thoughts

Nature vs nurture: Psychos on film

My post about Elijah Wood’s creepy turn as Frank Zito in Maniac sparked a nice little discussion over on Blogcatalog about the depiction of psychotic, homicidal maniacs in cinema — and how they are so often portrayed as having a tragic start to life, which often triggers their psychosis. The whole thing got me thinking about the old Nature vs. Nurture debate and how it’s frequently used in horror films, especially.

We all know Norman Bates had mommy issues, as did Jason Voorhees, and Se7en’s John Doe was physically abused and suffered electric shock treatment as a child. But, is it more terrifying when on screen psychos have ‘normal’ lives?n

This started me off on one of my personal gripes. The remake. And, in this particular case, Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween. I’ve got two things to say about that: One, I hated it. Two, it wasn’t necessary. And my reason for both is Michael Myers was totally misrepresented in the remake.Yes, that mask-wearing, knife-wielding unstoppable creep who in  John Carpenter’s original 1978 movie starts his killing streak by murdering his sister when he’s just a young child.

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What is so sinister and unnerving about this is that Michael appears to live in, what seems like, a great neighbourhood in a nice house with wealthy, loving parents. There’s absolutely no sign or suggestion that he suffered any type of trauma or mistreatment that could lead to his homicidal behaviour. Making it shocking and all the more blood-curdling to think evil can be simply born — and there’s nothing we can do about it. From a writer’s point of view, it was a refreshing twist on the well-worn road of serial killers having flashbacks of childhood trauma as a way of ‘triggering’ their behaviour.

Compare this to the remake where Michael is living in squalid conditions and regularly exposed to drug paraphernalia and abuse as well as his mom being mistreated by her clients — so, watching a kid live with such depravity and absolutely no moral compass, it doesn’t seem as shocking when he lashes out with violent behaviour and displays a complete lack of morals himself.

And, as a viewer, this portrayal of his character becomes immediately less interesting and therefore less frightening. In this instance it seemed almost reasonable, and understandable, for a child like that to grow up with a skewed view of the world and a warped idea of right and wrong. And from a writer’s point of view, this is the easy way out. Plain and simple.

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So, when it comes to psychopaths with absolutely no apparent rhyme or reason to behave the way they do Alex Delarge step right up. He is, without question, as depraved as they come. And why? Purely because he wants to be. He is a boy whose primary interests involve ‘Beethoven, rape and ultra-violence’ and we can all agree that two out of three of those are not things you’d list on your resume in a hurry.

Alex is a character I have been fascinated by and obsessed with for the past eight years. It’s a testament to Anthony Burgess’ incredible skill as a writer that he could create a character so devoid of empathy, or compassion and yet charming and endearing . Especially in Kubrick’s controversial big screen adaptation where there’s something sexy and alluring about Malcolm MCdowell’s portrayal of Alex, you become increasingly spellbound by his actions and the motives he gives. There’s never an excuse offered up as to why Alex is the way he is, and isn’t that more unnerving?

This ability to dazzle and blind you from his abhorrent actions is what I find most terrifying about his character. It’s a lot harder to pull this off, and perhaps this is why we are so often presented with characters with tragic backstories as a way of explaining why they are so maniacal. Maybe it’s an attempt to create some amount of sympathy, or a desperation to explain why because there must be a reason for everything right? Right? Does it make us, the viewer, more comfortable knowing that a human behaving with monstrous qualities is only that way because he was treated so monstrously too?

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And at this point it feels only right to mention Kevin Khatchadourian who, via the pages of Lionel Shriver’s exquisite novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, kept me awake at night for weeks.

In both the book and the on screen adaptation we are given the chance to get right inside the mind of a killer from a young age — but what makes this so interesting is it’s primary focus is on a mom trying to work out whether her son’s fatal attack on his high school had anything to do with the way she raised him or whether it’s just in his DNA. Think about that for a second. The thought that we might have no way of stopping evil in its tracks. Blood curdling.

There’s nothing here to suggest that Kevin is anything other than a cold, hard psychopath and the story of his life is engrossing — and spine chilling. Not to mention, an incredible contraceptive as the thought of having children becomes less and less appealing with each frame of the movie. Ha!

And this sense of mystery doesn’t just go for serial killers — I also feel the same about all characters if I’m honest. Like Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Detective Loki in Prisoners. He was a tortured soul but we were never given a reason why — and that’s definitely a risky move on a writer’s part, but it pays off big time in my book. It keeps you thinking, and leaves you waiting for more.

Like Walt Disney said, Always leave ’em wanting more

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Reflecting on what makes a Maniac

The horror genre has been, excuse the pun, butchered so much lately. As a self-confessed Horror nut I’ve been left feeling frustrated so many times over the past few years when directors have heavily relied on over-the-top gore for cheap thrills instead of crafting terror through twists you don’t see coming, characters loaded with depth and mystery, and chilling cinematography.

Maniac, is a remake of the 1980 slasher movie by William Lustig, starring Elijah Wood as a troubled and creepy mannequin store owner by day who gets his kicks by mutilating girls on the street by night. He kills and scalps girls before attaching their scalps to his own private collection of mannequins, which he then interacts with as if they were alive. So, on the surface it sounds like your average freaky, gore fest but at its core it’s so much more than that.

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Considering how much of a mad crush I’ve got on Elijah Wood, I was surprised by how much I dig him in a role where he is playing such a disturbing and unnerving character. The dialogue was stilted and eerie which certainly carved a sense of terror in me from the moment the film started and reinforced the idea that this guy was off the freakin’ rails. Big time.

Filming it almost entirely from his point of view was a genius move, as we only get to see his face as a reflection in mirrors, windows, and car doors, which ramps up the creepy factor by a few notches. Plus, as Elijah Wood is, let’s face it, totally beautiful it makes sense not to let us indulge in his beauty too much purely because it’s distracting and the last thing we want is to be attracted to him. And mirrors are a really powerful tool because they open up and explore that idea of self image and how we see ourselves compared with the facade we’re putting on for the world. So, that element of the film just rocks and I loved it. It’s not the first time I’ve ever seen this technique but it’s certainly one of the better uses of it, for sure.

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During and after watching this film I felt myself wanting to know more about Frank as I was super intrigued by his character and some of the suggestions that he was maybe dealing with a multiple personality disorder as well as clearly being traumatised by his childhood — and in particular, his relationship with his mom. He has flashbacks of some of the most pivotal moments of his upbringing that could have triggered his bloodlust and psychotic behaviour as an adult.

What I loved so much were the obvious references to Silence of the Lambs, one of the greatest Horror stories of all time, especially with its choice of music —THAT Goodbye Horses song, eurgh! — which completely transcended the film because what Silence of the Lambs does so well is lulls you with suspense and draws you in to a dark, and sinister place and that is exactly what Maniac needs. It needs for you to be captivated and terrified from the beginning so it can pummel you with fear to create that overwhelming sense of distress and anxiety, and nothing does that better than a not-so-friendly reminder of another sick lunatic who also gets his kicks from skinning his victims — albeit it for totally different reasons, but hey let’s not split hairs here.

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I won’t pretend I didn’t watch this movie purely because of Elijah Wood, but after a few seconds I completely forgot about him and was absorbed into a new, frightening world that was almost too much at times. It’s so intense, partly down to the direction, but mainly because it is gruesome and unrelenting. It’s access all areas as far as the violence goes, so if you’re squeamish this is not the movie for you. Sorry.

In the end, it is quite a tried and tested structure and without wrecking the plot I’ll just say I wasn’t satisfied or blown away with the ending but I did enjoy (if that’s the right word to use when watching a man scalp innocent women in the street) the path it took to get there. For originality and creativity I can’t fault this movie, and that’s good enough for me. It’s engrossing, and has a lot more lurking beneath the surface for you to sink your teeth into — if you can move past the (enormous amount of) blood.

Go watch it, and keep a sick bucket close by just in case!

Reservoir Dogs, you’re fuckin Beretta!

There is something so fantastically bizarre about Quentin Tarantino’s movies that when I first discovered them it felt like, what I can only imagine, a kid who has been forbidden from eating candy all their life feels upon accidentally chowing down a piece of the sweet stuff and unleashing an outrageous explosion of taste inside their cute little head. Incredible.

Although I refuse to do this in real life, if someone asked me to choose which one of his movies is my ultimate favourite — in blog life, I’d go with the dogs.

It was the second Tarantino movie I saw, a couple of hours after experiencing Pulp Fiction I was desperate to soak up as much of this new found goodness as possible. From the moment it started — that iconic diner scene, I was hooked. I got Tarantino in my blood work.

It’s the simplicity of the story juxtaposed with the intensity of the characters — and the depth with which he creates them. His extraordinary, and rare, talent of being able to describe the entire psychology and personality of a character with one line — or one look — is out in full force in this film. The notorious opening scene is a classic example of that.

It’s the dialogue. It’s always the dialogue with QT, but Reservoir Dogs is a total goldmine when it comes to smart-ass one-liners. I reckon that 80 per cent of his dialogue has nothing to do with the movie’s plot, or the characters in it but that’s why it’s real. That’s why it’s honest.

It’s the relationships he forms between the characters — and how intelligently, and tantalisingly, he develops them and weaves them into the film.

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It’s the brutal, bloody violence alongside genuine humour. And the super-sounds-of-the-seventies soundtrack that contrasts so loudly with the film’s content. And it’s the genius direction of not showing the audience the truly violent moments — the camera pans away when the sadistic-yet-so-cool Mr. Blond slices poor old Marvin’s ear off.

And, of course, it’s Mr. Orange. The character that my twelve-year-old self thought was the coolest cat in town. And my twenty-one-year-old self still thinks is the greatest character ever thunked up. It’s the ‘you’re fucking Beretta’ moment that sealed the deal.

Tarantino knows how to write a weird and wonderful story that we can all sink our teeth into, that’s a given, but what’s so obvious is his unrivalled ability to create characters that stick.

After watching Reservoir Dogs at the cinema, on it’s 21st anniversary, I spent a freezing cold hour outside discussing the psychology of his characterisation with a handful of strangers, and fellow Tarantino nuts. We all agreed that he is in a class of his own when it comes to inventing wholly unique characters in fucked up situations.

If you want gratuitous entertainment, he’s your guy. If you want one hundred minutes of adrenaline busting perfection, the dogs is your film.