Tag Archives: Psycho

Fright Club: Mental Illness in Horror

Horror has not always treated the mentally ill very well. Many filmmakers twist notions of “crazy” into varying degrees of evil, but rarely with any real thought to the pathology behind it.

Some films and filmmakers make an attempt to examine illness and mine it for both humanity and fear, since nearly all illnesses of any kind are marked by both. Here are our five (OK, maybe six) favorite films dealing in mental illness.

5. The Crazies (1973/2010)

We’re cheating here, but George Romero’s 1973 insanity plague flick offers much, as does its 2010 reboot by the otherwise useless Breck Eisner, so we’re combining.

Just three years after Night of the Living Dead, the master found himself interested in taking his zombiism concepts in a different direction. Two combat veterans are at the center of the film, in which a chemical weapon is accidentally leaked into the water supply to a Pennsylvania town. Those infected go helplessly mad. Military incompetence, the needless horror of Vietnam, and the evil that men can do when ordered to do so are all central conceits in this film.

Romero may not have always had the biggest budget, best actors, or best eye for composition, but his ideas were so far ahead of their time that modern horror would not exist in its current form without him. His ideas were not far-fetched, and they fed the imaginations of countless future filmmakers. You can see Romero’s ideas and images from this film repeated in 28 Days Later, Return of the living Dead, Signal, Cabin Fever, Super 8, even Rambo – and, obviously, in the remake.

Eisner’s version offers solid scares, inventive plotting, and far better performances than expected in a genre film. Both films begin by articulating humankind’s repulsion and fear of infection before introducing the greater threat – our own government. Eisner’s greatest strength is his cast. The eternally under-appreciated Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, unerringly realistic as husband and wife, carry most of the grisly weight, aided by solid support work from folks who are not afraid to be full-on nuts.

4. Split (2017)

A transfixing James McAvoy is Kevin, a deeply troubled man harboring 23 distinct personalities and some increasingly chilling behavior. When he kidnaps the teenaged Casey (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Suva), the girls are faced with constantly changing identities as they desperately seek an escape from their disorienting confines.

Meanwhile, one of Kevin’s personalities is making emergency appointments with his longtime therapist (Betty Buckley, nice to see you), only to show up and assure the Dr. everything is fine. She thinks otherwise, and she is right.

The split personality trope has been used to eye-rolling effect in enough films to be the perfect device for Shyamalan’s clever rope-a-dope. By often splitting the frame with intentional set designs and camera angles, or by letting full face close-ups linger one extra beat, he reinforces the psychological creepiness without any excess bloodshed that would have soiled a PG-13 rating.

Still, it all might have gone for naught without McAvoy, who manages to make Kevin a sympathetic character while deftly dancing between identities, often in the same take. He’s a wonder to watch, and the solid support from Buckley and Taylor-Joy help keep the tension simmering through speedbumps in pacing and questionable flashbacks to Casey’s childhood.

3. The Voices (2014)

Director Marjane Satrapi’s follow up to her brilliant animated Persepolis is a sweet, moving, very black comedy about why medicine is not always the best medicine.

Ryan Reynolds is Jerry. And Mr. Whiskers. And Bosco. Which is appropriate, because all three characters are all the same, too. Jerry hears voices. They are the voices of his pets a kindly dog (Bosco) and an evil cat (Mr. Whiskers).

As Jerry sees it, his house is a cool pad above a nifty bowling alley, his job is the best, his co-workers really like him, and his positive disposition makes it easy for him to get along. Bosco agrees.

But Mr. Whiskers thinks Jerry is a cold blooded killer, and though Mr. Whiskers is OK with that, Jerry doesn’t want to believe it. So he should definitely not take his pills.

An outstanding cast including Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver and Gemma Arterton join Reynolds in a really touching film that looks sideways at mental illness. While the film certainly find reason to fear the outsider, it’s also surprisingly sympathetic to his plight.

2. They Look Like People (2015)

Christian (Evan Dumouchel) is killing it. He’s benching 250 now, looks mussed but handsome as he excels at work, and he’s even gotten up the nerve to ask out his smokin’ hot boss. On his way home from work to change for that date he runs into his best friend from childhood, Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews), who’s looking a little worse for wear. Christian doesn’t care. With just a second’s reluctance, Christian invites him in – to his apartment, his date, and his life.

But there is something seriously wrong with Wyatt.

Writer/director Perry Blackshear’s film nimbly treads the same ground as the wonderful Frailty and the damn near perfect Take Shelter in that he uses sympathetic characters and realistic situations to blur the line between mental illness and the supernatural.

Wyatt believes there is a coming demonic war and he’s gone to rescue his one true friend. Andrews is sweetly convincing as the shell shocked young man unsure as to whether his head is full of bad wiring, or whether his ex-fiance has demon fever.

The real star here, though, is Dumouchel, whose character arc shames you for your immediate assessment. Blackshear examines love – true, lifelong friendship – in a way that has maybe never been explored as authentically in a horror film before. It’s this genuineness, this abiding tenderness Christian and Wyatt have for each other, that makes the film so moving and, simultaneously, so deeply scary.

1. Psycho (1960)

Was Norman Bates psychotic from the start? Or was he smothered into madness by his mother?

Hard to say – Mrs. Bates can’t speak for herself, can she? Although Norman’s mother is not a character in Hitchcock’s classic, her presence is everywhere. But to be fair, we don’t get to see her as she was, we only get to see her as Norman sees her.

Whatever the case, Norman has an unhealthy attachment to his late mother, a single parent whose relationship with her son may have driven him to some very bad deeds. Part of Hitchcock’s skill in this film is to play with our expectations of the characters.

The heroine has done some questionable things. The villain is the most sympathetic character onscreen. The most relevant character in the story isn’t even in the film. Was Mrs. Bates really a bad mom, or does she just seem like that to us because we see her through Norman’s eyes, and he’s a psycho?

Fright Club: Best Black and White Horror

Finally! We’ve been kicking this one around for a long time, but this week – with the help of Vince and Grant of the podcast In the Record Store – we finally tackle the best black and white films in horror.

What a list! We had no choice but to employ fuzzy math for this one, and even so we had to leave off so many greats – including some that Grant and Vince would have included.

6. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

From the brightly lit opening cemetery sequence to the paranoid power struggle in the house to the devastating closing montage, Night of the Living Dead teems with the racial, sexual and political tensions of its time. An unsettlingly relevant George A. Romero knew how to push societal panic buttons.

As the first film of its kind, the lasting impact of this picture on horror cinema is hard to overstate. Romero’s inventive imagination created the genre and the monster from the ground up.

They’re dead.

They’re back.

They’re hungry for human flesh.

Their bite infects the bitten.

The bitten will eventually bite.

Aim for the head.

Romero served as cinematographer for this project, likely choosing black and white as a cost saver, but we’d later learn that this format is 1) highly forgiving of zombie makeup, and 2) spookier. The color palette turns the Waltons-esque setting of the farm house into something isolated and sinister.

The shrill sense of confinement, the danger of one survivor turning on another, and the unthinkable transformation going on in the cellar build to a startling climax – one that utterly upends expectations – followed by the kind of absolutely genius ending that guarantees the film’s eternal position in the annals of horror cinema.

5. Eraserhead (1977)

There truly is no film quite like David Lynch’s first feature, eh?

Eraserhead defies simple summarization. Easily the most surreal of all Lynch’s films – which is a huge statement – the film follows sad-sack Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) dealing poorly with fatherhood.

The film becomes a nightmare of paternal angst and existential crisis – indeed, it may be impossible to name a film or filmmaker more able to bring a nightmare to life.

It’s also among the finest examples of corporeal horror you will find. The shadowy, grimy b/w photography – partially handled by Lynch’s longtime cinematographer Frederick Elmes – amplifies the dismal stagnation facing Henry.

At the same time, it gives a weird, nostalgic camp factor to the Lady in the Radiator and adds a particularly lurid element to that whole bleeding “chicken” thing.

Plus, the baby. Yikes. Alive with the most disturbing imagery, Eraserhead is impossible to forget.

4. Psycho (1960)

Among the four Oscar nominations the film garnered was one for John L Russell and his gorgeous black and white cinematography.

By 1960, most folks had abandoned black and white – including Hitchcock. But with his truest foray into horror, the master returned to the high contrast imagery for a number of reasons.

Sure, one of those was that it freed him up with the blood. Had all that stuff in the shower been red, he’d never have gotten away with it. Mrs. Bates wouldn’t have looked quite right, either.

Russell’s visuals also gave the film its lonesome American Gothic quality. Norman seemed more innocent, Marion Crane seemed more mysterious, and the old Bates house seemed spookier.

Of course, was there ever a question Hitch knew what he was doing?

3. Frankenstein (1931)

James Whale’s genius was in finding the monster fascinating, rather than the doctor. Nearly every other Frankenstein made before or since has been preoccupied with the doctor, but Whale understood that it was this unique beast, baby and man, evil and innocent, that should compel our interest. Who cares about one more doctor with a god complex?

Luckily for Whale, he had Boris Karloff. Karloff’s gift was in seeing the monster as a neglected child. His monster is sweet and tragic, characterized by the terrible freedom of a loosed child full of fear, unbridled excitement and shame. Karloff nails this childlike energy and ignorance married to a grown man’s strength in a way that no other actor truly has.

Obviously, in 1931 Whale had no choice but to film in black and white, but how fascinating that a movie without color created a green monster. What a testament to the film’s vidid imagery – created with the help of make-up guru Jack Pierce. A nightmare of greying flesh, black stitches and mechanical pieces, this image of the monster speaks of death, mad science and bad intentions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McUce_xwxeA

2. Nosferatu (1922)

Not the seductive, European aristocrat, cloaked and mysterious, oh no. With Count Orlock, filmmaker F. W. Murnau explores something more repellant, casting an actor who resembles an albino naked mole rat.

Given that Murnau equates the film’s vampire-related deaths with the plague, this vermin-like image fits well. But more than that, thanks to a peculiarly perfect performance by Max Schreck, Murnau mines the carnality of the vampire myth for revulsion and fear rather than eroticism.

Murnau’s gift was not solely in casting. The shadows danced, the dead rose and Europe writhed with the dead and dying. His skill with the camera was unparalleled. Between his casting and his camera, he made the most authentic vampire movie – perhaps ever.

Sure, the silent film style of acting appears nothing short of quaint today, and the Dracula tale has been told too, too often at this point. But Max Schreck is a freak, and in his bony, clawlike hands, Count Orlock remains the greatest vampire ever undone by a sinless maiden.

1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

James Whale and Boris Karloff – with tag along make-up man Jack Pierce – returned to Castle Frankenstein for an altogether superior tale of horror. What makes this one a stronger picture is the dark humor and subversive attitude, mostly animated by Frankenstein’s colleague Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).

Thesiger’s mad doctor makes for a suitable counterpart to the earnest and contrite Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, again), and a sly vehicle for Whale. This fey and peculiar monster-maker handles the most brilliant dialogue the film has to offer, including the iconic toast, “To gods and monsters.”

The sequel casts off the earnestness of the original, presenting a darker film that’s far funnier, often outrageous for its time, with a fuller story. Karloff again combines tenderness and menace, and Elsa Lanchester becomes the greatest goth goddess of all film history as his Bride.

Fright Club: Single Parent Horror

All the single ladies, all the single ladies – unfortunately, life does not always turn out as well for us as it does for Beyonce. Today we celebrate and fear the horror that can befall the single parent. Your kids may be monsters. Monsters may be after your kids. You may be the monster. Maybe it’s all three at once. Whatever the case, horror filmmakers have found a way to hit some very effective buttons when exploring the horror potential in a single parent home.

5. The Ring (2002)

Let’s be honest, Rachel (Naomi Watts) is not much of a mother. Were it not for her sloppy parenting, her precocious son Aidan (adorable and creepy David Dorfman) might not even be in this mess. But she left her VHS tape laying around, paid no attention to what he was up to, and now Samara is coming for him.

Gore Verbinski one-upped Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Japanese original Ringu with this deeply creepy, well-executed nightmare, much of it centering on questionable parenting. Both Watts and Dorfman are excellent, each creating a character that is somehow rigid and distant, but you long for tenderness between them. Dorfman’s wise-beyond-his-years performance feels both chilly and vulnerable, and the relationship here creates an off-kilter foundation for the horrific mystery unfolding.

Everything about this film is done well – the images on the video tape, the looks on the faces of the victims, that horse bit on the boat, Brian Cox in the bathtub, Samara climbing out of the well! Verbinski strings together one nightmare image after another, but the tension of whether or not Rachel has the wherewithal to save the son she hasn’t paid enough attention to in the first place is what holds these together.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PkgRhzq_BQ

4. Goodnight Mommy (2014)

There is something eerily beautiful about Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s rural Austrian horror Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh).

During one languid summer, twin brothers Lukas and Elias await their mother’s return from the hospital. But when their mom comes home, bandaged from the cosmetic surgery she underwent, the brothers fear more has changed than just her face.

Inside this elegantly filmed environment, where sun dappled fields lead to leafy forests, the filmmakers mine a kind of primal childhood fear. There’s a subtle lack of compassion that works the nerves beautifully, because it’s hard to feel too badly for the boys or for their mother. You don’t wish harm on any of them, but at the same time, their flaws make all three a bit terrifying.

Performances by young brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz compel interest, while Susanne Wuest’s cagey turn as the boys’ mother propels the mystery. It’s a hypnotic, bucolic adventure as visually arresting as it is utterly creepy.

3. Under the Shadow (2016)

The tale is set in Tehran circa 1988, at the height of the Iran/Iraq war and just a few years into the “Cultural Revolution” that enforced fundamentalist ideologies.

Shideh (a fearless Narges Rashidi) has been banned from returning to medical school because of her pre-war political leanings. Her husband, a practicing physician, is serving his yearly medical duty with the troops. This leaves Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment as missiles rain on Tehran.

When a dud missile plants itself in the roof of the building (shades of del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone), Dora starts talking to a secret friend. Maybe the friend would be a better mommy.

Frazzled, impatient, judged and constrained from all sides, Shideh’s nerve is hit with this threat. And as external and internal anxieties build, she’s no longer sure what she’s seeing, what she’s thinking, or what the hell to do about it.

The fact that this menacing presence – a djinn, or wind spirit – takes the shape of a flapping, floating burka is no random choice. Shideh’s failure in this moment will determine her daughter’s entire future.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fhejr94P14

2. Psycho (1960)

Was Norman Bates psychotic from the start? Or was he smothered into madness by his mother?

Hard to say – Mrs. Bates can’t speak for herself, can she? Although Norman’s mother is not a character in Hitchcock’s classic, her presence is everywhere. But to be fair, we don’t get to see her as she was, we only get to see her as Norman sees her.

Whatever the case, Norman has an unhealthy attachment to his late mother, a single parent whose relationship with her son may have driven him to some very bad deeds. Part of Hitchcock’s skill in this film is to play with our expectations of the characters.

The heroine has done some questionable things. The villain is the most sympathetic character onscreen. The most relevant character in the story isn’t even in the film. Was Mrs. Bates really a bad mom, or does she just seem like that to us because we see her through Norman’s eyes, and he’s a psycho?

1. Babadook (2014)

You’re exhausted – just bone-deep tired – and for the umpteenth night in a row your son refuses to sleep. You let him choose a book to read, and he hands you a pop-up you don’t recognize: The Babadook. Pretty soon, your son isn’t the only one afraid of what’s in the shadows.

Filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s film is expertly written and beautifully acted, boasting unnerving performances from not only a stellar lead in Essie Davis, but also the alarmingly spot-on young Noah Wiseman. Davis’s lovely, loving Amelia is so recognizably wearied by her only child’s erratic, sometimes violent behavior that you cannot help but pity her, and sometimes fear for her, and other times fear her.

Likewise, Wiseman delivers as a tender, confused, dear little boy you sometimes just want to throttle. Their naturalistic performances genuinely showcase the baggage that can exist between a parent and a child.

Much of what catapults The Babadook beyond similar “presence in my house” flicks is the allegorical nature of the story. There’s an almost subversive relevance to the familial tensions because of their naked honesty, and the fight with the shadowy monster as well as the film’s unusual resolution heighten tensions.

The film’s subtext sits so close to the surface that it threatens to burst through. Though that does at times weaken the fantasy, it gives the film a terrifying urgency. In the subtext there is a primal horror, a taboo rarely visited in film and certainly never examined with such sympathy. Indeed, the compassion in the film may be the element that makes it so very unsettling.

Fright Club: Best Horror Films of the Sixties

The Sixties offered a turning point in horror, redefining and reshaping a genre that would explode the following decade. The era saw horror evolve from the atomic paranoia that informed schlocky Fifties fare to more politically challenging, artistically relevant work – work that would shape the modern genre. Here are the five best films horror had to offer in the 1960s.

5. Eyes Without a Face (1960)

The formula behind this film has been stolen and reformulated for dozens of lurid, low-brow exploitation films since 1960. In each, there is a mad doctor who sees his experiments as being of a higher order than the lowly lives they ruin; the doctor is assisted by a loyal, often non-traditionally attractive (some might say handsome) nurse; there are nubile young women who will soon be victimized, as well as a cellar full of the already victimized. But somehow, in this originator of that particular line of horror, the plot works seamlessly.

An awful lot of that success lies in the remarkable performances. Still, the power in the film is in the striking visuals that are the trademark of giant French filmmaker Georges Franju. His particular genius in this film gave us the elegantly haunting image of Dr. Genessier’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob). Her graceful, waiflike presence haunts the entire film and elevates those final scenes to something wickedly sublime.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGNFynNqJ2A

4. The Innocents (1961)

Quietly desperate and delicately high strung, Deborah Kerr’s performance is the perfect central image in The Innocents, the best of many screen adaptations of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Is Kerr’s hypersensitive governess turning delusional as she spirals toward spinsterhood, or are her angelic charges in danger of becoming possessed by the spectral lovers who seem to haunt the property?

Thanks to Kerr, the wickedly cherubic turn by Martin Stephens as young Miles, and Freddie Francis’s gorgeous black and white photography, this eerie ghost story is a glorious study in the shadowy line between reality and imagination.

3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby remains a disturbing, elegant, and fascinating tale, and Mia Farrow’s embodiment of defenselessness joins forces with William Fraker’s skillful camerawork to cast a spell. Along with Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976), Rosemary’s Baby is part of Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” – disturbing films of tension and horror in which metropolitan life and nosey neighbors conspire to drive a person mad.

Working from Ira Levin’s novel, Polanski takes all the glamour out of Satanism – with a huge assist from Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for her turn as the highly rouged busybody Minnie Castevet. By now we all know what happens to poor Rosemary Woodhouse, but back in’69, thanks much to Mia Farrow’s vulnerable performance, the film boiled over with paranoid tension. Was Rosemary losing it, or was she utterly helpless and in evil hands?

2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

From the brightly lit opening cemetery sequence to the paranoid power struggle in the house to the devastating closing montage, Night of the Living Dead teems with the racial, sexual and political tensions of its time. An unsettlingly relevant George A. Romero knew how to push societal panic buttons.

As the first film of its kind, the lasting impact of this picture on horror cinema is hard to overstate. Romero’s inventive imagination created the zombie genre and the monster from the ground up. Beyond that, the film’s shrill sense of confinement, the danger of one man turning on another, and the unthinkable transformation going on in the cellar build to a startling climax – one that utterly upends expectations – followed by the kind of absolutely genius ending that guarantees the film’s eternal position in the annals of horror cinema.

1. Psycho (1960)

In making Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock made horror a legitimate genre by producing a movie that scared smart people, mostly by upending expectations. Hitch kills off his pretty lead in the first act, after letting us know that she has pre-marital sex and is capable of stealing large sums of money. What’s great about these revelations is that she isn’t judged for them. She’s treated as a sympathetic, likeable heroine – although the villain comes off as even more of an innocent. Anthony Perkins’s sexually confused, vulnerable, awkward killer is almost too sympathetic.

Hitchcock’s masterpiece is known best, of course, for the shower scene, and with good reason. But what changed history was his decision to give us a hero who is flawed and a villain (a full-on psycho, no less) that we can’t help but root for.

Listen to our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST for the whole bit.