder mystery film containing a masked serial killer and a million stolen dollars hidden somewhere in the house. When arriving in the small town, Cornelia learns that a masked serial killer known as the eponymous “Bat” a faceless man who kills women by ripping their throats out with steel claws and unfortunately for her, the crimes were committed in and around The Oaks. Cornelia is undeterred and stays in the house, however she loses all of her servants except her faithful maid, Lizzy, played by Lenita Lane (The Gay Deception – I wonder what that is about!?). The relationship between Lizzy and Miss Cordy as she calls Cornelia is very close and more like an old married couple than employee/employer, indeed when scared there is much clutching of one another and sharing the bedroom.

On a routine visit to the bank we are introduced to the remaining characters in the play including Victor and Dale Bailey, the vice president of the bank and his wife, played by Mike Steele (The Rockford Files) and Elaine Edwards (Curse of the Faceless Man) respectively and Lieutenant Andy Anderson (Gavin Gordon, The Bride of Frankenstein), the local law enforcer. In this unfortunate scene we learn that the president of the bank and owner of The Oaks has stolen $1 million (over $8 million in today’s money) and has headed off to the forest with Doctor Malcolm Wells, played by horror aficionado Vincent Price (House of Wax). Victor Bailey informs Anderson of this not in a private office but in the middle of the bank separated from the rest of the office by a hip-high wall, this strikes me a very silly as surely people would overhear and start a riot on the bank? Only Dr Wells returns from the forest alive and soon the serial killer is back to his old tricks, searching the house for the missing money and killing anyone who gets in his way.

There is a decent stream of dead bodies and mystery with several curve balls thrown in as to the identity of the killer. Indeed, it kept me guessing and changing my mind as to who I thought it was. I also liked the portrayal of women in the film, it definitely passes the Bechdel Test, that is; 1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man. Unlike many films the killer is fallible, making a huge racket and alerting people when looking for the money, but equally The Bat is not inept. One thing that did irritate me about The Bat though was the method for killing, the steel claws are incredibly impractical and whilst it makes an effective silhouette, a faceless man in a suit and hat with these giant curved claws I feel it would have restricted a lot of his movement. Although there are a lot of murders in the film there is not a single drop of blood on screen, indeed in one of the cases I wasn’t sure if the victim had been killed or just knocked unconscious! I would recommend The Bat to any fan of murder mysteries.

Rating: 5/5

blood5

Fun Fact: This 1959 offering is not the first time The Bat has been on screen, in fact it is based on a 1920 Broadway play and had been adapted into a film of the same name in 1926 and as The Bat Whisperers in 1930.

 

Scream (1996)

scream

Scream introduced the prolific director Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes) to a new generation and breathed new life into the slasher genre, indeed Scream 2 was the first slasher film and second real horror film that I watched and got me hooked on horror films. Scream starts as it means to go on with an explosive and powerful scene in which Casey (Drew Barrymore, E.T) and her boyfriend (Kevin Patrick Walls, Blade) are brutally murdered by a masked figure. It was unusual at the time for a director to kill off arguably the most famous star so early in the film.

The rest of the film follows Sidney Prescott, a high school student played by Neve Campbell (The Craft, Wild Things) and her friends who include her boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich, As Good as it Gets), her airhead best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan, Charmed), Randy (Jaime Kennedy, Three Kings) and Stu (Matthew Lillard, Thir13n Ghosts). It soon becomes clear that Sidney is the target of the killer and there is a connection to the brutal murder of Prescott’s mother a year ago. All the action taking place in Woodsboro covered by the no nonsense, no holds barred reporter Gail Weathers, played by Courteney Cox (Friends), a particularly unlikeable character.

Whilst Scream is a serious film, the action is tongue in cheek, referencing multiple other horror films, including a janitor dressed called Freddy dressed like the villain from A Nightmare on Elm Street). It even goes so far as Randy, espousing about the formula of who is the killer and what’s going to happen next and others discussing who would play each other if a film was made of the murders and the rules of how to stay alive in a horror film. The rules are: You can never have sex, you can never drink or do drugs and never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, “I’ll be right back,” because you won’t be back and everyone is a suspect. To be fair to Craven, the film sticks to its own rules! It also has all the classic slasher film shots found in earlier films, dark figures lurking by hedges and reflections in a corpse’s eyes.

The action is kept up throughout the film and the special effects are good, plenty of blood (as expected in a slasher flick) with a great sound track including the screaming violins and ominous slashing noises from a pair of innocent scissors which made me chuckle.  Scream keeps you guessing right to the end about who the killer is and if you can guess the first time you are doing better than most (unless you’ve cheated and Googled it)! What is particularly good about the killer in Scream is that they are a bit inept adding a human element, unlike some of the supernaturally strong killers found in earlier slasher films such as Elm Street or Friday 13th. Indeed, Scream has found its way into the public consciousness and most people would recognise the ghost mask even if they hadn’t seen the film. If you haven’t seen it I would recommend watching it (and then watch Scary Movie, an almost scene for scene parody made in 2000).

Rating: 5/5

blood5

 

 

Fun Fact: The killers iconic black outfit with white mask was originally all white but was changed as it was worried it may have been associated with the Ku Klux Klan.

Dead Kids aka Strange Behaviour (1981)

Dead Kids

Dead Kids, or as it was later released, Strange Behaviour begins with the murder of a teenage boy in a black out. The first scene is a good set up for the feel of the film with a clever but unrealistic use of silhouettes to show the murder and a callous radio show presenter commenting on the drowning of several local teenagers. The film focuses around the Chief of police, John Brady played by Michael Murphy (Batman Returns, X Men: The Last Stand) and his son Pete, played by Dan Shor (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Tron). Pete is an A grade student and needs to earn some quick cash for an application to the local college. On the suggestion of his friend, Pete volunteers to take part in a psychological study conducted by Dr Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) furthering the work by the deceased Dr LeSange (Arthur Digman). Dr LeSange, although dead still has a significant presence at the university with a dedicated office and presenting lectures via old films. It also transpires that there is history between John Brady and LeSange with Brady holding the doctor responsible for the death of his wife who was the doctor’s assistant.

As the body count increases, it becomes clear that the murders are not being perpetrated by the same person. With a brief description of the killer and the identity of the victims who are all children of the people who first investigated the immoral experiments of LeSange, Brady is led to think that the scientist is not as dead as first thought.

Although the film is made in New Zealand, it is set in Galesberg, Illinois and the whole cast are American actors, giving it the feel of a typical American film and as such has all the expected hallmarks of a Hollywood slasher flick including horrible surprises behind shower curtains and teenagers being murdered whist getting busy in the back of a car. Incidentally Illinois is where the director, Michael Laughlin (Two-Lane Blacktop) grew up. The soundtrack is typically 80s and comprises of electronic music, including music by Tangerine Dream and Pop Mechanix. The film has a soft focus look around the edges adding to the feeling of mind control and losing control that is central to the film.

The films finale is astonishingly tense and a great climax, although not wholly unexpected. The film rattles along at a fast pace, as it should being only 87 minutes long. Dead Kids is a not your usual horror film with an unusual plot and a lack of morality. Whilst some of the ideas may not be particularly believable, such as the spontaneous set dance at the party, I think that this is an underrated film from the era and I would recommend it to anyone. Dead Kids was originally intended to be the first in Laughlin’s Strange trilogy, however the third and final film was never made after the poor box office success of the middle film, Strange Invaders and after having watched Dead Kids/Strange Behaviour, I will be on the lookout for a copy of the second film.

Fun Fact: The teenager murdered in the very first scene is played by the screen writer Bill Condon, who went on to write the screenplay for Chicago and directed the final two Twilight films.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is the final in Dario Argento’s Animal trilogy, the previous two being The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o’ Nine Tails. The film is named after the four flies imprinted in the retina of one of the victims. The film follows Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) a drummer in a rock band who, after being stalked by mysterious stranger accidently stabs and kills the man. Whilst this isn’t bad enough, the act is captured on camera by a second (masked) stranger. It soon becomes obvious that the masked man doesn’t want to take the incriminating photos to the police, rather torture and blackmail Roberto and his wife, Nina (Mimsy Farmer).

Roberto cannot turn to the police (after committing murder) and instead confides in God (short for Godfrey) played by Bud Spencer, a hermit-like figure who lives in a shack by the river with a parrot called Jerkoff and an eccentric  layabout referred to as ‘The Professor’ played by Oreste Lionello. On the recommendation of God, Roberto hires a private investigator, Gianni Arrosio (Jean Pierre Marielle) who has never yet solved a case. Unfortunately for Arrosio this case breaks his unlucky streak but the killer catches up with him before he can tell anyone. The film climaxes in Roberto confronting the killer after waiting for the killer in his darkened house, this scene is possibly the first instance of high-speed camera equipment being used to follow the trajectory of a bullet.

Everything in the film is used to increase the tension. There are long sequences where a camera follows a single character in silence, spinning and panning around them, disorientating the viewer. The film is full of disappearing crowds where one minute normal life is going on only to be deserted the next second creating an isolated and ominous feeling. Unlike many films when filming at night there is no extra ‘movie’ ambience light, leaving the viewer straining to see what is going on. In contrast to the dark night scenes are Roberto’s dream sequences which fill the screen with white light which gradually fades to reveal an execution.

Despite taking itself seriously there are a number of slightly bizarre scenes and touches, the aforementioned Jerkoff and a meeting between God, the Professor and Roberto in a funeral convention featuring a lot of very odd looking coffins. The lightness of these scenes serve to keep the film from becoming too bogged down.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a fine example of the Giallo genre, an Italian genre of suspense thriller/horror films from the 1960s and 70s. Despite the far-fetched science that lends the film its name, it is a blemish in a believable (if very 70s) film that keeps you on the edge of your seat and guessing until the very end. I would recommend this film to anyone and it has encouraged me to watch/re-watch more of both Argento’s films and films in the Giallo genre.

Maniac (2012)

Maniac

Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings) stars as Frank Zito, the aforementioned maniac in this French-American remake of a 1980s film of the same name, directed by William Lustig. Frank is a disturbed mannequin shop owner whose troubled childhood relationship with his mother, a prostitute who frequently met with clients in front of a young Frank, has led to an obsession for scalping women. Indeed, at one point Frank refers to one of his victims as “mummy” before removing her scalp. He then goes on to attach the scalps of his victims to shop mannequins in order to possess the victims, negating some of the neglect felt as a child.

Frank then meets Anna, played by Nora Arnezeder (Safe House), a French photographer who seems oblivious to both the rash of murders going on and Zito’s deepening feeling towards her, uses Frank’s mannequins in an exhibition. At the start of their relationship (friendship on Anna’s part, love on Frank’s) Anna’s influence seems positive on Frank and he tries (but fails) to curb his impulses. However, on discovering that Anna has a boyfriend at the opening of Anna’s exhibition, Frank feels rejected and loses the small grip he had on reality, leading to the films destructive climax.

The film is directed by Franck Khalfoun (P2) and is mainly shot from the point of view of Frank Zito, leading to an insight into the warped mind of the killer and his relationship with both the women he kills and the mannequins that fill his house. Indeed, Frank Zito’s dirty and cut hands are the part most often seen on screen with his face only shown in reflections. The use of mannequins in the film serves to highlight the lack of empathy and the lack understanding of human relationships that Frank possesses in an effective, manner. As always, Elijah Wood plays the part of an unhinged loner well, his piercing blue eyes lending themselves perfectly to the intense staring of Frank Zito.

Unlike many serial killer films, Maniac is not blood heavy, concentrating on psychological fear and the insight into an unbalanced mind to generate scares rather than gore. What blood there is, is realistic, although the scalps seem very easy to remove (I don’t have any personal experience in how easy it is to scalp someone, so for all I know it’s accurate).

I found Maniac a good watch. Whilst the plot is monotonous and unoriginal (psychopath with mother issues) the way the film is shot is unusual, very rarely do you see serial killer films from the view of the killer. I found that there was overall a sad note to the film associated with the loneliness and fractured mind of Frank making it very hard to hate him despite the horrific crimes he commits.