B-Movies Extended: Our Favorite 1990s Serial Killer Movies
From the Mixed-Up Files of Witney Seibold:
Again, I would like to extend my thanks to Dave White and Alonso Duralde for once again appearing on The B-Movies Podcast, and helping William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I review the new releases of the week. Thanks, guys, for being generally affable and genial and insightful fellows on the topics of “Veronica Mars,” Halle Berry's Tribble-like hairdo, and f-word-laden movie theater etiquette.
One of the reasons we all gathered was to review The Call, the recent Halle Berry thriller about a 911 operator who matches wits with a serial killer. We all agreed that the movie was simultaneously loads of stupid (the diminutive Halle Berry does the heavy-lifting and hard physical battle that the cops weren't good enough to do) and actually pretty fun. I mentioned both on the show and in my review of The Call that it strongly resembled the kind of serial killer thriller that seemed to come out every week in the 1990s. If the 1970s was the era of the Exorcist knockoff Satanic thriller, and the 1980s was the era of the Halloween knockoff teen slasher, then the 1990s was definitely the era of the Silence of the Lambs knockoff serial killer thriller. Throw in the success of 1995's Seven (or perhaps it's Se7en), and the trend is codified as the single emblematic horror genre of an age. And, as with The Call, we are still feeling the distant echoes of this specially-flavored subgenre in theaters today.
Seeing as I was a teenager in the 1990s, I pretty much grew up watching all manner of drab serial killer thrillers. I did see The Silence of the Lambs (at perhaps too early an age), and I dragged my poor gentle father to see Seven with me on opening weekend. I have an odd taste for the investigative serial killer thriller, and I could easily sit through any number of them through sheer force of nostalgia, even though they can be predictable and pat and often pretty badly made. Some subgenres have me in the theater every single time. Give me a wacky race comedy, and I'll be there. My point is I raised myself on horror movies, and I have a penchant – not to mention a good deal of experience – with 1990s serial killer movies. Jennifer 8, Hear No Evil, Blink, Shallow Grave, The Sketch Artist, Along Came a Spider… I saw them all.
And the best? Why that is the very topic of this week's B-Movies Extended! The best of the corny Lambs rip-offs that spanned an entire 10-to-15-year period!
Nightwatch (dir. Ole Bornedal, 1997)
Not to be confused with the glorious Gothic 1973 Liz Taylor vehicle of the same name, nor the ambitious Russian heavy-metal fantasy epic from 2004 of the same name, or even the 1994 Danish original of the same name (yes this film is a remake, made by the same director as the original), this 1997 thriller with Ewan McGregor and Nick Nolte is a dumb, fun, and often nasty little thriller that is notable for three things: One; McGregor's character (who works as a night watchman in a mortuary) locked behind a door while his would-be girlfriend (Patricia Arquette) is in peril, forcing him smash through the door's tiny window and slicing up his own arm pretty badly. Two; James Brolin is handcuffed to pipe while his his friends are in peril, forcing him to cut off his own thumb. Three; Nick Nolte, in an attempt to frame McGregor for rape, carries around a vial of McGregor's semen in his coat pocket. If you don;t understand why those things are fun, then I simply cannot help you.
Knight Moves (dir. Carl Schenkel, 1992)
This film was a vehicle for French then-hotshot Christopher Lambert (from Highlander, Fortress, and Mortal Kombat) who played a chess grandmaster who was the innocent chief suspect in a string of murders. The victims were found drained of blood, and simple Riddler-like messages were found scrawled on walls. Lambert was then entreated by the unseen killer to solve his “puzzle” by deciphering the clues. Does this premise sound familiar? It should. It's been used in perhaps dozens of movies, including Seven, which didn't come out until three years after this one. Knight Moves is not necessarily a great step in the movement of cinema, or even necessarily a notable film in the serial killer genre. It was, however, the first one I saw to feature a riddle-obsessed serial killer. I was 14 years old. It was cool. And I still remember it fondly. I'm afraid to revisit it, as I'm sure, twenty-one years after the fact, the magic will likely be gone.
Clay Pigeons (dir. David Dobkin, 1998)
After the release of films like Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, and Fargo, many ultra-violent, self-award “scuzz” films began to bubble to the surface of theaters everywhere. These films, in addition to their brutality, were also notable for their black/light tone and moments of unexpected levity in the face of murder and crime. I didn't see David Dobkin's Clay Pigeons until relatively recently (my wife introduced me), but it was most certainly of the “scuzz” serial killer trend, as it dealt with a serial killer, but had a much more humorous bent than some of its peers. Vince Vaughn (back when he was a hot commodity, post Swingers) played an affable and talkative cowboy who forcibly takes the shy Clay (Joaquin Phoenix) under his wing, only to eventually reveal that he's a murderer. But, y'know, still a nice guy. The film is just as much about this odd friendship as it is about the crimes. The federal agent on the case is played by a funny and wry Janeanne Garofalo. Good-natured and quotable, Clay Pigeons is underrated.
To Die For (dir. Gus Van Sant, 1995)
Fascinating and stylish, Gus Van Sant's little crime odyssey into the mind of a shallow, stupid, fashion-and-TV-obsessed sociopath sexpot is either one of the director's more accessible indie efforts, or one of his more bonkers commercial efforts (the 1998 remake of Psycho notwithstanding). Nicole Kidman, never better, plays a pretty blonde idiot whose life goal it is to someday host the evening news. She is married to Matt Dillon, who is constantly pressuring her into taking up a more practical job. What's a girl to do, but seduce and manipulate three teenagers (Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, and Alison Folland) to murder him? Told in an alluring testimonial fashion, and featuring a great score by Danny Elfman and a wonderful cameo from David Cronenberg, To Die For just as much a hilarious satire as it is an awesome crime thriller. It's not talked about too much anymore, and I implore you find it.
Funny Games (dir. Michael Haneke, 1997)
Perhaps the darkest of all serial killer thrillers (with the possible exception of the ultra-horrifying mockumentary Man Bites Dog), Michael Haneke's Funny Games is a staunchly accusatory condemnation of violence in films, all while being one of the most disturbingly violent of films. Well, to be fair, the violence isn't necessarily explicit, but the sheer cruelty on display will make you wince. Haneke eventually remade his film in 2007, and the remake was nearly identical. An innocent high-class family (Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, and their young son) take a vacation in their remote country cottage. A pair of white-clad young men (Arno Frische, Frank Giering) enter their home to borrow eggs. Then break their stuff. Then take them hostage. Then mock them ceaselessly. Then force them to do humiliating things. Then do violence to them. It's more than standard home invasion stuff. There is a social interplay at work (Haneke loves to explore the outlying regions of the human comfort zone). And just when you think Haneke is torturing his audience, he cracks out a metaphysical twist that you'll never see coming, and implicates you, the watcher, in the violence.
Freeway (dir. Matthew Bright, 1996)
One of the best films of 1996, Freeway is an unabashedly sleazy little JD fairy tale about sexual vengeance, pedophilia, necrophilia, girls in prison, prostitution, dirty talk, and, yes, one doozy of a serial killer. In what is a twisted re-telling of the Red Riding Hood story, Reese Witherspoon plays an illiterate, slutty, at-risk teenager who runs away from her drug-addict mother, and takes to the L.A. Freeways looking to move in with her grandma. Eventually landing with a benevolent guidance counselor named Bob (Kiefer Sutherland, amazing). In an early twist, however, Bob unveils that he is indeed a pedophile and a serial killer (i.e. The Big Bad Wolf), and they spend the rest of the film trying to undo one another (in court, with words, with actual physical violence). Rife with cheap, button-pushing 1990s buzzwords, Freeway is a filthy and wickedly fun little morality tale that feels like a high-octane version of a John Waters movie. It's the kind of movie you can never watch with you girlfriend.