Natural Born Killers

Andrew Johnston is afraid, very afraid, at QFT's slasher season

Queen’s Film Theatre maintains its commitment to genre cinema with another hair-raising horror season. Hot on the heels of April and May’s zombie-thon, the star of the latest weeklong movie marathon is that maniac we love to hate – the screen serial killer.

Natural Born Killers – Serial Killers on the Big Screen collects eight of the grim sub-genre’s most notable films, documentaries and television shows. I miss the first two screenings – 1931’s Peter Lorre-starring M, about a child-murderer on the loose in Berlin, and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, featuring Anthony Perkins as schizophrenic hotelier Norman Bates – so my journey into Hell begins at 10 Rillington Place.

Based on true events, this is no gory, Saw-style fantasy. Richard Attenborough is outstanding in the complex role of strangler John Christie, a seemingly asexual man who nonetheless gets his kicks by molesting dying women. As the wretched, tragic Timothy Evans – Christie’s innocent tenant, who was hanged in 1950 for some of the crimes – John Hurt is equally magnetic.

This 1971 British movie was shot in west London’s actual 7 Rillington Place – the new residents of number 10 wanted nothing to do with the production – and makes good use of the grotty, terraced-house set. Richard Fleischer’s film is a devastating warning against either the death penalty or poor police work, depending on which side of the capital-punishment fence you sit.

Next up, and always a pleasure to see in a cinema, is the original Halloween. This is the best way to watch John Carpenter’s finest hour and a half. Michael Myers – here played by three actors, but let’s save such minutiae for horror conventions – is arguably more of a Universal-style monster than a serial killer, but Carpenter’s clever use of framing, lighting and sound add up to one of the 1970s’ finest slasher flicks.

QFT’s print of The Silence of the Lambs is scratchy and the sound is poor, but the script, the acting, the direction, the production design and most importantly the story remain as powerful as ever. Hannibal Lecter first toyed with Clarice Starling in 1991: my debut cinema experience as an adult; the film was released on my 18th birthday.

With mesmerising performances by Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal and Jodie Foster as Clarice – both deserving of their Oscars, as were director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally – The Silence of the Lambs is the perfect thriller.

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Nick Broomfield’s documentary about the last months of condemned murderess Aileen Wuornos, is fascinating but flawed. In fiction, being invited to side with the villain can be effective – Halloween makes iconic use of Myers’-point-of-view shots, for instance – but in a reality-based feature it is distasteful.

Regardless of Wuornos’ dubious mental state – she was apparently mad as well as bad – watching Broomfield trawl around the courtrooms and prisons, painting his subject as a downtrodden victim of circumstance, seems disrespectful to the families of the men she killed. Still, the director – who also made Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam and Kurt and Courtney – is at his best when exposing America’s seedy underbelly, and this film is never less than gripping.

The glitzy centrepiece of the season is an evening devoted to the television series Dexter. Creator Jeff Lindsay, on whose novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter the cult Showtime series is based, is in attendance to answer questions from No Alibis  bookshop owner David Torrans, as well as from members of the audience.

Lindsay is a larger-than-life presence, spending as much time cracking jokes and breaking into song as tackling posers on everything from his daily writing routine to Miami’s gun crime statistics. The debut screening of the premiere episode of season four of Dexter works well on the big screen.

Mary Harron’s American Psycho closes proceedings. In the gents after the underrated 2000 satire, a couple of student types – who had near-ruined the film with their constant guffawing – spot the poster ad for Natural Born Killers and proceed to slate it, along with every film mentioned above. After five nights watching people being stabbed and garrotted onscreen, they’re lucky I don’t murder them right here.

Imbeciles aside, this has been a superb season. However, the most terrifying thing may be the realisation that three of the movies – M, Psycho and Halloween – have been the subject of disappointing modern remakes. If this fate lies ahead for 10 Rillington Place, The Silence of the Lambs or American Psycho, then it really is time to be afraid. Very afraid.