Scary Times With 10 Fact-Based Films

elephant-alex-frostThere are Famous Monsters…and then there are famous monsters.

Both Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were inspired by the real-life crimes of mass murderer Ed Gein; The Silence of the Lambs, book and film, incorporated character traits of multiple serial killers in the depiction of Jame Gumb, the psychopath hunted by FBI agent Clarice Starling–with a little help from the imprisoned Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, himself a (still-mysterious) amalgam of stranger-than-fiction monsters of past and present.

While the profoundly disturbing thriller Se7en reeked with authentic nihilism, and films like Dawn of the Dead and Hostel took blood-soaked pains to offer satiric commentaries on the sorry state of humanity, there’s an entire genre of films that bypass the more commercial goals of “escapism” in favor of more directly dramatizing the horrific tales we’ve read about in the newspapers, pored over in paperback, or seen described in lurid detail on the television news and the Internet.

Filmmakers surely feel they’re walking an awfully fine line when it comes to mounting productions where the names and places aren’t being changed, or where the events depicted are so thinly disguised as to make those changes irrelevant. The line gets even thinner and more slippery when the films are based on incidents in the not-so-distant past. Remember that horrifying-but-hilarious-because-it’s-true line offered by Alan Alda in the Woody Allen film Crimes and Misdemeanors?

“Comedy is tragedy plus time.”

Alda’s reptilian character—a morally compromised TV producer—was arguing that while no one could make a funny sketch about Lincoln being shot right after it happened, after a sufficient amount of time had passed, that tragedy becomes fair game for laughs, and so it must be with any other outrage ripped from history’s headlines. “Springtime for Hitler,” anyone?

But let’s forget about comedy for a moment–what’s the grace period for serious film productions concerning the stuff of which real-life nightmares are made? Probably limitless, for anyone living and involved somehow with the story in question. Filmmakers can’t be forever bound to creating scripts out of whole cloth, however—any given artist’s nature might compel him (or her) to attempt to make sense of the world through a lifelike representation of a tragic true story.

Degrees of responsibility, matters of decorum, issues of good taste—they’ll always be there, and always be debated, just as the desires for exploration (and yes, exploitation), understanding, and catharsis will always manifest themselves in the hearts of filmmakers and audiences alike, once private tragedies become public knowledge.

What are the finest—let’s not call them “entertaining,” at least in that baser sense—pictures in this difficult-to-navigate genre? Here are my own submissions, in chronological order:

Rope-hitchcock-posterRope No sooner do I give an admonition (to myself) about including films that are purely “entertaining” than I go ahead and list perhaps one of the most completely enjoyable true-crime thrillers of all, directed by none other than the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. As taken from the stage play by Patrick Hamilton (and adapted by Hume Cronyn), the names and specific events have been changed, but no one ever had any doubt the plot was an evocation of the infamous Leopold and Loeb case of 1924. In the film, John Dall and Farley Granger make for a truly chilling pair of murderers, carefully choosing a victim to dispatch as their way of demonstrating their superiority over conventional morality. Well known for being filmed in a series of long takes, Rope has been frequently criticized as one of Hitch’s “interesting” failures. I see nothing failed about it, and I find the stylistic conceit only adding to the film’s nail-biting unease. It’s a masterwork of visual choreography and a true showcase for the cast. James Stewart is at his piercing best in a deceptively folksy, darkly humorous role, playing the boys’ former professor who first introduced them to the idea of the Nietzschean “superman” (one who is the master of his own values). Stewart’s focused, gradually more intrusive interrogation of the young murderers–as they attempt to put on a delicately arranged dinner party with the corpse literally under everyone’s noses–eventually leads to an opportunity for Stewart to deliver a powerful climactic monologue that, in lesser hands, could have been supremely hammy. Remaking Hitchcock is like playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber, but I’d love to see this redone. Today’s technology would permit the action to be staged in a completely continuous take, and I’d put it on live television if it were to land safely in the hands of a producer like George Clooney, who proved with Fail Safe that he knows how to make something a little musty new again.

InColdBlood-robert-blake-tearsIn Cold Blood Truman Capote’s 1966 book about the 1959 murders of a Kansas farming family was, of course, the perfect candidate for cinematic adaptation, due to its unique status in establishing the genre of the “nonfiction novel”–denoting a work that relates a true story utilizing the narrative techniques associated with fiction. Audiences were well accustomed to seeing their movies in color by 1967, but the decision to film this story in black and white was a bold and effective one, and the Oscar-nominated work done here by Conrad Hall—who three times took the Academy’s top prize for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty, and Road to Perdition—is positively marvelous, evoking a bone-chilling realism. Scott Wilson and Robert Blake deliver well-rounded and multidimensional portrayals of the inadequate men who leaned on each other, urging one another forward while possessed by greed and bad information, until they become monsters. Once their planned robbery of the Clutter household proves to be less lucrative than they’d initially believed, the duo engages in heartless acts of violence. As in Rope, one killer maintains a sense of defiant bravado in the aftermath while the other begins to crack from strains of fear and guilt. Richard Brooks received richly deserved Oscar nominations for his adapted script and direction, while music legend Quincy Jones was likewise honored for his score. This movie, filmed in actual locations including the home where the murders took place, is required viewing for those wanting to experience one of cinema’s darkest slices of Americana.

helter-skelter-dvdHelter Skelter Whenever Roman Polanski’s back in the news (as he has been recently with his capture overseas, not to mention the recent release of the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and his own contemporary thriller, The Ghost Writer), the long shadow of Charles Manson is sadly not far behind. As most true crime (and Polanski) followers know, his then-pregnant wife Sharon Tate was among the victims of the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders undertaken at the direction of cult leader Manson—a grotesque series of crimes chronicled in this TV movie, the first adaptation of the book written by Manson’s prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi. The film has long been regarded as one of the most riveting made-for-TV movies in history, due to both its matter-of-fact style and a supremely uncompromising performance by Steve Railsback as Manson, who creates a special brand of charismatic madness rarely seen on screens large or small. Equally compelling is George DiCenzo’s low-key and serious work as Bugliosi. (Does anyone else consistently confuse DiCenzo here for Powers Boothe? Maybe it’s just always been me. More on Boothe in a moment) Check the winners of Emmy Awards for this year and you’ll run into plenty of titles that have vanished into obscurity, while Helter Skelter continues to live on in legend as one of the best of its kind.

guyana-tragedy-jim-jones-dvdGuyana Tragedy: The Jim Jones Story Has anyone ever accused you of “drinking the Kool-Aid”? If you’re ever on the receiving end of that accusation and are not already familiar with its origin, you’ll want to immediately acquaint yourself with this two-part telefilm about the sad and scary saga of Rev. Jim Jones (Powers Boothe). The Indiana-born Jones was a charismatic leader who began as a minister devoted to the celebration of racially integrated congregations only to devolve into a messianic madman–a womanizing zealot addicted to power, sex, and visions of the apocalypse. After he was rejected by the Christian establishment for his integrationist beliefs, Jones formed The Peoples Temple, and in 1974, established Jonestown–meant to be a “socialist paradise” in the South American state of Guyana. As conditions became strict and the Jonestown commune began to resemble not so much a spiritual Utopia as a sadistic prison camp, defectors reached out to California congressman Leo Ryan, who already had a connection to the group because a friend’s son was an ex-Temple member who was murdered. Jones’ sanctuary came under intense scrutiny, leading to a visit by Ryan, who intended to bring back members who wished to leave but were powerless to escape from Jones’ grasp. Jones then set into motion what he sold to his flock as a “revolutionary suicide,” instructing them to ingest cyanide-laced Flavor Aid (the “Kool-Aid” reference is a common mistake that has long since passed into popular acceptance). Directed by William A. Graham, this film retains its searing power by way of its straightforward approach. A marvelous supporting cast backs up Powers Boothe’s eerie, Emmy Award-winning performance as Jones. Standouts include Veronica Cartwright as Jones’ wife; Randy Quaid as the Peoples Temple business manager; Brad Dourif as a junkie Jones “rescues”; LeVar Burton as a young man who struggles again and again to extricate himself from the cult; and Ned Beatty as Rep. Ryan. Watching it today, it’s impossible to escape its relevance. Figures like Jones convince vulnerable followers that they are their only avenue to the truth; they exhort the like-minded to ignore all other conflicting sources of information and influence; they foment narratives of impending doom and all-encompassing paranoia. Contemporary successors mimicking the leadership style of Jim Jones tell their flocks: They’re out to get you. Listen to me, because following what I tell you is your only hope for salvation. Sound familiar? The movie’s first scene, where Jones stages a mock suicide drill to test the loyalty of his followers, tells us crucially what we need to understand about him—that he is a liar. At Jonestown, a posted placard offered the famous quote from Spanish novelist George Santayana about being condemned to repeat history if you failed to study it. For once, Jim Jones was telling people the truth.

star-80-dvdStar 80 One thing the late stage/film director Bob Fosse had in common with Martin Scorsese was an unfailing ability to reveal the infinite capacities men have for pettiness and self-destruction. Such was the case with this mesmerizing film recounting the story of Paul Snider (Eric Roberts), an overly confident small-time hustler who came to court, bed, and manage the career of young Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway), only to find that her successes made him feel even more inadequate and powerless. Growing ever more resentful and jealous when she achieves a measure of fame as a Playboy centerfold model and aspiring (if limited) actress, he moves forward with a plan to kill her. Following the lead of Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood, Fosse lensed the climactic scenes of the movie in the very location where Stratten was murdered in 1980, and otherwise saturates the film with a distinctive and showy seediness that perfectly captures the desperate, flashy world the characters occupy. Roberts’ performance as Snider ranks as one of the great lowlife portrayals, in that although we know well in advance the ugly turn his story will take, we can’t help but feel a tiny—emphasize tiny—amount of empathy for him, as he struggles harder and harder to beat down the self-realization that the priorities of his life have always been grossly misplaced, acting to deny him the life he desires so badly.

prick-up-your-ears-oldman-molinaPrick Up Your Ears “I don’t understand my life. I was an only child. I lost both my parents. By the time I was 20, I was going bald. I’m a homosexual. In the way of circumstances and background, I had everything an artist could possibly want. It was practically a blueprint. I was programmed to be a novelist or a playwright. But I’m not…” The rage and despair just pour out of Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), and he’s certain that his lover, acclaimed British playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman), must somehow be to blame. Much like Paul Snider, Kenneth was a deeply troubled man long before he met Joe, but it wasn’t until he was in such close proximity to true genius that he realized how enormously inadequate his own literary talents were. Kenneth’s dream of being a great writer is a common one. His desire for fame is now the stuff of one reality program after another, but Kenneth wanted a loftier and more enduring brand of acclaim. Perhaps he simply didn’t possess the artistic gifts that would have elevated him beyond simple craftsmanship. Perhaps if he’d been more socially well-adjusted. Perhaps if he hadn’t had such a high opinion of himself and such a low opinion of so many others. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. You don’t hear so very much about director Stephen Frears’ film these days, and it’s too bad, because its insights into a very specific time and place are deeply felt, and its perceptiveness about human frailties is striking.

paradise-lost-dvdParadise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills /Paradise Lost 2: Revelations Almost never do I leave a movie theater actually angered by the movie. Well, OK, maybe after Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. As I was saying, it’s a rare occasion that a film inspires anger in me, but that’s exactly how I felt after seeing Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s vital documentaries of the 1993 triple murder case in West Memphis, Arkansas, detailing the speedy trial and conviction of three young men also alleged to be involved in Satanism because they dressed in black, listened to heavy metal music, and were regarded as odd outsiders by the community at large. As the victims were 8-year-old boys, the desire for swift justice was certainly understandable. What beggars comprehension is what follows—what appears to be an appalling lack of genuinely damning evidence that nevertheless convinces a jury to hand down one death sentence and two life sentences for the suspects in custody. The second film doles out even more disturbing elements of the case and its aftermath, and paints a very disconcerting portrait of the adoptive father of one of the young victims. Words like “outrage” and “miscarriage of justice” get tossed around a lot, but they’ve rarely seemed more relevant than in the case chronicled by these films.

Elephant-film-poster-475x671Elephant Stephen King said he was glad to see “Rage” (the 1977 novel he had published under the pen name of Richard Bachman) go out of print, troubled as he was by its potential to inspire disturbed teens to follow the example of its psychotic young protagonist, a high school student who arms himself with a semiautomatic weapon, murders his teacher, and takes an entire classroom hostage while playing sadistic, life-or-death mind games over the intercom with the principal he despises. One wonders, then, what King might think of the availability of Gus Van Sant’s deeply disturbing 2003 film—which, while not using any of the same names or places, is plainly designed to evoke memories of the tragic 1999 school shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School. Maybe some cineastes won’t agree, but in my opinion, it’s well past time to forgive Van Sant the misfire of his 1998 remake of Psycho. After all, when you take an overview of Van Sant’s filmography as a whole, which includes works like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Paranoid Park, and Milk, it’s hard to argue that the director doesn’t enjoy swinging for the bleachers. Elephant is as tough and uncompromising a film as United 93 would prove to be three years later when addressing the events of 9/11—and, released four years after the massacre at Columbine, it is a testament both to the process of grieving remembrance as well as the apparent senselessness of such horrific events. The first two thirds of the film are a rigidly naturalistic account of a day in the life of various children wandering through the hallways of an Oregon high school, going about their everyday business. What clues us in that the day will be a day like no other is the way in which Van Sant flows effortlessly backwards and forwards in time to repeat the same encounters between students from different perspectives, a year before the Oscar-winning Crash would cement the subgenre of circumstance uniting the fates of disparate characters. The camera lingers in very long takes, focused on what appear to be such mundane behaviors—at once distancing the film from conventional drama and re-creating the intensity with which I would imagine family members of such victims must recall their loved ones. You are given a long time to study their faces, watch them walk across a sunny lawn, smile briefly, confide in one another, enjoy their studies, feel inadequate—and simply live, with no knowledge of what is to come. You find yourself taking in the color of his jacket, the texture of her sweater, the style of his hair, the details that make the children—outwardly, which is how most people see one another—who they are. Drawn in closer and closer, you witness a series of small, casual cruelties, the sorts of things teenagers are made to endure every day. By the time the shootings get underway, we’ve been given precious little in the way of information or revelation about the two troubled boys who commit the heinous acts. Even a scene that revolves around one of the killers-to-be trying to play the piano is so carefully calculated not to give us any phony apologies for or contrived “dimensions” to the assassin’s character. Listen to his playing—it’s routine and uninspired, so measured as to be robotic, and in the end, he renders such a dismissive verdict of the classical music and his playing of it that any “poetry” we were led to believe might be suggested in the scene is thrown coldly and definitively aside. The movie ends before the story is over. Of course it does. It had to, because there were plenty of people whose stories ended prematurely on that April day.

united93-posterUnited 93 Shoah filmmaker Claude Lanzmann leveled some fairly direct criticisms at Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Holocaust film, Schindler’s List, referring to it as “kitschy melodrama.” His appraisal of the film is somewhat more nuanced than that microscopic quote suggests (and a simple online search for “Claude Lanzmann” and “Schindler’s List” will quickly yield his writings about it in fuller detail), but it’s fairly clear he disapproves of the film as a whole. My own experience with Spielberg’s picture is that it remains one of my very, very few experiences in moviegoing where I felt I had emerged from the theater a different person. Without going into any further detail than that—and I’m not sure I could put more detail into sensible words—I mention that as a preface to the observation that, of all the films in this posting, United 93’s account of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks fell victim perhaps to the loudest of criticisms that it was “too soon” or simply inappropriate to make a film—any film—about the events, let alone one to be directed by the man behind a moneymaking blockbuster like The Bourne Supremacy, which would mar it with the whiff (however faint) of exploiting an American tragedy for profit. Astute filmgoers who recalled writer/director Paul Greengrass’ 2002 film Bloody Sunday, about the 1972 Irish protest march that ended in bloodshed at the hands of the British, guessed correctly that perhaps he might just be the ideal filmmaker to create an honorable accounting of the tragic heroism involved in the Flight 93 saga. As the first Hollywood theatrical film to directly dramatize the story, it had an enormous burden to bear. The cast is a mixture of professional actors and everyday people, also including some of those who actually lived through and influenced events on the ground, such as FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney. As someone connected to 9-11 only as an American with a friend who worked in Manhattan at the time—no more and no less—I wouldn’t presume to be in a position to decide for anyone whether or not they should watch the movie. I found it to be made with sensitive and deep integrity, upsetting, profound, and above all, an absolutely necessary contribution to the history of relevant filmmaking.

zodiac-downey-gyllenhaalZodiac Imagine you’ve already helmed what is considered one of the finest movies ever made in the “serial killer” genre. Now, imagine rolling the dice by going back into that very same well, only this time, daring to tackle the story of one of the most infamous—and unsolved—mass murder stories of all time. That’s David Fincher, the director who followed his much-praised thriller Se7en with The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, and then this meticulously crafted and measured procedural detailing the hunt for the elusive Zodiac killer, the sadistic maniac who terrorized Northern California by attacking seemingly at random, all the while delivering mocking, coded letters to the press in a bid for widespread media attention—which he received. The film focuses primarily on the men drawn into the search, including detectives David Toschi and William Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards), who become obsessed with chasing down every clue left behind at the grisly crime scenes; San Francisco Chronicle police reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), who covered the story and became a specific target of the killer’s attention; and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the Chronicle’s ambitious cartoonist, who labored to unlock the Zodiac’s coded correspondence. Can a movie be both ahead of its time and a throwback? Based on the blockbuster account of the case written by Graysmith, Zodiac manages to pull off this seemingly contradictory feat, crafted with the matter-of-fact realism associated with the grittiest TV movies of decades past, the screen stuffed with overwhelming amounts of complex details and the prestigious air of investigative classics like All The President’s Men, while also employing enviably rich digital cinematography that gives the story a wholly modern immediacy. Seamless special effects enhance the wide and deep period landscapes depicted within the frame, with each member of the ensemble cast giving performances of immersive intensity. Zodiac received a good bit of critical praise but underperformed at the box office. I’m predicting with utter confidence that it will not only endure, but emerge to be regarded as a true classic of its kind.

And the next exhaustively researched, sensitively mounted “shocking true story” film waiting to be made? I’d say it’s a definitive movie about the 1981 murder of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner, for which former Black Panther/activist/radio personality Mumia Abu-Jamal has been convicted and sentenced to death. It’s interesting to note that—at least on Wikipedia–the films as yet completed about the case (granted, they’re all documentaries) are neatly divided into the works that are “pro-Mumia” and “anti-Mumia.” Is it truly impossible to make a film that cannot be pigeonholed (and thus, stigmatized) as either of those two things?

If not, does that have more to do with what’s actually known about the case or the political climate in which we now find ourselves?

Scary times, indeed.