Thursday, October 25, 2018

Mental Illness in Horror: My Friend Dahmer & Suicide Club

Previously: Blumhouse's Halloween.

I love Horror, but too much of it views mental illness as a bottomless well of origin stories for killers. It's disappointing that Horror still views "crazy" as a synonym "villain" when we live in a world where so many people with mental illness are abused, evicted, and killed.

Today I want to look at two very powerful films that have different angles on mental illness. The first actually asks us to sympathize with the notorious Jeffrey Dahmer.

My Friend Dahmer (2017)

This is almost the prologue to a Horror movie. Based on the comic of the same name, My Friend Dahmer is about the years of Jeffrey Dahmer’s life right before he became a serial killer. It’s seldom merely morbid, offering a profoundly human vision of a confused, neuroatypical young man who had a brief chance to change. It focuses on the group of prankster friends Dahmer fell in with, jocular but not cruel.

At the start of the movie, Dahmer collects road kill and other dead animals in his shack, where he dissects them and reduces them to bones. It looks like he’s on the path to becoming a serial killer already, although he hasn’t made the typical jump to harming animals yet. But his father discovers the shack and demolishes it. Dahmer is infuriated, but his father sits him down and says he sees himself in the boy. There’s deep irony in this heart-to-heart chat about the importance of making friends and not isolating yourself, because his father thinks he’s just on the road to being an unhappy middle-aged man like himself.

That irony is lost on Dahmer, who then tries to fit in with the goofballs he knows at school, creating an incredibly unlikely friendship that sublimates his darker impulses. He’s willing to embarrass himself publicly in ways the other boys aren’t. That makes him a legend to them, and gives him an outlet he needs as the rest of his life starts to fall apart.

It could have been a straightforward movie about the descent into violence, especially with how uncomfortable and natural Ross Lynch’s performance is. He portrays someone who doesn’t understand many social norms, and feels compelled to break them without understand why he’s supposed to enjoy the transgression.

There’s an amazing struggle at the heart of this movie. Typically movies about serial killers invite you root for someone to escape, or to bring a killer to justice. Here Dahmer hasn’t hurt anyone yet, and you find yourself rooting for him not to do things. There’s a particularly rare and rewarding scene where Dahmer takes a dog into the woods and finds he can’t bring himself to hurt it. He doesn’t want that life -- yet.

No one person is blamed for what Dahmer became. His mother was emotionally unavailable, bordering on mean; his father had an affair and moved out; his friends normalized misbehaving in public; his physician recognized he was gay but offered no guidance. Nobody here has blood on their hands. Rather, we get to see how if a couple of these factors had been different, someone with Dahmer’s exact mental make-up could live a constructive life. In this way the movie benefits from never turning into a Slasher flick. It manages to normalize a mental condition plenty of other people have without becoming violent, showing you that even the worst cases are avoidable if we take the time to care.

Suicide Club, AKA Suicide Circle (2001)

Suicide Club is one of those Japanese movies I always heard about in college but never got to see. It got its buzz from gray markets in the early 2000s, back when my fellow students were learning how to import region-free DVDs. It’s how we got Battle Royale, Versus, and High Tension. That period still has a powerful charm over me, because for the first time I was seeing American film norms shattered over and over. But Suicide Club was one of the few that no one ever actually had a copy of, despite everyone talking about how disturbing it was supposed to be.

It has a killer hook: groups of teens have begun committing suicide without leaving so much as a note, and authorities scramble to figure out how this is happening. They incorporate dozens of actual teen actors who look totally normal and behave with preternatural cheer given what they’re about to do. It’s partially filmed on handheld cameras where the director tries to do sweeping shots that encompass morbid and tense scenes. When it works, it feels like a voyeuristic window into teen life that is about to go terribly wrong.

After the first mass suicide, teens start joking about joining in. The eerie thing is that we don’t know who among them is joking to demean it, and who is about to jump in front of a train. The movie never nods. The absence of clues leaves you paranoid that something awful could happen to anyone you see, and neither you nor the detectives will be able to catch them in time. In this way it becomes a sort of plague movie, about a plague of self-harm.

The most affecting scene in the movie is mostly one continuous shot of a rooftop party for a dozen teens. They’re singing, dancing, and joking about forming their own suicide club. They start egging each other to stand on the edge of the roof. I leaned all the way forward in my chair, rapt by how bad this could go, especially when they started holding hands. It’s as tense a scene as I’ve seen all October, in no small part because everyone is treating this as a game and I didn’t trust the movie to do the same.

That drama is at odds with laughably bad production values. The suspense in key scenes is amazing, only for the victims to explode like water balloons full of cherry juice. The production is at odds with how wildly powerful the tone can get. The same low budget that made the producers recruit so many real kids and shoot on real locations smashes into how poorly lit the movie is, and how poorly edited it winds up being.  Several times it felt like a Troma movie, except one that was wrestling with far more serious stakes.

Unfortunately, the movie turns out to be a dog chasing a car. That premise is gripping. The ultimate explanation for why it’s all happening? It’s one part bad satire, one part bad soap opera, all presented like they think they’ve outdone the finale Evangelion. Maybe something so ridiculous will calm some of us, who otherwise couldn’t finish a movie like this without feeling sick. I’m still not sure that was worth the trade-off.

Ever since watching it, I’ve contrasted it with Battle Royale. Battle Royale is a story of teens forced into violence told from their perspectives. The terror is theirs, shown through their vulnerability. I wonder if Suicide Club wouldn’t have wound up with a better conclusion if it hadn’t been told from the distant perspective of detectives. There’s tension to being stuck with adults who don’t understand and can’t stop what’s happening to children, yet it moves our sympathies away. If someone were to remake a movie this dark and controversial, might there be more justice to the subject matter if it was told from the point of view of the teenagers?

Coming up tomorrow: Classic Black and White Horror! The Haunting and Kwaidan.

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