It's almost the end of October and I'm only 10 movies into my reviews! I've been having so much fun watching the films I haven't been blogging about them. I have noticed, however, that this year's viewing has had many flicks featuring revenge as the plot driver. Revenge has long been a staple theme of horror movies, so it takes some finesse to pull off a revenge plot and not simply slip into the same old predictable patterns. Here's a loooong post about five freaky films dealing with the wretched rewards of revenge ...
"To seek revenge may lead to hell,
but everyone does it and seldom as well
as Sweeney Todd.
The Demon barber of Fleet Street."
SPOILERS! As always, WATCH before reading if you want your revenge with max surprises!
11. Sweeney Todd - 2007
The 1982 stage recorded version of Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn is my favorite telling of this chilling modern myth. I blogged about it in my 2017 Halloween movie reviews here,
and I still think it is a must see for the season. That old stage version is overwhelmingly creepy, horrible, and wicked, with stunning performances. I love it. However, the Tim Burton version with Depp as Todd still has some charms, and it gives me the chance to include Sweeney Todd in my 'revenge' post without being (too) redundant.
The best parts of this version are the costumes and sets. The scenes are so gritty you want to wash your hands - you can feel the dirt, smell the sooty air, and quickly start longing for any oasis of color to let you breathe. When the blood starts pouring it's almost a relief.
Depp can play bizarre characters with a particular charm, and his version of Todd is no exception. His voice isn't quite up to the role - Todd has one of the most challenging low (bass-baritone) parts ever written. But he's nicely brooding and his thousand-mile stare goes right through you.
Bonham-Carter looks perfectly at home in the fantastical setting as if born there, which is nearly true given how often she was type-cast in period films requiring corsets and lace. Unfortunately her voice distracts too much. This is a movie, not theatre, so Bonham-Carter's voice could have been dubbed, augmented, or mixed differently. The choice to leave it as is means it is overwhelmed by the music and sometimes barely audible.
My favorite performance here is by Rickman, who plays the despicable Judge Turpin. This Turpin is evil and he knows it. In fact he's almost bored with it. He sees the whole world as evil, and Rickman does a fantastic job of playing Turpin as a reflection of Todd. You can see more clearly how much alike they are in their depravity. Neither of them takes responsibility for their choices nor for their consequences.
Todd is a devious planner who spends all his time scheming his revenge. He's also intelligent enough to be able to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. He has not a shred of regret or remorse, only showing human emotion when he mistakenly kills his own wife. Todd knows revenge is damning, but obviously gave up on any ideas of god or heaven long ago - there is only hell for Todd in life, so he hardly has a reason to think death will be different. He doesn't really care. His revenge is all that matters to him. And as the words above say, Todd gets his revenge on everyone in the end, even on himself after a fashion.
12. Theater of Blood - 1973
If you love old-school horror you can't miss this relentless, spiteful little foray into the mind of a deranged actor. The glorious Vincent Price stars as Lionheart, who has had his performances in Shakespeare's plays panned one to many times. After being denied a coveted award, Lionheart throws himself off of a balcony in despair. His body is not recovered, and he is assumed dead. We suspect Lionheart is a ghost or has somehow survived and has now dedicated himself to fantastical revenge.
This movie doesn't really have any tension; for a short while you wonder exactly who is doing the dastardly deeds, but not for long. You can predict that Lionheart will get his revenge pretty thoroughly, and the only question is if his very last victim will survive. You don't actually care - you are kind of rooting for Price both because it's Price, and because the movie paints theatre critics as pompous, ignorant, and selfishly cruel - more prima-donna than the actors they review.
No one is terribly likable in this thing, except maybe Lionheart's daughter (played by the always amazing Diana Rigg) who after having witnessed her father's distraught suicide is a bit unhinged herself. Lionheart might be seen as more sympathetic if he weren't having so much sadistic fun with his murders. Price plays his role with both deep hatred and a sense of irony, as if
his character is aware on some level that his 'performances' have gone a
bit over the top.
The joy here is the nature of Lionheart's revenge. He is playing out the murder scenes from his last season of Shakespeare plays, and each is more inventive that the last. Some have required clever set-ups lasting many weeks, and are timed to fall perfectly into place.
Lionheart does not see himself as evil; he claims his revenge is justice for all the lives ruined by the careless comments of critics. He loses everything in the end, but there is no indication he thought the ending would be anything other than one of the tragedies he played so many times before. His only regret is the death of his daughter. Before falling into the flames with her body in his arms, he quotes from King Lear: "Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever.
I know when one is dead and when one lives.
She’s dead as earth."
Even at this last moment, the remaining critic is so detached from this tragedy of Price's last words, he smiles and says, "Of course, he was madly overacting, as usual." You wonder what the horror really is - perhaps it's that a person can live through all of this and have gained not an ounce of sympathy or perspective.
13. Death Becomes Her - 1992
I have a soft spot for this morbid, freakish comedy. The cast is fantastic, with Meryl Streep (Madeline), Goldie Hawn (Helen), Isabella Rossellini (Lisle), and Bruce Willis (Ernest, playing so off type as to be hardly recognizable.) The film suffers from some misogyny and fat shaming, but within the context of the film these might play as commentary on our dysfunctional addiction to our physical appearance, and the systems that created and continue to enable that addiction.
Madeline and Helen are high school rivals who can hardly remember who slighted who first, but who have spent years performing ever-escalating acts of revenge. The final straw is glamorous Madeline seducing Ernest away from Helen. Madeline actually hates Ernest and verbally abuses him for the next 14 years.
Enter the complication, a potion provided by the ever intriguing Rossellini (Lisle) that is supposed to make one young and immortal. Lisle might be a witch, a demon, or the devil himself, but it doesn't matter. Both main characters take the potion without knowing the other has done so. But as with all of these shady bargains, there is a catch. The potion does not actually stop you from dying, it just keeps you conscious and animate if you do.
Before Helen can enact her plan of murderous revenge through Ernest, Madeline breaks her neck falling down the stairs. Helen is shot through with a shotgun in another act of revenge by Madeline. Helen and Madeline continue beating on one another until they realize there is no point since they are immortal and can't feel physical pain. They also realize that their bodies are dead now, and have already begun to decompose.
They talk Earnest into using his skills as a mortician to make them temporarily look normal, and eventually the three of them wind up at Lisle's big party, where she tries to talk Ernest into drinking the potion. He refuses, even to save his own existence, as he falls several stories through a glass window and into a pool. Helen and Madeline are shunned by Lisle and her community for being unable to get Ernest into the fold. They realize they are now wholly dependent on one another, since they each alone can't do the complicated makeup necessary to hide their decay.
Thirty seven years go by, leaving them with no remaining 'flesh' - they are instead dense, crumbling layers of paint, acrylic, and glue in the shape of people. They attend Ernest's' funeral, where they learn he went on to marry, adopt, have six kids, travel the world, and give to charities. When the minister suggests that thus Ernest found the secret to eternal life, both Helen and Madeline laugh. The sound is derisive, sarcastic, and full of despair. During a final act of petty revenge, the two get tangled up tripping on a paint can, fall down the stairs and their bodies shatter at the bottom into dozens of pieces. With only their crusty faces still intact, Helen asks, "Do you remember where you parked the car?"
This is a great view of the nature and price of revenge. Our characters
get chance after chance to make different choices, to set aside pride
and ego, to turn their backs on society's broken standards, and only Ernest finally does so. It may be intended as further commentary that it is the man, not the women who has the power and privilege to do this. Revenge hasn't damned Hawn and Streep to hell - they can't die. Their revenge instead has made them something other than human. They are undead, a kind of zombie. They have either ultimately succeeded perfectly (their rival is a hideous inhuman monster), or failed perfectly (they themselves are now a hideous inhuman monster.)
14. Carrie - 1976
As I noted in my previous post of Stephen King re-watches, for some reason I've never really resonated with most of the adaptations of his work. The 1976 Carrie is more or less faithful to the novel, and has some excellent performances as well as iconic scenes, but suffers from ultra-slow pacing and over-the-top acts of cruelty. Carrie's mother is a religious fanatic who abuses Carrie at every turn. Even the 'nice' gym teacher physically assaults the mean girls when they show disrespect. The alpha mean girl is so warped she goads her boyfriend into slapping her, and then coos back up to him. It's a mind f*ck on every level.
The ultimate squick-out is knowing that director De Palma and his bros (like Spielberg) used the filming to cruise chicks. Spielberg asked several of the young actors on dates before getting a yes from Amy Irving. Yucko.)
This means there is no one you can root for - you can't invest yourself in any of the characters, especially knowing that Carrie is going to go full on murderer by the end. The people trying to 'help' Carrie are doing so because of their own issues and never bother to get Carrie's consent. There is nobody actually giving Carrie any agency, including the remorseful Sue (Amy Irving.) Sue might be the one you root for, but she does not have enough screen time for the viewer to identify with her.
But as for revenge horror flicks, Carrie remains a classic. Carrie has a crappy life, and the one time she's given a chance to try to fit in with her peers at prom, she is pranked so cruelly that her sanity temporarily snaps. She imagines everyone is laughing at her, even though very few people are doing so. Most are appalled at the prank. Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to bar the doors, kills folks with a fire hose, or by electrocution, or with flying furniture, and then burns the place to the ground.
By the time she gets home, she's sane enough to wash off the blood and go cry in her mother's arms. But Mom has decided that Carrie is possessed of Satanic power and stabs her. Carrie has to kill her mother in self defense, and then it seems she burns the house down around them, although it is not entirely clear that that is intentional.
Unlike the other movies mentioned here, Carrie does not plan her revenge. It is done entirely in the heat of the moment, when Carrie has lost her grip. There is no inherent evil in Carrie at all, and given her life to this point, she's surprisingly rational most of the time. Carrie's revenge is treated more like a force of nature; it is the expected result of cruelty so extreme it must by some means burn itself away. As noted, it's hard to root for someone who kills the innocent and guilty alike, but Carrie's lashing out under extreme circumstances seems like something we can understand. Does this kind of revenge end with Carrie damned or not? The sense of the times would be yes, reinforced by Carrie's hand bursting from the ground and grabbing Sue in a dream. But just before that, Sue is leaving flowers at Carrie's grave, showing her own sympathy and remorse.
15. Pumpkinhead - 1988
I saved one of my very favorite revenge horror flicks for last. You'll laugh, but it is Pumpkinhead
. If you haven't seen this recently you need to give it another try, almost entirely because of the performance of Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley. The plot is a twist on the 'bargain with the devil.' Deep in the woods, there's a demon you can summon if you've been wronged. It's not something done lightly, as it's pretty clear summoning it is a terrible act of evil. But when Ed Harley's cherished son is killed in a hit-and-run by teens from the city, Ed chooses to visit the local witch and get his revenge on them all.
The witch tells him the price is high, but he insists. At her bidding
he digs up a corpse and she infuses it with blood from both him and his
dead boy. It turns into a giant monster and stomps off. Ed almost
immediately regrets his choice, as when he's driving home he has a
vision of his dead son waking and saying "What did you do, Daddy?"
The demon starts taking out the young people. Ed sees and feels each kill as it happens, and his regret intensifies. He goes back to the witch who tells him she can't stop it, and if he tries to stop it himself, he'll just "pay the final price that much sooner."
Ed resolves to destroy the demon. He eventually heads home with the last teens to get better equipment to fight, and there Ed gets a good look at the demon's face. It is starting to look like him, and he is beginning to change to look more like it. When he accidentally steps into a pitchfork, he sees the monster react with the same pain. He realizes that the only way to kill it is to kill himself. With help from the last standing teen, Ed is dispatched and the demon goes up in flames. The fantastic last scene is the witch putting Ed's withered and curled corpse into the same grave he dug up earlier.
One thing I adore about this flick is that you get a good look at the demon, and relatively early. I like it when the monsters are in full view, and are even scarier for it. I'm disappointed by a 'payoff' where we spend 2 hours afraid of the thing in the dark and then when we see it it's no big deal. Pumpkinhead looks like it owes some of its design to the Xenomorph from Alien
, but it still has enough of its own unique features to be creepy in its own right.
This movie shows the person taking revenge as human and relatable. Ed's grief overwhelms him, and his desire for some kind of justice is understandable. But Ed realizes that what he's getting isn't justice, instead he sees he's committing a far greater crime than the one that took his son from him in the first place. Our take-away here is that once revenge is set loose, it has a life and a will of its own, and mere regret can't stop it.
Image Credits: First pics are shots of dvd covers for each movie. Following are promo pix or movie still ads for each film.