You can deduce a lot about a madman by the way he is perceived by others. The conventional anecdotes are the staple of many retellings of their crimes. They were loners. They didn’t talk to anyone. Some thought of them as socially awkward. They never stood out, always seeming to disappear among the faces in crowds. And then there are the sorts whose sins come as a total surprise to onlookers who otherwise thought highly of the culprits. “No one expected a sweet man like him to murder those boys,” a resident in Houston, Texas once said of Dean Corll. “I considered him a friend, and I’m stunned by this all,” another spoke of John Wayne Gacy, shortly after his house was ransacked and 29 bodies were pulled from the crawlspace beneath. The more lurid and disturbing maniacs cast a long shadow of doubt amongst their peers, who would never assume something so heinous behind a set of charismatic eyes. That also means their crime sprees tend to be long and drawn out, no doubt since they provide few (if any) warnings signs. Yet as I watched “Tenderness of the Wolves,” a dramatic reenactment of the many crimes of Fritz Haarmann, I was struck by the almost cheerful ambivalence of his friends, lovers and onlookers as he routinely got away with the vicious killings of teenage runaways. Consider a scene, for example, when the notorious “Werewolf of Hannover” drops a slab of meat on the counter of a lady’s establishment, and she expresses glee at his arrival. He apparently doubles as a butcher, in addition to being a police informant. Others, however, find the texture of his delivery odd and off-putting (no one questions where it comes from, of course). But the restraint of curiosity belongs to a single pitch: what purpose is there to suspect a man so charismatic of engaging in anything so heinous? This is a movie that theorizes people are more content to look the other way on what is obvious than to deal with it directly.
The insurmountable tension between the main characters of “Midsommar” would usually indicate the foreshadowing of some sort of dramatic showdown, but for Ari Aster, a filmmaker who prefers to quietly agonize over more unconventional horrors, it is simply a wound for the story to exploit much later, when the narrative pummels down on it like a merciless weapon. Up to that point, the leads dance around cordial exchanges as if attempting to subvert the topic of their mutual dislike, and brief arguments seem held back by a suspicion that it will all explode into something more elaborate. But those confrontations never come, usually because the faces are gradually picked off by something more volatile in the nearby shadows. Is Aster insinuating, perhaps, that not dealing with an issue like this early on is a gateway to tragedies beyond your control? Or is he of the belief that people’s individual personality conflicts are pointless when viewed in a broader sweep of cynicism? However you choose to approach the movie will do little to quell the macabre connotations of the outcome, which uses these behavioral details like roadblocks preventing eventual casualties from detecting more obvious fates. Theirs is less a story than it is a series of actions preceding inexplicable bloodshed.
Tradition is a social construct eroding in the sweep of modern values. This is one of the key observations made by Marxist E. J. Hobsbawm, who also suggests their prevalence in a series of more dangerous cultural identities, including the same nationalism that lead to Hitler’s Germany. One wonders how the writers of “Birds of Passage” would feel about this assessment – whether they would, quite possibly, concede that the behaviors of their characters seem like gateways to troubling histories, or if they, like their customs, are simply undermined (or destroyed) by more cynical paradigms. Evidence before them could support either theory. The scene: an indigenous tribe of Wayuu natives in the plains of Colombia is celebrating the coming-of-age of Zaida, the daughter of the family matriarch, and she has acquired the notice of Rapayet, a member of the neighboring family, who announces his intention to marry her. The snag in his desires is Ursula, Zaida’s mother, who insists on a steep dowry. Protective and dismissive, she believes he will never be able to pay it. But as days pass and Rapayet is seen caught up in a monetary agenda with foreign vacationers, her demands are met. Unfortunately, this does more than promise him the bride he seeks; it also sets the early stages in motion for what will become the gestation period of the Colombian drug trade, which found footing in the late 1960s and became the source of a cycle of violence that continues well into the 21st century.
John Carpenter’s “Christine” is a well-made attempt to bring sincerity to absurdity, without calling much attention to the disconnects of logic that would otherwise collapse the story. Imagine how frustrating that must have been for a man that was otherwise absorbed by more palpable realities. After “Halloween” established him as a filmmaker obsessed with the possible and “Escape from New York” moved him towards a more prophetic sense of storytelling, along came a ridiculous screen treatment involving a killer car and his nutjob owner who mow down the town’s teenage bullies. Who would have guessed – indeed, predicted – that any filmmaker might develop the self-awareness to know exactly where to take this story without tipping the audience off or sabotaging their interest? “It was just a paycheck when I took it on,” Carpenter once said in a book-length interview about his career. That was a payday well-earned, and now long after the horror movie market has been saturated by sub-par adaptations of most of Stephen King’s famous stories, his end result is widely seen as one of the more effective screen treatments of the era, however corny or preposterous it may remain on paper.