Five Forgotten Gems: Thrillers

Were I operating in an uncharitable mode, it might be accurate to call thrillers the skim milk of the horror genre. At least, that’s the image that the official definition – a genre whose main purpose is to induce fearful excitement – conjures. But thrillers are really just a strange duck all over. By their label their modus operandi is to elicit an emotional response, and yet thrillers are most often plotty ventures: from the paranoia thrillers of the 70s to crime-colored mystery thrillers like Silence of the Lambs to high-concept thrillers with one foot in science fiction.

If horror is meant to help us work through our fear of inevitable death, a kind of catharsis through observed helplessness, then thrillers tackle the uncertainties of living. They give their main characters agency, and more often than not the choice to run after the terrorizing thing in search of some kind of enlightenment – peril with an escape hatch, risk with a reward beyond breathing for another day. While there might be a mystery at the heart of a horror film it tends to be beside the point, something the hero happens to learn in the process of trying to survive. In a thriller, the ‘why’ is the entire point, the film not concluded until the protagonists have solved the quandary or died trying.

On the subject of surviving history: a scary movie at its peak can let us observe the fears of the human heart on a deep and visceral level (The Fly! The Birds! Misery!), but anything less than that pinnacle probably isn’t going to age very well – they show their seams, lose the ability to shock, and in losing emotional response lose their meaning as creative endeavors (it is no coincidence that in sussing out the difference in ‘horror’ versus ‘thriller’ a great many well-aged but no longer viscerally scary horror films had to be considered).

All of which is an extremely long preamble to this: some thrillers that could use a little more love.

5. Peacock (2010)

In Brief: Cillian Murphy plays John Skillpa, a man so psychologically crippled by his abusive mother that he created an alternate personality named ‘Emma’ to take care of him. Emma does all the household work and John interfaces with the world, getting by on an extremely strict routine. Then one day a train crashes into the house while Emma is in control, leading to a great many questions about who the lady living with John might be. John’s attempts to control the situation have a quick and disastrous effect on his life and his psyche, devolving into a battle of screentime between the two personas.

I don’t know what person said ‘Hey, let’s get a chunk of the Inception cast together and have them do a less-stabby riff on Psycho!’ but someone must have, because this movie is a clear answer to that cry.

Thrillers that fail to understand Dissociative Identity Disorder are a proud tradition, one I’m generally willing to roll with if it yields a good character study. Likewise, I’m fully of the opinion that a strong central performance can carry a film through its flaws, and that’s certainly the case here. Peacock is a movie whose stakes depend entirely on us settling into the brittle, particular worldview of the main character. Casting Cillian Murphy (who pulled off a similar feat of playing the compelling center of a somewhat haphazard plot in Breakfast on Pluto) was a stroke of genius, and the film simply wouldn’t work without him. As is, the film justifies itself in being trim enough (this was direct to video, so the budget’s on the slim side) to focus almost entirely on letting a very talented, often backgrounded actor work.

4. The Butterfly Effect: Director’s Cut (2004)

In Brief: Evan has grown up with a history of disturbing blackouts, with holes in his memory at critical moments of trauma for himself and his friends. As an adult, Evan finds that by reading the journals he kept as a child, he can revisit those moments…and change them.

Maybe more than any other title on this list, TBE has the most compelling reasons to be skipped over: it’s criminally long and drags its feet in getting to its central concept (particularly for a film that can’t hold itself up much beyond ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’), its gravitas is crippled by the casting of Ashton Kutcher in the leading role (he’s absolutely adrift trying to portray the nuances that the character’s crumbling psychology ideally calls for); and it has a childish approach to the extremely dark themes it explores, more interested in seeing how many fucked up things it can weave into its characters’ lives than actually exploring the implications of those events.

And yet, here we are. I’ve a soft spot for high concept films, and in its best moments the film achieves a sort of Twilight Zone quality that’s eerie and engrossing. At heart, the story has the appealing quality of a child’s nightmare: one of those semi-lucid experiences where every frantic change winds up leading you down a darker path, each strange and outlandish turn somehow logical in the dreamlike state that grips you. The film shines in the moments where Evan revisits his past (thankfully, Evan’s younger counterparts are considerably more capable than Kutcher), tapping into a common power fantasy of what we wish we’d said in the heat of the moment only to feed it back into the nightmare machine.

For that matter, most of the cast outside of Kutcher is capable, handling the thankless roles at the edges with enough deftness to keep the film from careening out into space on its own stupid-juice. For fans of ‘what if’ speculative fiction it’s a strange but intriguing experience (by the way, I put down the Director’s Cut for a reason – the theatrical version got smacked with the blunt end of a focus group, and the thematic undercurrent and original ending of the longer version are absolutely necessary to keep the film from collapsing in on its own cowardly pointlessness).

3. The People Under the Stairs (1991)

In Brief: Pointdexter (aka Fool) lives with his family in tenement housing on the verge of eviction. Desperate for money, he’s talked by local con Leroy into helping to break into a nearby wealthy house with some deeply creepy owners. Caught off guard and trying to hide from the murder-happy proprietors, Fool finds that he’s not the first child to be trapped in the house.

The nice thing about Wes Craven, appreciable even when other parts of his films aren’t working, is that he actually gives a damn about his characters (the Nightmare movies under his direction are several cuts above most of the slasher genre on the point of ‘likable human beings’ replacing the usual cast of expendable meat). And that’s most of what carries Stairs as well – Fool (and I could be wrong, but I’d say this is pretty much the only horror/thriller with an African American protagonist before 2010’s Attack the Block) is resilient and kind, young and desperate enough to have been believably strong-armed into the scheme that kicks the movie off but well served by the brave and compassionate impulses that got him into trouble in the first place. He’s immensely likable and easy to root for, no small feat for the film amongst its genre brethren, and the movie allows itself enough moments to breathe that we can actually feel something like a rapport between Fool and the children he meets in the house.

The cons, then:  this movie, too, is a good 20 minutes longer than it should be (Fool actually escapes the house only to return, a thematically sensible choice that drops a big sack of strangled momentum straight into the film’s center), rough around the budgeted edges, and far further into the land of camp than any truly convincing shivers (the actors charged with playing the murderous “Mommy” and “Daddy” are having a hell of a time chewing every bit of available scenery). But to my eye the camp actually serves it better, working almost on the level of an unusually tense and now-again violent family film than a gritty R-rated horror house flick. The film allows itself some genuinely tense scenes but never loses the almost adventuring vibe of Fool’s journey to overcome the house. There’s a deep sense of tonal oddity frolicking throughout the narrative, but it doesn’t take long to count it as a trade-off for a movie with its foot comfortably set in a number of generic doors.

2. A Perfect Getaway (2009)

In Brief: Happy newlyweds Cliff and Cydney (they’re just as charmingly-slash-insufferable as the hipster names imply) are taking their honeymoon in Hawaii…right as the news is reporting that an escaped, murderous couple is loose on the island. Having recently turned down a hitchhiking and ominous couple and joined up with another hiking along their trail, the paranoia starts racking up quickly.

So film friend sat me down with this flick on pain of death, and I expected to hate it – the Movie Guy voice on the trailer, the bland, inoffensively attractive white people making up the cast, the hyperactive editing. Listen, I’ve sat through a lot of terrible PG13 horror films, okay?

Point being, not only is this not a bad thriller – it’s a fairly excellent one, making good use of its not-quite-wilderness setting to emphasize the underlying tension between the veneer of civility and savagery that lies at the film’s heart. The characters are allowed a surprising number of quiet, humanizing moments as well, giving us time to breathe (and simultaneously to squirm with unexpected discomfort) without grinding things to a halt. And when the movie decides it’s done playing paranoid hiking trip, wowza. It’s got a hell of a third act, one that feels completely earned thanks to that underlying tension I mentioned before. One or two minor, spoilery quibbles with the film’s logic aren’t enough to spoil a great vacation.

1. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

In Brief: Father Harry Powell has a good thing going, conning widows and then killing them for their money. While serving jail time for a stolen car (from his last victim), the priest bunks with death row inmate who stole $10, 000 (In Depression era money, mind) from a local bank. The man hid the money before he was caught, and left behind a widow and two children, making the priest’s next destination quite clear.

A quintessentially American fairytale and one of the best films we as a country have managed to produce, and thankfully not so unknown as it once was (despite being passed over upon release it managed to gain a cult following and was eventually canonized by the mighty arm of Criterion in 2010 – also they referenced it in Gravity Falls, so there’s that).

To steal a line from a great review of another movie entirely, one doesn’t run out of things to say about Night of the Hunter, only space to say it in. The aesthetic is straight out of German expressionism (by 1955 black and white was well into the realm of deliberate choice rather than necessity), all deep shadows and dark nights and monstrously tall and angular buildings that tower over our child protagonists (many of the sets are obviously constructed, a move that’s never been so well turned to a movie’s advantage as in constructing an atmosphere of heightened and unreal-reality). And the cinematography! Such beautiful, haunting images as you wouldn’t believe.

The cast is unbelievable, with some of the best child acting I’ve seen (which is good, because the film would fast fall apart otherwise) and a 100% committed cast from the minor to the major roles (Lillian Gish deserves a special shoutout, serving as the fairytale embodiment of good to Mitchum’s evil). And speaking of Mitchum – this is, bar none, the best performance of his career. Powell is a monstrous, fascinating creature, larger than life and yet subtle as a knife between the ribs in his insinuations (by the way, you owe this movie a debt for the LOVE/HATE knuckle tattoos, probably its most overt contribution to pop culture). The use of music is masterful too, making threatening leitmotifs of hymns and threading through haunting Grimm melodies alongside raw and powerful brass.

The plot plants itself in a child’s perspective and is the better for it, allowing Powell to grow from an untrustworthy presence we and they are powerless to decry to an implacable and sleepless evil – the moments of pursuit, of helplessness surrounded by an uncaring or incapable world of so-called adults, are truly harrowing. And it’s easily the best exploration of religion in film, presenting the good and evil of a common set of beliefs and trusting its audience to observe action over dogma (a breath of retroactive air in the nauseating wake of your Left Behinds and God’s Not Deads). Put it up there, in its way, with works like Dogma and Book of Mormon for skepticism in trappings with a core fondness for the positive influence of faith.

It’s a fairytale and a bedtime story, timeless even as it sets its foot in the myths of Americana. Seriously, I will pay you internet dollars to go watch it right now.

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