Now and then one of them comes along so spectacularly malevolent that you can but wonder at the presence of an evil that transcends the concept of scale. And they have been around for a long time.
The original Bluebeard, for example, was a French nobleman named Gilles de Rais who in the 15th century is said to have murdered not wives, as the folk tales insist, but boys, in the hundreds. The original Dracula, on the other hand, was a 14th century Romanian nobleman known to history as Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler. He skewered thousands on stakes the size of telephone poles as a melancholy testament to his thirst for carnage; he landscaped his castle gardens with crucifixions.
But the psychopathic killer, the twisted creature who kills not for profit or gain or survival but out of sheer need and over and over and over, really hit it big in modern times in the year of the triple eights, 1888. Calling himself Jack the Ripper, that one murdered and butchered five London prostitutes, led Scotland Yard on a merry chase through the warrens and alleys of the slum called Whitechapel over a month's passage and then receded into the mists of time and curiosity forever.
The movies have not been slow to claim the psychopathic killer, with the latest wave unfurling these days in the form of "Sleeping With the Enemy" and "The Silence of the Lambs." Their antecedents can be found far back, particularly in German films. An early version of a man so misformed by evil was contained in the German silent "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," a movie made entirely in the fractured universe of the nightmare, where the creeper was a haunted zombie with death-blackened eyes. Shortly after the coming of sound, Fritz Lang made what is still a great movie, "M," with Peter Lorre starring as a helplessly warped child-killer so driven that he is as pitiful as he is horrifying. The thrust of the movie, still watchable after all these years, is the momentary coalition between the underworld and the police so that the monster may be removed from the world and business can proceed as usual.
In our time, one can certainly see the attraction of the creature to low-end filmmakers: A "psycho" villain needs no personality or psychology -- his galvanizing presence is enough to hang a wisp of a story upon, and far too many times he's been merely masked in a hockey faceplate, given an assortment of bladed weapons and sent forth to slay teen-agers.
The conceit of the classic slasher film is to make the camera -- that is, you -- the slayer. Their secret appeal is to give you the thrill of the kill without the risk. In deeper terms, however, the psycho is simply the blank force of the irrational in the universe: He kills without meaning, like a turnpike blowout or a rooftop sniper or an icicle falling off the roof. He's simply an emblem of the universe's cruelty if it discovers you in the wrong place at the wrong time. He's always scary but never interesting.
But "Sleeping With the Enemy" and "Silence of the Lambs," both involving outsized psychos, go a bit further into the syndrome than mere exploitation, making at least an honorable attempt to give name and face and reason to the mayhem. Almost too programatically, they represent the two traditions of screen psycho, a tradition that in fact reflects the ego and the superego and their struggle for control of the conscious mind.
In "Sleeping with the Enemy," Patrick Bergin, his Irish accent suppressed but not his natural silkiness, plays a prosperous investment banker who to all the world is a massive success, but who is, in the privacy of his home, a monster. He's the classic superego maniac: His civilizing restraints sit like a hat on the top of his violent instincts and he uses that tension creatively to advance himself. He's the abusive husband, cubed and squared, but the curiosity about him is that his proclivity is not to violence, but to order; the violence is only incidental.
Director Joseph Ruben has worked this theme before, more terrifyingly, in "The Stepfather," where Terry O'Quinn played a man who so wanted his new families to be perfect and happy that when they failed him by being merely human, he felt impelled to destroy them and start over again. His is the dangerous weirdness of icy control. He's not over the top; he's under the bottom, a portrait of repression as agent of violence as it bends a sick man toward the unthinkable.
Bergin is particularly menacing in the psycho role, with glowering, romantic eyes and such total self-control. A key moment comes when, with his fearsome will, he silently bullies his wife into validating his sickness. She tells him, under the subtle threat of beating, that he does this not because he enjoys it but because it's necessary; his actions come from a "need to correct." If he enjoyed it, of course, "he'd be a monster."
The antecedents to Bergin hail usually not from horror movies but from military films; he's the original of Ahab, a ship's captain whose icy competence hides the fires of true craziness. You can see him again in two other legendary officers: Bogart's Captain Queeg, limited in mind and charisma but nothing more than the (( sum of his rigidly held disciplines, who begins to shatter under the pressure of crises; and, most classically, Alec Guinness's Colonel Nicholson in David Lean's great "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Nicholson's rigid discipline is the stuff of unbelievable fortitude but also the tragedy of military catastrophe because of his inability to adjust to a radically new situation: Commandos come to destroy the bridge that is his monument and, obeying laws he cannot begin to fathom, he conspires to destroy them.
In civilian guise, he appears only once, but famously. That's in Hitchcock's "Psycho," in which the pressure of the savage instinct has so benumbed Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates that it has actually shattered his personality into distinct halves. He's Norman, the weenie geek clerk and mama's boy, fearful, obedient, a creature of rigid self-control and all-consuming guilt. But he's also Mama, who in his dead mother's clothes sets out to destroy those women who have sexually excited poor Norman and thereby threatened the sanctity of her bond to her precious little son.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in "Silence of the Lambs," is of the other variety. He's simply given in to his instinctual drives, however misformed, and shaped his whole life in order to accommodate them. In a curious way, he's the most well-adjusted man in movies. He accepts who he is, even revels in it. He's the ego killer, whose sense of "me-ness" demands the obliteration of a sense of "otherness" from the universe. Even in prison, where he's given to merry disquisitions on the anthropology of sociopaths and amuses himself by playing anagrammatic games with various law enforcement agents who seek his advice, he's always plotting in service to the secret agenda of his needs.
And in another curious way, he's almost always attractive, simply because he's dynamic. He knows exactly what he wants and moves directly to get it. He has no doubts or qualms; nothing causes his trigger finger or sword arm to halt. His actions are usually so direct that in a medium which revels in kinetic action, his behavior comes to seem heroic, because it is so direct and consequential. And in the fascinating way in which he rationalizes his convictions, he's always somehow charming.
Lecter, the psycho killer in excelsis, comes from a flamboyant line of development. He has a touch of Jack the Ripper to him, particularly in that he's a psychiatrist and rumors have long persisted that the original Jack was a mad surgeon or a royal (at any rate, someone who had an ironic self-awareness of his deeds). The one letter felt to be authentic from the authentic Jack (to Scotland Yard) is a chilling document, as much for its merriness of tone as for its grisliness. It's exactly the kind of clever clue that a Dr. Lecter would have enjoyed planting.
We see this type also in Hitchcock's great "Strangers on a Train," where with an amoral glee Robert Walker's chilling seducer tries to cajole a young tennis player (Farley Granger) into committing a tit-for-tat murder.
A contemporary psycho to Walker's is James Cagney's brilliant Cody Jarrett in the classic film noir, "White Heat." Criminal mastermind, macho gangster, prison yard stud, he's also a mama's boy (like Norman Bates). But unlike Norman, no spirit of repression haunts him; if he sees you and he doesn't like you, he shoots you.
In this sense Cody has a kind of rugged integrity, and there's a note of elegy to his death when the nominally heroic but actually duplicitous federal agent Riordan (Edmond O'Brien) brings him down with a sniper's bullet, using the kind of sneaky, safe killing that Cody would have spat upon as sissy stuff. At least Cody looked you in the eyes when he shot you.
As Dr. Lecter goes on to what will almost certainly be great popularity, viewers should bear in mind that what's so attractive about him is exactly what's so dangerous -- what he wants is what he gets, and it's usually a piece of meat with a person attached.