O Look, A John Cusack Movie Double
Yes, it is that, but it’s worse than that: it’s a “John Cusack in two crappy psycho serial killer movie” sort of Movie Double. What’s the attraction here? I dunno, but I watched these movies back to back, pretty much by luck of the draw on Fetch TV. I’d seen everything else interesting except these two, so I thought, “I know what I’ll do, I’ll watch them together and do a movie double”.
So here we are. What have we got? We’ve got Mr. Gen X on the trail of a serial killer in both movies. And he’s trying not to redo Ed Dakota, but I’m not sure he gets that far.
The Serial Killer As Classic Monster
The Serial Killer genre continues to get many entries. This probably dates back to ‘Psycho’ by Hitchcock, although there is an argument to be made that the serial killer genre is a kind of monster movie sub-genre. Horror films are built on the joy of repeating the thrill and in many ways this is exactly the means by which films provide their entertainment value.
Like the shark in ‘Jaws’ and the vampires in any number of vampire movies, the intermittent manifestation of a grave physical threat has a great tradition in narratives. The mechanism of the serial killer thus fits the type. And just as the overwhelming over-expression of the vampire movie has brought us self-conscious parody like ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or inversions like ‘Twilight’, the Serial Killer movie has moved from the classic Psycho’ model to prosaic discursiveness like ‘Dexter’ and in the instance of these two films, vivid explications of serial killing as a gesture.
All of this leads one to suspect that our civilisation has hit a very decadent phase where we make solid entertainment out of inherently sociopathic topics. After all, positioning the narrative to explore the nature of serial killing as anything other than pathology is in some ways a brutal kind of decadence.
Serial Killers Are A Writers’ Dream
One thing to understand about serial killers is that unlike spree killers, they have a way of killing intermittently. This helps writers pace the story greatly because if you can pace it so that the killer strikes every ten pages, you can pretty much lay out your script along those signposts. This is true of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ as it is true of ‘Zodiac’ or any number of serial killer movies.
Writers do work to a rhythm, and it helps to have what Syd Field referred to as a ‘whammo’ every ten pages or so. Most well-executed Hollywood fare offers a whammo every ten minutes or so to keep the audience locked in, with each one raising the level of tension. A good movie can add a layer of profundity on to each ‘whammo’ until the climax-‘whammo’ really hits home hard.
Serial Killers are great because the ‘whammos’ are invariably corpses and what could wind up the tension more than a gloating message from the serial killer? Still, it’s amazing that John Cusack went and did two of these back to back, having already had ‘Identity’ in his resume.
So…here’s the spoiler alert before I go any further.
What’s The New Mary Jane?
‘The Factory’ has one twist that makes it at once unlikely as well as unlike most serial killer movies. The missing girls are not necessarily killed. They’re impregnated by the serial killer specifically to harvest babies in an underground dungeon. That’s the twist. I don’t know if you find this compelling. I didn’t exactly find it compelling, but I did find it weird. It’s a little like Babylon A.D. where at the heart of all the evil is this sacred child, and just like that, at the heart of this rather grim tale about missing-girls-presumed-dead, is a sordid desire to procreate.Freudians rejoice!
The big twist in ‘The Raven’ is that it is a crazed fan doing the killing, but in a deeper sense it is Edgar Allan Poe’s own imagination that is doing the killing, by providing the scenarios in his fiction, which are then put into practice. It’s more compelling when you’re watching it but when you finish, you wonder if that is all that great a twist. The one thing to take away from it is that there is a gulf between the world of fiction and reality and those who claim that violent video games cause spree killers like John Holmes and Adam Lanza are clutching at straws. It’s not the video games, it’s the Assault Rifles readily accessible in their communities. If anything, ‘The Raven’ draws a firm line between psychopaths and their weapons. The ideas only give them an imagination they wouldn’t otherwise have by themselves. The ‘how’ is probably not as important as the ‘what’ and the ‘why’.
Other than that, both films are doing their best to put something new into the very tired format of the serial killer movie, but it’s hard to say if either one quite gets there. In the absence of the radically new addition, it comes down to an issue of style unlike, say ‘Zodiac’ which maps out comprehensively the unknown territory surrounding the mystery of the Zodiac killer; these films simply go through the formula, putting up cultural signposts along the way.
Which One Looks Better?
Without a doubt ‘The Raven’ comes in ahead of ‘The Factory’ for looks. Unfortunately it’s not as creepy as it should be. ‘The Factory’ actually scores higher on the creepiness scale. The villain(s) in ‘The Factory’ are a lot more unhinged than in ‘The Raven’, even though the latter inflicts us with Gothic gore, there’s something too stately about it to feel creepy. We’re too decadent for that now.
Oh, and for the record, it’s incredibly hard buying John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe. It’s a terrible bit of star-casting, but it’s probably how it got its money. The end titles look great, but it’s too little, too late by then.
Life, Death Rebirth
The even more warped vision of ‘The Factory’ is how it couches the serial killing as function of a desire to bring children into the world. The title alludes to the serial kidnapping victims being turned into baby factories. In that sense, the status of the serial killer is a lot more ambiguous than some of the other serial killers we have seen on screen. The more accurate way to couch it is perhaps that the killings are byproducts of serial kidnappings; but this distinction seems largely academic seeing that the kidnapped women do end up dead.
The religiosity of the villain is also distracting in as much as it doesn’t really offer up any kind of motivation and merely tells of a sick human being misguidedly thinking they are in the right.
Dying Is Easy
I think it’s Sylvester Stallone’s adage that dying is easy comedy is hard. There’s something to be said for that insight that dying a glorious death in the cause of good on screen will always win some punters. Making them laugh is probably a lot harder. In both films John Cusack dies. With ‘The Raven’, it’s inevitable because the film kicks off saying it’s the last 10 days of his life so if you have any rudimentary understanding of the English language you’re told he’s going to die and the rest of it is about the ‘How’.
It’s a little more surprising in ‘The Factory’ but he dies towards the end of that one as well. It comes as something of a surprise as the twist happens, but it also reduces his character to the cliche sheriff who goes blindly into the cabin where the psycho-killer awaits. While it wouldn’t have been a better film if he got the villains and survived, there’s something quite disappointing about the whole dying on screen business in this film. It could be because his turn as Ed Dakota in ‘Identity’ was so good. This film is nowhere near as good as that film.
Age Gets Us All
The last time a John Cusack made money might have been ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’. Since then it’s been ‘Shanghai’, ‘The Factory’ and ‘The Raven’, and 2 out of three of those have gone straight to DVD while the last one is getting pasted on Rotten Tomatoes.
About 5 years ago, a writer who works on the fringes of the Hollywood machine declared that the days of John Cusack being able to hold down a lead were over. I thought it seemed a bit premature, but he hasn’t done any favours for himself with ‘War Inc.’, ‘2012’ and these gaggle of flops. Maybe the writer was right. In any case Branch Rickey said that it’s better to sell early than late. I’m seeing the wisdom in that call.
It’s hard to believe he had a stretch where he was doing really interesting films like ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘High Fidelity’ ‘Max’ and ‘Identity’. The recent output is not looking good there.