History's psychopathic killers are paralleled by the monsters created and portrayed in films


February 24, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Now and then one of them comes along so spectacularly malevolent that you can but wonder at the presence of an evil that transcends the concept of scale. And they have been around for a long time.

The original Bluebeard, for example, was a French nobleman named Gilles de Rais who in the 15th century is said to have murdered not wives, as the folk tales insist, but boys, in the hundreds. The original Dracula, on the other hand, was a 14th century Romanian nobleman known to history as Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler. He skewered thousands on stakes the size of telephone poles as a melancholy testament to his thirst for carnage; he landscaped his castle gardens with crucifixions.

But the psychopathic killer, the twisted creature who kills not for profit or gain or survival but out of sheer need and over and over and over, really hit it big in modern times in the year of the triple eights, 1888. Calling himself Jack the Ripper, that one murdered and butchered five London prostitutes, led Scotland Yard on a merry chase through the warrens and alleys of the slum called Whitechapel over a month's passage and then receded into the mists of time and curiosity forever.

The movies have not been slow to claim the psychopathic killer, with the latest wave unfurling these days in the form of "Sleeping With the Enemy" and "The Silence of the Lambs." Their antecedents can be found far back, particularly in German films. An early version of a man so misformed by evil was contained in the German silent "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," a movie made entirely in the fractured universe of the nightmare, where the creeper was a haunted zombie with death-blackened eyes. Shortly after the coming of sound, Fritz Lang made what is still a great movie, "M," with Peter Lorre starring as a helplessly warped child-killer so driven that he is as pitiful as he is horrifying. The thrust of the movie, still watchable after all these years, is the momentary coalition between the underworld and the police so that the monster may be removed from the world and business can proceed as usual.

In our time, one can certainly see the attraction of the creature to low-end filmmakers: A "psycho" villain needs no personality or psychology -- his galvanizing presence is enough to hang a wisp of a story upon, and far too many times he's been merely masked in a hockey faceplate, given an assortment of bladed weapons and sent forth to slay teen-agers.

The conceit of the classic slasher film is to make the camera -- that is, you -- the slayer. Their secret appeal is to give you the thrill of the kill without the risk. In deeper terms, however, the psycho is simply the blank force of the irrational in the universe: He kills without meaning, like a turnpike blowout or a rooftop sniper or an icicle falling off the roof. He's simply an emblem of the universe's cruelty if it discovers you in the wrong place at the wrong time. He's always scary but never interesting.

But "Sleeping With the Enemy" and "Silence of the Lambs," both involving outsized psychos, go a bit further into the syndrome than mere exploitation, making at least an honorable attempt to give name and face and reason to the mayhem. Almost too programatically, they represent the two traditions of screen psycho, a tradition that in fact reflects the ego and the superego and their struggle for control of the conscious mind.

In "Sleeping with the Enemy," Patrick Bergin, his Irish accent suppressed but not his natural silkiness, plays a prosperous investment banker who to all the world is a massive success, but who is, in the privacy of his home, a monster. He's the classic superego maniac: His civilizing restraints sit like a hat on the top of his violent instincts and he uses that tension creatively to advance himself. He's the abusive husband, cubed and squared, but the curiosity about him is that his proclivity is not to violence, but to order; the violence is only incidental.

Director Joseph Ruben has worked this theme before, more terrifyingly, in "The Stepfather," where Terry O'Quinn played a man who so wanted his new families to be perfect and happy that when they failed him by being merely human, he felt impelled to destroy them and start over again. His is the dangerous weirdness of icy control. He's not over the top; he's under the bottom, a portrait of repression as agent of violence as it bends a sick man toward the unthinkable.

Bergin is particularly menacing in the psycho role, with glowering, romantic eyes and such total self-control. A key moment comes when, with his fearsome will, he silently bullies his wife into validating his sickness. She tells him, under the subtle threat of beating, that he does this not because he enjoys it but because it's necessary; his actions come from a "need to correct." If he enjoyed it, of course, "he'd be a monster."

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