Murder Loves Killers Too

Murder Loves Killers Too (2009)

Every generalisation (even this one) comes with exceptions – but it is hardly controversial to state that, love it or loathe it, the slasher is the most heavily codified and conventionalised of horror subgenres. There are two principal kinds of slasher (with many minor variations). Proto-slashers like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (both 1960) presented one path, focusing on the psychology of the killer, who was presented as a character, albeit a misfit, in his own right, with a speaking rôle in the film. This was also true in the early, influential slasher Black Christmas (1974), whose murderer certainly had a voice (or indeed multiple voices, babbled down a sorority’s phone line), even if his victims were given greater prominence in the narrative; and it was a pattern fruitfully picked up by, e.g., Joseph Ellison’s Don’t Go In the House (1979), William Lustig’s Maniac (1980) and Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil (1980), where the killer was also the semi-sympathetic, if slaughter-happy protagonist, with a traumatic backstory.

A second slasher model was introduced in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), whose killer was a mute, mask-wearing cipher, more monster or machine than human. This type of slasher was cemented in the Friday the 13th franchise (1980-), which also stripped down the subgenre’s tropes to their most by-numbers formulae, and reduced the only superficially distinguishable victims no less than the unstoppable killer to mere plot devices. Only with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (1984-) did the talking, indeed quipping killer make a return, only now armed with supernatural powers – and these articulate murderers would also feature in Wes Craven’s postmodern Scream trilogy (1996-2000).

Like the films in that trilogy, writer/director Drew Barnhardt’s low-budget feature debut Murder Loves Killers Too is a belated slasher, made long after the subgenre’s Eighties heyday, and has fun with wrongfooting the viewer as to what kind of slasher it will be. For with its holidaying, hedonistic young co-eds who cross paths with a silent, relentless killer, it readily falls into the narrative pattern set by the Friday the 13th films. Yet it is also, like the Scream films, both knowing and witty in its handling of the rules that it has inherited. The title alone is torturously giallo-esque in its phrasing, and almost sounds like one of the sequels that typified what in the Eighties was a cheap cash-in subgenre that left as many follow-up films as bloody corpses in its trail.

In the opening sequence, a narrator (Nigel Lambert) not only lays out in voiceover the tragic fates awaiting a carful of young party-hardy characters “some years ago”, but describes both their pleasure-seeking trajectory, and the murder in store for them, all in the absurdly incongruous register of a Victorian novelist. During this narration, the camera remains fixed on a mountain road, capturing the care-free future victims’ car as it races past, ferrying them to their doom – and then, without so much as a cut, a text caption reveals that it is now the present day, and a second car similarly passes, promising either a repetition, or a perhaps a reversal, of history. For Murder Loves Killers Too is, after all, a kind of sequel, tracing the second (or third, or fourth – there is a hint it may be the seventh) killing spree of a serial slasher at the same “idyllic mountainside retreat”.

Murder Loves Killers Too

Up front in the car, Brian (Scott Nadler) speeds dangerously at the encouragement of his girlfriend Tamra (Mary LeGault) beside him, and of loud, hyperactive couple Lindy (Kat Szumski) and Kyle (Johnny Jenkinson) in the back seats, while Aggie (Christine Haeberman) alone urges caution. Studious, sensible and single, and less privileged than her entitled, irresponsible peers, Aggie is classic final girl material – even if she is the one who has stolen bottles of spirits from her workplace to fuel the weekend’s excesses. Cinematographer Kevin M. Graves’s sinuous camera stalks them through the property’s interiors, foreshadowing their future destinies at the hands of a killer who in fact turns up almost immediately, taking them out one by one.

Yet Stevie (Allen Andrews) is a rather atypical slasher. For while he may penetrate his victims’ youthful flesh with the knives typical of all slashers, or with the tool from Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer (1979), or with the meathook from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), or with the axe (here too used on a bathroom door) from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and he may take the cake from J. Lee Thompson’s Happy Birthday To Me (1981), Stevie is a middle-aged clean freak, first seen in a dressing gown, whose male-pattern baldness marks him out generationally from his full-haired prey. And while he may at first fall into the strong-and-silent camp familiar from the Friday the 13th series, his quietness is just part of his stealthy modus operandi, and once he has pared his victims down to one, he not only talks, but proves chummily loquacious (“I wasn’t going to say anything,” he says, in a reflexive touch, “but if you’re going to get wet, you might as well go swimming”), and addicted to the bland nonsense of corporate jargon. Meanwhile his motives for all that he does will turn out to be not so much madness or revenge as a sexual need that he knows he is unable to fulfil at home. 

Most of Murder Loves Killers Too is set in and around the vacation house, but the final act follows Stevie back to his suburban, middle-class home environment where his family life is revealed in all its shabby frustration and disappointment. Stevie is not the cool killing machine ordinarily celebrated by the slasher movie, but a dull loser, regarded at best with contempt by his wife (Kathryn Playa) and teenaged daughter (Kelly Devoto), and forced to find feelings of empowerment and perverse gratification elsewhere.

Murder Loves Killers Too

Barnhardt’s film is, for the most part, breezy and hyperbolic – a very self-aware genre film about genre, where even Ryan Franks’ multi-style musical cues, with lyrics co-written by Barnhardt himself, orchestrate events with a note of hilariously upbeat wrongness. Yet in its portrayal of a pattern killer as a pathetic schlub, it is peculiarly realistic. The ending, though, is pure unhinged exultation – entirely apt for a film that, in an overcrowded, often dumb subgenre, feels like a triumph of caustic drollery. That final scene also reveals once and for all whether ‘Big Stevie’ ultimately corresponds to the type of slasher who speaks or the other type who will forever more keep his silence.  

strap: Drew Barnhardt’s knowing slasher brings refreshingly absurd wit to an otherwise done-to-death subgenre

© Anton Bitel