Terror Cult: Multiple Maniacs

Devon Ashby explores a horror subgenre where just one serial killer isn't nearly enough.

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

Each Week, Terror Cult examines a particular facet of the horror genre, highlights notable examples, and calls attention to the common threads that holds it all together. This week’s subject is Multiple Maniacs – movies for which a single violent, psychopathic serial killer just isn’t enough.

Drooling, bloodthirsty lunatics are pretty par for the course in horror films, and have been practically since the dawn of the genre. The first serial killer films date all the way back to the German silent era, and flourished throughout the ensuing decades. In the ‘80s, serial killers were such a gigantic draw that they spawned an entire cookie-cutter slasher subgenre, and movies featuring them are some of the goriest and most frequently banned in horror history.

The serial killer archetype in fiction taps into a lot of primal instincts about the nature of individual autonomy – both its intoxicating freedom, and its damning ultimate consequences. Real life serial killer collaborations are rare, but they do happen. Prohibition-era killers Leopold and Loeb famously inspired the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Rope, and Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, commissioners of Manchester’s so-called “Moors Murders,” are among Britain’s most iconic and infamous criminals of all time.

Less typical of quotidian reality are serial killers who travel in packs – roving bands of unloosed psychopaths, wandering aimlessly in search of mischief to cause and tender flesh to savage. Likewise, this happens occasionally, but only in rare instances, despite its overweening prevalence as a horror convention. Movies about groups of serial killers are kindred to the psychotic families subgenre, but the bleedover is only partial.

Following is a list of notable horror films that feature multiple psychopaths banding together and practicing their teamwork skills.

Alone In the Dark (1982)

A gem of the ‘80s slasher era, Alone In the Dark is actually not a slasher at all, despite borrowing a few conventions. The movie features genre fave Donald Pleasance as a zany experimental psychiatrist, whose ill-advised leniency with his psychopathic patients leads to an asylum breakout and ensuing violent rampage. Intent on murdering a secondary hospital employee whom they wrongly believe is responsible for the death of his beloved predecessor, the cadre of escapees converge on the doctor’s home, trapping him and his family inside. The psychotics includes Martin Landau as a pyromaniacal former preacher, and Jack Palance as the group’s sneeringly malevolent overlord.

Killer’s Moon (1974)

Conspicuously referencing A Clockwork Orange with its wardrobe of white jump suits and black bowler hats, Killer’s Moon was an aspirant Video Nasty [link: http://www.craveonline.com/film/articles/198227-terror-cult-the-video-nasties] about a band of escaped mental patients who successfully infiltrate a remote country inn filled with schoolgirls. Predictably, an apocalypse of sexual violence quickly ensues. British horror in the ‘70s was just beginning to truly taste the dark side after many decades of restrained Gothicism, and Killer’s Moon is a gleefully sadistic representative of its era.

Funny Games (1997)

Director Michael Haneke is known in Germany and internationally for making unforgiving and provocatively violent films. Funny Games, from 1997, tells the story of an upper-middle class family of three who are taken hostage at their weekend cottage by a pair of increasingly violent and hostile interlopers. Forced to participate in a series of “games” instigated by their captors, the family members become increasingly helpless, and the focus of the narrative begins to shift uncomfortably to the viewer himself. Like much of Haneke’s work, the real subject of Funny Games is the fascination that real people have with watching fictional violence. The motivations of the murderers are pointedly unelaborated throughout the film, and increasingly, the reasons given for their behavior are the desires of the viewer to see more bloodshed. “You want us to show what we can do, right?” one of them sneers, smirking directly into the camera. You will definitely need to take a shower after this one.

Funny Games (2007)

No, it’s not a typo. Following the international acclaim of the original, German filmmaker Michael Haneke chose to produce and direct this shot-for-shot American remake of Funny Games in 2007. The updated version of the film stars Michael Pitt, Naomi Watts, and Tim Roth, but aside from its more prominent cast, it’s virtually identical to the German version. Haneke remained adamant that his main priority was to involve and implicate the viewer, and that by reshooting the film with an American cast, he hoped its themes would become more accessible. Looking out for minor differences becomes a fascinating secondary preoccupation viewing the films back-to-back, however, and it’s especially interesting to note how differently the action plays out when both the victims and one of the perpetrators are played by more high-profile actors.

Them (2006)

Them is a French horror film set in Bucharest, which is supposedly based on true events. Away for a weekend vacation in a rural cabin, a schoolteacher and her boyfriend find themselves suddenly beset by a mysterious pack of hooded invaders. The lurkers grow increasingly belligerent, and it soon becomes apparent that they don’t just intend to ruin the couple’s weekend, but to murder them. Them is not an incredibly bloody film, but it’s thick on atmosphere, and features a truly bizarre twist ending.

Night Train Murders (1975)

Nobody does extreme violence like the Italians, and Night Train Murders is no exception. Produced and directed by D-list exploitation guru Aldo Lado, Night Train Murders is essentially an Italian revenge horror rip-off of Last House On the Left, as brutally violent and disturbing as it is over-the-top cheesy. Two college girls on their way home for the Christmas holidays are violently cornered in a train car on the way by a trio of horny, antisocial thrill seekers. Consisting of two leather-jacketed thugs and a goofily vampy peroxide blonde, the band eventually goes too far and winds up accidentally offing one of their victims. Predictably, the film ends with serendipitous vengeance at the hands of one of the girls’ parents, but with an unexpected, morbidly ironic twist.

Come back next week for an all-new introduction to the world of horror subgenre with CraveOnline's Terror Cult!

Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline and the writer of the weekly series Terror Cult. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby.