Sunday, May 8, 2011

AL’S Weekly Blog Post 12.2: Psycho Killer Qu’est-ce que c’est: Slashers, Perverts, and Final Girls in Serial Killer Cinema Part 2


JackTheRipperJack the Ripper once claimed that when historians looked back they would say that he gave birth to the 20th Century.  And, in reality, his words have proven to be painfully true, for the psychotic and the serial killer function as symptoms of modernity to a certain degree and even more so for postmodernity.  They are symptoms that our society has itself become pathological because of the power of the media image—the society of the spectacle as Guy De Bord would term it—the joint control of governments and multinational corporations, the increased alienation of labor, etc.  In many ways, the conspiracy theories and delusions of psychotics have been implanted byymfy son of sam f35a83_o 1 the media and global grid of control that doesn’t just exist in their minds any longer but has become the structure of our quotidian existence.  In such a world in which the simulacrum overtakes reality, it is no wonder that the psychotic and the serial killer have become such heavily symbolic figures in fiction, film, and other media.  As Lacan explains, the psychotic forecloses the signifier and engages in a subsequent resignification of the world—the psychotic attempts to create a hermetically sealed view of reality by resignifying everything, that is by developing his/her own semiology of existence.  Hence, the psychotic becomes such a powerful figure because s/he represents an attempt to apply a stable meaning to the fragmented nature of postmodern existence—the serial killer becomes emblematic of our desire to reorder existence and become the solipsistic center of reality that doles out meaning in manner akin to God.

They Might Be Giants’ chipper tale of an incarcerated serial killer who compares himself to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”

blackxmasThe golden age of the slasher film kicks off in 1978 with the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween, but two important pre-cursors deserve special mention: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. Both released in 1974, these two films established many of the tropes that later slasher films would employ.  Four years before John Carpenter's more famous Halloween, Bob Clark’s Canadian production Black Christmas appeared to little fanfare at the time.  However, Black Christmas is a brutal, stylish, tense, and even hilarious film that laid down the basic structure of the slasher film without some of the clichés that would later come to define the genre.  All of the basic elements ofblackchristmas the slasher genre are here: a group of attractive young college women, a holiday setting, creepy phone calls, point of view shots from the killer's perspective, an ever-growing body count, etc., etc.  But Black Christmas is actually more twisted, better written, and more stylishly directed than the majority of the slasher films to follow.  I place it black-christmasabove even Halloween in my book, but that's perhaps straying into contentious territory.  Featuring the beautiful and talented Olivia Hussey (Juliet from Zeffirelli's 1968 version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) and Margot Kidder (Lois Lane from Richard Donner’s Superman [1978]) as well as John Saxon (Enter the Dragon [1973], A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984]), Black Christmas features performers who can actually act and a script that is genuinely funny as well as tense and visceral.  The film's depiction of serious social issues ofimages the time like abortion and its narrative ambiguity further mark it as a more serious and artful slasher films than those to come.  Black Christmas’s ambiguity also marks it as an especially unique slasher text.  The recent remake of the film eliminated this ambiguity by depicting the killer’s past and hence destroyed much of the creepy mystery that makes the original such a classic. 

Original trailer for Black Christmas.

imagesIn the same year that Black Christmas hit theaters, another independent and more infamous horror film also landed in cinemas: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The film concerns a group of friends driving through rural Texas who pick up a mysterious hitchhiker and then end up falling victim to an inbred family of cannibals.  Like Psycho (1960), Texas Chainsaw is loosely based on real-life serial killer Ed Gein—Gein also served as the inspiration for The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  The film introduces the viewer to an entire family of cannibals, but it is Leatherface that became the iconic killer of the film.  Mentally disabled and physically deformed, Leatherface enjoys butchering people like animals, running with chainsaws, and making new faces for himself by cutting them off histexas-chainsaw-leatherface-closeup victims.  You can easily see the parallels between the taxidermy of Norman Bates in Psycho, the face-wearing of Hannibal Lector, and the full-body suit of Buffalo Bill (the latter two from The Silence of the Lambs).  Grainy and cheap-looking, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a similar snuff-film aesthetic to other shocking independent films of the era like The Last House on the Left (1972).  It feels visceral and real from its aesthetic to its macabre content, culminating in a cannibalistic dinner scene.  Chainsaw Massacre has led to three sequels, a remake, and a prequel to the remake.  Hooper directed the first sequel himself, but this sequel deviated from the original’s gritty realism and instead the-texas-chainsaw-massacre-the-beginningbecame a silly and rather crappy horror comedy with Dennis Hopper as a double-chainsaw-wielding (he even has holsters for them) sheriff in search of the cannibal family who now compete in chili cook-offs using humans as their meat.  The third sequel, which remained unreleased for many years, was actually the debut role of both Matthew McConaghey and Renee Zelwegger.  The series has become classic epitome of torture cinema, and the entire so-called “torture porn” (Saw [2004], Hostel [2005], etc.) owes an infinite debt of gratitude to the films. 

The infamous dinner scene from near the end of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

hh1While the slasher genre had already appeared fully formed four years earlier in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, it was John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) that inaugurated the so-called “Golden Age” of slasher films that lasted through the early 80s.  John Carpenter’s Halloween burst on the scene in 1978 and ignited a phenomenon.  Carptenter’s film concerns young Michael Myers who murders his sexually active sister one All Hallow’s Eve and then proceeds to be locked up in a mental asylum for his crime and mental instability.  Many years later, michael-myers11Myers breaks out of the institution, finds a William Shatner mask, and begins to stalk teenage Jamie Lee Curtis and her friends on Halloween.  The results are absolutely classic: from the lengthy opening POV shot to the creepy lurking in the background moments, Halloween stole many moments from Black Christmas and made them canonical characteristics of the slasher film.  As Myers kills off the expendablehalloween-ghost-560 teenagers, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) emerges as the paradigmatic final girl who has persevered through her intelligence and moral respectability.  Halloween ignited the “Golden Age” of the slasher film and established Jamie Lee Curtis’s early career as a scream queen.  Curtis appeared in the quick-to-follow sequel to MPW-17439Halloween, which picked up immediately after the original left off and followed Michael Myers as he terrorized Haddonfield’s hospital.  Curtis then appeared in various rip-offs of Halloween like Prom Night (1980) and Terror Train (1980) as well as John Carpenter’s follow-up film, The Fog (1980).  Halloween jumpstarted an entire industry of horror films that would come to dominate the horror market and the film market in general during the early 1980s.

The opening scene of Halloween, an almost five-minute long POV shot.


Black Christmas undoubtedly influenced Halloween, but the film also influenced another classic stalker film that appeared the year after Halloween: When a Stranger Calls (1979).  Based on the urban legend of “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,” which also influenced Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls concerns a babysitter who keeps receiving threatening calls until she discovers that the caller is actually already upstairs in the house.  This basic story unfolds in the first twenty minutes of the film, and then the remainder of the movie concerns the futures of both the babysitter and the killer whose fates are destined to intertwine one more time.whenstranger5  Although few would consider When a Stranger Calls a slasher film, it is a classic serial killer thriller that plays with elements of the slasher genre and profoundly influenced the slasher films that would follow.  Its opening scene consistently ranks high on any list of the scariest scenes in cinematic history—check the scene out in the following three video clips. 

When a Stranger Calls opening scene, Part 1.
When a Stranger Calls opening scene, Part 2.
When a Stranger Calls opening scene, Part 3.

9.friday_13th_movie_posterThe second most influential slasher film appeared in 1980 and forever solidified the holiday-slasher structure.  Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) arrived on the heels of Black Christmas and Halloween, introduced new levels of brutality and gore, and helped ensure the onslaught of slasher films that was to follow in the early 80s.  Halloween  introduced the first iconic slasher killer, Michael Myers, and Friday the 13th featured the second—Jason Voorhees.  However, contrary to what many people think, Jason was not actually the killer in the original Friday the 13th—itjason_voorhees1 was his mother, Mrs. Voorhees, who committed the killings in order to exact revenge upon the camp counselors who let her son Jason drown while they were having sex.  In the sequel, which followed quickly a year later, Jason becomes the central killer as he seeks vengeance for the death of his mother; however, his iconic mask still did not make an appearance.  It is not until Friday the 13th Part III (1982) that Jason finds his iconic hockey mask.  The hockey mask stuck, and the series continued with nine sequels to the 600full-friday-the-13th-part-3-posteroriginal, a crossover with Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm St., and a recent remake  of the original film.  The success of Halloween and Friday the 13th ignited a firestorm of slasher films that centered around holidays or special events: Prom Night, Graduation Day (1981), Mother’s Day (1980), Silent Night Deadly Night (1984), April Fools Day (1986), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), New Year’s Evil (1980), My Blood Valentine (1981), The Slumber Party Massacre (1983), Welcome to Spring Break (1989), etc. These films were of varying quality, and non-holiday-themed slasher films also appeared during the period: Terror Train, The Prowler (1981), Pieces (1982),friday-the-13th-part-8-jason-takes-manhattan-movie-poster-1989-1020194399 Curtains (1983), Madman (1982), Night Warning (1983), The House on Sorority Row (1983), etc.  Pieces, in particular, is a nasty, overly brutal, hilarious, and bizarro slasher film that should be watched by anyone who enjoys the genre.  Despite the formulaic nature of the films, the genre became so popular that slasher films supposedly accounted for 60% of ticket sales in 1983 before beginning to taper off and be considered cliché in the late 1980s.

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Original trailer for the first Friday the 13th—watch for an extremely young Kevin Bacon.
The scene from Friday the 13th Part III in which Jason first appears in his iconic hockey mask. The film was released in 3D.
Trailer for Pieces, one of the more extreme slasher films of the era.



The great triumvirate of slasher bogeymen was rounded out in 1984 with the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street and the introduction of of Freddy Krueger.  A Nightmare on Elm Street concerns a group of high schoolers who are tormented by the same bogeyman in their dreams.  As their dreams lead to their deaths in real life, the teenagers discover the dark past of Elm Street: a child murderer named Fred Krueger was arrested and let off on a technicality, so the Elm Street parents gathered and burnt him to death in the boiler room where he used to take his children.  In the film’s present, Fred Krueger (or Freddy) returns tonightmare-on-elm kill the children of his murderers while they sleep.  Played by Robert Englund, Freddy became the paradigmatic bogeyman of the 1980s.  Now, one not only had to worry about being killed by maniacs in everyday reality, but this fear crept into the sanctity of one’s own mind—the sanctuary of dreams was violated by the phallic finger-knives of Nightmare2Freddy.  While Elm Street may seem dated and silly now, it remains a powerful exploration of the superstitions and fears we implicitly harbor about dreams.  Are they the window into the unconscious like Freud and Lacan argue?  If so, then how do we read their signifiers?  Are they comprised of archetypes from the collective unconscious—an argument that could easily be applied to Krueger—as Jung would contend?  Do they contain portents of the future or visions from God as so many different religious and superstitious traditions believe?  Nothing can grip one with horror or162828__arquette_l other powerful emotions like a dream, yet they vanish along with the twilit world in which they dance for only a few brief moments across the synapses of our brain.  As Friedrich Nietzsche states of dreams, “Who knows the terror of he who falls asleep?  The ground gives way beneath him.  And the dream begins…..”  Interestingly, imagesthe 3D Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) begins with just this quote, which it quickly follows with a quote from Freddy himself: “Welcome to primetime bitch.”  The first film was quickly followed by a succession of sequels that get progressively silly as Freddy devolves from a legitimate bogeyman to a macabre clown who kills in elaborate, fantastic scenarios while quipping one-liners that would make even the most “punny” of individuals cringe at their awfulness.  Followed by six sequels, a crossover with Jason Voorhees in Freddy vs. Jason (2003), and a recent remake have kept the series alive and well for almost thirty years.  WesFreddy_Vs_Jason Craven directed the first film and then eventually returned to the series for the meta-horror film Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare (1994).  New Nightmare takes a metafictional approach to the series by focusing on the real lives of director Wes Craven, actor Robert Englund (Freddy), and actress Heather Langenkamp (Nancy) as Freddy begins to seep out of the films they made and into their reality.  In many ways, New Nightmare seems like Craven was practicing for his later meta-horror hit, Scream (1996), a satirical take on the slasher genre

Original trailer for A Nightmare on Elm Street.


An entertaining compilation of Freddy Krueger kill scenes from across the Nightmare series.



While the slasher film became all the rage in the early 80s, a more brutal and transgressive form of the genre was also appearing in films like William Lustig’s Maniac (1980) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986).  Despite being over thirty years old, Maniac remains one of the most thoroughly brutal and disturbing slasher films ever. Instead of being told from the point of view of the victims, Maniac focalizes itself around Frank, the psycho-killer indicated in the film's not-so-subtle title. Despite Joe Spinell's inability to act, Maniac still manages to take the viewer on a descent into a world of pure insanity and brutal violence as Frank kills one person after another with gore effects courtesy of the legendary Tom Savini and then returns home toslasher-movies-maniac arrange and have bizarre conversations with mannequins. Joe Spinell looks like an extra ugly and creepy Ron Jeremy, and his disgusting qualities only serve to heighten the creepy and perverse qualities of the film despite his inability to read a single line in a compelling manner. An entirely brutal and completely insane film, Maniac lives up to 468517.1010.Aits title. Maniac has no deeper meanings or social commentaries--it is pure exploitation, but it is an exploitative descent into madness like few others.  Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a no less disturbing but perhaps more socially conscious depiction of psychosis and pattern murders.  Whereas Maniac revels in its brutal special effects, loud and graphic murder scenes, and depictions of absolute insanity, Henry chooses to depict the calm, quiet exterior that masks the underlying madness.  Henry seems like a normal, working class guy who goes from one low-paying job to another and lives with a friend in a crappy place.  Soon, his friend’s sisterhenry-portrait-of-a-serial-killer-bloody-mouth begins living with them after escaping from a violent relationship.  Henry and she begin to develop feelings for one another, but their relationship is endangered by her brother’s own sexual advances and Henry’s sociopathic, psychotic behavior that regularly manifests itself in actions such as theft, rape, and murder.  Henry feels  like a imagesgenuine portrait of a serial killer from its cheap, independent aesthetic to its seemingly normal protagonist who murders in his free time.  Plus, Henry and his friend steal a video camera and use it to document certain atrocities—such scenes give the film a found footage vibe that adds to its creepiness and realism.  A powerful, unforgettable, and brutal film that will leave you feeling dirty for having watched it, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer remains a masterpiece of the genre that continues to disgust and haunt audiences almost thirty years later. 

The trailer for William Lustig’s Maniac. Watch for the cameo of special effects supervisor Tom Savini as the victim in the shotgun scene that opens this trailer.

A scene from Henry: Portrait of a serial killer in which Henry and his friend try to buy a black-market television. Brutality ensues…..


If one film killed off the golden age slasher film, it is probably Child’s Play (1988).  Most critics cite the golden age as ending years earlier, but Child’s Play drives the final nail in the coffin because it becomes impossible to take the genre seriously any longer after seeing the somewhat realistic figure of the slasher reduced to an evil killer doll.  Child’s Play follows a criminal who uses voodoo to transfer his spirit into a popular doll that was undoubtedly influenced by the popularity of Cabbage Patch kids during the 1980s.  The original Child’s Play was a superbride-of-chucky-wallpaper-1024x768-creepy, supernatural tale of terror in the vein of Richard Matheson’s classic horror short story “Prey” (1969) that introduced a potential fourth major slasher icon onto the market.  But the sequels quickly devolved into self-conscious silliness.  Four sequels turned Chucky into a buffoon even more laughable than the later Freddy.  Bride of Chucky (1998) and Seed of Chucky (2004) actually became macabre comedy films more than horror as Chucky creates an evil female doll companion and eventually seeks to have a child with her. 


The Geto Boys’ gangsta rap ode to Child’s Play. The band always enjoyed songs about lunatics and psycho killers.


Elliott Smith’s tender ballad that uses the Son of Sam as a metaphor.

Tune in next time for the 90s return to serial killer realism and the rise of torture porn….

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

AL’S Weekly Blog Post 12.1: Psycho Killer Qu’est-ce que c’est: Slashers, Perverts, and Final Girls in Serial Killer Cinema Part 1


Here it is: the first part of the lost slasher posting that attempts to provide a basic outline of slasher and serial killer cinema.  I will posting it in three parts: precursors, the golden age of slasher films, and slasher and serial killer cinema from the 1990s onwards.  This series of posts also features a soundtrack of sorts—I have posted videos of these songs.  You can watch them as videos or play them as a soundtrack while reading the post.  The songs range widely in genre from folk (Bruce Springsteen and Sufjan Stevens) to punk (The Misfits) to post-punk/new wave (The Talking Heads) to alternative (They Might Be Giants) to metal (Rob Zombie). 

For starters, for those of you who are too young or do not listen to weird enough music to get my title’s allusion…..

Post-punk, new wave pioneers The Talking Heads’ classic “Psycho Killer.”

220px-M_posterThe roots of serial killer cinema can be traced all the way back to Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M.  Already recognized as a master stylist for his silent films like Dr. Mabuse: Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1927), German filmmaker Fritz Lang moved into the realm of sound cinema with the release of M.  Lang had also demonstrated himself to be one of the first great masters of genre cinema with his two-part adaptation of the epic poem Nibelungenlied and his science fiction peter-lorre1masterpiece Metropolis.  With M, he moved into the world of serial killer horror.  Starring the great Peter Lorre (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon) as a child murderer, M follows the actions of the killer as well as the attempts by the police and the metropoliscriminal gangs of the city to find the killer.  Because the police prove incapable of capturing the killer, the organized crime bosses of the city take it upon themselves to bring this evildoer to justice before more of their own children die.  A film that is as heartbreaking as it is horrifying, M is a powerful early cinematic depiction of insanity and society’s inability to grapple with the mentally ill that continues to rank high on any list of the greatest films of all time.

The opening of Fritz Lang’s classic M, which featured creepy children’s rhymes long before A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Psycho_Alfred_Hitchcock_movie_posterSerial killer cinema did not make a profound reappearance until 1960, which saw the release of two classics that changed the shape of horror cinema: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.  As we discussed in class, Psycho fundamentally changed the shape of horror cinema with its (for the time) graphic depictions of murder, perversion, and insanity.  Already well-versed in films about murder (Spellbound [1945], Rope [1948], Strangers on a Train [1951], Dial M for Murder [1954], Rear Window [1954], Vertigo [1958],  etc.), Psycho reached new heights  of the macabre with its infamous shower scene that Peeping tom 2depicted more of a naked woman being cut up than any film previously.  In fact, all films that feature beautiful women being cut up that came after could in sense be said to be remaking Hitckcock’s iconic scene.  Since we discussed Psycho in class, I will not dwell upon its merits, but instead point to an equally provocative film that was released the same year across the Atlantic in Great Britain.  Reviled by critics upon its release, Peeping Tom essentially ruined the career of director Michael Powell because of its bold, controversial subject matter.  Peeping Tom follows a young man who works on a film crew and aspires to become a director. He also makes extra money making pornographic pictures and films for a local film developer.  And, in between his two jobs, he stalks and kills women while filming them.  Stylish, disturbing, and brutal, Peeping Tom probably transgresses even more boundaries than Psycho with its depictions of prostitutes and pornography that even included brief nudity, peeping-tombut it remains unknown except to film enthusiasts because it was so despised upon its release that it never developed a popular following.  Again, like Psycho, Peeping Tom is a profoundly Freudian film about the effects of childhood trauma upon the development of adulthood fixations, perversions, and neuroses.  An insightful exploration of identity and our connection to the Other, Peeping Tom examinations the nature of terror and voyeurism as well as our need for the Other to shore up our conceptualization of our selves.  For without the Other, without the Carl-Boehm-and-Moira-Shearer-in-Peeping-TomOther’s desire for us (or terror of us if we are a particular brand of pervert), then how are we to define and validate our own identities?  Love, as psychoanalysis reminds us, always remains narcissistic at its core, and the same can be seen in such psychotic forms of behavior in which the terror of the subject narcissistically reflects the psycho or pervert back to himself.  It is a perverted carry-over of the Lacanian mirror stage into adulthood, and it is no accident that the eponymous peeping tom using mirrors to further terrify his victims. 

The opening scene of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which establishes the brutal, voyeuristic style of the film from its very first seconds.
The Misfits’ punk classic “Horror Business” that was inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho—The Misfits regularly wrote songs inspired by horror films: “You don’t go in the bathroom with me / Or with you / I’ll put a knife right in you.” Talk about poetry!!!! Plus, “We are 138” is thrown in for good measure….

bloodfeastThe 1960s also saw the rise of a sub-genre of horror that would directly influence the slasher and serial killer cinema in the decades to come.  This bloody, low-budget genre known as “splatter” was epitomized by the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, particularly his so-called “Blood Trilogy”: Bloody Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), and Color Me Blood Red (1965)Lewis was a filmmaker who specialized in nudie films, softcore films that generally featured almost no plot and centered around nudists cavorting around with one another.  But Lewis moved from such sexploitative fare into more horror-centered exploitation; however, he never really developed complex plots, good writing, or believable acting to speak of.  Instead, his films are almost purely centered around the bloody spectacles that he pioneered.  Perhaps now most famous as the director that Ellen Page and Jason Bateman watch together in Juno (2007), Lewis made a career out of villains who enjoy eviscerating people and then playing gleefully with their innards.  His films look like they were made for ten bucks by a child, and two-thousand-maniacs-movie-poster-1964-1020491581they feature acting that makes porn films look like Citizen Kane.  Lewis’s “Blood Trilogy” began with Blood Feast, which concerns an caterer obsessed with Egyptian cannibalistic feasts.  Lewis continued the trilogy with Two Thousand Maniacs, the tale of a small Southern town that lures in a group of unsuspecting Yankees in order to ritualistically slaughter them in remembrance of their town falling to the Union army.  Finally, he rounded out the trilogy with Color Me Blood Red, a kunstlerroman of sorts (that’s a joke) about a painter who decides to improve his style by killing people and incorporating their blood into his paintings.  Lewis made other splatter classics as well, such as The Wizard of Gore (1970) that tells the story of a magician who colormebloodredposter01performs illusions of women being murdered and dismembered onstage.  The catch is that they fall apart and die in similar ways later on once the performance is over—this is the film that appears briefly in Juno. Other Lewis films included The Gore Gore Girls (1972), which concerns a killer that targets Go Go Girls (girls paid to dance at clubs; although they are basically strippers in the films) and A Taste of Blood (1967), a craptastic and bloody-as-hell vampire tale.  Lewis’ legacy is not necessarily a noble one—he cannot even remotely be compared to the previous directors in this posting.  His films would appear direct-to-video were they released today, but he remains a beloved and highly influential figure in the history of horror, cult, and exploitation cinema.

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Trailer for Lewis’s Blood Feast
Trailer for Lewis’s The Wizard of Gore—features graphic mutilation.


Hitchcock returned to Britain and the serial killer genre with 1972’s Frenzy, a film that demonstrates how horror cinema had changed over the course of the 1960s.  While Psycho was hyper-transgressive for its time but appears slightly tame by today’s standards, Frenzy eschews such subtleties in its depiction of graphic strangulations and full-frontal nudity.  The film shows way more than Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom did ten years earlier but was not met with revulsion because of society’s steadily evolving desensitization towards such plot elements.  Frenzy follows an unemployed, divorced bartender who becomes the police’s prime suspect in a series of serial strangulations.  The killer strangles his victims with neckties, which are found around their necks when the bodies are discovered.  However, we—the audience—know who the killer is for the bulk of the film because Hitchcock depicts the murders.  Hence, we follow both sides of the action, and the bulk of the film’s tension derives from us wondering whether said bartender will find the evidence to exonerate himself or whether he will be convicted for a series of brutal crimes that we know he did not commit. 

SPOILER ALERT: One of the murder scenes from the film in which Hitchcock chooses to have his camera drift around in an almost disembodied fashion instead of depicting the crime.


Finally, I will close by discussing probably the quietest film on this list.  The real life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his teenage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate has become a cultural text that has, inspired numerous takes on the story, the first of which was visionary auteur Terrence Malick’s first film Badlands (1973).  Malick has become one of the most visionary, acclaimed, and enigmatic directors of the past forty years—he once went almost twenty years without releasing a film.  Badlands establishes many of his trademark stylistic touches andbadlands_pic5 themes.  One should never mistake the main characters of a Malick film as the focus of his narratives; instead, nature is always the central character of Malick’s films.  His films are perhaps even more naturalistic than the novels of the classic naturalists like Zola and Steinbeck because tumblr_la3l37772M1qzdglao1_500the camera enables him to actually focus upon the environment that shapes the characters’ actions.  Influenced by Darwinism and Marxism, naturalism sees humans as the products of various environmental and socio-economic forces that shape our identities and ultimately determine the paths we follow.  Naturalism reintroduces the idea of fate from Greek tragedy, but it is no longer the effect of the gods—it is the effect of biology, environment, politics, and economy.  Badlands begins to develop these themes that will become so prominentThe_Thin_Red_Line_Poster in later Malick masterpieces like Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998).  Featuring an extremely young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the film follows the pair as they become romantically involved with one another and then proceed on a cross-country murder spree.  Malick’s film is never judgmental, and each crime arises as a natural progression from the situation within which the characters find themselves.  The couple at one point retreat to the woods Tree of Life Filmwhere they live a blissfully utopian existence until society finds them again.  And ultimately they end up in the badlands of Montana, a terrain that seems as inhospitable to humans as its name implies.  If you’ve never driven through Montana in person, then you have no idea what’s it really like—and driving through there is fun because you can drive as fast as you want.    Malick never glorifies the murders nor does he condemn them—they happen like a tiger killing a gazelle in a nature video.  If you have never seen a Malick film, Badlands is a great staring place because it is much shorter than his subsequent films.  It introduces you to his meditative style and naturalistic aesthetic but without the attention span required for his later films.  Look for Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, which is hitting theaters at the end of May.

Next time, I will begin to discuss the birth of the actual slasher film, but for now, I leave you with Bruce Springsteen’s take on the Starkweather murders that inspired Badlands….

The opening, eponymous track of Bruce Springsteen’s classic album Nebraska tells the tale of Starkweather in heartbreaking (and probably romanticized) terms. One of my all time favorites.