Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"The One I Might've Saved"

Blogger extraordinaire and all-around mystery man ‘Arbogast’ put out a suggestion recently for fellow bloggers to write about “one they might’ve saved” – to select a single horror movie victim that they would choose to snatch away from their tragic end. In mulling over the question, it occurred to me just how many deaths in horror movies have moved me over the years. Horror films are often accused of desensitizing their audience to suffering but I’ve found it to be just the opposite. I’m such a bleeding heart, in fact, that I couldn’t just stick to my top choice and instead went with a list of ten characters.

Over the years, scores of characters in horror films have died appalling deaths. Some by elaborate means, some involving primal fears like drowning or being buried alive. Some have died alone in darkness and some within the false safety of a crowd. And many have died begging for their lives. But in trying to determine who I'd save, I realized that it wasn't so much about the details of their demises or how much pain we watch them endure - some of my picks' last moments occurred off-camera - but the sense that a vibrant life was senselessly snuffed out when all it would've taken to save them was a nudge in another direction.

So here’s ten characters that, given the chance, I would’ve tried to rescue:

10. Kate Miller (Dressed To Kill, 1980)

At least just prior to her death in Psycho, Marion Crane was able to enjoy a cathartic moment in which she seemed to be literally cleansing herself of her sins. But as her cinematic counterpart in Brian DePalma's Psycho riff, Angie Dickinson's sexually frustrated housewife Kate Miller enjoys an afternoon tryst only to learn - thanks to a doctor’s report she inadvertently comes across in the man's apartment - that the fellow museum goer she impulsively hopped into bed with has been diagnosed with syphilis and gonorrhea. And that’s the last demeaning discovery Kate makes in this life as her next stop is the elevator in which she’s slashed to death by her cross-dressing therapist, played by Michael Caine.

Whatever personal failings Kate Miller might've had as a wife and mother, I just don't believe that anybody deserves to be killed by Michael Caine in drag.

9. Karen White (The Howling, 1981)

When it comes to modern werewolf movies, most horror fans line up at the altar of An American Werewolf in London. But for me, it's always been about The Howling. And a big part of the appeal of Joe Dante's movie lies with Dee Wallace Stone's performance as TV anchorwoman Karen White. That her on-air self-sacrifice on behalf of the truth at the film's conclusion ("I'm going to show you something...to make you believe!") goes unappreciated (they cut to a dog food commercial!) makes me wish she hadn't taken a bullet for a viewership unequipped to see her death as anything but an accomplished special effect.

8. Casey Becker (Scream, 1996)

The most heartbreaking detail of the opening scene in Scream is when Drew Barrymore's fatally stabbed Casey Becker removes her killer’s mask. Knowing that she recognizes who's done this to her but not being able to comprehend why this person has chosen to end her life makes her death especially poignant.

7. Annie Hayworth (The Birds, 1963)

As a kid, I thought Suzanne Pleshette was incredibly cool as schoolteacher Annie Hayworth and yet there was an underlying melancholy to the character in that this whip-smart woman had forsaken any chance at a full romantic life by continuing to live in Bodega Bay to pine away for Mitch Brenner. Annie's death is gut-wrenching, even though we never see it on camera. Just young Cathy Brenner's description of her teacher's final act of heroism is vivid enough:

"...All at once, the birds were everywhere. All at once, she pushed me inside and they covered her. Annie...she pushed me inside!"

6. Tracy Mills (Seven, 1995)

Thanks to Seven's instant entry into the pop culture lexicon, "What's in the box?" became fair game for parody material but I still feel sick at Tracy Mills' fate. This was a character that would’ve been so easy to save, if only anyone had suspected she was in danger.

5. Joanna Eberhart (The Stepford Wives, 1975)

I was confounded by the decision on the part of the filmmakers behind 2004's Stepford Wives remake to turn it into a tongue-in-cheek spoof. Even though the original had its share of dark humor, William Goldman's script (based on Ira Levin's novel) never sold Joanna's sadness short. It’s one of those movies where I can’t help but want to intervene on the heroine's behalf as - in collusion with her callow husband - the Stepford Men's plans for Joanna (well played by Katharine Ross) come to their fruition.

4. Maureen Coyle (Psycho III, 1986)

Entering into a romantic relationship with Norman Bates and then paying a lethal price for it might be considered by some to be a classic case of getting what you asked for (as no nonsense private investigator Tracy Venable says when she sees what's become of Maureen: "You dumb, stupid, naive girl..."). But I think the fragile romance that develops here between Norman and Diana Scarwid’s nun on the run could've gone the distance.

3. Alex Kintner (Jaws, 1975)

One of the most indelible moments in Jaws remains the sight of a shredded inflatable raft nudging against the shore, sans the young boy who was just on it moments before. When they say that Jaws kept people out of the water, for me they were talking exclusively about this scene. To see this boy ripped apart just a few feet away from shore and practically within arm's length of the other swimmers crowding the water deeply scared me as a kid. And really, this is a character that shouldn't have needed to be saved in the first place. If Sheriff Brody had been allowed to do his job, rather than play political ball, the beaches would've been closed.

After all, they knew there was a shark out there.

2. Becky (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, 1986)

It's true that some women have terrible instincts for choosing men, but they shouldn’t have to die for it. Tracy Arnold gives such a sensitive performance as Becky in Henry that she deflects the instinct to regard her as being too dumb to live. Instead, her decent heart and sincere interest in shy Henry make her uncommonly sympathetic. There could’ve been a modest future for this girl, if only she had been able to recognize Henry as a sociopath rather than mistaking him for a gentleman. In a film filled with wasted lives and butchered bodies, it's the final sight of a suitcase left like garbage on the side of the road as Henry drives off alone that proves he only has room for death in his heart.

1. Ruth Mayer
(The Brood, 1979)

While it's the abused Candy Carveth who really needs to be saved in David Cronenberg's The Brood, it was the death of elementary school teacher Ruth Mayer that left me traumatized when I saw this film at an early age. When the Brood invade Ruth's classroom looking to bring Candy back to her mother at the Psycho-Plasmics institute, it seems as though the strong, capable Ruth (played by Susan Hogan) ought to be able to fend off their attack. After all, the Brood's sole previous victims were an old man and woman, both caught alone (and both slightly drunk) and unprepared to defend themselves.

But when Ruth becomes so quickly overwhelmed by the Brood, it's a devastating death. The sight of a classroom full of sobbing children standing over the battered body of their murdered teacher is just too heartbreaking.

And Cronenberg really twists the knife when Art Hindle as Candy's dad Frank rushes in to see Ruth's dead body splayed awkwardly on the classroom floor. Frank grabs the first thing he can to cover Ruth's bloody face and lifeless eyes - a crayon drawing with these words scrawled across it in a child's hand: "We Plant Pumpkin Seeds."

My thanks to Arbogast for inspiring me to reflect on the many horror movie victims whose deaths left such an impression on me.

And in closing, I'd like to give a shout out to my original "One I Might've Saved":

When I first saw The Blob as a kid, I just wanted to reach through the TV screen and knock that stick out of the old man's hands. Six simple words could've saved this idiot's life:

"Put it down, you damn fool!"

Sorry man, I really wish I could've been there for ya.


kindertrauma said...

Great list! I forgot about Becky...I thought HENRY was an awesome movie but I have only seen it the one time. You just reminded me why.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, Henry is a classic 'one-timer' for me, too! I saw it on VHS on its initial release and it just floored me. I bought the Dark Sky special edition DVD awhile back and about a third of the way through I realized I just couldn't watch it again so I shut it off and haven't gone back to it since!

It's an amazing movie, one of the all-time greats, but it's so good at what it does that you can't watch it and not feel like it ran you into the dirt.

Drew Fitzpatrick said...

Great list! I especially enjoyed seeing Joanna Eberhart and Annie Hayworth remembered.

After seeing the Birds for the first time as a kid, I'd have sworn that I actually saw Annie's death onscreen. When I saw it again on VHS, I thought that Universal had edited it out for home video!

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Drew! I'm sure that when Platinum Dunes eventually gets around to remaking The Birds that we'll get to see Annie ripped apart by a computerized flock of CGI blackbirds!