Today on Killtoberfest 2, a couple of serial killer movies with a twist. Both succeed or fail based not on their stories but the way those stories are told.
First up, The Bad Seed (1956).
“You have just seen a motion picture whose theme dares to be startingly different. May we ask that you do not divulge the unusual climax of this story. Thank you.” – title card after the credits
This story started out as a novel, but you wouldn’t know it from the way it’s produced. In pacing, writing, direction, and all other aspects of execution, The Bad Seed takes its cues from a theatrical adaptation of the book. To me, this definitely holds back an otherwise entertaining, creepy story.
The movie takes place almost entirely in one location, the living room of Christine Penmark. At the start of the film, Christine’s husband goes to Washington on business, leaving Christine alone with her 8-year-old daughter, Rhoda. Rhoda goes on a school outing to a nearby lake; during the outing, a child falls into the lake and drowns. Christine gradually becomes aware that Rhoda may be responsible–that she may, in fact, be a budding serial killer, the titular “bad seed.”
The theatrical origins of the story are terribly limiting. The dialogue is overly florid, with the actors largely performing as if they’re trying to reach the cheap seats. The exceptions in that department are Nancy Kelly as Christine (who makes the theatrical delivery work in the context of the melodramatic situation) and Patty McCormack as Rhoda, who finds a very creepy naturalism in the way that she uses politeness and flattery to try and manipulate others. She behaves like the nicest little girl… until something doesn’t go her away, at which point she reacts with cold rage.
The other main issue with the film is that it’s just too slow. Once we get the basic idea (which takes a long time to establish itself, too), the film can only repeat the scenario of Christine discovering another instance of Rhoda’s rottenness. That said, I do like the central portion of the movie, where Christine, her father, and a dinner guest discuss the nature of criminality and heredity (and the scene which follows is a self-contained bit of excellence, he said vaguely). The climax of the narrative, as per the quote above, I won’t reveal to you; but it is darker than I expected, with a sick joke twist. Unfortunately, the movie backs out of that twist in the silliest way possible, resorting to an almost literal deus ex machina. Very disappointing.
Overall, it’s not a bad movie, but it’s probably a much worse film than it was a play. In a horror movie we expect to actually see some violence, damn it, not just hear about it happening off-screen. Ironically, The Bad Seed didn’t start out boring; it was made that way, deliberately.
(Am I being unfair to the film? A little. It’s obviously an attempt to bring the play, including much of the original cast, to audiences nationwide who otherwise would not have been able to see it. But such attempts are usually successful when distinguished by excellent performances or direction, or creative decisions used to ‘open up’ the play. None of that applies here.)
Next, the fascinating, horrifying, bleak mockumentary Man Bites Dog (1992).
It’s hard to believe that Man Bites Dog was made in 1992; shot on film in high contrast black and white, the movie looks and feels timeless. Except for the violence, it might have been made in the ’60s. As it is, it still scooped Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon by a good 14 years.
The movie takes the form of documentary footage filmed by a crew following around a man named Benoit for reasons which are never explained. Benoit is racist, sexist, classist, a hard drinker, a thief, a bore, and a serial killer. He’s totally unselfconscious about the latter, demonstrating for the cameras in good humor how to murder, where the elderly hide their money, and the calculations describing how much weight to add to a body you’re dumping in a quarry or river. The three-man film crew seem to regard him with at least a little bit of nervousness, but they’re happy to help him move bodies. As the film goes on, their inclusion in his activities grows; one of them is shot and killed by a victim of Benoit’s, which leads another crewmember to tearfully promise to go on filming in the dead man’s name, and to dedicate the movie to him and his girlfriend’s unborn child. This is not the only time he has to do that. (The survival rate for crew members in this movie is somewhere around that of Spinal Tap drummers.)
The first half of the movie is a black, black comedy, pointedly skewering the way art and media fool themselves into believing they can have a purely objective viewpoint, even when faced with horrors. The movie argues that when you give somebody a microphone, you inherently become complicit in their speech and actions. It’s unavoidable. And the man they’ve given voice to here is like a horrible extension of the most regressive elements of European society, chauvinistic towards women, contemptuous toward the weak and lower classes even as he preys on them. And there’s more than just a political lesson here; anybody who’s been in the film industry is familiar with these kinds of self-funded vanity projects that you’ll work on for money and the experience but which can be morally odious. (I personally once almost took a semester off in college to work on a “comedy” feature whose script was both racist and homophobic; luckily, we never closed the deal.) More than anything, Man Bites Dog argues that what you film matters, a point that comes across stronger and stronger the longer you watch and the more you scream in your head for the film crew to stop making the fucking movie and report this asshole to the police.
The second half of the film (about the point of the bar scene) drops the veneer of comedy, and simply gets bleaker and creepier and darker until you’re desperate for the end. There are simply scenes in here as sad and horrifying as any I’ve seen. I could quibble with the movie here and there–parts of it are slightly too repetitive, and some scenes go on for a little too long–but it works so well, and with a premise that never stops delivering, that overall I’d call this one of the greats. It’s fairly influential, too, usually mentioned as one of the precursors to The Blair Witch Project. I’ve grown to love the found footage form, even if it’s sometimes applied badly or unnecessarily, and Man Bites Dog is one of the best in the genre. It’s complex, horrifying, darkly funny, with one excellent scene after another. It’s hard to find, but I highly encourage you to seek it out.
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