The 13 Days of Halloween: Psycho Killers

I watch a lot of horror movies, even bad ones.  Sometimes, especially bad ones because I’ve found that even a terrible horror movie is still more entertaining than a good romantic comedy.  Nothing frightens me more than the prospect of sitting through another Jennifer Aniston Rom-com or pretty much anything with Julia Roberts, for that matter.  Terrifying!

Over the years, I’ve consumed hundreds, if not thousands, of horror movies.  Even the bad ones can offer something unique or interesting to take away.  Much like Hamlet’s line, “The play’s the thing…”, in horror, the killer’s the thing. Without an interesting killer, your movie is ultimately doomed.

I have watched some horrible films over the years that have interesting or unique killers, and I find that I’ll watch them again just for that element, despite the fact that I know the movie itself, frankly, sucks.  It’s sorta like listening to an album with two or three good songs but sitting through the lesser 10 anyway just because the good tunes are worth it.

So, here are seven of my favorite horror movie killers from over the years.  Some of the films they were featured in were pretty good, but some were admittedly lousy.  It doesn’t really matter, though, because, as I said, the killer’s the thing.

Jigsaw

Yeah, I know, everybody’s sick of the Saw franchise, myself included.  Besides, the guy died, like, four movies ago.  But think back to the original, do you remember that it was actually a very good film, and unique for its time?  I know sequels can sap the life out of a movie, especially a horror movie, but let’s not forget how cool the original concept was.

How can you not love a killer who turns people’s weaknesses on themselves but gives them a possible chance at redemption and survival, albeit with sometimes horrifying sacrifices?  Jigsaw wasn’t so much a mass murderer as he was a psychologist.  But rather than simply having his patients drone on endlessly about their problems hoping to stumble onto an epiphany, Jigsaw gives you 60 seconds to cut the key out from behind your eye before the apparatus strapped to your face tears your head in half.  Now that’s what I call therapy!

John Doe

What’s in the box?  Can anyone ever forget the immortal words of Brad Pitt in Seven when first suspecting that his wife has become a victim of a nameless, religious minded serial killer acting out the seven deadly sins to “turn each sin upon the sinner”?  John Doe was somewhat like Jigsaw in that respect, with one key difference:  there was no redemption in Doe’s machinations, even for himself.

Kevin Spacey played the role to perfection, and the intricately plotted out series of killings was as impressive for their inter-connectedness as for their sheer brutality.  The best part is, he won in the end.  Doe led the police by the nose throughout the entire film, and his plan worked out precisely the way he wanted it, down to the very minute.  And how can you not love a guy who gave Gwynneth Paltrow the most emotionally affecting moment of her career, as a head in a box?

Victor Crowley

Unlike the first two killers on this list who were obsessive and intricate planners of elaborate, meaningful deaths, Victor Crowley was a straight-up force of nature.  The movie Hatchet wasn’t a great film, but it was an awesome horror movie.  Crowley reportedly died as a deformed boy when he  accidentally took a hatchet to the face from his father when he was desperately trying to save Victor from a house fire.  Now he’s back, living in the family home in the secluded Louisiana swamps, and woe be unto anyone who crosses his path.

Crowley wasn’t creative or thoughtful with his prey.  He pretty much just tore people apart with his bare hands, ripping off limbs, snapping necks, breaking people in half across trees, all while groaning and growling indecipherable sounds from his horribly deformed face.  Yeah, it’s not great acting work, but it was certainly entertaining.

Jason’s Mom

The original Friday the 13th movie didn’t have Jason as the undead, unkillable monster as protagonist, it was his mom.  An otherwise sweet looking older woman, dressed in a nice sweater, stalking Camp Crystal Lake slaughtering the teen-age counselors to get revenge for a group of horny teenagers letting her son drown at camp years earlier because they were too busy drinking, smoking weed and hooking up to pay attention. 
This woman was flat-out nuts, going around spouting “kill her mommy” in her best squeaky five-year-old-boy voice.  This movie was truly great, combining horror with murder mystery.  It was like a psychopathic version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.  Not to mention a very young Kevin Bacon getting skewered through the throat with an arrow.  In the end, Jason’s mom lost her head, quite literally, unleashing a 30 year rampage of Jason’s vengeance that took him to Manhattan, Hell, outer space and back again.  Talk about influencial!

Anton Phibes

The Abominable Dr. Phibes was a Vincent Price take on the intricately planned revenge murder sequence.  Phibes was in a horrible car accident that disfigured him and killed his beloved wife.  Years later, Phibes comes back to kill everyone involved in allowing his wife to die on the operating table.

What makes this great is that Phibes didn’t just kill them, he planned each death to correspond to one of the biblical plagues on Egypt.  Brilliant!  To wrap it up, he created a very Jigsaw-like challenge for the lead surgeon to remove a key from near the heart to free his son before having his face eaten off by acid.  Phibes definitely had style.

Pazuzu

Pazuzu was the demon who took up residence in sweet little Reagan in The Exorcist.  Not only did he twist people’s heads around and toss them out windows, but he turned a nice little girl into a drunken, foul-mouthed sailor, and made projectile vomiting cool.

Pazuzu really came into his own in the Exorcist III, though, when he possessed a patient in an asylum.  During that film, he bounced from patient to patient, sending them out to lop off people’s heads with those giant, stainless steel clipper things morticians sometimes use.  Has anyone ever invented a perfectly legitimate tool that looks more like something from a homicidal maniac’s Christmas list than those things?  They’re spring-loaded hedge clippers from pruning people’s limbs.  Totally creepy!

Death

Death is the ultimate psycho killer.  And if you’ve seen any of the Final Destination movies, you know that he also sports a creative side for taking out his victims.  Death doesn’t just toss a little cancer at you, he creates a freaky chain of events, sort of like a gory version of the game Mousetrap, that culminated in his intended victim being disembowled, crushed, exploded, impaled or otherwise dismembered in new and interesting ways.  Has there ever been a series of films with more moments where viewers have to turn their heads suddenly and shout “whoa!” at the sudden carnage than these movies?

You also can’t beat death, no matter how hard you try.  In all these movies, the group of survivors desperately try to defeat death’s plan, but everyone ultimately ends up dead anyway.  It’s the ultimate exercise in futility.  And say what you want about Saving Private Ryan, but I’ll take the opening car crash scene in Final Destination 2 as the pinnacle in awesome movie-opening carnage and mayhem.  Death is a total bad-ass killer, and he definitely has his plans in order.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween concludes…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

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The 13 Days of Halloween: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Earlier, I wrote a tribute/lament about the late, great Vincent Price and how there hasn’t been a true horror movie icon since his passing in 1993 and doesn’t appear to be one coming any time soon.  Well, in honor of my favorite scary movie actor in this, my favorite time of year, here are a few of my all-time favorite Vincent Price films.  I don’t pretend to be all-encompassing–he did so many films during his 50+ year acting career, that would be next to impossible.  But when I’m looking for a Price-fix, as it were, these films come to mind more often than not.

House of Wax (1953)

Professor Henry Jarrod was a genius in wax.  He lovingly created some of history’s most famous people in unbelievably lifelike detail.  That is, until his business partner torches the wax museum for the insurance money with Jarrod and all his creations inside.  Somehow, he managed to survive but is horribly disfigured and unable to resume his work.  Jarrod, with the help of two apprentices, eventually makes a comeback with a new house of wax and a decidedly darker approach.

This one, along with House on Haunted Hill, later were ignominiously given horrid Hollywood remakes, somehow managing to miss the point of both original films completely.  Stay far away from those, unless you want to be horrified in a totally unenjoyable way.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Anton Phibes was a brilliant organist, scientist and equally brilliant muderous mastermind.  A group of nine doctors and nurses presided over the death of Phibes’ wife after a car accident that disfigured Phibes himself.  The good doctor executes an elaborate sequence of hideously clever murders based on the ancient plagues of Egypt, knocking off those Phibes blamed for the death of his wife one at a time, leading up to a grand finale the jigsaw killer would be proud of. 

This film earned a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, which falls well short of the original, and another similar film, Theatre of Blood.  In that one, Price is an actor bent of destroying his critics in elaborately themed Shakespearean ways.  It’s not as well-done as Phibes, but still pretty entertaining.

The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Frederick Loren is an unhappily married millionaire hosting a party for his wife, Annabelle, in a presumably haunted house.  The guests of honor at this ostensibly supernatural shindig are five strangers who each have been offered $10,000 if they can just make it through the night in the house.  Betrayal and death ensues, leading to an unexpected twist ending.  Are there really restless spirits at work in the creepy house or fiendish motives of a more earthly sort?

Like House of Wax, this one suffered a terrible remake that played up the supernatural at the expense of the whole point of the original film.  Where this version was about deception and all-too-human greed and aspirations, the newer model traded much of that for special effects and many haunted house cliches.  It was just sad.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

Roderick Usher is a man resigned to his fate.  He lives in the crumbling estate of his family, a fitting mausoleum for the quickly approaching end of the Usher line.  His sister, Madeline, is torn between a desire to marry and flee from her past and the belief instilled in her by her brother that she, like all the Ushers, is cursed and will meet a foul end sooner than later.  When his sister appears to have died, the whole tenuous foundations holding up the Usher family, and the house itself, come crumbling down.

This is one of several adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe tales, and I believe the best of the bunch. Some of the better films in Price’s Poe series include The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, Tomb of Ligeia and a couple mentioned further down this list.  In Usher, Price expertly presents a man’s descent into madness, dragging his sister with him in the process.  He even sports some unique violin stylings that are among the creepiest things I’ve ever heard.

Tales of Terror (1962)

This film presents a series of three stories also adapted from the works of Poe.  Morella is a story of a father and his estranged daughter’s reunion that blurs the line between life and death.  In The Curious Case of M. Valdemar, Price plays a man on his deathbed who agrees to be hypnotized at the moment of death as part of an experiment to try and stave off death itself but soon finds his soul held hostage by the hypnotist.  In the Black Cat, Price plays a wealthy socialite whose taste for fine wine turns to a taste for the wife of an unemployed drunkard with fatal consequences.  This one is a mix of the title story and The Casque of Amontillado, and includes a fantastic performance by Peter Lorre.

Lorre also appeared in the adaptation of The Raven, along with Price and a superstar cast including Boris Karloff and a very young Jack Nicholson. The Raven is more comedy than genuine horror, but it is still an overall enjoyable film.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

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