My Year of Horror: March Madness


I’VE BEEN IN therapy for a long time. It’s helpful to have someone to talk to. As I get older, I find my inner demons less and less troubling. Their voices have quieted. But in this month’s selection of films, madness is not so easy to stifle.

You can argue that most horror films are about insanity. But every one of these films has a lead character (or, in some cases, a principal antagonist) who is, to quote Bugs Bunny, “tetched” in the head. Most are too unbalanced to treat. Some have clearly defined maladies which were easy to locate in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which provides standard criteria for diagnosis.) And all of them, for the sake of drama lose control.

This month I offer five excellent films. The sixth is what you would call “not really good.” You’ll forgive me for that one. We’ll start with it so you have something to look forward to.  Keep in mind, I think so highly of the five good films on this list that their order is almost irrelevant. The final one really is my favorite of these, however.


The Fan (1981)
Director: Ed Bianchi
Writer: Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell based on the novel by Bob Randall
Lead Patient: Douglas Breen (played by Michael Biehn)
Bob Randall’s epistolary novel which is the basis for The Fan is a quick but enjoyable read about a fan’s obsession with a female star. Familiar stuff but still a good beach read. The film, however, is literal where the novel is shadowy.

Young Michael Biehn seeks out a decoy in a gay bar in THE FAN.

Douglas Breen’s delusional relationship with Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) does not start innocently. We know immediately that Breen is off-balance by the overly-familiar tone in his letters. The film accounts for the novels’ many letters through voice-overs – sometimes effectively as when we hear Mr. Biehn and Maureen Stapleton (as Sally’s personal assistant) alternately. As Breen comes to believe that his relationship with Sally is threatened, he eliminates those in his way. Sally is, at the same time, dealing with the stress of opening in a new musical on Broadway. She’s never done one before and she’s nervous. Never mind that the musical, which we see glimpses of before the film’s truncated climax, seems like a bizarre concoction created to fool movie audiences but which obviously has no plot, director, concept or libretto. In short: camp. It’s a sort of Woman of the Year without depth.

The film score, by Pino Donaggio whose evocative work can be heard in films like Carrie, Don’t Look Now, The Howling and Dressed to Kill, starts with a flurry of strings reminiscent of Psycho. The opening sequence is like a musical number which draws us into the world of the film. Unfortunately, The Fan never gives us a production number to applaud. (Applause – that was another Bacall Broadway musical vehicle…)
Symptoms: delusions of love, stalking, repressed homosexuality, more delusions, occasional murder, obsession with Broadway musicals, misuse of glamorous Hollywood star, manual typewriter, corny musical numbers
Diagnosis: Delusional Disorder: Erotomanic Type


Dead Ringers (1988)
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: David Cronenberg & Norman Snider
Patients: Beverly & Elliot Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons)
My favorite part of David Cronenberg’s examination of the power struggle between fraternal twins and their inner demons isn’t the performance of Jeremy Irons in his dual role, it’s not the wonderful Geneviève Bujold as the brothers’ shared lover, it’s not the campy blood red surgical gowns worn by the twin gynecologists in their shiny stainless steel office, nor is it the lurid, nearly-exploitative horror which churns in the underbelly of the screenplay. No, none of those is quite as delightfully horrid as the freakish gynecological instruments designed by Beverly Mantle when he begins to suffer delusions of mutant women with aberrant genitals.

The tools of Beverly Mantle's trade in DEAD RINGERS

Let me explain: the Mantle brothers, twin gynecologists with a highly successful practice, engage in some unsavory, unprofessional practices – secretly swapping patients and lovers. Elliot, the dominant twin, frequently seduces his female patients, sometimes passing them off to his shy but brilliant brother. (There’s also a suggestion of unnatural brotherly love during a threesome in the middle of the film.) As with many twin relationships, the Mantle boys take care of each other but when Beverly falls deeply for one of Elliot’s former patient-lovers (Bujold in one of her best performances), things take a dark turn. Claire (Bujold), a film actress, introduces Beverly to the prescription drugs she takes to deal with growing concerns about her career. He becomes obsessively attached to her and when she goes to work on a new film, Beverly comes unhinged, falling into a clinical depression which involves drug addiction, delusions and alcohol abuse.

Badly titled, beautifully filmed and sometimes awkwardly written, I can’t say this film is perfect but it is compelling. Jeremy Irons is given a twisted, mountain of a role. There’s far too little of Bujold, though her presence is strong throughout the film. And there are several howlers of the Cronenberg variety. Yet I can’t take my eyes away. As the film grows more lurid, the women who are the victims of the brothers’ dysfunction begin to fade from memory as the Mantles are caught in a miasma of hallucination and despair. Cronenberg based his film on the real case of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, identical twin gynecologists who were found dead together in their NYC apartment. There is no telling how much of Dead Ringers is true but what is certain is that there is no saving the Mantle brothers from this film’s tragic ending.

Jeremy Irons as Beverly Mantle in DEAD RINGERS. Really? Red scrubs?

The fact I failed to mention – and it’s an important one – is that Claire, being examined at the Mantle medical facility, is found to have a trifurcate cervix. In the midst of his depression, Beverly designs horrific gynecological “Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women.” The film reaches its apotheosis when Beverly attempts to operate on a patient, bringing together Cronenberg’s favorite thematic elements with the grim plot points and props of Dead Ringers. It’s here that the horror of the film is at its most horrible, which is why those instruments are my favorite part of the film. They couldn’t be worse; dreadful to look at, and sickening to imagine in use, they have just the effect I imagine Cronenberg wants them to have. If you know even a little about Cronenberg you know it won’t end well. In this case, the doctor warns, “This isn’t going to hurt a bit. It’s going to hurt as much as possible.”
Symptoms: substance abuse, delusions of mutant women, secret girlfriend swapping, fraternal disembowelment, medical malpractice, grandiosity, incest
Diagnosis: Nuts


Misery (1990)
Director: Rob Reiner
Writer: William Goldman based on the novel by Stephen King
Lead Patient: Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates)
Penned by Stephen King, this story of a genre novelist trying to escape the confines of his own success blends King’s quirky dialogue, his love of the ghoulish, and a tempered use of violence, combined with Rob Reiner’s direction, Misery becomes a satirical view of celebrity. It is also one of the most successful adaptations of Stephen King’s work.

The Master’s material has been plundered, blundered and wrecked in more than a dozen bad adaptations. The finest, the original Carrie, Kubrick’s The Shining (which strays very far from the novel), the TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot and Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, are worth watching. But there are dismal failures like Thinner, Pet Sematary, Children of the Corn, The Lawnmower Man, The Mangler, Graveyard Shift… I don’t want to go on because I hate seeing my childhood-favorite raked through the coals like the hero of Misery.

The simple story barely needs more than the two characters at its center. Writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan), on his way home from a snowy, mountain retreat where he is finishing his latest novel, loses control of his car during a blizzard. He is saved from the wreckage by nurse Annie Wilkes, who also happens to be his “number 1 fan.” That phrase loses its sweetness when Annie Wilkes throws her first tantrum, unloading a warehouse full of crazy that makes diagnosis by this lay writer nearly impossible.

Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) is adorable, at first ...

Bates, as Annie Wilkes, deservedly won the Oscar for her wackadoo performance (and by “wackadoo” I mean amazing.) But credit should also be given to Caan who plays the “straight man” to Bates’ loony fan. He’s simply excellent. The screenplay, by the reliable William Goldman, is tight, economical and entertaining, with enough comedy to break the mounting tension. This film is essentially a chamber piece and could easily have been a play. Goldman’s screenplay manages to seem expansive even in this limited setting. (For the record, Misery was adapted for the London stage starring Sharon Gless in 1992 and subsequently played the regional theatre circuit.)

Supporting characters in the story are made terrifically full with strong performances from Lauren Bacall as Sheldon’s agent; the late Richard Farnsworth as the local sheriff; and the redoubtable Frances Sternhagen as his wife. The screenplay is straightforward and superbly structured while Reiner’s direction is a virtuosic balance of dark comedy and suspense. We hope for Sheldon’s escape even as we are subject to the unbearable tension of his entrapment. Annie’s infrequent trips into town leave room for Sheldon to use his wits for escape plans, each of which builds on the previous one. But when Annie charges into his bedroom carrying a sledgehammer in one of few extreme acts of violence, you will find yourself reaching for your body parts and shrieking in empathy.

... then she drives her point home ...

Despite the masterful supporting cast, Ms. Bates walks away with the movie. Even as we fear her, we delight in the portrayal. Infamously, Annie complains to Paul Sheldon of the serial cliffhangers from her childhood. She will not be fooled by the cheating of their convoluted escapes. When a film hero from her youth is trapped in a car wreck but shown to escape the next week, there is no way to adequately describe Ms. Bates’ reading of “He didn’t get out of the COCKADOODIE CAR!!!!!!!!!!!!”  Add as many exclamation points as you can, you will not understand the giddiness of it until you see the film. Crazy wonderful.

... I'd believe her .

Symptoms: loss of temper, giddiness, “the blues,” religious zealotry, hallucinations, inappropriate use of sledge hammer, anthropomorphizing, inflated sense of self
Diagnosis: Borderline Personality Disorder including (1) extremes of idealization and devaluation in relationships; (2) impulsivity; (3) inappropriate anger; (4) suicidal threats; (5) paranoid ideation.


Frenzy (1972)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Anthony Shaffer based on the novel by Arthur La Bern
Patient: Robert Rusk (Barry Foster)
Frenzy is Hitchcock’s last great thriller. In it, he explores familiar territory with the added benefit of a more permissive movie industry, allowing an explicit depiction of psycho-sexual madness.

You won’t find it surprising that women are being murdered in Hitchcock’s 1972 London. The victims are found with the neckties used to strangle them still wrapped around their bruised and swollen necks. Like the heroes in North by Northwest, The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, our protagonist, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) becomes the prime suspect. Blaney is a London bloke with a messy romantic past and a sloppy present. He is seen fighting with his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) shortly before she is murdered. His current girlfriend, Barbara “Babs” Milligan (Anna Massey – again giving a fine performance as she does in Peeping Tom) can’t provide the alibi he needs. But Hitch loves his dramatic irony; almost from the beginning, the audience knows the killer is Blaney’s friend, Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), the local fruit merchant. Hitch lets us squirm along with Blaney as he tries to find the culprit and save himself in the process.

Robert Rusk and Barbara Leigh-Hunt in one of the more lurid scenes from FRENZY.

Excellent comic relief is provided in the relationship between Chief Inspector Oxford and his wife (Alec McCowen and Vivien Merchant) whom we meet as Mrs. Oxford has decided to experiment in gourmet French cuisine. In Mrs. Oxford’s cookbook, “gourmet” means dishes like Soupe de Poisson – inexpertly loaded with whole fish heads – and offal prepared in various ways. Despite her seeming obliviousness, she serves up keen insights when Oxford shares the grim facts of his case.

This is Hitchcock in excellent form with a well-structured script and formidable actors. Anna Massey, innocent and sweet in Peeping Tom is memorable. Finch and Foster make excellent foils and Vivien Merchant steals every scene she’s in.

In the most famous shot in the film, Hitch uses his objective P.O.V. to unnerve us. Following Rusk and a female visitor (someone we care about) into his apartment, the camera glides up the stairs from the noisy London street, into the quiet of the hallway as we watch the unwitting victim enter the madman’s lair. Floating backwards, down the quiet stairs, past the entry hall and again into the noisy street, Hitch and his camera deny, making it worse through our understanding that the world will go about its business as someone we know is brutally murdered. We are helpless to stop it.

A victim of the necktie FRENZY.

Frenzy is about helplessness and impotence. Blaney is the victim of his slovenly past and the inability to control his anger, Rusk is incapable of squelching his psychotic needs, Inspector Oxford is powerless to refuse his wife’s dreadful cooking, and the victims are unable to save themselves from the frenzy of male violence. It says something about the film that Mrs. Oxford, home-maker and wife, secure in the role she has chosen, turns out to be the most observant character of the lot.
Symptoms: inappropriate use of necktie, mixing plaids and prints, bad cooking, impotence, Hitchcock at the helm
Diagnosis: Psychopath – Disorganized, Hedonistic Type


Peeping Tom (1960)
Director: Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
Lead Patient: Mark Lewis (played by Karlheinz Böhm)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger were the Cohen brothers of 1940’s England, writing, directing and producing a string of highly-respected films, with The Red Shoes being perhaps the most famous. When their partnership ended (amicably – they remained friends for the rest of their lives) after several unsuccessful releases in the mid-50’s, each set about on his own path.

Powell’s second film after the dissolution of the Powell & Pressberger collaboration was released 3 months before Psycho. The two films bear similarities: serial killer with social anxieties, voyeurism, psycho-sexual compulsion, and parental abuse in the formative years.

In his everyday life, Mark Lewis, played by German actor Karlheinz Böhm, seems just a bit odd – socially awkward, if you will. Living on the top floor of his inherited childhood home, he uses part of his flat as a darkroom, renting out the rest of the house. But Mark has a secret life: he shoots “views” – erotic photographs of women for a local merchant who makes a profit off their clandestine sales. Mark is also a serial killer who photographs his victims, capturing the fear on their faces as murders them. His weapon is hidden in his tripod; one leg contains a dagger which he exposes when he is aroused (read: as his victim is most terrified.) On the eve of the sexual revolution, this kind of blatant sexuality is more than a little shocking.

Anna Massey avoiding the knife in PEEPING TOM

Mark eventually befriends one of his tenants, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey who also appears in this month’s Frenzy, directed by Alfred Hitchcock) and they develop a romance… of sorts. Helen’s mother, blind but keenly observant, makes a vigilant foil, hiding nothing of her feelings. “I never trust a man who walks quietly,” she tells Helen. In an extended scene with her daughter’s psychotic-suitor, she places her hands on his face and immediately asks, “What’s troubling you?” It’s one of the film’s many poignant brushstrokes.

The screenplay is tight and surprisingly modern, with macabre touches of humor. When Mark is caught taking photos outside one of his crime scenes, a passerby asks, “Which paper do you work for?” Mark’s reply is, “The Observer.” Moira Shearer, star of The Red Shoes, is superb in a small role as one of Mark’s victims.

Even with all this excellence, Peeping Tom was widely criticized for being lurid. It damaged Powell’s career – a terrible shame since the film is on par with Psycho and way ahead of its time. The pre-credit sequence, shot almost entirely from the killer’s point of view, predates similar murder sequences in films such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. As the opening credits roll, we watch Mark watching the black & white print of his own ghastly film – a double-voyeurism which is Powell’s bleak comment on our own perversity in watching from a safe distance. In this the age of the “reality” show, Peeping Tom seems remarkably prescient.
Symptoms: stealthy footsteps, social awkwardness, scoptophilia, Daddy issues, German accent, Moira Shearer dead in a trunk
Diagnosis: Psychopath – Organized, Hedonistic Type.


Repulsion (1965)
Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Roman Polanski, Gérard Brach, David Stone
Patient: Carol Ledoux (played by Catherine Deneuve)
Roman Polanski’s exploration of madness could not be further removed from the joyful The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in which 20-year-old Catherine Deneuve starred just the year before. Polanski’s Repulsion and Jacques Demy‘s Umbrellas represent the wide spectrum of Deneuve’s talent. Throughout her career, this remarkable actress has played women of every hue. Much has been made of her sublime looks but it is her inner life – the indescribable magic of acting – which makes her so consistently compelling. In Repulsion the camera lingers on her out of necessity – it is, after all, a film about one woman’s descent into madness – but I imagine Polanski and his crew would have chosen to give us long, pleasurable views even if she were not the star.


As Carol, a young manicurist in mid-60’s London, Deneuve brilliantly cloaks Carol in a shy reserve – an attitude which seems perfectly reasonable to those around her. As her reticence comes undone we realize she is not shy at all, but deeply traumatized. The plot unfolds over a period of less than a 7 days when Carol’s sister goes on vacation with her married boyfriend. What should simply be a lonely week in Carol’s life becomes an escalating nightmare seen through the broken lens of her psyche.

Black Swan (2010) with its disturbed female protagonist and hallucinatory frightmare sequences is clearly indebted to Repulsion. But where Black Swan shocks us back to reality each time Natalie Portman awakens from a dark sojourn, Repulsion leaves us struggling in the shadows. Darkness overtakes the film as it progresses, growing more horrific as we tumble toward its grim but surprising conclusion.

Deneuve walks a long hallway to madness in REPULSION

Carol’s older sister, Hélène (Yvonne Furneaux ) takes the responsibility of their small, Kensington flat, where it seems rent is a bit of a struggle. Hélène’s married lover, Michael, who periodically stays over, throws cash at her when she needs it. Carol is more than a little uncomfortable with Michael’s presence; when Michael stays the night, Carol tries to smother the sounds of sexual pleasure coming from her sister’s bedroom and shrinks away from Michael the next morning as if he is an intruder. Carol too has a suitor – a handsome bloke whose advances she rebuffs to the point of being sick when he kisses her. When Hélène and Michael leave town for their holiday, Carol spins out of control. Periodic catatonia, hallucinations, and an uncooked rabbit head in her purse follow. Then there’s that straight razor…

Deneuve - simply brilliant

Masterfully directed, Repulsion is the first in Polanski’s “apartment” trilogy which includes Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. Each film looks at the unsettled home – a place which should be safe and secure but is somehow breached by hysteria, mania or evil. In Rosemary’s Baby, the heroine’s potential madness gives way to relief when we learn she is not insane after all. But Repulsion offers no escape and its final image is the most dreadful of the film, making Carol’s madness perfectly clear. Polanski delivers unsurpassed excellence, making the story seem that much darker in the glow of Deneuve’s radiant performance.
Symptoms: creeping agoraphobia, androphobia, rabbit head in purse, creative use of straight razor, sloppy housekeeping, bloody manicures, catatonia, hallucinations
Diagnosis: See this movie

A note from Tom: My friends Dan and David have contributed enormously to My Year of Horror. Not because either of them is horrible. Though everyone can be horrible in their own ways, neither Dan nor David has proven that theory to be true. Dan, who is a horror fan and David, who is not, have both taken some interest in this project. Dan has suggested films which have turned up in previous entries. David has sparked the idea for two themes which I am taking full advantage of. David’s first contribution is this month’s theme.

About Tom Gualtieri

Tom Gualtieri (@TomGGualtieri)is a theatre artist with his hand in many disciplines: lyricist, playwright, performer, director, knitter. He maintains an ongoing collaboration with composer David Sisco. His solo play, That Play: A Solo Macbeth, was nominated for a 2013 Drama Desk Award.
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