The Unusual Suspects

OR Axe and Ye Shall Receive


For the longest time, it was the psycho-killer, axe-murderer movies that kept me away from horror movies in general, specifically, it was the popular franchises of my high school years; Friday the 13th and Halloween.  I hadn't really seen them, or had only seen parts, but there was just no appeal there.  While I find serial killers to be disturbing enough, I find it even more disturbing that people are fans of them and want to watch murders committed in lurid detail.  Add to the realistic side of this some highly UNrealistic film treatment, and it's just a recipe for ugly stupidity.  I actually did enjoy the first 2 or 3 of the deconstructionist Scream series, primarily because it injected cleverness into the whole formula.

That said, in the interest of fairness, I did finally watch a few of the [ahem] "classics" which I was assured were better than the rest, as well as a number of fresher takes on the "slasher" sub-genre of horror.  Here is a round-up of some of the stabby-stabby murder movies I've seen in the last six months or so.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - 1974
Written by Kim Henkel & Tobe Hooper
Directed by Tobe Hooper

Discounting Psycho, this is really where it all began, and I'm not sure it's fair to hang the legacy of slasher movies on Psycho.  It's a pretty bare bones affair ( no pun intended) with the prototypical five young people on a doomed trip to the country.  The pick up and get rid of a dangerously unbalanced hitchhiker, receive warning about their isolated-house-near-the-lake plans by a creepy old-timer and stick their noses where they don't belong.  In fact, when the first 3 of the 5 youngsters technically trespass in someone else's home, it's kind of hard to feel bad for people who simply refused to pay attention to the fact that they were in Texas and reap the consequences.  In fact, they're all so unlikeable that you really have a hard time caring what happens to them.  It's really not until the third act that the film gets particularly interesting, once we're down to our last survivor.  This is where director Tobe Hooper really starts to direct hard toward the sense of fear.  It's also where the bigger picture comes together and we understand who and what Leatherface's family are.  Up until that point, my interest in the film was mostly academic.  After that point, I decided I was willing to give TCM2 a chance.

Weapon of Choice: axe, meat hook, chainsaw (natch), hammer

Halloween - 1978
Written by John Carpenter & Debra Hill
Directed by  John Carpenter

Crazy kid goes to mental hospital, becomes crazy adult, breaks out and stabs a bunch of people while wearing a creepy mask.  What Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced, Halloween codified.  Unlike TCM, however, there's no personality in this one.  No creative kills.  It's like Old McDonald on a killing spree, with a stab-stab here and a stab-stab there.  There was ONE thing that impressed me about it, and that was a shot before the killing got started.  Before everyone knows who Michael Myers is and what he's up to, he stalks Jamie Lee Curtis, and in one shot, stands on the sidewalk in broad daylight.  THAT was the scariest thing in the movie.  A nightmare out in the open, fully lit, right in front of you.  It was a welcome diversion from all the stabs in the dark that have been the bread and butter of the slasher genre.

Weapon of Choice: butcher's knife

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 - 1986
Written by L.M. Kit Carson
Directed y Tobe Hooper

This is one weird-ass movie.  Not in the "oh so surreal" sense, but as an odd sum to its combined parts.  After the original TCM, I found myself primarily interested in learning more about psychotic family of cannibalistic white trash, who really didn't get their due until Act 3.  It was only then that TCM took on a comic element, albeit a dark, perverse sort of comedy.  The sequel certainly gives the Sawyer family more screen time, and more of that blood-caked comedy, particularly the "how the hell is he alive" crazed hitchhiker brother now known as "Chop-Top."  While he capers about like Gollum on a fish bender, family troll Leatherface gets his own subplot where we learn that he's really just a sensitive simpleton behind that face mask made of faces.  There are two other non-Sawyer primary characters.  The one we get plenty of is Stretch, the radio DJ who records a phone call from a couple yuppie punks who run afoul of Chop-Top & Leatherface on an ill-advised outing.  She becomes the object of Leatherface's perverse affections.  The other is Dennis Hopper as Lefty, a former police detective whose obsession with tracking down the chainsaw killers who murdered his nephew and drove his niece insane made him a laughingstock in law enforcement.  We don't get enough of him and his quest for vengeance, but his role in the film's climax certainly helps to make up for this.  There's an odd balance of factors at work here.  The humor & satire, the gore (much more explicit than the original), the parts that go on too long and those that don't go on long enough, the places where it's totally self-aware and the places where it's totally UN self-aware, the quotable lines; it all adds up to strong "cult fave" material.  There's also the fact that it's a Golan & Globus Cannon Film; of which I was frequently reminded though numerous little low-rent 1980s touches.  Like an abdomen ripped open with a chainsaw, there's a lot going on in here... but much of it isn't pretty.

Weapon of Choice: chainsaws, hammer, hand grenade

Session 9 - 2001
Written by Brad Anderson & Stephen Gevedon
Directed by Brad Anderson

Session 9 has been included on a few "Best Ghost Story" lists online, but they are liars.  There are no ghosts.  There, I just ruined it for you, but no more than the "shaggy ghost story" format with a lame twist ruined it for me.  An asbestos clean-up crew is called in to clean up an old, abandoned mental asylum on a tight schedule.  There are all kinds of rumors about the place, and they eventually discover some very creepy tape recordings from old therapy sessions.  The stress of their schedule, their own personal problems and the spooky tapes have them all on edge when one of the crew members disappears.  It's all ghost story build-up, filled with tedious hazmat banter and a mental break payoff.  I get that it was supposed to be a shocking twist, but it felt completely unearned.  All the creepy narrative was irrelevant and the boring filler turned out to be the real "story."  Yes, as a matter of fact I am irritated about getting jacked around.  Sure, it does a clever job of misdirection, but it just adds up to a big fat "meh" as a story when it turns out not to be what it totally swore that it was, you guys.

Weapon of Choice: orbitoclast

May - 2002
Written & Directed by Lucky McKee

May is an awkward girl.  This is framed in a flashback to her as a cross-eyed child made to wear an eye patch, which isolated her from other kids from Day One of kindergarten.  That explains some of her loneliness, but upon reflection, her oddity may have had more to do with her high-strung mother, who gives May a semi-creepy handmade doll to be her best friend, but won't let her take it out of its glass case.  So as a sweet and gentle but very poorly socialized adult, May's attempts to reach out to people become more off-putting as her desperation to connect increases.  Every time she thinks she's made a human friend, they pull the rug out from under her, and something is bound to get broken.  This is one of the most heartbreaking horror movies I've ever seen (stay tuned for another), and when May's psyche breaks as well, it's almost hard to blame her.

Weapon of Choice: scalpel

Freddy vs. Jason - 2003
Written by Damian Shannon & Mark Swift
Directed by Ronny Yu

The thing I liked about Freddy vs. Jason is that, if I was going to watch a Jason movie, at least this one had Freddy to lend some personality to it.  If I cared more about either franchise (or at all, about Friday the 13th) then I'm sure I would have gotten more out of the fan service here.  What remains is vastly stupid and deeply misogynistic (particularly the horrors visited upon the excellent-in-other-things Katharine Isabelle's character).  I have sometimes enjoyed the Elm Street films, but Freddy just seems particularly rapey this time.  Sure, if I were a not-terribly-bright teenager hopped up on purple drank, I might see the appeal of the ultraviolence, but I'm not, and there are just certain sacrifices of logic and taste that I am no longer able to make.  Well-made crap, for what it's worth.

Weapon of Choice: machete, bladed glove

High Tension - 2003
Written by Alexandre Aja & Gregory Levasseur
Directed by Alexandre Aja

The French slasher Haute Tension gambles everything on a single twist which I will not reveal here.  The premise is that two college girls, Alex and Marie, head out to Marie's family's house in the country to get some studying done over the weekend, but suddenly an axe-wielding maniac shows up and starts killing off Alex's family.  Alex is captured and it's up to Marie to save her.  This sets up a taut game of cat and mouse as she evades the killer while trying to get close enough to make her move.  This leads to the big twist via a fairly large leap of faith in the narrative.  One's ability to make this leap will determine the extent to which one enjoys the movie.  On the one hand, it IS a pretty stunning reveal and as long as you're letting a movie be a movie, it's all fair.  However, the twist DOES feel unearned and inadequately explained, which adds up to more than your usual nerdy nitpick.  I can see both sides of both sides, so I had a pretty good time, but I'd also hesitate to fully recommend it.

Weapon of Choice: straight razor, cabinet, shotgun, radial saw

Dread - 2009
Written by Anthony DiBlasi
from a Story by Clive Barker
Directed by Anthony DiBlasi

A couple college students team up to do a documentary/thesis study into the subject of fear and things get out of hand.  It turns out that one of them was witness to his parents' axe murdering as a child, and this has left him ridiculously and obviously unbalanced to everyone except the characters in the movie.  Dread wants to be an intelligent movie, but without ever using any actual intelligence.  It boggled my mind how everyone was willing to give trust and enormous amounts of slack to a character which has been pretty overt about his disintegrating psyche.  It tries to end with a shocking finale, but sanity demands that the police, which much surely exist SOMEWHERE in this town, should be following the trail of blood to his door at any moment.

Weapon of Choice: axe, revolver

American Mary - 2012
Written & Directed by Jen & Sylvia Soska

Less than half-way into American Mary, I made a silent pronouncement to myself that its star was destined for big things in Hollywood.  It was only after I finished the movie and checked IMDb (per my compulsive tendency to do so) and realized that said star was Katharine Isabelle that I remembered that I had made the exact same declaration while watching her as a teenage werewolf in Ginger Snaps.  She brings an innate personality and charisma to these roles which I have to assume comes from her, herself, much the way a, say, Jennifer Lawrence does.  They share a similar magnetism.

As Mary, she plays a med student with a promising future and lot of sass.  Desperate circumstances lead her to an involvement in meatball surgery for semi-organized criminals.  This, in turn, puts her in contact with a walking plastic surgery nightmare whose ultimate "after" picture is Betty Boop.  Through her, Mary gets involved in the world of extreme body modifications, and a personal tragedy drives her away from school and deeper into the underworld.  She helps one woman to become more completely the "doll" that she wishes to be, removing the visible lady-bits that Barbie wouldn't have, splits tongues, removes limbs, creates diabolic beasties...  In Nietzschian fashion, Mary's time with monsters has a monstrous effect on her psyche, and it starts to consumer her.

This was a truly horrific horror flick.  The gruesomeness of the body modifications is all the closer because it's something that actually exists, and I don't just mean Joan Rivers.  While initially someone that we want to like, Mary's descent is disturbing on a number of levels, but particularly because so much of it comes about from completely understandable choices.

Weapon of Choice: scalpel

Maniac - 2012
Written by Alexandre Aja & Gregory Levasseur
Directed by Franck Khalfoun

This remake of 1980's Maniac is written by the team behind Haute Tension.  It's a much more straightforward venture and wears its twist up front.  Elijah Wood stars as the titular maniac, the socially awkward owner of a mannequin refurbishment shop.  He's also quite the active serial killer; seeking out, killing and scalping beautiful young women and attaching their scalps to the mannequins with which he's populated his home... and psychotic delusions.  The twist is that virtually the entire film is shot from the first-person perspective of Frank, our killer. Not only does this make the violence particularly lurid, but it makes us complicit in his crimes.  When Frank, mid-murder, screams at the specter of his mother in his head "WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME DO THIS?" he's also screaming at us.  By inhabiting his eyes, we give him life, and our anticipation drives him to kill.  It's a deeply effective conceit.  Where "found footage" films lend a certain reality to their events by placing us within them, putting us inside the killer draws us even closer -- disturbingly close.  It wouldn't work as a sub-genre the way that found footage has (to degrees), but it works here to create a complex experience from a fairly simple story.

Weapon of Choice: knives

The Seasoning House - 2012
Written by Paull Hyett, Conal Palmer & Adrian Rigelsford from an idea by Helen Solomon
Directed by Paul Hyett

I've mentioned truly horrific horror flicks and heartbreaking horror.  This one is both.  Set amid war in the Balkans, a deaf teen girl is stolen from her home as she witnesses her mother's murder by soldiers.  She is taken, with a number of other girls, to a ramshackle house in the country to serve as forced "prostitutes" (in reality, enslaved rape victims).  Seemingly due to the large birthmark on her face, and presumably her deafness, she is singled out from the group by the house's owner and operator.  Rather than serving as a "prostitute," she is made to work as a servant, delivering food in a bucket and worse, forced to give the other girls the heroin injections which keep them docile and dependent.  If it sounds unpleasant, that's because it is.  This is real horror.

Where it becomes more storylike and less of a sad statistic that we casually ignore is when "Angel" (so nicknamed for the necklace she wears) discovers that she can unscrew the air vents and crawl about between the walls and floors.  She uses this technique to visit the one girl in the house who recognizes her deafness and can communicate with her in sign language.  When the same group of soldiers who kidnapped her and killed her mother arrive to use the house's services, Angel witnesses her new friend's brutal death -- an accepted cost of doing business with savage killers.  Giving little thought to her actions, she attacks the soldier with a fileting knife, setting her on a desperate course of survival and revenge.  Despite the intense violence of the second half, it's nowhere near as disturbing as the first.  This is the real nightmare lived, to degrees, by millions of people in the world today.  Some may call it exploitative.  I call it necessary.

My only complaint would be the abuse of unfortunate coincidences that befall her toward the end.  By that point, I had already abandoned any hope of hope as a viewer, so anything less than watching the light go out in her eyes seemed like a victory of sorts.

Weapon of Choice: fileting knife, broken glass

So there you have it.  I learned a lot from these films.  I partly learned that I've been right about slasher horror all along.  Some of it IS abysmally stupid.  I also learned that I'd been wr-- that I'd been wro-- wrrr--  I learned that it didn't have to be that way, and that fascinating stories could be told within the loose confines of stabby death movies, giving us something new and inventive beyond the means of evisceration. 

Isn't that part of what we watch movies for?

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