February 1999
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

Blood Orgy of the Soccer Moms

What's the world coming to? The serial killer movie just ain't what it used to be.

There was a time, dear children, when one could shuffle down to an inner city grindhouse, or out to the free air of a drive-in, or even around the corner to a mom and pop video store (run by an actual mom and pop) to view a certain kind of thriller. These films bore titles like The Toolbox Murders, The Town That Dreaded Sundown and Maniac - bastard stepchildren of classic films made by people like Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, brought up by the bloody shockers and twisted roughies of the sixties, and shoveled out into the world in the days when the public was still too dazed by the highs of the hippie happening to react and rally for a New World Order. These films filled the void left by the old carnival freak shows, packaging shocks torn from the headlines of the country's seedier newspapers and feeding a need for violent spectacle as old as the species itself.

Though these films offered the same social service as their horror film and amusement park ride progenitors - namely, the chance to experience hair-raising visceral jolts, exorcise personal demons, and come out into the sun unharmed - they differed in that they chronicled in repugnant detail the exploits or too-real fiends plaguing society. To put it bluntly, these were cheap thrills, offering not much beyond as much murder and mayhem as the producers' wee little budgets allowed, and reaping as much profit as they could in return (though much was usually purloined along the way).

What happened to these sticky fingered filmmakers and their gruesome product? Was the moral majority successful in cleansing the land and saving the next generation from itself? Not bloody likely.

What happened was they were too successful in their goals. One can't expect poverty row horrors like Don't Look in the Basement or Eaten Alive to keep pulling in huge profits before the big boys at the major studios smell all that Vegas Cabbage and want to make a little cole slaw for themselves. Just like every other genre of exploitation movie madness, the psycho killers were sent up to the majors, muscling the minors all but out of sight completely. Today, independent slasher fare is released solely on video, except for a few hardy art house circuit escapees like Man Bites Dog, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation and Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2.

Though most horror releases following in the wake of Scream have tried to ape its acerbic teen cast terror template, the audience is big enough these days that giddy studio honchos have even green-lighted a host of more serious minded monster shows in an attempt to encourage a broader demographic to fill the seats. Casting aside for the moment the what-the-hell-was-that? oddity of the recent remake of Psycho, we see a steady stream of mainstream thrillers hoping to mine the same bloody vein as Seven and Kiss the Girls. These pictures may not fit so well on your shelf next to the oversize video box for Bloody Moon or Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher, but they'll go just fine snuggled in your gym bag next to the latest plump Grisham novel.

Take for example Neil Jordan's In Dreams. After acquitting himself so well with last year's merry tale of an unhinged little rascal The Butcher Boy, I expected much more from Jordan, but here he contents himself with collecting a stack of Dreamworks' bucks and making a couple hours of pretty pictures disguised as a horror film. Our serial killer this go-round is none other than Robert Downey, Junior, playing himself yet again as a scenery chewing loony. Of course, you couldn't get away with making a big budget serial killer film without a new twist, so In Dreams provides one: Downey has for years been in psychic contact with children's book illustrator Claire(voyant) Cooper (Annette Bening). Okay, so that's not really a new twist. In fact, it's one of the oldest plots in the book, the book in this case being Bram Stoker's 100 year old classic Dracula.

These stories usually show our intrepid psychic beauty using her gifts to help the police track down the killer while managing to put herself in jeopardy whenever possible. The real twist is that, as Bening is increasingly terrorized by child killer Downey both in the real world and that inside her head, she slowly takes a toboggan down Bonkers Hill herself. Downey, ostensibly increasing his contact with Bening as the film progresses in an subconscious attempt to end his rampage, first gives her a forecast of his abduction of a little local girl, then takes Bening's own daughter as a victim. Of course, no one believes her ranting, despite the fact that the police know she's dreaming the murders in detail in advance. Eventually, as the crimes continue and her sanity unravels, she's committed to an asylum. Later, Downey helps her escape so that she may join him.

This is the type of story that probably looked jolly good on paper, but spun out of control on film. Jordan begins to lose his grip on the audience early on. The film opens with some eerie footage of an underwater town (Downey escaped drowning in the flooded town as a boy). The imagery is striking, but obviously phony - no lake has such clear water, and the town has remained pretty much intact, despite 30 years of immersion. Toward the end we visit a long-abandoned cider mill still full of fresh apples. What comes in between borders on (and frequently immigrates into) outright camp.

Aidan Quinn resigns himself to the Darren Stevens role as the suffering husband in this week's episode of That Darn Wacky Psychic!. This being a Neil Jordan film, naturally Stephen Rea hangs his pan around the sets, sporting an obtuse hodgepodge of New England accents as Bening's slow-witted psychiatrist.

Doubtless all concerned were wooed by the heady possibilities to be found in the material. Downey dancing about muttering ad libs to himself. Bening doing a freak-out while sprayed with bubbling applesauce, then playing multiple death scenes. Jordan filming a house full of graffiti drawn in blood. Rea fooled again by a guy in a dress. Visions of Oscars danced in their heads and made them dizzy.

So beware, children - if you dare take the range rover down to the multiplex to take in the latest helping of horror from Hollywood's haunted house, the most uncomfortable frights you get may not be coming from anything up on the screen. They'll be with you in the Gap-adorned McD-fed audience, and quite unintentionally chilling.



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