Collins’ Crypt: It’s Time To Bring Back “Blank From Hell” Movies

Psychos - and their requisite bad puns - are sorely missed from our multiplexes!

I took my son to the dentist for the first time last week, and since he's a toddler who gets scared when he can hear a leafblower across the street, you can imagine how well it went. As I struggled to hold/comfort him while the poor hygienist did her best to merely clean his teeth (which had cavities, so we get to go back for something legitimately uncomfortable! Great!), I momentarily thought of the movie The Dentist, and how nothing in it scared me as much as the idea that he might end up biting this poor woman's finger off, resulting in possible lawsuits (and, almost certainly forcing me to find a new dentist for him). But in turn, that got me thinking about all those "great" horror movies that were basically just "What if your ____ was psychotic?", and how we don't see too many anymore. And folks, that needs to change.

While horror is hardly in a bad spot right now thanks to Get Out and Split, there does seem to be a general lack of original "fun" horror flicks hitting multiplexes, except for sequels that US audiences apparently didn't really want anyway (as explained in last week's Crypt, the overseas audiences are far more forgiving). Not that Get Out wasn't fun when appropriate, but it's also not a movie I'd want to try to wrangle a big group of friends to go see (ideally at a theater that serves alcohol), as it's more like the kind I'd want to see with one friend and have a good discussion after (though I actually saw it alone, natch). Those kind of "Let's get some beer and have a good time" horror flicks tend to be largely VOD these days, which doesn't quite have the same charm to it, especially when you want to make an evening out of it (and not have to worry that your kid might want to watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse when you're trying to enjoy a horror movie). Sure, the Resident Evil and Underworld sequels offered those kinds of thrills, but they're also part of franchises that some folks simply have no interest in - you need the "blank slate" an original can offer if you want the maximize your chances for getting people to show up.

Which brings me to those "Blank from Hell" flicks, because they had a secret weapon at their disposal: in the best of them, everyone could identify with the villain at its center. The Dentist (dentists), Dr. Giggles (doctors), Maniac Cop (cops), P2 (parking lot attendants)... we've all had to deal with them at one point or another, perhaps you're even married to (or ARE) one yourself. Sure, few if any of them ever tried to kill us, but it allows an identifying element that you can't quite get from say, The Bye Bye Man, because it's rare that anyone has had to battle a supernatural entity that haunts our end tables. Watching these movies can give you pause the next time you go for a checkup or exit an unfamiliar parking garage late at night, and there really are no limits to what job a writer can center their film on as long as there's some kind of interaction that would normally occur.

I mean, again, we have P2 - it's a movie about a deranged parking attendant (Wes Bentley) who engages in an all-night cat and mouse game with Rachel Nichols, who works in the building and generally pays no attention to the guy she probably talks to every day (even if it's just "Have a good night" or whatever she might mutter absentmindedly as she drives past his little booth). With almost everyone gone (she was working late on Christmas Eve) and Bentley having control of the gates, it's movie-plausible enough to sustain a 90 minute runtime, offering up plenty of great suspense scenes and even a few kills (like another worker who Bentley didn't realize was still around, and a maintenance man who happened by). Well, I work late a lot, and I park in a big garage - what if one of its security guards becomes obsessed with me? This whole thing could happen! Highly unlikely, sure, but far more possible than running afoul of giant monsters and needing Milla Jovovich to save me, and now on the rare occasions that my car needs a jump or has a flat tire I can't help but momentarily think about this silly but enjoyable flick.

And so if that can work, then pretty much any profession can. Granted, many of them have been done in some capacity, but a lot of them were also more thriller than horror. In the late '80s/early '90s, the success of Fatal Attraction (crazy coworker/one night stand) and Pacific Heights (crazy tenant) paved the way for probably a dozen others in the same vein, but again they were more on the thriller (or even romantic thriller) wavelength than full blown horror: The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (a nanny), Unlawful Entry (a cop), Single White Female (a roommate), The Temp (a temp)... you get the idea. The body counts were usually pretty low, and scares were usually limited to one or two moments for the trailer. To be fair, the ones that were straight up horror, such as Dr. Giggles (which offered a medically-charged pun along with every single kill, many of which would make Schwarzenegger groan), never found the same kind of success, so it makes sense that the studios spent more time on adult-leaning thrillers than horror flicks aimed at the non-discerning.

But even the more audience-friendly thrillers started losing their luster; the big hits came early, and late-comers like The Temp settled for sub-$10m grosses. The ones centered on specific jobs faded away, and we had to settle for more traditional "crazy boyfriend/girlfriend" types or just flat out ripoffs of earlier films, like Swimfan's college-aged "homage" to Fatal Attraction (itself a glorified remake of Play Misty For Me) and The Roommate, which borrowed everything from Single White Female except the quality. Worse, they are PG-13 versions of R rated originals, so there's a safeness that limits the movies from ever being as fun as they should be. Why is Fatal Attraction, with classy actors like Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, so much more insane than a movie with a couple of CW show stars? Why did The Roommate give us a ripped out belly button ring instead of Single White Female's legendary stiletto? If anything the ripoffs should be doubling down on the crazy in order to make up for making us watch a story we've already seen, rather than neuter the plot and make the whole affair even more pointless. Indeed, the recent Unforgettable, yet another "crazy ex" version of the story, was primarily dismissed on account of not being nearly as campy as it should have been; in fact the only person Katherine Heigl kills in the movie is an abusive asshole - so what? We demand rabbit stew, dammit!

Of course, by going into horror territory the films basically become "horror hero" slasher films in the Nightmare on Elm Street sequel mode, focusing more on the villain instead of whatever victims they might butcher along the way. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it limits the storytelling possibilities, and at a certain point it might as well be a dark comedy instead of a horror film. Serial Mom, for example (recently re-released on Blu-ray with copious extras) more or less operates as a slasher film for its first half, with the title character (a rarely better Kathleen Turner) turns her kitchen knives against people who dare to not live up to her standards of good taste (a lady who doesn't recycle, a teen who doesn't wear his seatbelt, etc.), but it's never scary or even suspenseful - it's just a hoot. Since Serial Mom is our main character, there's no one to really fear for - we get to know her family of course, but they're not in any danger, and her victims are rarely seen much before she offs them, so it's hard to care much when they die (especially when they're introduced through her POV and thus we see them as unworthy as well). It's a shame that the film tanked, because I'd love to see a spiritual sequel called Serial Dad, where a Ward Cleaver type goes after neighbors that don't water their lawn properly, mess with the thermostat, etc.

Serial Mom also focused on how the media turns murderers into celebrities, a big problem in the '90s thanks to OJ and such, which is probably why these kinds of films slowed to a trickle, as we moved on to other problems like terrorism and being afraid of computers. There were a few exceptions to join P2 in the latecomers hall of fame, such as 2002's One Hour Photo, which cast Robin Williams as a technician from the titular locale, who becomes obsessed with a family whose photos he develops. It was a dead serious film, with Williams purposely playing against type and adding most of the creepiness by sheer virtue of shedding his usual comic persona (it was, oddly enough, his second killer role that summer, after Insomnia). There was also Paparazzi, which hilariously assumed audiences would identify with a famous actor (Cole Hauser) being harassed by the slimeball who had to take red carpet photos of him for a living (the villain was played by Tom Sizemore, who was already a paparazzi target at the time and thus this couldn't have helped). We even got another crazy cop version with Lakeview Terrace, though that film played up the racial tension (Sam Jackson's evil cop wasn't too pleased at the idea of an interracial couple living next door), so again there was a certain lack of amusement to be had. 

But aside from the scorned lover types or ripoffs like The Roommate, Terrace was pretty much the last one to hit multiplexes, all the way back in 2008. We are long overdue for a mini-revival, utilizing jobs that were never really explored or didn't exist as we know them back when these films were in vogue. Shockingly, unless you count Uwe Boll's Postal (based on the video game) there are no evil Postman movies that I know of (anyone making Costner jokes will be banned), and I would bet good money there is more than one spec script about a psychotic Lyft/Uber driver floating around out there. Or maybe the sights can be set higher? We currently have an evil President, so that might be too on the nose, but we can certainly have some fun with a murderous lobbyist or White House aide to give us a bit of much needed levity. And again, if they can make a parking attendant work, anything is fair game. Mechanics? Optometrists? Movie website writers who drive up traffic by offing publicists that keep hounding them about posting teaser to teaser trailers? The possibilities are endless, and there is never a shortage of solid actors looking to cut loose and chew the scenery. Ideally they'd be horror movies, but I'll take the more grounded thriller versions if necessary - whatever the "mode", I just want to start making people temporarily afraid of their deliverymen and technicians again.