Last gasp of the sick flick

When it comes to serial-killer films, the oldies are the goodies. Simon Busch laments the decline of a once spine-tingling genre
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The Independent Culture

Help! The serial-killer film is bleeding its last in the dank basement of cinematic inspiration. Having recently seen Fritz Lang's 1931 multiple-murderer classic M - still sending shivers down my spine - followed a few days later by Saw, the latest pallid addition to this branch of the sick-flick family, I can report that the mini-genre urgently needs a transfusion of ideas.

Help! The serial-killer film is bleeding its last in the dank basement of cinematic inspiration. Having recently seen Fritz Lang's 1931 multiple-murderer classic M - still sending shivers down my spine - followed a few days later by Saw, the latest pallid addition to this branch of the sick-flick family, I can report that the mini-genre urgently needs a transfusion of ideas.

A case history reveals an early vitality. America has made the serial-killer film its own, but its origins, almost as old as cinema itself, are European. Mwas significant not only in relocating the repeat killer from the supernatural realm - the eponymous vampire Nosferatu in F W Murnau's silent 1922 film, for example - to the fog-draped streets of the modern city, but also as an anguished piece of social explanation.

For that is a primary motivation of this gory genre. The serial-killer film, celebrated over the past weeks in a season at the National Film Theatre, seeks to contain the real-life horror of its subject in the movie house, where it can be dissected more or less in safety. A fascinating and disturbing thing about serial killers is that, despite appearing like dark-age throwbacks, they are a predominantly modern phenomenon. We are also used to thinking of them as American but, earlier in the century, Lang had some thoroughly German exponents to dwell upon in M. The protagonist of the film was loosely based upon Peter Kurten, one of several serial killers stalking a devastated Germany in the inter-war years, who raped women and children before tearing open their throats with his teeth and drinking their blood.

Despite his implied vampiric pretensions, Lang's antihero - played to creepy perfection by Peter Lorre, with his droopy, apparently harmless body and mournful face - is thoroughly human. As he pleads to the kangaroo court set up by the thieves of the unnamed city to try him (the demi-monde having hunted the killer down themselves to draw off the police heat), inner demons compelled him to kill again and again, and he could not resist them. To Lang, "M" - the murderer - is a victim, too.

The torn, even sympathetic, killer reappears 30 years later, in America, in another landmark serial-killer piece, Psycho. Modelled on the Wisconsin amateur gynaecologist Ed Gein (who, for all his many faults, also inspired The Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not to mention Three on a Meathook and Deranged), Norman Bates is periodically stirred into lethal action by the undying influence of his technically dead mother.

The Psycho strain of cinematic explanation is essentially a liberal one: it indicts society - the family, in the case of the Hitchcock film - for the killing as much as the killer himself. But serial-killer films since Psycho have increasingly used this liberal gesture as a decoy to usher evil and the supernatural back in. Most serial killers are American, but mainstream American cinema has generally sought to explain this apple-pie phenomenon by just explaining it away.

The term "serial killer" was not actually coined until the early Seventies, when an FBI agent, Robert Ressler, first used it to pin down the notion of a rational repeat killer with a sexual motive. A decade later, the bureau set up a special unit to study and catch such criminals. By the Nineties, almost every film seemed to have a compulsively murderous character, at least in a bit part.

In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Jonathan Demme fictionalised the FBI setting to introduce the prototype of the all-American serial killer. Certainly, the film delivers a fair dose of cod psychology to explain the crimes of Buffalo Bill, and Hannibal Lecter is supposed to have a distinctly European sensibility - but the psychotic psychiatrist's American underwear is revealed when we realise that he is nothing other than a serial-killing superhero. He is an emissary of evil, a force of nature - a natural-born killer - whose actions do not admit to psychological or sociological explanation.

Most serial-killer films since The Silence of the Lambs have used the Hannibal cookie-cutter. Lecter is partly a biblical creature - Se7en, starring Kevin Spacey as a man on a mission to make sins deadly again, made the return of the sacred even more explicit a few years later. Hannibal is also part pre-modern monster, eliciting a Grimm tingle of fear: in 1996, the brilliantly self-aware film Freeway brought Little Red Riding Hood up to date as the story of an abandoned white-trash teenager pursued by a guidance counsellor with a taste for young girls. He is, finally, an artist, whose killings, like those of The Bone Collector subsequently, amount to an aesthetic project.

Not all recent films about serial killers portray them as exceptional beings: precisely what they are not. Henry, from 1986, probably came closest to depicting the base, sickeningly violent reality of the damaged person who lives to kill. Citizen X, a tele-movie from 1995 starring Stephen Rea, successfully evoked the banality of the Soviet-era killer Andrei Chikatilo and the bureaucratic apathy that allowed him to murder so prolifically.

Nor are serial-killer-as-celebrity films necessarily bad. The Silence of the Lambs has a camp, florid brilliance, to which its numerous pale imitations attest. But the further Hollywood moves away from flesh-and-blood serial killing, the closer it gets to a bizarre directionless formalism. In retrospect, Copycat, about a serial killer who apes other serial killers, exhibited a dangerous navel-gazing bent back in 1995, but the tendency has got worse since. This year's Saw only attributed a motive to its murderer - he punishes people for wasting their lives, when he has a fatal disease - as part of the sadistic puzzle it set its audience. The film's very title, an aptly lopped off pointer to the DIY Seventies precursor, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, suggests a recycling of ideas.

Suspect Zero, also released this year, is about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers - they'll be marrying each other next.

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