Films A-Z

A day late, a dollar short and wearing a brand-new shirt with a food stain on it — that’s my life story and I’m sticking to it. So naturally on the heels of so many other movie bloggers, I decided to participate in the A-Z film lists.

Enjoy…

A is for “Apocalypse Now”

 

 

B is for “Blazing Saddles”

 

 

C is for “Clueless”

 

 

D is for “Dead Man Walking”

 

 

E is for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

 

 

F is for “The Fall”

 

 

G is for “Gojira”

 

 

H is for “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”

 

 

I is for “Idiocracy”

 

 

J is for “Jindabyne”

  

K is for “Key Largo”

 

 

L is for “Lars and the Real Girl”

 

 

M is for “The Maltese Falcon”

 

 

N is for “No Country for Old Men”

 

 

O is for “Out of the Past”

 

 

P is for “Plan 9 from Outer Space”

 

 

Q is for “Quills”

 

 

R is for “The Rules of Attraction”

 

 

S is for “Secretary”

 

 

T is for “12 Angry Men”

 

 

U is for “Unforgiven”

 

 

V is for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

  

W is for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

  

X is for “XXX” (a.k.a. “That Movie Where Vin Diesel Was Not Shirtless Often Enough”)

  

Y is for “Young Frankenstein”

  

Z is for “Zoolander”

Halloween Special — Groovers and Mobsters Present: Horror

(As part of a Groovers and Mobsters Halloween special presentation, some horror-crazed bloggers — including me — have taken on our picks for the best horror films ever made. Here’s my take on “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. To read the entire list, visit this post on Heather the Original Movie Mobster’s blog or click the graphic above.)

 

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1986)

If you strangle one, stab another, and one you cut up, and one you don’t, then the police don’t know what to do. They think you’re four different people.” ~~Henry

Evil lives in our world, and it rarely wears an obvious or garish mask of villainy. That’s a truth human beings prefer not to confront. It’s simpler to imagine that true evil is recognizable somehow, that it cannot hide beneath a pleasant-looking surface. John McNaughton, who shot “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” on a paltry $110,000, understands this elemental human need … and he ignores it. His film is a crumpled snapshot of evil in its basic, most mundane form – a grim reality that can’t be shaken easily.

Talented as he is, McNaughton couldn’t create such a disturbing film without the right actor to play the killer, who must seem harmless enough to function in everyday life but be viciously single-minded in his goals. Michael Rooker, then a relative nobody, plays the part so monstrously well that it’s difficult now, 24 years later, to see him as anyone other than an emotionless murderer. Rooker is Henry, a polite, even-tempered drifter/serial killer who moves into the Chicago apartment of Otis (Tom Towles), newly paroled and not the least bit rehabilitated. When Otis discovers Henry’s secret, he wants to join in, and Henry obliges – but not before schooling Otis on the importance of never developing a traceable pattern. The arrival of Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) causes friction between Otis, who lusts openly after his sister, and Henry, who treats this lost soul with kindness and is flattered by her interest in him. But love and companionship, Becky will learn, mean nothing to Henry.

McNaughton based “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (very) loosely on the story of Virginia-born serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, which lends a feeling of authenticity to the film. More important than that, though, is the director’s pointedly unromanticized direction. He forces us to see through the killer’s eyes – as Henry sizes up potential victims, as Henry and Otis slaughter an entire family, videotape the massacre and watch it again for their own sick pleasure. McNaughton forces us to become voyeurs, and it’s the removal of that protective distance that makes “Henry” so frightening.

Cinema of Scare: (My) Big 10

Happy Halloween, everyone! If you’re wondering why I’m saying this today, it’s because every day is Halloween. Or should be. Just think about it: the potential for the world to become a neverending buffet of candy corn, dollar-store cobwebs and glow-in-the-dark skeleton earrings.

Of course, this would increase the possibility that more people would show up to work in clown costumes on idle Tuesday mornings. Hmm. Better give this some more thought.

No more talk of clowns, though. Let’s talk about Bill over at Bill’s Movie Emporium. Connoisseur of scare that he is, he dreamed up something called the Splatter Time Fun Fest Awards (love the title, Bill), and that got me inspired. Well, maybe that’s overstating things a bit, since I’m not sure creating a list of great Halloween movies the day before Halloween is inspired. But I’ve been known to make some noise about being a fan of the cliche, so I will press on with my own collection of movies that ruined me for entering darkened houses, babysitting a child sporting a blonde braids-n-bangs combo, or going camping:

1. “Halloween”

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A miniscule budget, no-name actors, almost no blood or gore and a killer who never utters so much as one syllable? Only a genius frightmaster like John Carpenter could take all the reasons why a horror movie should not work and transform them into clear-cut advantages. He mines the bleakest parts of our collective consciousness to bring humanity’s biggest fear — that evil is everywhere, and it’s unstoppable — to heart-stopping life. Brilliant. 

 

2. “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”

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Henry (Michael Rooker, who’s blank-eyed perfection) has a pretty practical theory about killing. “It’s always the same and it’s always different,” he tells his buddy Otis. And here he reveals the dark, twisted purpose of John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”: to remind us that pure, inexplicable evil wears a human face, and one we never seem to notice until it’s too late to scream for help.

 

3. “M”

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When horror movie chatter turns to accomplished serial killer films (see above), Fritz Lang’s distressing “M” is nowhere to be found. Pity that, because it’s a grim, dank, chilly and thoroughly unnerving exploration of a killer stalking Berlin’s children. Peter Lorre makes Hans Beckert (who closely resembles German serial murderer/pedophile Peter Kürten) the kind of soulless villain who’d haunt Hannibal Lecter’s dreams.

 

4. “Nosferatu”

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With vampire books and movies and TV shows overwhelming our senses, it’s all too easy to forget about F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” the film that turned these blood-lapping mythological creatures into pop-culture staples. Without benefit of technicolor, special effects or even sound, Max Schreck’s otherworldly Count Dracula creeps into our dreams and stays there, waiting for the chance to lunge. 

 

5. “The Evil Dead”

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Before the ultra-campy “Army of Darkness,” with Bruce Campbell cloning himself and playing, well, Bruce Campbell, there was “The Evil Dead,” headed for cult classic status with its no-budget effects. But the original rates highly as a horror staple because of its opening credits — the finest and creepiest ever filmed — and the no-holds-barred performance of Campbell, who makes his terror palpable. And don’t forget that tarty tree branch.

 

6. “Carrie”

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“Carrie,” based on Stephen King’s first published novel, is at its heart a pre-“Surviving Ophelia” look at the crushing effects of bullying and how, in the right setting, constant torment can produce murderous rage in the meekest people. Herein lie the chills in “Carrie”: There’s violence aplenty, all of it rained down on fairly deserving and cruel parties, but we’d never see it coming from a girl like Carrie (Sissy Spacek). How profoundly disturbing.

 

7. “Dawn of the Dead”

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Horror movies that scare us are in hefty supply, but the ones that squeeze in pointed commentary about mass consumerism and America’s shopping mall mentality are not. George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” is proof positive that scares don’t have to be mindless and blood-soaked; they can spring from the realization that we’ve scaled the roof to escape our problems (or zombies), and now there’s nowhere to go but down. 

 

8. “The Bad Seed”

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Kids — it’s all sweetness and innocence, all fun and games until one of them sets a janitor on fire. At least, that’s the image of youth we get in “The Bad Seed,” with Patty McCormack using her blonde braids and sweet smile to disarm her prey. But she’s hiding a whole mess of devilment behind those patent-leather shoes, and the movie’s hiding an ominous warning: Don’t think you know what lurks in a person’s heart.

 

9. “The Shining”

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That Jack Nicholson, always with the Cheshire Cat-that-gulped-the-canary grin. He plays bad better than most anyone, but he’s at his baddest (and creepiest) in “The Shining,” a ghoulish thriller that blows the “happy families stay together” concept to smithereens. Jack’s googly-eyed overacting works OK here, but what really shivers the timbers is the inspired camera work and a foreboding, oppressive score that pierces your brain. 

 

10. “The Blair Witch Project”

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“The Blair Witch Project” is not a movie that inspires lukewarm reactions. No, this documentary-style thriller, with its queasy footage, unknown actors and largely ad-libbed script, is a love-it-or-hate it kind of movie. Still, there’s no denying this film’s directors accomplish a startling feat: They never show us the villain. And the not knowing what’s threading sticks and piling rocks out there in the dark? That’s the part that’s purely petrifying.

Honorable mentions: “Identity,” “The Omen,” “The Stepfather” (1987 version), “Poltergeist,” “28 Days Later…”

10 disturbing movie scenes

There’s a reason I don’t seem many horror movies: I am a wimp.

Now, don’t try to make me feel better. I know the truth, and so does anyone who’s had the misfortune to sit through a scary movie in my presence. I cringe, I cower, I gasp, I glimpse the carnage unfolding onscreen through Vulcan-split hands over my eyes. To this day, I can’t tell you what the characters in “The Ring” looked like. Know why? I took my glasses off 10 minutes in and I never put them back on.

But these sad little details aren’t what form the complete fraidy-cat that is me. It’s the fact that scenes from regular movies — some that don’t fit into the horror genre at all — stick in my brain for all eternity. The bit from “Spun,” with the hooker staying tied up, blindfolded, on a bed for days? Can’t hear heavy metal without flashing back to it. The scene in “Arlington Road” where Joan Cusack says the word “shopping” with all the menace of Jeffrey Dahmer snatching Konerak Sinthasomphone from the cops? Still get the wiggins when I hear that term.

So now, since I’ve gotten myself all worked up and jittery, here’s a list of 10 disquieting, troubling and (in some cases) disgusting scenes that my brain cannot forget:

1. Videotaped family slaughter, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” — No single scene in movie history (and in my short time on Earth) has left me as shaken as the grainy, muffled home video footage of Henry (Michael Rooker) and Otis (Tom Towles) gleefully murdering an entire family during a home invasion. It makes us voyeurs, removes that safe “this is just a movie” barrier and makes us participants. In a word: Yikes.

 

 

2. The opening scene of “Wild at Heart” — Ever seen a moment of violence so brutal, so feral and uncontrolled that it makes you violently ill? I have, and it takes place (literally) at the beginning of David Lynch’s soul-deadening “Wild at Heart,” when Nicholas Cage bashes in — with sickening vigor — the head of a man hired to kill him. 

3. The firecracker/handjob scene in “Mysterious Skin” — Oh, the things kids come up with, how mind-blowingly sick they are. A preteen boy and his gal tagalong get the idea to stuff a firecracker inside the mouth of a shy dweeb and set it ablaze. Afterward, he gives the victim a handjob. Thoughtful … and yet horribly, horribly unsettling.

4. The burial sequence in “Blood Simple” — The fear of being buried alive is old as time, and about that universal, too. Place that fear squarely in the hands of Joel and Ethan Coen and you get a prolonged death scene so upsetting you’ll never, ever look at a shovel the same way again.

 

 

5. The chiropractor joke from “Apartment Zero” — When Larry punches Curly in the nose, you laugh. When a sociopathic serial killer (Hart Bochner) breaks a dead woman’s back to stuff her body in a trunk and slings a wisecrack about missing his calling as a professional back cracker? Well, you laugh then too, mostly because you have no idea what to do. And then comes the cringing. A lifetime of it.  

 

 

6. The torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs” — They say memories have an emotional core. I can’t think of a better case-proving point than the stomach-turning, nerve-jangling torture sequence in Tarantino’s classic “Reservoir Dogs.” To this day, the clip, with Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) brutalizing a bound-and-gagged cop in time to “Stuck in the Middle with You” — and taking pleasure in it — remains the one part of the film I cannot watch.

7. Guy’s revenge in “Swimming with Sharks” — Pushed too far by his screaming movie mogul boss, Guy (Frank Whaley) promptly drops his basket and ends up exacting the kind of physically painful revenge that involves hot sauce, salt and lots and lots of paper cuts. Let your imagination tell you the rest.

 

 

8. The shower scene from “Psycho” — Yes, I realize that this one’s something of a gimme, but facts are facts. There’s a reason this scene is considered a horror classic. Think about it: Where are we at our most vulnerable? That’s the genius of it. Any woman who tells you this scene doesn’t come a’callin’ when she’s showering alone in her apartment is a first-class liar.

 

 

9. The last four minutes of “Requiem for a Dream” — “Requiem for a Dream” qualifies as one of my all-time favorite films, in part, because of the final four minutes, an exercise in dark pessimism that assaults the senses and deadens the soul for weeks — make that years — after the credits roll. Seek not your happy, hopeful ending here, for all you’ll find is a killshot of reality. Gripping stuff.

10. “Chaos” (the whole. blasted. movie) — “There are some things that you see, and you can’t unsee them. Know what I mean?” So said Max California in “8MM,” and if I didn’t know better I’d be convinced his words applied to “Chaos,” a bleak, grim and cheerfully punishing slice of torture porn filled with senseless violence. Things are done that scar the retinas and pervert the mind … things we cannot unsee. And oh, how I wish I could.

What say you, readers? What are your favorite disturbing movie scenes?

Review: “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1990)

HenryIf there existed an Oscar for Most Accurate Movie Title, John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” would have it in the bag. Because “Henry,” thanks to McNaughton’s pointedly unromanticized direction and Michael Rooker’s goosebump-inducing performance, does exactly what it promises: Offers a grainy, crumpled, unretouched snapshot of evil, murder for murder’s own sake, that taps into elemental human fears glossier horror productions can’t touch.

McNaughton, I suspect, could not have achieved this feat without Rooker. Plucked from the relative obscurity of Chicago’s Organic Theater Company, Rooker is downright terrifying as Henry, a polite, even-tempered drifter/serial killer who moves into the rundown Chicago apartment of Otis (an equally chilling Tom Towles), a shiftless, aimless parolee. Eventually Otis finds out about Henry’s after-hours exploits and decides to join him. Together they embark on a killing spree, dispatching a diverse group of victims with constantly-changing weapons. (“If you strangle one, stab another, and one you cut up, and one you don’t, then the police don’t know what to do,” Henry advises the inexperienced Otis. “They think you’re four different people.”) Their partnership gets interrupted by the arrival of Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), who’s hoping to find a better life in Chicago. She believes she’s found that in Henry, who is kind to her and seems flattered by her interest in stories of his violent childhood. But their relationship creates an explosive tension between Otis, who openly lusts after his sister, and Henry, who’s too gentlemanly to let Otis make a move.

McNaughton based “Henry” very loosely on the life of Virginia-born serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and the director shoplifts details and changes them, including the names and identities of victims, throughout the movie. Some true-crime devotees might object to this. Count me out of that group. If anything, “Henry” pays a sick kind of homage to Lucas, who was nothing of not a showman-of-sorts, a legend in his own mind. Lucas himself confessed to countless murders forensic evidence and basic logic proved he didn’t commit, and he conjured up wildly contradictory stories about his victims, his childhood and the death of his mother. This is the kind of movie the real killer would have loved … which, of course, rockets the creepiness factor beyond the heavens.

In fact, it’s that creepiness factor that kept “Henry” trapped in limbo between nationwide release and complete shelving for three years. The issue here is not one of brutality — there’s violence aplenty, but half the murders take place offscreen — or gore, but one of pure, unparalleled unease. In “Henry,” McNaughton forces us to see people through Henry’s eyes, where humanity might as well not exist because it doesn’t matter in the slightest. People are expendable commodities. Consider the scene where Henry sits in his parked car at a mall. He doesn’t talk or tap his fingers on the dashboard or bob along to a tune on the radio. He sits intently, watching, observing, waiting. As we watch through his eyes, a stomach-churning realization hits us: Henry’s not admiring or oggling women, he’s sizing up potential victims. It’s a simple camera trick that’s extremely effective.

More disturbing still is a sequence involving Henry and Otis breaking into a home, terrorizing the people inside, killing each family member with and videotaping the whole ordeal. By most horror movie standards this footage should not be frightening: the videotape is grainy and dark; the sound is muffled; bloodshed is minimal. But watching the tape makes us more than viewers; it makes us voyeurs. We see these people not as individuals with voices, ideas, personalities, but as nameless victims. We see them exactly as the killers do. We cannot detach ourselves emotionally because it’s if we are there, and in a way we are. The removal of that distance, that protective barrier between the movie and the audience, is what makes “Henry” so monstrously frightening.

Grade: A-