Did you finish listening to Serial yet? No? If not, never fear — as beautifully maniacal as it would be to just insert Serial spoilers into random film reviews, there is in fact a higher purpose to my evoking the super-popular This American Life spinoff podcast. That purpose is twofold, and the first is to highly recommend Wesley Morris’s piece “Wrestling With the Truth: The True Crime of Foxcatcher and Serial” over at Grantland. Morris is about as good as it gets these days in film criticism. Also, here is our own, lesser review of Foxcatcher from the New York Film Festival.
The second purpose in bringing up Serial is to talk about movies like William Friedkin’s Rampage. There are a thousand movies like this. There’s a twisted, blood-drinking serial killer named Charles Reece on the loose at Christmas who breaks into people’s homes and kills entire families. He’s caught, eventually, and put on trial to receive the death penalty. The prosecutor, played by Michael Biehn, is a man of high morals. His fight to convict the killer is a fairly personal one, because flashes of his own wife and son keep cropping up in his mind every time he reviews the case at hand. If this sounds a lot like Manhunter, well, that’s because it’s a lot like Manhunter.
And Manhunter, Rampage, Michael Rooker’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and a few other notable serial killer flicks all came out around the same time, a few years prior to Silence of the Lambs, after which all bets were off for serial killers in Hollywood. Rampage might have been “ahead of its time” just by virtue of being ahead of Silence of the Lambs, but it hasn’t aged nearly as well as any of those other films. A large part of this is due to the realism at play (or not at play) in the depiction of the central character Charlie Reece. Forget Michael Biehn’s angsty attorney — he’s thrown in there as a weak foil for Reece, or maybe just a moral center for Rampage. Alex McArthur’s young, deranged killer is far more important and far more memorable. But looking at Rampage today, it seems director Friedkin falters in his interpretation of the killer and his fragile mind, such that the parts of the film that are supposed to be the most terrifying are in fact the most laughable.
The intersection of realism and horror is about as perfect a phrase for William Friedkin as you’re likely to come up with. He catapulted to fame with The French Connection in the early ’70s and would return to that streetwise verisimilitude with movies like To Live and Die in L.A.; The Exorcist followed Connection, and the horror genre would likewise be one that Friedkin would return to; finally, the masterfully impenetrable Sorcerer, Friedkin’s best film, would strike a perfect balance between documentary-style realism and unsettling, fantastical terror. In short, the 1970s was a hell of a decade for William Friedkin.
As Rampage begins, there’s a flash of Sorcerer — Reece strides into a family home on Christmas Day and instantly shoots everyone in sight. This scene is immediate, horrifying, and most of all real. It’s too real, in a go-make-sure-your-door-is-locked kind of way. Rampage, in fact, is based on a true story (which is my excuse for relating this whole thing to Serial) according to the little disclaimer before the film begins. These immediate in-your-face scenes actually being true makes them all the more powerful.
Midway through the movie Reece is caught and interrogated and analyzed by psychiatrists and then, as he’s transferred from prison to the courthouse, he escapes. He escapes? Of course he escapes. Despite that little disclaimer at the beginning, the guy Charles Reece is based on never escaped. I suppose Rampage shouldn’t be completely faulted for this and other Hollywood-esque additions meant to spice things up, but the ludicrous and awkward escape raises a good point about true crime tales and the various ways they’re remolded and forced into the confines of a major studio feature.
To go back to that Morris article, Foxcatcher is story of crime “chiseled down and sculpted” while the podcast Serial, comparatively, is a mess. It’s a good mess, and the approach is one reason why — even though they’re both true stories — Serial seems a hell of a lot less “fictionalized” than Foxcatcher even though both have a solid realism about them. Perhaps comparing a movie to a radio show isn’t a sound proposition to begin with, but at the very least it’s interesting to see how these decades-old crimes become stories in our present day, and the form they take when they do. Serial is realistic to a fault, and it’s better for it.
Rampage, an ostensible true story, might have some facts straight. It’s 100% fiction, though, in that it succumbs to the gruesome ostentation inherent to the serial killer genre. The escape sequence is only the start. Reece’s “visions” of bathing in blood are totally overdone and the Michael Biehn personal vendetta is completely distracting, and they play in such a way that they make the aforementioned in-your-face scenes — the ones that are actually based on true events — seem just as fabricated and contrived. Maybe Rampage beat enough of the genre to the punch that it didn’t seem like a cliché parade in 1987, but today it amounts to exactly that.