Death and the Maidens


Serial killer films are a subspecies of the monster-movie genre, employing social criticism,
psychodrama, police procedures, and the metaphysics of good and evil to get a handle on a terrifying being who is both more and less than what we consider human. The monster is a force of nature or a part of God’s grand plan that society cannot eradicate or fully understand. If the social contract cannot be held entirely responsible for producing monsters, it certainly exacerbates their wrath.

Serial killers transcend the filmmaking class system. They erupt in art, studio, and exploitation movies. The classic serial killer films-M, Pandora’s Box, Peeping Tom, Psycho-defy categorization. While not quite in their league, Seven and Silence of the Lambs gave blockbuster dimension to Baudelairean perversity. By comparison, the serial killer films of early November are empty clones.

Atom Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey, adapted from the novel by William Trevor, has an exquisite surface. It brings together the sun-
dappled green fields of County Cork, Ireland, the pollution-stained industrialized landscape of Birmingham, England, and the varnished interior of a madman’s clapboard cottage, filled with the relics-from Victorian birds’ nests to ’50s Mix Masters-of an agonizing childhood.

With sweeping camera moves and seamless editing, Egoyan unites past and present, country and city, Ireland and England, and the subjectivity and memories of two radically different characters. Every aspect of the filmmaking-particularly its symmetry and deliberate pace-suggests that Egoyan is taking the position of a higher power whose vision exceeds human understanding. Films made from an eye-of-God perspective, especially those with Bergman-esque overtones, inevitably excite the hermeneutic impulse in viewers. Felicia’s Journey is so Bergman-esque that I was surprised its lead, scenery chewer Bob Hoskins, wasn’t speaking Swedish, and I expect it will inspire many student papers on the nature of innocence or the question of fate vs. contingency. But one should bear in mind that God is not a filmmaker, and that the director of record is Egoyan, whose sophisticated eye is connected to a brain that seems, for the moment, to have gone dead. Perhaps it was chopped up in the Mix Master that is the film’s unintended central metaphor. It may be Egoyan’s saving grace that he can’t control the leaks in his unconscious.

Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) is an Irish 17-year-old who comes to England in search of the boy she loves. This fellow, who carelessly took her virginity and got her pregnant, is a turncoat soldier in the British army. The proof of Felicia’s innocence is that she enters England without a single piece of ID. It never occurred to her that she needed papers. The proof of her loss of innocence is the blood staining her nightgown after she’s had an abortion.

I confess to having a particular aversion to films that make a bleeding uterus into a symbol-even when the symbol is as muddled as it is here. I also lack sympathy for films that propose mothers as the source of all our discontent. In the course of her search, Felicia meets Hilditch (Hoskins), a factory lunchroom caterer who goes home every night to his lonely house where he replays videotapes of his late mom (Arsinée Khanjian). Mom was a glamorous French cooking-show host who treated her pudgy son as a kitchen prop, stuffing his mouth with sausages and smothering him in her theatrical embrace. This seems to have caused him to confuse adoration and hatred, and pushed him over the edge into serial murder. Hilditch’s m.o. is to befriend young prostitutes, secretly videotape them, and then kill them when they try to return to their own lives. But when Felicia crosses paths with this beast, both their lives take an unexpected turn.

The videotapes, which are not part of the novel, are a fetish that runs through all of Egoyan’s films, functioning as the site of both memory and loss. Here, they also evoke Peeping Tom, just as the name Hilditch and some of the spooky props and camera moves evoke Psycho. In early films such as Family Viewing, Egoyan referenced the masters with a combination of cheek and obsession that was all his own. That tone is absent in the grandiose Felicia’s Journey, which spouts enough hot air to carry its heroine home in a balloon.

  • A glossy package that carries the banner of two studios, The Bone Collector borrows liberally from both Silence of the Lambs and Seven. The result is so formulaic and predictable that you’re bored even when you’re scared.

    Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie) is an NYPD rookie whose talent for detection brings her to the attention of forensic genius Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington). Rhyme’s spine was crushed in a job-related accident, leaving him paralyzed below the neck except for his right index finger. His will to live is revitalized when he gets involved in the investigation of a grisly murder, one of many by a killer who seems to have spent too much time watching Seven. Donaghy discovered the first murder; her photos of the corpse and the arcane clues left by the killer convince Lincoln to make her his eyes, ears, hands, and feet. While she does the walking, he directs her via cell phone. They examine the evidence using the elaborate voice-activated computer system that turns his loft into an editing suite. This allows director Phillip Noyce to display hideously mutilated corpses and to fetishize the details-skin carved, burnt, or bitten down to the bone-in giant digitalized close-up. We’ve come a long way-technologically speaking-since Blow-Up.

    Washington is more personable than the film deserves, and it’s outrageous that he’s only allowed to have a romance with a white woman when he’s been virtually castrated (although that index finger should not be underestimated). Given the circumstances, Jolie takes herself a bit too seriously, but Queen Latifah and Luis Guzman are breezy comic relief. Noyce, who directed the truly terrifying Dead Calm, does this one strictly by the numbers. A measure of how not scary The Bone Collector is: Although the killer uses a yellow cab to kidnap his victims, I leapt into the first one I saw outside the theater.

  • Oxygen is not strictly a serial-killer movie but a no-frills psychological thriller about a nasty sociopath who kidnaps a woman and buries her alive, knowing that there’s enough air in her coffin for her to survive for 24 hours. His ostensible motive is ransom, but, in fact, he’s turned on by the prospect of her dying a slow, horrible death. Directed by Richard Shepherd, Oxygen is so low-key as to seem like real life, which makes it disturbing in the extreme. It benefits from an excellent cast: Terry Kinney, James Naughton, and particularly Maura Tierney as a detective whose deep masochism makes her a doppelgänger for the kidnapper. As the kidnapper, Adrien Brody is in another league entirely. Brody has gone deep inside himself, searching out empathy, pity, compassion, and guilt, and turning them off at the source. The killer is like a dark star-emitting no light or heat even when he explodes in violence. If Oxygen gets more than a very limited release, Brody risks being typecast for life.
  • Highlights