Lionising mass murderers at the expense of their victims is nothing new in cinema, but it seems to be all the rage at the minute. Last week, at Cannes, Caleb Landry Jones won the festival’s best actor award for Nitram, in which he portrays Martin Bryant, who killed 35 people in Australia’s Port Arthur Massacre in 1996.
The film’s existence has outraged some Australians, including film-maker Richard Keddie, who called it an act of “intentional cruelty”.
Nitram’s director Justin Kurzel has defended the film, saying it draws attention to Australia’s gun control laws, which have been relaxed since 1996. And Nitram wisely ends just before the shooting begins. But in depicting Martin Bryant’s epically dysfunctional early life, it risks accusations of sympathising with the mass murderer.
Survivors of Anders Behring Breivik’s mass shooting in Oslo were similarly unhappy when two films about the event (Utoya: July 22 and 22 July) were released in quick succession in 2018, no doubt greatly pleasing Breivik, a neo-Nazi and Aryan fantasist whose notoriety was reinvigorated. In America, there’s general disbelief that yet more films are being released depicting the life of Ted Bundy.
Bundy, who killed more than 30 women in the 1970s and may have murdered as many as 100, is the subject of American Boogeyman, an forthcoming thriller starring Chad Michael Murray that revisits the killer’s grisly crimes. It is, by my count, the eighth motion picture devoted to the exploits of this callow non-entity, who was executed in 1989.
And before the end of August, it will be followed by No Man of God, in which Elijah Wood will play a deeply religious FBI man who visited Bundy in prison.
The release of Joe Berlinger’s 2019 Bundy film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, which starred Zac Efron, prompted some online geniuses to decide that “Ted Bundy is hot”. Jeffrey Dahmer was given surprisingly sympathetic treatment in Marc Meyers’ well-made 2017 My Friend Dahmer and each time one of these things is made, you really feel for relatives of the victims and wonder about the wisdom of making films that might act as a template for future maniacs.
Perhaps it’s not as simple as that, but a fascination with serial killers that gained ground in the 1970s has never gone away, which means there will definitely be more of these unsettling and prurient fact-based movies.
Perhaps a safer way to examine the psychopathology of multiple murderers is by fictional means and film-makers have given us some wonderful screen monsters over the years.
Peter Lorre, most famous these days for his sneaking and snivelling in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, was a big star in Weimar Germany until Hitler’s rise in 1933 forced him to flee to America. Before he went, he played arguably the first screen serial killer of them all in Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece, M. Lorre was Hans Beckert, a paedophile and child killer who becomes the subject of a frantic manhunt.
M was grim, so dark in fact that it would never have been made in America, or Britain, but in 1960, two remarkable films changed all that. The great English director Michael Powell would have cause to bitterly regret making Peeping Tom, a film considered so transgressive it effectively ended his career.
In fact, it was a masterpiece of sorts, a macabre nightmare starring Austrian actor Carl Boehm as a cameraman who stalks and kills young women, recording their last agonies. Vilified in Britain, declared “morally objectionable” in the US, Peeping Tom is sometimes called the first slasher movie: if it is, Hitchcock’s Psycho is the second.
Released just a few months after Peeping Tom, Alfred Hitchcock’s film was similarly graphic, so much so that his studio, Paramount, refused to finance it. Hitch, a wily dog with an unerring populist sense, reckoned the story was worth taking a punt on, and bankrolled Psycho himself.
What a smart decision that was, because Psycho turned out to be Hitchcock’s most financially successful film, and he personally earned $15m. All of this despite the fact that his movie was partly based on the story of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, who cross-dressed, was obsessed by his late mother and killed two women before he was caught.
Hitchcock got away with Psycho with sleight of hand and sheer panache and in the end the American censor was more concerned with scenes in which Janet Leigh was shown wearing a bra than the one in which her character was stabbed to death by a maniac.
The film’s success changed the rules forever. Before Psycho, the grisly crimes and psychological complexities of a loon like Robert Mitchum’s scripture-spouting killer Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955) had to be hinted at, observed in passing. But in exploring Norman Bates’ grim childhood and deep impulses, Hitchcock placed the serial killer centre stage: he has been there ever since.
One legacy of Psycho was the glut of slasher films that appeared in the 1980s, in which Halloween bogeymen like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers blithely slaughtered multiple victims whose smugness and/or beauty we were invited to hold against them.
The other legacy was the grittier and altogether scarier serial killer subgenre, beginning in 1968 with The Boston Strangler, a resoundingly grim drama based on a real case and starring Janet Leigh’s ex-husband Tony Curtis as a maniac who targets lone women.
In the 1980s, movie-makers picked up on the cinematic potential of Thomas Harris’s crime novels. The scariest of the Hannibal Lecter movies was undoubtedly Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), which starred William Petersen as Will Graham, an FBI profiler whose investigations of serial killers have left him a haunted, troubled man.
In Manhunter, Lecter was played with whispering menace by Brian Cox, but Anthony Hopkins would make the character his own in The Silence of the Lambs. As played by Hopkins, Lecter was the bogeyman incarnate, a wine-swilling, opera-loving monster who was so dangerous that he had to be muzzled and manacled whenever he was transported.
Since then, the serial killer has become a stock character in cinema. Oliver Stone used two psychos as vehicles for comedy in his bitter 1994 societal satire Natural Born Killers. And there was something rather camp too about Christian Bale’s portrayal of Wall Street narcissist Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000).
Serial killer movies still have the power to shock. Earlier this year, in The Little Things, Jared Leto was ickiness itself playing an LA mechanic who may or may not be the author of a series of gruesome and meticulously posed killings. He meets an unpleasant end that leaves us with more questions than answers.
And in 2018, the always attention-seeking Danish director Lars von Trier inspired a mass walkout in Cannes with his well-made but deeply troubling thriller The House That Jack Built. The main character, Jack, a failed architect (Matt Dillon) becomes addicted to killing after murdering an annoying woman to whom he’s given a lift.
As the body count rises, his methods become ever more elaborate: he stores the bodies in a freezer, and has conversations with the poet Virgil about the ramifications of his crimes, which he now believes are a form of art.
It was a good, bad, reprehensible and pretentious movie, to be viewed only by the strong of stomach. And when it was released, some critics noted the main character’s resemblance to one Ted Bundy.
But Jack seemed like a choirboy compared to the real killer: truth really is stranger than fiction.