Thursday, October 17, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies

Another Doozy from Vincent Price.
Before the modern slasher, these
kinds of movies had much stronger
and more traditional mystery plots.

In the last great renaissance of horror movies, roughly 1978 to 1888, we saw the emergence of a new kind of monster: the masked maniac, and they were legion. Inspired largely by the movies on this list, a horde of second, third, and fourth tier quickie, no-budget films literally spewed out of Hollywood like a Tom Savini neck wound, muddying the waters and diluting the quality, and incidentally, setting the bar for horror for a generation of people. Sympathetic monsters, like Frankenstein and poor Larry Talbot, were right out. In its place was the mute, force of nature, hulking menace wielding gardening implements straight out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog.

At the time, there was an emerging body of scholarship devoted to these films, and I readily tracked down whatever I could. Most of the popular opinion regarding the newfound fascination with horror was divided between the appeal of the Grand Guignol, or theater of blood, from Victorian France, and a resurgence of the kind of morality play that was performed during the Reformation and eventually transmogrified into fairie tales, proverbs, and in the 20th century, urban myths. Essentially, the gist of the story was this: good girls are spared, and bad girls get punished. The good are spared, and the wicked get what’s coming to them. An eye for an eye, literally.

All of this was gleefully, if not consciously, sublimated into films like The Driller Killer, Prowler, Maniac, Pieces, and one of the all-time cult classics, Sleepaway Camp, a film that almost made my top 5 list. It was the age of Fangoria, and these movies were meat and potatoes for the masses.

Then came the sequels...and oh god, the sequels...and no, really, the terrible, awful sequels...were any of them good? Not in terms of the larger story, but as movies? My short answer is no, no they were not. I know you probably have a favorite, and you watched all of the series, but they weren’t scary to you, were they? It was hard to take any of them seriously because of that unkillable nature. So, without considering the success or failure of what has become the new horror franchises, here’s my top five list based on jump scares, tension and quality filmmaking, and overall effectiveness of the first time we are introduced to the murderous maniac in question.

Dr. Phibes, unmasked at the organ. Seems familiar, huh?
The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971)
A cool throwback from the shaggy-haired 1870s, starring the late, great Vincent Price in a role that closely resembles the turn he did in the less successful Theater of Blood. The film opens as a murder mystery, with prominent doctors being killed in weird and gruesome ways that end up being Biblical plagues. The evidence mounts and the madman is revealed, with some grim and grisly goings on in between.

Just a few years later, we’d get a new kind of masked killer that is inarticulate (see below), but playing ghoulish murderers was something Price excelled at for years. Dr. Phibes was one of his best, and certainly one of his most famous turns in this vein. It’s also one of the last times such a murderous maniac will have a shred of sympathy applied to him.

Don't mind us. We're just here for a wild party. Oh, and
to piss off the person who'd most like to kill a bunch
of irresponsible teen-agers.
Friday the 13th (1980)
This low budget slasher quickie really kicked off the Teen Slasher craze. Everything is great out at Camp Crystal Lake, except for those persistent rumors about the one kid that died, all those years ago... The first Friday the 13th is also noteworthy in that the series character that followed, one Jason Voorhees, isn’t actually the killer. Not yet, sorta. Kinda. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching.

Granted, the deaths are gruesome and the movie is certainly informed by the earlier Halloween, but that doesn’t keep it from being and effective (and gory, thanks to special effects wizard Tom Savini) opening salvo for this particular brand of horror film.

Nice thousand-yard stare on young Michael Myers, there.
Who would dress their child up as a clown, anyway?
Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter created a modern suspense-filled masterpiece with the first Halloween film. Take a creepy kid, straight out of the genre, and lock him up for twelve or thirteen years, and then have him get out on the eve of anniversary of his horrific murder, and add a teenaged Jamie Lee Curtis. Movie magic ensues.

Expertly shot with a minimum of gore, never mind what you think you remember, Halloween ratchets up the suspense and jump scares like a good roller coaster ride, with just a hint of the macabre and the supernatural provided by veteran British actor Donald Pleasance. I love Rob Zombie to death, but this is a movie that didn’t need to be remade.

"I'm your boyfriend now, Nancy!" Still one of the best scenes
in the whole movie. Too bad Heather Langenkamp was a
block of wood. A beautiful, empty shell of an actress.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven was already a known commodity when he created Fred Krueger, the child molester and murderer who was burned alive by the parents of his victims. But Krueger didn’t die, as you well know, and he’s haunting the dreams of the children in the neighborhood.

Inventive special effects, dream logic, crazy visuals, and best of all, a compelling reason for the maniac to be unkillable (how do you snuff a dream, anyway?) made Nightmare on Elm Street an overnight sensation. A baby-faced Johnny Depp didn’t hurt, either, but the acting takes a serious back door to Freddy and his dreamworld.

Leatherface's victory dance. See that light? Magic hour!
It's not all blood and guts and questionable casting choices.
There's some art to the movie, even if it's a lens flare.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Long before Michael Myers and Jason and even Freddy Krueger, there was Leatherface. Tobe Hooper shot this low-budget horror film in Texas in 1973, based very loosely on the Ed Gein murders in Wisconsin in the 1950s, and kids in small Texas towns have been swearing that the “actual murders” took place just down the road ever since.

Maybe it was lightning in a bottle, but the movie really struck a nerve with the viewing public. It was lionized and pilloried in equal parts for its graphic violence and nighmare imagery, but those reviews don’t give director Tobe Hooper his due credit. Believe it or not, there is a kind of subtlety underneath the screaming and the revving of the chainsaw. It’s a more clever movie, technically, than most people think it is.

But in the end, it is a movie about a cannibal family, and there’s something gleefully unhinged about Leatherface that is hard to pinpoint. Freddy is certainly clever as a nightmare tormentor, and while Michael and Jason don’t say anything, they take on the roles of silent “forces of nature” in stride. But Leatherface’s inarticulate bellows and his childlike glee reveal a kind of animal cunning that is truly unsettling. Anyone who is a fan of these kinds of movies cannot pass the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre up. Now, the sequels, on the other hand...

Drew Barrymore's bait and switch was a perfect way to
open the film. We're not going to follow the innocent-looking
blonde around. Instead, we're going to root for the
dangerous-looking brunette.
Bonus movie! Scream (1996)
Wes Craven’s return to horror, an all-star cast (or, at least, they would go on to be an all-star cast), and a post-modern deconstruction of the genre he helped to invent make Scream one of the most successful movie maniac horror franchises of all time. There are so many nods, winks, and asides in this film that you really need a score card to keep them all straight. But Jamie Kennedy’s recitation of “The Rules” takes the film into meta-movie territory, as it’s the first time a horror movie actually played with its own tropes in the narrative.

Scream also subverts the genre in taking the seemingly supernatural and unkillable masked maniac to task with a Scooby Doo style solution. The film is equal parts slasher flick and murder mystery, and Craven mines the subject matter deeply. When we find out who’s actually doing it, we don’t stop to think that we’ve crossed over into Creepy Kid territory.

Scream certainly belongs in the masked maniac genre, but in fact, it really isn’t that kind of movie. Personally, I love that it plays with all of those conventions and yet is also almost a fair play mystery, something none of the masked maniac movies ever successfully tried to do. Ghost Face is no Michael Myers, but he was never supposed to be in the first place.
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