“Now, do I look like a sex murderer to you? Can you imagine me, creeping around London, strangling all those women with ties? That’s ridiculous. For a start, I only own two.” –Jon Finch, Frenzy
In Florence, there’s a wax museum filled with dioramas of various serial killers. Almost none of these killers are from Italy. This is odd since the infamous Monster of Florence slayings are, ostensibly, the reason why such a museum is situated in Florence, the city most people associate with the Uffizi Museum and the Medicis.
If you take the museum’s guided tour (and you really must), you’ll notice that The Monster is however only a footnote, part of a single tapestry-like map of Italy’s many murderers. Ironically, most of these killers whom don’t really qualify as serial killers. Two or three murders, a death here or there, nothing like the wave of murders that inspired Thomas Harris to set his Hannibal in Florence. These killers are mostly Americans like Ed Gein, Aileen Wuornos and Jeffrey Dahmer. The Dahmer diorama is particularly impressive, complete with a realistic-looking trap door that hides half-exposed, half-decayed kiddy corpses.
Watch this video tour of the Serial Killer Museum – how many famous killers can you name?
I’m reminded of Florence’s wonderfully icky wax museum because The Snowtown Murders comes out in theaters this week. Based loosely on a series of real-life murders that took place in Snowtown, Australia, the film serves as a great reminder of why serial killers in particular are interesting: they’re pathologically disturbed. After a certain point, you can’t logically discern why a serial murderer does what he or she does. But that’s why they’re so fascinating: their gruesome crimes don’t make sense.
Think of it: guys like Albert Fish, the so-called “Vampire of Brooklyn,” or Jack the Ripper murdered people but only certain ones. So we want to know: why remove this body part or why take out your anger on women and why in this way? To make sense of these crimes, we have to confine these aberrant and largely inexplicable characters to reductive motives: they’re impotent, they have mommy issues, they hate women, etc.
Still, if everyone that had the above issues acted in the way that Ed Gein, the inspiration for films as diverse as Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, we’d not only be in deep shit but we’d also probably not care as much about serial murderers. Maybe, in an alternate universe where pathological behavior, as we understand it, is normal, dressing up like your mother and hacking people to bits with a chainsaw is something paid spokespeople encourage you to talk to your doctor about while Arnold Palmer throws footballs through tire swings.
But in our universe, many movies depict serial killers as a certain type of nebbish loner. In Psycho, Norman Bates is an exception that inadvertently proves the rule: Anthony Perkins is shy, keeps to himself but seems mostly harmless (He wouldn’t even hurt a fly, you know). So as cheesy as Psycho’s coda scene, where a police profiler breaks down why Norman killed people dressed like his mother and murdered people, is, it’s also kind of necessary. After all, Bates is evasive throughout the film. His personality and his motives are deliberately kept a mystery throughout the film’s proceedings. In the end, we want to know why he did it, and what drove him so far over the edge.
Still, it’s important to note that Gein isn’t really a serial killer. He murdered two people, which hardly establishes his slayings as a pattern. But he is important because he became a symbol of all the Freudian motivations that we project onto killers. We make these assumptions partly because of the phallic imagery implicit in Psycho’s shower scene or Leatherface’s chainsaw in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Massacre director Tobe Hooper would make a lot of hoopla over Leatherface’s fetish in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which plays out like a fittingly schizophrenic and limp slasher made by a big Laura Mulvey fan).
Take for example the depiction of murderers in a film like Maniac!, Bronx-born director William Lustig’s immaculately skuzzy 1980 film. Co-scripted by anti-star Joe Spinell, the film follows a loner that has garden variety psychological problems as they were defined in a post-Psycho filmic world: Spinell’s character kills women because he’s terrified of them. The ghost of his mother tells him what to do and he talks to himself throughout the film as her.
At the same time, even Spinell’s killer is constantly asking himself (as his mother, mind you) why he does what he does. But while he’s totally baffled by his behavior, we as viewers are made to feel like we know exactly what’s wrong with him: basically, he’s crazy. By which I mean he’s a very frustrated man that’s paralyzed and tantalized by sex. When Spinell’s character picks a prostitute up, he doesn’t decide to go with her to a motel until she tells him how far she’s willing to go for a hundred bucks. When the prostitute in question tries to put her arm on Spinell, he reactively brushes her off him. He can’t be seen in public being touched by her, though who he thinks is watching him is unclear.
Spinell’s character conforms to the basic stereotypes that define serial murderers in the 1972 thriller Frenzy, director Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie. Screenwriter Anthony Schaefer (Sleuth, The Wicker Man) suggests in no uncertain terms that, like Alec McCowen’s police chief, we, the viewers, presume to know the motives of a serial strangler pegged. McCowen haughtily explains to a peer how such killers behave:
“The important thing to remember is that they hate women and they’re mostly impotent. Don’t mistake rape for potency, Sergeant. In the latter stages of disease it’s the strangling, not the sex, that brings them off. You know what they are, Sergeant, I’m sure.”
The funniest part about this scene is that it’s a 100% accurate description of the killer in Frenzy: he tries to rape one of his victims. But she resists and refuses to give him the satisfaction of whimpering while he breathes heavily and repeatedly growls, “Lovely!” The joke is that even McCowen’s chief, an equally impotent British man that politely hems and haws while his wife experiments with French cuisine, could guess why the real killer behaves the way he does. So while most characters in Frenzy spend the film insisting that they know exactly what the cops are looking for, McCowen inexplicably does.
One of the most satisfying depictions of a serial killer on film has to be Michael Rooker’s Henry in the 1986 character study Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Rooker’s antihero is a more polished version of the loaded popular assumptions reproduced in most movies about serial killers. Henry lives with two other people, though he always seems uncomfortable around them and is tellingly emotionally withdrawn all the time. There’s even a line that deflates the assumption that Henry came from a broken home and has mommy issues: he tells Becky (Tracy Arnold) a story about how his mother died, one which Becky inadvertently reveals to be a pack of lies.
And there’s basically the rub: Rooker’s character has no hard-and-fast reason to kill. Which is really what’s so puzzling about serial killers, that sense of not knowing. The fact that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the most ambiguous film of the bunch I’ve listed is possibly because, of all the movie murders I’ve mentioned, Henry is the only one that’s really based on a real-life Henry Lee Lucas, a real-life serial killer (Bates was only inspired by Gein). As exploitable as their subject may be, Henry co-writers John McNaughton and Richard Fire at least respected the fact that there were things about their subject that they simply could not know for sure. I wonder if Florence’s Serial Killer Museum is looking for film-related add-ons. I’m sure they could fit in an extra TV monitor in somewhere, possibly between Ted Bundy and Charles Manson…
You can take a virtual tour of the Serial Killer Museum by visiting their website.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in theVillage Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.