Some things are undeniably wrong, such as serving peas and baked beans on the same plate, the South African accent, and Phil Collins singing about homelessness. I guess you could throw serial murder into the same mix, but I’d still argue Another Day in Paradise is a greater crime against humanity.
Anyhow, we all like a nice serial killer movie, don’t we? There’s something about those anti-social buggers chopping and throttling, stabbing and shooting that gives us a lovely frisson. Such flicks have got a fair old history too, dating back to Hitchcock’s 1927 Jack the Ripper-inspired The Lodger and Fritz Lang’s celebrated account of a child killer, M.
Here are five corkers from across the decades.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Released long before the term serial killer was coined, this Hitchcock classic is remarkable for its early insights into such aberrant behavior.
Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie in a riveting, superbly nuanced performance. We first meet him lying on a New York hotel bed, barely mustering the energy to smoke a cigar. A large amount of money, obviously meaningless and unwanted, is scattered on the floor. His landlady tells him two men are after him, but his lethargic replies and inability to even look at her suggests a man on the verge of moral and spiritual collapse.
Perhaps in a bid to take his mind off suicide, he hits upon the idea of reconnecting with his Californian family. He catches a train, faking illness in a curtained carriage all the way so no one sees him. However, as soon as he steps onto the platform to meet his devoted niece, he’s reborn as a debonair charmer. Already we know we’re dealing with a hunted man and a liar.
Hitchcock masterfully slow drips information about this festering cuckoo. We see the sudden mood changes and pick up on his live-for-today-and-damn-the-consequences mantra. Then there’s Charlie’s misogyny, his inappropriate sense of humor, and his misanthropic outbursts that fizz with sour energy.
More pieces of the puzzle fall into place when his doting older sister shows a picture of him as a very young boy, apparently the last time he was ever photographed. She talks about the serious head injury he suffered during a bike accident and how a quiet, studious boy who loved reading became more and more ‘mischievous’.
Still, an easy hour slides by before Hitchcock gives us the slightest idea Uncle Charlie might actually be a strangler of wealthy widows. Our anti-hero, meanwhile, is struggling to fit in with his family’s stultifying, keeping-up-appearances lifestyle. At the dinner table he quietly rants about ‘horrible, faded, fat, greedy women’ to which his shaken niece cries: “They’re alive! They’re human beings!” But in a fantastic, slow-moving close up of his face, Charlie simply murmurs: “Are they? Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals? What happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?”
Despite the fact he’s tall and good looking, obviously smart, ten times more interesting and somehow much more alive than the rest of his family, Charlie evokes pity. He has no friends or acquaintances, having obviously been on the road for a long time. This is a deeply lonely man who cannot connect with anyone or anything. As he says: “The whole world’s a joke to me.”
The mask continues to slip. In a brilliant cocktail bar scene his niece finally grasps how lost her favorite uncle is after he berates her for being an ordinary little girl living an ordinary little life.
“Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What’s it matter what happens in it?”
As I’m sure you’ll agree, pretty strong stuff for the moviegoers of nearly eight decades ago, even if we never do get to see Charlie kill. Shadow is certainly among Hitch’s better movies, with a good ninety percent of it standing up to a modern audience’s scrutiny. Talk about the power of restraint.
10 Rillington Place (1971)
Although Richard Attenborough never remotely convinced me as a razor-wielding tough guy in the well-regarded Brighton Rock, he’s pitch perfect as the infamous British sex killer and suspected necrophile, John Reginald Christie.
Balding, short and bespectacled, he’s got loser written all over him from the moment we first encounter him furtively peeping out from behind a blackout curtain in 1944 London to see who’s at the front door. A woman has sought out his apparent medical expertise for help with her bronchitis.
Bad move, sweetie.
After a few inhalations of a gas-filled concoction, she’s prostrate on the floor and he’s excitedly pawing her with a truly unsettling passion, the second victim in a career of murder that claimed eight lives.
This is a relentlessly squalid movie, centering on a rundown, post-war apartment block whose tenants have to put up with domestic violence, constant money worries, crushed spirits, a solitary outside toilet and rising damp. Christie inhabits 10 Rillington Place like an aging spider crawling round a tatty, dust-covered web.
Into this world drifts Timothy Evans (the excellent John Hurt) and his wife Beryl (Judy Geeson). From the offset it’s clear Tim’s brain is on permanent vacation. He’s an illiterate, uneducated man prone to confusion, empty boasting and shouty outbursts. However, it’s also clear he loves his wife and young daughter.
Things take a turn for the worse when Beryl falls pregnant again, a development that results in her approaching medical man Christie for a backstreet abortion. Christie initially plays it cool, perhaps savoring his supreme hypocrisy. “It’s the moral question that concerns me,” he tells her in his odd whispery voice. “The taking of life, no matter how rudimentary.”
It’s heartbreaking what he does to the Evanses, but then again this really is a downer of a flick. Everyone, from an unborn child to the entire British legal system, loses.
Christie, endlessly offering cups of tea and a shoulder to cry on as he tries to position himself to strike, projects an eerie stillness that makes your skin crawl. Sometimes you wonder why no one (especially the cops) are able to see through his bullshit, but his above average intelligence clearly enables him to think on his feet. And perhaps it’s not too hard to sate your perverted needs living in a conservative society made up of desperate, poor folk too ignorant to know any better.
The Stepfather (1987)
They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do.
Never was a truer word written and, for the record, I’m still struggling to forgive mumsy for making me attend my first day at high school in a bright pink dress. Anyhow, it’s not known what renowned poet Philip Larkin thought about stepdads, but it’s probably safe to assume the same sentiment.
Jerry Blake (the superb Terry O’Quinn) is obsessed with cozily living in the warm bosom of a perfect family. He’s just found a new wife and set up home, but can’t seem to smother the suspicious feminine intuition of his step-daughter, Stephanie (the delectable, husky-voiced Jill Schoelen). It doesn’t help he calls her Pumpkin, a term of endearment any sixteen year old is bound to chafe at. Catching her kissing her new boyfriend on the front porch and loudly proclaiming him to be a punk rapist probably isn’t the smartest move, either. And if the gift of a puppy won’t do the trick, then what’s an upstanding citizen and mild-mannered real estate agent to do?
Slaughter them, of course, and start the search all over again in a different wig.
Like a lot of men who murder loved ones, Jerry is fanatically obsessed with control. He simply can’t handle the reality of his situation being different to his rigid idealism, his fragile ego exploding into violence once he’s accumulated enough slights.
Or as he puts it in an amusing nod to Psycho: “Father knows best.”
The Stepfather has a memorable setup, some good black comedy, and a nicely judged pace. Its incident-packed ninety minutes slide by very easily whether you’re wearing a pink dress or not.
“It’s not mean to kick the fuck out of some diseased prick. He fucking deserves it. It’s an Australian fucking tradition.”
And this, in a nutshell, is the blunt philosophy of Down Under’s worst serial killer, John Bunting. Like so many of his ilk he sees himself as morally superior to his victims, routinely demonstrating his finer qualities by wrenching out toenails or leaving decapitated kangaroo heads on the porch of undesirable neighbors.
Bunting, who murdered eleven, is the ringleader of a small group of men determined to clean up the streets of a dismal Adelaide suburb. He lives among worn-down, defeated people, feeding off their prejudices and resentment to build himself up as both a shining light and the solution to their problems.
Initially targeting sex offenders and homosexuals, he inevitably widens the circle to include junkies, ‘spastics’ and anyone deemed to have defects. Insisting the system (where pedos are let out on bail and schools employ ‘poofter’ teachers) is fucked, he points to the Australian national holiday Anzac Day that commemorates wartime bravery as a means of justifying his violence.
“Whole country applauds a bunch of blokes who killed and tortured men,” he tells his nodding followers at an informal, somewhat unconventional Neighborhood Watch meeting. “Where’s my fuckin’ parade?”
Christ, this is a grim, hardcore movie. It starts with ominous thumping music, suggesting something’s been set in motion that can’t be stopped. The few paltry attempts at humor are inevitably generated by cruel remarks. I don’t recall one shot of the sun managing to break through the permanently grey and cloudy skies. It really is a flick you might never want to see again.
Nevertheless, Snowtown is brilliant.
Put together with total confidence in the slow burn approach by first-time director Justin Kurzel, it features a mostly unknown cast whose naturalistic acting and dialogue effortlessly immerses you in a world of insects preying on insects. Of course, the charismatic Bunting (Daniel Henshall) is a standout, but watch out for his near-silent, right-hand man (Aaron Viergever) whose hard, unforgiving face barely changes throughout. He just waits around for the action to begin, unwilling or unable to come up with any kind of cod philosophy to validate his sadism.
The Golden Glove (2019)
Deriving its name from one of the grottiest pubs you’ll ever see, this is a place populated by people with the charming names of SS Norbert, Ernie the Shithead and Anus. Fritz Honka, a stoop-shouldered failure with a smashed nose, is also one of the doomed regulars. He spends his time pouring schnapps down his throat and trying to get lucky with the ladies, although some of his chat up lines could do with a little more polish. For example, he tells one he’d like to ram a live codfish up her ass. “Why?” she protests. “Why?” a baffled Honka responds. “How do I know ‘why’?”
Alcohol rather than murder appears to be the true focus of this bravo depiction of depravity. Serial killing just happens to be one of its side effects, lubricating and unleashing the monstrously dark forces within Honka.
He’s a classic example of a disorganized killer, having no idea what to do with the toothless old hags he does manage to lure back to his foul top-floor apartment in 1970s Hamburg. The superb ten-minute, dialogue-free opening shows him almost getting caught dragging a body down the stairs, an unpleasant jolt that forces him to afterwards dismember them in situ. Sometimes he tosses the parts out but most go into an alcove, the subsequent stink blamed on migrants cooking on the lower floors.
Glove is probably the most divisive film here, but it’s shot through with a wonderful black comedy that helps counterbalances its graphic violence and sexual abuse. Ultimately it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of becoming a slave to the bottle. None of the Golden Glove’s patrons exhibit the slightest camaraderie, their finer human feelings obliterated by the obsessive quest for booze. In such circumstances it doesn’t really matter if you’re a predator or victim because both are living in hell and the end’s not far away.
Dave Franklin once wrote a sensitive portrayal of a latent homosexual in the nuanced, achingly sincere novel, The Muslim Zombies. And he really means that.