Thursday, August 02, 2007

Serial Killers in Cinema

I just hired a new employee who wants to be a missionary, but at the same time is interested in forensic psychology a.k.a. serial killers...and I'm thinking "what a combo."

Actually, I think a lot of people are at least semi-interested in "serial killers," not that they're listing it as a hobby alongside other interest in knitting, marathon running, and Cajun cooking.

Every year, there seems like there's a movie or two that is either a horror, thriller and/or crime drama that relates to a serial killer, real or fictional. In my own mind, I think I often think the reason serial killer films are so popular is because films are trying to ride of the success of the wildly popular film The Silence of the Lambs.

Yet at the same time, watching the first season of Prime Suspect, which came out the same year of Silence of the Lambs (1991), they too are tracking a serial killer, and I began to realize my Silence of the Lambs theory was wrong.

Serial killers offer a scary and creepy sense of urgency in pop culture. The idea that the sooner we track down the pyscho-killer, the less people that get hurt is debatably far more interesting than a film where they're tracking down a person who has committed a crime of passion or who simply shoots people to get what they want. Not just does a serial killer present a sense of urgency, but also creates an antagonist who is intelligent who needs to protagonist to out smart the crook.

That's the way it is in the recent David Fincher film Zodiac. This great film really captures the serial killer interest in culture and individuals. This true story about San Fransisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) who does his own investigation to track the Zodiac killer out of personal obsession really creates such an interesting "based on a true story" type of movie. I think so many people want to be like Graysmith. They want to sit around their breakfast tables, looking at the evidence and details in the newspaper and solve the case.

So it's not just Silence of the Lambs that drives people to have an interest in watching and making films about serial killers. Also, many popular films pre-date Silence of the Lambs, the main films that come to mind is Alfred Hitchcock's classic film Psycho, which of course has one of the most famous fictional serial killers of cinema, Norman Bates. Similarly, there are other early fictional serial killers like Michael Myers from Halloween series (which began in 1978), or Jason from the Friday the 13th series (which began in 1980).

And of course, this year has already seen a couple serial killer films in Zodiac, Mr. Brooks, Hannibal Rising, and maybe a few others.

But of course, potential the biggest serial killer movie of 2007 will be the musical Sweeney Todd:The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Tim Burton's film based on the Stephen Sondheim musical is an excellent example that our cultural interest in serial killers has existed for a long time.

The story of Sweeney Todd as a serial killer/barber has been around since at least 1846 when it appeared in a British penny fiction book called The String of Pearls: A Romance. In 1847 George Dibdin-Pitt wrote a popular "based on fact" play based on the story and gave it the "Demon of Barber of Fleet Street" as a subtitle. A film adaptation of the Sweeney Todd story was made in 1936 directed by George King. In 1973 Christopher Bond wrote a play called Sweeney Todd where he gave the title character a motive for this crazy killings by giving Todd a back story as the wrongly imprisoned Benjamin Barker.

And it from that story that Hugh Wheeler and Steven Sondheim crafted the Tony Award winning musical that first appeared on Broadway in 1979. And still over a quarter of a century later, the story of this serial killer (or any other) is guaranteed to create a thrilling and horrific experience for movie goers. And seeing the first pictures of Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd certainly has the ability to make your skin crawl.

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Darrell said...

You're right, Zodiac really is a great movie. And it really is more about the people who got caught up in the case than about the case itself. When it was over I was amazed to realize it had been close to two and a half hours. It just flew by!

AK said...

I'm guessing the Johnny Depp version isn't going to be a musical... That picture is creepy. I'm still deciding if I really want to see it or not. I think I could handle the horror a little better if they were singing and dancing. But I love Johnny Depp & Tim Burton...

Cameron said...

i am so excited about sweeney todd!! my favorite serial killer movie is Seven. It scares the crap out of me.

p.s. i love your blog!

AK said...

OK, so I feel a little silly - I just went to and looked back your previous blog and saw that it is indeed a musical. Now, convincing Anthony to go see it with me...

Terence Towles Canote said...

I think part of the reason that people are interested in serial killers is that they represent evil at its worst. How can one be so sick that he or she not only kills once, but repeatedly, and for reasons that most of us cannot comprehend? Not to trivialise serial killing, but in a way they are the ultimate bad guys.

The Daily City® said...

Interesting read!

kat said...

Heh, my dad was a sociologist with an emphasis in criminology and serial killers, in particular. Dinner conversations were....interesting. You can't imagine the titles of books I inherited when he died. It freaks me out just having them in the house.

That being said, "Dexter" on Showtime is the most entertaining show about serial killers I've seen in a long time.

But I am looking forward to Sweeney Todd, too. I just saw a production of it last spring. Wonderful.

Lorna said...

I wish we could get Dexter here---eventually I know, but everything about it is so right, and it seems weird that the 49th parallel cuts us off.

Johnny Depp and Tim burton---always a treat.