By Will Pfeifer
GateHouse News Service
Copyright © 2009
The biggest folk hero in modern American film is the serial killer. Cold, calculating and above all cool, the serial killer is always one step ahead of the law and constantly working on new and imaginative ways to dispense with his victims. Most of this popularity can be traced to Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter and his Oscar-winning portrayal by Sir Anthony Hopkins. But in the decades since “Silence of the Lambs” we’ve seen plenty of imitators: John Doe in “Seven,” the entrepreneurs in “Hostel” and the mechanically minded villain (hero?) of the “Saw” franchise.
Here’s the thing, though: There are serial killers in the real world, but they’re not cool, cold or calculating. They’re disturbing, desperate men who take innocent lives. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good serial-killer thriller, but every so often, you should sprinkle a bit of reality in with all that fantasy. Two recommendations:
“Manson”: Released to cash in on the 40th anniversary of the Manson murders, this History Channel production combines slick re-enactments with interviews of actual participants.
Prosecutor (and “Helter Skelter” scribe) Vincent Bugliosi is present, along with Manson family member Linda Kasabian, who was there the night of the Sharon Tate murders. Tate’s sister, Deborah, also comments on the crime, and it’s her input — along with the gruesome crime photos — that convey the horror of what Manson and Co. did.
As for the re-enactments, they’re a bit too slick. Adam Wilson, who plays Charlie, can’t compete with the genuine article (or, for that matter, with Steve Railsback’s portrayal in the 1976 TV movie). He’s too smooth and handsome — and not nearly crazy enough. It is fascinating to watch him try to buddy-up to Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, though, and you do hear a tantalizing clip of Manson singing a folk-rock song. If only his music career had taken off …
“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”: This 1986 film (just released on Blu-Ray) is fictional, but it manages to feel more horrifyingly real than the re-enactments in “Manson.” Inspired by the crimes of Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole, “Henry” follows a quiet, deliberate murderer (Michael Rooker in a chilling performance) as he moves in with his buddy Otis (Tom Towles, even creepier) and Otis’ innocent sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold).
There’s not much plot; Henry just kills people, talks about killing people, then goes and kills more people. Eventually, of course, Otis and Becky get involved in very different ways, and — spoiler alert! — the film does not end on a happy, life-affirming note.
Thanks to the actors’ dead-on performances and John McNaughton’s low-budget, low-key direction, “Henry” is terrifying because it seems so real, as if McNaughton just happened to catch footage of these screwed-up souls when they weren’t looking. It’s not fast-paced, and it’s not fun, but it is one of the most chilling, most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. Watch it at your own risk.
Will Pfeifer writes about new DVDs on Tuesdays and older ones on Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-987-1244. Read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/movieman/.