But, first the scariest movie I never saw. In our little city, before there was Netflix and about a million other in-home film viewing choices there was (and is) Videoport on Middle Street. It seemed everyone who was cool, awesome and earnest in their love of films has worked there including my sister Betty. One afternoon I walked in to rent the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). It was several years after its release but Siskel and Ebert had just done a thing on best scary films or something like that.
Tony Reiger was behind the counter – Tony of the black pompadour and possessor of true kindness. I handed him the film or actually the VHS tape. Tony smiled and nodded his head looking at the film I picked and said, “Kari, I am not going to let you rent that film.” I laughed, “Ha, ha.” He wasn’t joking – “No, I mean it, put it back. I can’t do that to you. I’ve seen it and I know you can’t handle it and it would haunt you forever. And, it would be my fault. So, no.”
You know what, I knew he was right but still I persisted and said I would fast forward through the really gruesome stuff. He responded, “You like Jim Jarmusch. Get a Jim Jarmusch film.” And, so I left with Night on Earth (1991). Thank you, Tony. You were right; I could not have handled it.
One of the other films Siskel and Ebert talked about in that episode was The Honeymoon Killers (1969). Directed by Leonard Kastle it is maybe the bleakest film I have ever seen. (The day I rented it Tony was not working.)
It is based on the true story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck – known as the Lonely Hearts Killers – who murdered women Fernandez had conned into marry him. The film is shot in black and white with a grainy documentary-style look. The film has a heavy, smothering feel that is anxiety producing. In a word chilling. Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco play the creepy killer couple. Both are more than believable in their roles and they look like real people not beautiful actors. Stoler is amazingly terrifying as a killer without a speck of remorse. And, their victims are helpless. Stoler’s character is also a nurse. There is something sinister about a lady in a 1960’s nurse uniform killing people. I know Freddy Kruger is fake but this chick is for real. (If Stoler hadn’t been an over-weight plain looking woman she would have had the career she deserved. Too bad Hollywood can’t tolerate imperfection.)
So you don’t think it’s just a low-budget thriller – François Truffaut said it was among his favorite contemporary American films.
My first scariest film was In Cold Blood (1967). We had a TV in the basement of our house. The basement also housed a tool room, the furnace room and a room filled with plaster of Paris (our mother had a little in-home business making plaster molded knick knacks). I sat transfix in front of our crappy black and white TV watching a true life horror film – where two of the characters are killed in their basement – while two stories above my family slept.
In Cold Blood maybe the first of the true-life home invasion films. The Clutter family is slaughtered in the middle of the night by two ex-cons in their isolated Kansas farmhouse. The film is based on Truman Capote’s novel of the same title. Richard Brooks directs and the use of black and white film also lends a disturbing documentary feel to the movie. I knew the story so I knew the Clutters have no chance of surviving. Knowing that makes the film even bleaker, more frightening. When the teenage Nancy Clutter heart-breakingly played by Brenda Currin is killed not a drop of blood is seen and it is still terrifying. And, even a thirteen-old-like-me knew the murder of the father and his son in the basement was one kind of hell on earth.
Robert Blake, who went on to star in the TV series Baretta and in real life likely killed the mother of his daughter, played one of killers.
One thing I know about myself is I am always more frightened by real life horror stories. I also learned a lesson that Tony Reiger had recognized in me that day I thought I wanted to rent Henry: A Portrait of a Serial Killer. You have to know your limits.