No decade propelled the grimy interpretation of murder more than the ‘90s. It would set a new standard in film, captivating audiences with its graphic displays of realism and horrific storytelling. Viewers couldn't get enough, and the morbid interest would make its way to television with a wave of genre changing new shows. By the decade’s end, the turn around from theater to video would drastically decrease, and the sales of VHS movies skyrocketed as the medium became more affordable. Film fans now had the opportunity to create unique movie libraries that went beyond mainstream cinema with director’s cuts and previously unreleased foreign films. Before the turn of the millennium, the at home market would change formats with the revolutionary introduction of DVDs, further enhancing the film experience with special features and deleted scenes. True crime documentaries exploded in popularity, and the news media would significantly change pop culture with its frenzied coverage of the murder of Nichole Brown Simpson. Film studios followed suit by bringing popular crime thrillers to the big screen, adapting novels such a James Patterson’s Kiss The Girls and Jeffery Deaver’s The Bone Collector. By the decade’s end, Law and Order would begin it’s long television run, featuring episodes literally “ripped from the headlines”.
There are few directors that execute (no pun intended) the shock and awe of murder in film better than Martin Scorsese. Widely known for the violence in his films, Scorsese lends an artistic quality to these scenes, using such events to propel the story rather than a shock tactic. Through a variety of motives ranging from criminal to vigilante savior, the murders that occur are as unique as they are brutal. In Goodfellas, the violence is portrayed with an unpolished honesty. Based on the life of New York mobster Henry Hill, Goodfellas is a look at how easily and often the mafia committed murder in its hay-day. There is one scene in particular in Goodfellas that displays the mob’s mentality of detachment, and the lack of regard for human life. It has always been the code of a gangster - how far are you willing to go to get what you want, and how far are you willing to go to not get caught. In upstate New York Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) are digging up the body of Billy Batts, whom they killed and buried six months earlier to prevent it from being discovered by a developing crew. As the stench of the decomposing body causes Hill to gag, DeVito begins making jokes about Billy Bates’s body and food, further nauseating Hill and causing him to vomit. Although the body of Bates is never shown, the scene is incredibly effective and ended up being one of the funniest in the film. It is an interesting moment that subliminally invites the audience to partake in DeVito’s detachment and laugh at the situation despite its disgusting nature. Black humor has been a constant in film, where the laws of taste and compassion are blurred. It taps into the subconscious of the audience, and forces an altered perception. In Goodfellas, this technique allows viewers to abandon their morals and take delight in what would otherwise be a terrible situation.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
In 1991 the world of crime and film came together and captivated viewers with The Silence of the Lambs. Based on the novel by Thomas Harris, the film swept the top five categories at the 64th Academy Awards, earning Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay. Lambs was a turning point in the portrayal of a murderer. Gone were the deliberate oddities so often associated with screen killers, the typical deranged personality that was the standard for most ‘80s movie villains. Anthony Hopkins set a new standard with his performance as Hannibal Lector. After a suspenseful build up full of horrific crime file revaluations, Clarice Starling, and the audience, are introduced to the distinguished doctor. Displaying a love for the fine arts, opera, and elegant cuisine, Hannibal Lector had more in common with an english professor than the typical serial killer. These traits made him more relatable to the audience, which in turn would provoke a deeper element of fear. Lector’s normality in the film provokes a confusing conflict. It’s the same many experience in the real world when a person of normal appearance and lifestyle are found guilty of murder. “I can’t believe he did this,” shocked neighbors confess on the news, “he was just a normal guy.” Yet those the most frightening killers of all, the one’s who easily hide among us. Lambs was groundbreaking with its non-glamorized presentation of forensic science, and created an even balance between the viewpoint of law enforcement and criminals. Director Jonathan Demme managed to tap into the psychological fear of the audience, presenting just enough clues to highlight a sinister motive. The intimate look at Buffalo Bill at home were disturbing in nature, bringing to light the rarely explored area of what serial killers do at home when they’re not plotting their next murder. The success of The Silence of the Lambs would inspire a new wave of crime thrillers. It also helped highlight the inner corporate stereotypes of women in a male dominated business. Clarice Starling was one of the strongest feminist roles of its time, and Jodie Foster’s amazing performance was an empowering reminder of a woman’s strength and equal worth in law enforcement and beyond.
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Like all movies that exhibit mass controversy, Natural Born Killers shook the film industry. Many (namely politicians and church groups) accused the film for being too violent. Killers was released in 1994 and resonated well with the angst filled MTV generation. The film’s controversy off the screen, mirrored its title card slogan - “The media made them superstars.” Director Oliver Stone had to remove several scenes to avoid a NC-17 rating, most notably the decapitation scene of prison warden Dwight McCLusky, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Killers was released only one year after the Lucasville prison riots in Ohio, which resulted in a 10 day standoff where 9 inmates were killed and 8 guards were held hostage, resulting in one execution. Killers climatic prison riot scene is cinematic madness, further enhanced with thrashing industrial music deliberately played louder than the rest of the music in the film. It creates an uneasy tension as strobe effects highlight the death beatings of several guards. After its release, the film was accused of inspiring several real life copycat crimes. Most notable was the crime spree of Benjamin Darras and Sarah Edmonson in 1995. Two days after watching the film the two drove to Mississippi to attend a Grateful Dead concert. Along the way Darras shot and killed William Savage, a cotton-mill manager, and later shot and paralyzed Patsy Byers, a Louisiana convenience store cashier. Best selling author John Grisham, a friend of Savage, publicly criticized Oliver Stone afterwords, claiming the director was irresponsible with the making of the film. He also expressed his beliefs that directors and filmmakers should be held accountable for their films that inspire viewers to commit violent acts. Natural Born Killers was another new dimension in the interpretation of murder on film. While violence was nothing new in cinema, the film’s fast paced sensationalized frenzy of murder and mayhem was something many viewers had never seen before. The schizophrenic pacing engrosses the mind, creating an exhausting viewing experience. Stone used a variety of techniques for the movie, including black and white film, animation, and satire television. Mixed with pop culture imagery and cartoon sound effects the film is an in your face whirlwind of violence and bloodshed that highlights the media’s equally frenzied involvement. The film’s closing credits further express the evils of the media with a montage of news clips from the OJ Simpson, Rodney King, and Menendez Brother’s trials. Spliced with hell fire and demonic imagery, it’s a closing statement that shines the spotlight not just on the media, but the public’s morbid interest in death as well. Murder, while still gruesome, was fast becoming obsessive entertainment.
In 1995 David Fincher's film Seven introduced audiences to a different kind of serial killer. While most true life killers erratically take another’s life to fulfill a psychological need or compulsion, there are some who have methodically taken their crimes to a more calculating and difficult level. Seven is a gritty look at the neurotic psyche of a serial killer named Joe Doe (Kevin Spacey). Doe spends several years putting together an intricate master plan to fulfill his desire to kill in accordance to the seven deadly sins, widely known as the immoral crimes of Christian belief. Spacey gives a memorable performance as Doe, displaying a calm demeanor throughout the film, as if his character has finally achieved inner peace after completing his obsessive scheme. It’s contradictory to the rage many cinematic criminal display during apprehension, but it is not unheard of in real life. It is a disturbing mannerism often associated with murderers, the nonchalant persona that reveals the killer is unfazed by the crimes they have committed. The film explores not only the gruesome physicality of torture resulting in death, but also the psychological stress from a law enforcement perspective. Seven’s climatic ending shocked audiences. Initially the studio wanted to rewrite the scene, considering it too brutal for film. It wasn’t until Brad Pitt threatened to quit unless the original ending remained that New Line Cinema reluctantly allowed the scene to stay. The notorious ending is deeply disturbing, and is a brutal reminder that even after justice is served, there are no winners.
Pierce Brosnen’s first appearance as MI-6 agent James Bond was a welcome change in the long running 007 franchise. It followed the cookie cutter plot of good guy James Bond foiling a bad guy’s attempt to rule the world with global terrorism. Yet it is the film’s impact off the screen that would inspire a new platform in popular culture. In 1997 Nintendo released the game Goldeneye 007 for it’s Nintendo 64 console. The game became a best seller, and is one of the first to explore the first-person shooter with graphic realism and smart technology. Shoot a character in the hand or foot, and the character will react in pain to the injured area. Shoot them in the head, they die. It was a new platform in gaming that players had never seen before. Playing out like most shoot em’ up action films from the ‘80s, Goldeneye also featured a one on one multiplayer death match, where players could stalk one another with an assortment of weapons that went beyond Bond’s standard Q Branch issued Walter PPK. Goldeneye 007 was revolutionary in the gaming world, inspiring countless kill or be killed first-person shooter games. The realistic violence in movies were beginning to inspire the world of video games, a trend that would continue into the next millennium, and eventually reverse itself as gaming systems continued to grow in popularity.
Citizen X (1995)
There are some serial killers who's acts are so heinous that attempting to make a film based on the events often prove to be too difficult. To be properly told, the mass body count and grizzly details would require a certain degree of gore and disturbing reenactments. Dealing with such dark subject matters on a cinematic scale is dominantly reserved for horror films. Real life killer Ed Gein for example is the inspiration for several fictional killers, such as Norman Bates (Psycho), Leatherface (Texas Chain Saw Massacre), and Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs). Rob Zombie also used Gein’s crimes as inspiration for his film House of a 1000 Corpses. Normally, the disturbing crimes of such killers are best explained in documentaries, where the details are exposed without being over fabricated with horror movie blood splatter. In the realm of film adaptations, it is a rare occurrence for such a dark topic to get a proper dramatic presentation.
As the evolution of violence continues to evolve in cinema, there is one element all studios try their best to avoid - the detailed reenactment involving the murder of children. It has long been an unwritten rule in film, and many studios choose to avoid the disturbing content. What makes Citizen X unique is the film is based on real life child killer Andrei Chikatilo, who carried out his sadistic desires on children to fulfill his otherwise absent means of obtaining sexual gratification. Chikatilo is notoriously regarded as one of the most gruesome serial killers in history, having been accused of the murders of 53 known women and children in Russia from 1978 - 1990. Chikatilo suffered from chronic impotency, and was unable to sustain an erection when attempting sex. Yet he was able to achieve orgasm when ever he killed, often using his knife in a phallic manner. Post mutilation, castration, and cannibalism of his victims were common, along with 20 to 30 stab wounds to neck, chest and eyes. It is a dark subject that goes further into detail in Robert Cullen’s novel The Killer Department (1993), on which Citizen X is based.
It goes without saying that Citizen X is an emotional movie. To watch actors play a role is one thing, but to realize these events happened, and for as long as they occurred, is hard to wrap the mind around. That being said, despite the ugly nature of Chikatilo’s crimes, Citizen X is a tastefully made film. They took a dark story and gave an accurate presentation without over exposing every detail of Chikatilo’s vulgar actions. Yet many of the disturbing afflictions are skillfully revealed during forensic investigations. Citizen X is by no means a candy coated film, the movie manages to stay true to the mature subject matter, yet masterfully executes the fine art of reservation. It’s a sensitive subject, especially considering Chikatilo’s last victim was killed less than 5 year before the release of this film. Special considerations were made when approaching the details of Chikatilo’s murders, a curtesy made on the behalf of the surviving family members of the victims. The film does an exceptional job exposing the frustrations of working long term investigations, and the psychological stress experienced by of those assigned to the exceptionally brutal case. Stephen Rea gives a memorable performance as Viktor Burakov, the detective responsible for capturing Chikatilo, and Donald Sutterland gives a Golden Globe and Emmy winning performance as Burakov’s superior Col. Mikhail Fetisov (It’s a shame this film was an HBO original. Had it been a theatrical release Sutterland may have earned an Oscar nomination, a honor he has never received in his long and impressive career). Jeffery Demunn also gives a memorable performance (Emmy nominated) as Andrei Chikatilo. The end result is a fantastic movie, and an important one in the evolution of film, especially considering the dramatic biographical presentation inspired by horrific real life events.
Quentin Tarantino - Part One
Quentin Tarantino took cinematic violence to a stylish new level. Inspired by the B movies that shocked and captivated audiences in the ‘70s, Tarantino introduced grindhouse films to a new generation. With quirky characters and catchy retro soundtracks, Tarantino’s romanticized style of violence quickly established a loyal fanbase. In fact, Tarantino’s impact in the industry was so great that similarly violent movies were often called “Tarantino style films.” He certainly wasn’t the first director to embellish violence, but he quickly established a trademark style by doing so in well written and produced films. He was able to metaphorically polish a grindhouse style film without removing the grit. Often appearing in his own films, Tarantino wrote/directed three feature films in the ‘90s; Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. In addition, three Tarantino penned screenplays were also purchased and made into movies; True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and From Dusk Til Dawn. By the century’s end, Tarantino had revitalizing several actor’s careers, and was at the top of many elite actor’s lists as the director they would most like to work with.
Due to Mature and Graphic Subject Matter, Viewer Desecration Is Advised
Before the turn of the millennium, murder invaded television with a variety of gritty new shows. What was once considered morbid in nature was now entertainment. Many networks that were accustomed to heavily editing violent movies for television were becoming more lax in the content they allowed. On any given night a new body would be discovered on shows like CSI, and Homicide: Life on the Streets. These show bore more resemblance to real life in comparison to programs like Matlock and Murder She Wrote. True crime also began to dominate investigative journalism. Shows like 48 Hours and Dateline explored the mysterious murder of Jonbenet Ramsey and the cannibalistic crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer. On cable television the documentary style program Forensic Files premiered on TLC, and HBO’s series Autopsy: Confessions of a Medical Examiner enlisted forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden to discuss famous cases he had work on, often accompanied with actual crime scene footage. In 1996 the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association enlisted the help of the Motion Picture Association of America to develop a television rating system - as requested by the United States Congress (Telecommunications Act of 1996). Modeled after the movie rating system established in 1968, the TV Parental Guidelines went into effect in 1997 to help viewers identify shows with graphic language, sexual content, and violence. As the decade came to a close, HBO’s The Sopranos would premier with a new level of violence and bloodshed. The show would attract a mass following, lighting the torch for the third golden age of television.
There is no director that advanced the on screen presentation of murder in the ‘90s more than Steven Spielberg. The graphic horrors displayed in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan were the most realistic portrayals of war to date. In order to properly tell the story, Spielberg knew it needed to look and feel real. The grizzly revelations were the worst of WWII, featuring details many soldiers refused to share when they returned home. The films were so close to reality that some veterans had to leave the theater as memories they fought years to forget exploded across the big screen.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Schindler's List brought the horrors of the Holocaust to life. The film is often sickening to watch as the complete disregard for human life is on full display as countless Jews are beaten and executed. It is ugly and barbaric death. Spielberg chose to film in black and white to give the movie a documentary presentation. This approach enabled one of the most powerful scenes in cinema - the girl in the red. The girl in the red makes two appearances in the film. Although they may be short, what transpires is an emotional depth rarely experienced in cinema. The artistry of colorizing her jacket demands the audience to notice her as she runs for her life during the evacuation of the Krakow ghetto. There is so much death in the film, it becomes overwhelming as the vulgarities of genocide consume countless lives. The dead eventually all become one entity because it is unfathomable for the mind to process each life. This is by no means a sign of disrespect, it is a necessary defense mechanism cause by witnessing such a terrible magnitude of violence. Later in the film, as the dead are loaded onto carts to be burned, the girl in red passes the screen. It is a brief, yet devastatingly sad scene. Among the corpses, her lifeless body stands out, demanding the audience to notice her once again. Schindler’s List is a beautiful film, but it is tough to watch. Spielberg’s tribute ending pairs the actors in the film with the real people they portrayed as they visit Oskar Schindler's grave in Jerusalem. It’s a powerful closing statement that thins the dividing line of film and real life, leaving viewers with a final reminder that the nauseating horrors they had just witnessed were based on actual events.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
War has been a constant subject of interest in cinema since the birth of film, pulling viewers into the most famous battles of history. Spielberg continued his unpolished veracity of warfare with Saving Private Ryan. The film begins with an intense 20 plus minute sequence that follows America’s entry into WWII as troops storm the beaches of Normandy. What transpires is hell on earth, presenting some of the most graphic reenactments of war on screen. Cinematographer Janusk Kaminski used a hand held camera while filming to give the movie it’s signature shaky presentation. The effect lifted the veil between the audience and film and gave viewers the illusion on actually being on Omaha beach during the invasion. Explosions caused the camera to jerk, and water, sand, blood, and flesh material stuck to lens. The savagery of combat is on full display as grenades rip apart bodies and injured soldiers struggle to gather up their intestines with blood slippery hands. The loud and chaotic scene is an overwhelming watch, occasionally falling silent as the bloodshed of war continues in a more isolated manner. The realistic imagery was a stressful viewing experience, especially for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
Steven Spielberg has made many amazing and influential films. Above all the credits of his impressive career, Schindler’s List will be his master work. All films that bring the hells of war to light are important. It is hard to put one over another because they all share the same message. To his credit, Spielberg put a lot of himself into Schindler’s List. He often broke down in tears during filming, and that heartache can be felt in the movie. Schindler’s List would go on to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Best Director. Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan will remain culturally significant for many generations to come. Spielberg’s decision to give these films a timeless presentation preserve these stories with a classic and authentic essence. As the medium of film continues to make advancement these movies will serve as powerful reminders of the horrors of war, but most importantly, the brutality of man.
Lee L. Lind