If you feel like you’ve seen this week’s new slasher flick “The Stepfather” before, you probably have, even if you’re not a fan of the 1987 original starring “Lost”‘s Terry O’Quinn. That’s because the family-bands-together-to-fend-off-the-one-member-who-turns-on-the-rest trope is at the heart of dozens of horror movies.
Need proof? Here’s a list of ten different types of immediate and extended family members and a notable cinematic example of each going medieval on their loved ones.
I’d wager that everybody has said “My parents are crazy!” at least once in their lives. But the filicidal mother in 2008’s “Baby Blues” is so far gone into Crazytown that she’ll make you want to call your own mom to apologize for ever implying she was nuts. Colleen Porch plays the killer in question, an exhausted mother of four with a truck-driving husband, who snaps one day and begins picking off her own children slasher movie-style; at one point, she even chases her offspring into a corn field, then tries to run them down in a thresher.
Things aren’t all that terrible for Mom when she snaps — sure, the baby cries and her kids play too rough sometimes, but she’s got a supportive, if busy, husband, and a helpful older son Jimmy (Ridge Canipe) — which makes her psychotic break all the more creepy. Ultimately, “Baby Blues” is upsetting not because you’re terribly concerned for the characters, but because you’re legitimately worried about the psyches of the young child actors who had to act out scenes in which they get savagely murdered by a woman pretending to be their mother. To let your child take part in a film involving scenarios that disturbing is its own sort of crazy parenting.
“Dad? You would never hurt Mommy and me, would you?” Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) asks his father Jack (Jack Nicholson) in “The Shining.” Chillingly non-committal, Jack’s response is to ask back “What do you mean?” Already insane, Jack’s been driven mad by a toxic mix of writer’s block, cabin fever, alcoholism and ghostly possession by the spirits of The Overlook Hotel. Shortly after that ominous conversation with Danny, Jack wakes from a nightmare — the worst he’s ever had, as he describes it to his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) — in which he kills his family by cutting them up into little pieces. Soon, the ethereal guests of the Overlook urge him to make his dream a reality, and Jack, armed with an ax and a mean Ed McMahon impression, tries his darndest to please them.
Director Stanley Kubrick famously forced Nicholson, Duvall and the rest of the cast to perform scenes upwards of 50 times, a grueling technique designed to achieve a more accurate on-screen representation of madness by slowly driving the actors themselves crazy. It sounds borderline criminal, but it worked; many of Nicholson’s most famous moments, including the classic “Here’s Johnny!” announcement, were improvised after dozens of prior takes. Though widely regarded by critics and horror fans as a classic of the genre, original author Stephen King has never cared much for Kubrick’s movie. Maybe it’s because King’s book argues that a father ultimately wouldn’t be able to kill his child, while Kubrick’s version suggests that, under the right amount of pressure, anyone could kill anyone.
Killer Spouse (Non-Children Division)
The first year of marriage can be a trial when your fame-obsessed, porcelain-skinned wife is an unholy combination of Barbara Walters and Charlie Manson. Ask Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon) from “To Die For,” who received a bullet in the head for tying the knot. This lively dark comedy from Gus Van Sant displays Nicole Kidman at full wattage, playing the hollowed-out Suzanne Stone with the bobbing head and scrunched nose of a demented chipmunk.
Suzanne’s only wish and conscious thought is to appear on television, and she’s cobbled together an exterior of plasticine charisma to cover her lack of an identifiable self. Kidman deftly navigates this soulless wonder, adapting her personality to her surroundings, able to switch with the flick of an eyelid. She’s variously a sinuous vixen, a doting domestic wife, a pushy careerist and cold-hearted manipulator, whatever it takes to convince Joaquin Phoenix’s dopey teen to rid her of this vexing husband problem. Kidman gives a tour de force performance that belongs alongside that other legendary idiot box idiot, Peter Sellers’ Chance in “Being There.”
Even if you have absolutely no interest in apocalyptic prophecies, “The Omen” can scare the hell out of you. That’s because it’s as much about the failings of absentee parenting as it is about the rise of the Antichrist in the form of a cherubic little boy. In either case, the film’s a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of apathy. On one level, Richard Donner’s killer kiddie classic is a Biblical horror film about a kind married couple (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick) who fail to recognize the true nature of their Satanic offspring Damien (Harvey Stephens) until it’s too late; on another, it’s about two disinterested parents too busy enjoying the luxuries of their pampered lifestyle to notice that the caregivers they leave in charge of their son are woefully unqualified, if not dangerously insane.
Even after Peck’s Robert Thorn is finally convinced that his son might be pure evil, he still leaves him in the care of Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), a woman who showed up at his doorstep one day and announced herself the new nanny after the previous one hung herself at Damien’s birthday party. If your last nanny commits suicide in front of your child, shouldn’t you should be extra selective picking the new nanny? Hell, that’s how you wind up with a…
Standard operating procedure for movies about new members of families who appear perfect but slowly reveal themselves to be homicidal sociopaths goes like this: new member of family enters, our protagonist begins to suspect trouble before everyone else, airs his or her suspicions and is ostracized before eventually being proven right and saving the day. But there’s nothing to be gained by playing coy with killer family member movies, because every trailer and ad for the film always makes it perfectly clear what’s ultimately going to happen. No one goes to a movie like “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” to see a nuanced domestic melodrama about people balancing the responsibilities of work and home.
Which is precisely why “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” works so well — it never beats around the bush. We know from the start that Peyton Flanders (Rebecca De Mornay) is not just the Bartels’ pleasant, thoughtful nanny. She’s actually a woman out for revenge, the widow of a doctor that Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) accused of sexual assault. Well before the family uncovers the truth, we know the whole story; well before they see any of her true craziness, director Curtis Hanson gives the audiences terrifying glimpses, like the scene where Peyton steals some of Claire’s husband’s (Matt McCoy) paperwork, tears it up, flushes it, then begins smashing everything in sight with a toilet plunger. The windows into Peyton’s dementia add a squirmy undercurrent to every scene of seemingly innocent domestic bliss. The tension builds until Claire finally discovers Peyton’s true intentions and gives her a hellacious smack to the face, delivering a deliciously cathartic moment.