What is the source of the fascination generated by that strange modern thriller genre, the serial killer movie? My own interest in this kind of film was triggered when I read an excellent piece by Richard Dyer in Sight and Sound on serial killers in cinema and their appeal – from Fritz Lang's M (1931) to television shows of the '90s like Millennium. In that essay – and in his subsequent BFI Modern Classic book on Seven (1995) – Dyer talks about our fascination with precisely the serial nature of serial killing: the patterns of logic that go into the execution, and then the detection, of this serial pattern. Also, as Dyer points out, seriality is a basic narrative pleasure, especially in serial television.
When he gets onto the more specific content of some of the better-known serial killer films of recent years (such as Manhunter  and The Silence of the Lambs ), Dyer makes an interesting distinction between films that try to explain the psychopathology of the serial killer, and those that present him or her in a more blank, motiveless way, as in the celebrated case of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). Dyer singles out for special praise (as I also would) the less celebrated Copycat (1995), which pits two women, a cop and a psychological analyst, against a brilliant male killer. This film, which is more cool and measured than sensational, can be closely related to another, greatly underrated serial killer movie: Gary Fleder's Kiss the Girls. (Auteurist aside: Fleder certainly jumped a quantum leap from Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead  to this.)
There's a central trick to this movie. It starts out as a familiar serial killing case, with Morgan Freeman as Alex Cross, a troubled cop trying to put together the pieces of a murderer's twisted logic. But then it turns into something else, because we discover that killing is not the villain's chief kick. In fact, he only kills when he has been defied by one of his victims. This killer is in truth more of a collector, like in the famous 1965 William Wyler film of that name. He targets particular women – exceptional women of various sorts, as Alex deduces – and locks them up, keeping them alive in separate cells of a creepy, secret dungeon. He keeps them – as the film fairly discreetly tells us – as sex slaves, whom he abuses both psychologically and physically. So, this villain's kick is all about power, imprisonment and sexual control.
One of the agonising ingredients in the unfolding of this story is that Alex's own niece (Gina Ravera) happens to be one of the girls kept down in the cell – and we see her, a brilliant musician, arranged in a circle with the other women, having to play virtuoso pieces on her violin as the bad guy prowls around menacing his captives.
The style and manner of this film, and its familiarity on certain levels, has led to it being roundly dismissed by some reviewers as a routine and pretty banal serial killer film. Yes, Kiss the Girls is definitely in the tradition of Seven; it has something of the same feel, the same intricate, dark, smoky, labyrinthine visual style; and once again we have a compelling, quasi-experimental collage of sounds and images to kick the movie off in its opening credits. Yes, it's a loud, flashy, somewhat sensational film, full of shock cuts, loud sonic booms and blinding washes of light to dazzle the eyes – a set of strategies handled, in my opinion, rather well. And the film has Freeman once again coming face to face with the abyss – the barbarity and evil inherent in some dark, dysfunctional, twisted part of human nature.
Since Seven, this has become one of the key themes of the contemporary thriller: this thin line between the civilised and the barbarous, and the incredible effort needed to mould civilisation, lift it up and maintain it, when all these baser animal drives are being stirred and exacerbated in every corner of our broken-down hell-hole of a society. I believe this can be taken as a sign of the influence of the cultural commentator Camille Paglia on popular culture itself: this is one of her insistent themes, our need to face how low we all we can go, in sex, politics, society, war and everything else, before we pull together to create the fragile but necessary constraints and protocols of a civilised order.
However, there's a lot more than even this going on in Kiss the Girls. I described the women in it as captives – that is, apart from feisty Kate McTiernan (Ashley Judd), who defies the male monster, gets away and then collaborates with Alex in the big search-and-rescue mission. These very words – captivity, rescue – evoke a completely different genre of film, and a completely different narrative model, known as the captivity narrative. It is particularly strong in the Western genre; with John Ford's classic The Searchers (1956) rating as the archetypal captivity narrative. In such a story, it's not simply the issue or the stake that Indians have stolen away with a bunch of white women and children – white folks who must then be rescued by a heroic cowboy. There are two really complicating, thrilling and ambiguous elements in this classic scenario.
Firstly, the men in the Indian community start mating with the white women, who they keep docile and captive and slave to a certain hostage mentality – sexually subjugating the women to the point where they accept their new mixed-breed identities as natural. (This is the same situation vividly dramatised in the contemporary real-life story of Patty Hearst and her terrorist captors, as well as in the 1988 film of that story by Paul Schrader, a big Searchers fan and thief.)
Secondly, while the heroic white man in the classic captivity Westerns picks up the traces and follows the tracks and eventually comes charging in for the righteous kill, we in the audience are made subtly and disquietingly aware that the good guy and the bad guy are more or less mirror images of each other: they're both violent, obsessed, driven, highly sexualised masculine figures. That's certainly the way with Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and his Indian nemesis Scar (Henry Brandon), in The Searchers; Martin Scorsese knowingly transposed that mirror pattern of hero and villain into the relation between avenging angel Robert De Niro and street pimp Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver (1976), scripted by Schrader.
Why does The Searchers happen to be such a key influence on contemporary cinema? In a discussion of the undercover cop drama Donnie Brasko (1997), I referred to the haunting Fordian theme of the lost home that the hero can never find his way back to. One of the most fascinating things to me in the serial killer films, and especially in Kiss the Girls, is that the ideal of home-base is even more distant, more chimerical, a kind of far-off memory from the word go. The hero and the villain, cop and murderer alike, are both wandering exiles, homeless, rootless, placeless. This type of film marks a step beyond the intimacy thrillers of the '90s, films in which everything depends on fortifying the walls of one's home against strangers. In these newer serial killer movies, there is no longer, in truth, a home base to protect. Now all bases of operation – office or dungeon – are temporary, makeshift. And so a certain spiritual malaise affects both hero and villain. But equally, these characters, whatever side of the law they are on, carry the air of a certain freedom, a lightness: "wandering between the winds" (as is said in The Searchers), they are able to explore strange, disturbing, fascinating border zones of human behaviour and its depraved or exalted depths.
In the modern serial killer film, you no longer have the kinds of absolute borders that often define thrillers – the border between good and evil, or the border that marks the inside and outside of a family home. There are no borders in Kiss the Girls, but there is something instead that's more slippery and shifting, and possibly more interesting: a series of thresholds, decisive points or moments that are crossed or negotiated. I stated earlier that the hero and villain are more or less mirror images; here, the exact degree of that more or less urgently matters.
All these threshold points are defined by actions: whether or not to let someone go free, whether or not to shoot that gun, whether or not to follow through on that base, lustful spark of desire. How a character responds to those challenging, decisive moments is how they define and construct, moment by moment, their morality, their ennobling level of attained, civilised character – of their rejection of that civilised code for something far more perversely pleasurable. Let's not forget that captivity narratives – from The Searchers to Patty Hearst via bizarre items like Robert Aldrich's The Grissom Gang (1971) and Paul Mayersberg's Captive (1985) – are among the most perverse, kinkiest and least politically correct of movies. I stress this perversity factor because it runs high in Kiss the Girls. One of the key characters in the film, a chief suspect, is a kind of libertine teacher who regularly involves his young students in elaborate but fully consensual sexual games. And in many ways the core of the film, what it builds to, is a disconcerting scene in which the bad guy confronts the good guy and says: "I did with your niece what you have always secretly longed to do" – which is something that Scar could have said to Ethan in The Searchers.
What's going on here? Good-bad mirroring is standard device in Hollywood films these days, and often doesn't mean a blessed thing – it's just surface patterning. But at its deepest, as in Kiss the Girls, there's an engaging meditation or argument going on, through the relation of serial killer and law-abiding cop, concerning what it is to be human, what constitutes a sense of humanity. The film's gifted writer, David Klass, was to take this idea further in an equally captivating (and equally underrated) thriller, Desperate Measures (1998), with a director well suited to the exploration: Barbet Schroeder.
One of the reasons I have discovered this new tolerance within myself for serial killer movies – and the reason I was so provoked and intrigued by Kiss the Girls – is probably because films of this kind tend to meet such a high level of intolerance among film reviewers. It's become almost a duty to denounce such films as prurient, immoral, cashing in on a gruesome and obscene spectacle of death, purely for the sake of formula thrills and entertainment. I had got to the point of sharing that reflex judgment, albeit without very much conviction.
But there is indeed something more challenging about these movies that demands our attention and respect. I'm not one of those critics who likes to decry humanism in any and every instance – but I do think there's a reflex, easy, soft sort of humanist creed which leads us to simply dismiss a movie like Kiss the Girls. This film is not exactly an anti-humanist film. It's not devoid of psychology or a moral sense, the way that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or other very extreme movies (like Philippe Grandrieux's Sombre ) try to be. It's not just reducing human life to bodies and their base animal drives.
No, Kiss the Girls, like Fargo (1996), takes you into this weird zone where some sense of civilisation has to be fought for, and fought out, at every turn. In a thriller like this, that fight is going to come down to a tense, visceral finale where there are three bodies, two guns, a room full of gas, and – of all things – a milk carton. But it's in such outlandish movie clinches that some really important issues get tossed around and figured out.
underwhelming sequel: Along Came a Spider
MORE Fleder: Don't Say a Word
© Adrian Martin November 1997