An Analysis of the “Psycho Whatever” Genre of the 80s and 90s: Why it Worked, Where it Went, and What we can Learn from It
Last time on Nerve Protein, I offered a retrospective and individual analysis of some of the more prominent entries into what I termed the “Psycho Whatever” genre of the 1980s and 90s. This time, I’m taking a look at what made these movies click, why we don’t see so many of them anymore, and what we can learn from this particular genre of film-making. Let’s get started with the three factors that I have determined make these stories work: Flattery, accessibility, and escape.
FLATTERY (AND A LITTLE BIT OF FEAR)
Nearly every single protagonist of the films I discussed for my last piece displays the following traits: exceptionally attractive, wealthy, and gifted. If they don’t have all three of these traits they have at least one or two. Many protagonists are also popular with their peers and successful at their occupational pursuits. What’s up with this?
Now, granted: most Hollywood actors and actresses are already very good-looking. It’s pretty much a job requirement unless you’re a character actor and audiences love looking at sexy people. However, in “obsessed psycho” movies it’s obvious that the main characters are supposed to be even sexier than usual: Nicole in Fear draws not only the affection of David but the lustful attentions of his skeezy friend Logan. Hedy in Single White Female resentfully points out not only Allie’s prettiness but her sparkling personality and successful business. Fatal Attraction‘s Alex can’t keep away from the handsome Nick. And both Sleeping With the Enemy and all three of the television movies discussed in the previous article focus on beautiful women being hunted by obsessed predators.
Most protagonists in these movies also boast remarkable careers and noticeable wealth. Allie’s got that amazing rent-controlled apartment in the Ansonia on Manhattan’s upper-west Side. Fellow New Yorker Nick’s mistress-related predicament leads him to relocate his family from their starkly beautiful city apartment to a lovely farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. What Coop in Poison Ivy lacks in beauty and charm she makes up for in academic prowess and outrageous familial wealth, what with their incredible L.A hilltop mansion. Nicole’s architect Dad Steve has constructed the family a fortress of glass and steel overlooking the Puget Sound. The families in both The Good Son and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle own stunning Victorians. Again, it’s no secret that audiences like to watch sexy people go about their business in their opulent homes, but most of these go beyond standard-issue John Hughes-ian portrayals of domestic perfection.
These protagonists are blessed with an array of other gifts, as well: Claire in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle seems to be an early prototype of the ever-patient modern “Earth mother”. Nicole has a nice set of friends in her new school, and Laura in Sleeping With the Enemy has no problem charming both a new suitor and a host of townspeople. This can be seen in the “lesser” films of this genre, too: We’ve got talented writer Nick in The Crush and technological wunderkind in the body of Brooke Shields in Stalking Laura/I Can Make You Love Me.
It’s no secret that we as movie goers like to be able to “root” for likeable characters. And of course, we all love pretty people in exotic locations. This is obvious. Still, these factors do more than simply exist without comment in their fictional universes: they function as actual plot points. Why is this? The main answer is flattery. These protagonists are meant to be relatable- and how fun is it to put oneself or ones family in the shoes of someone who is basically perfect? “Obsessed Psycho” movies are begging the question: “What if you, dear viewer- yes, you- were so perfect and beautiful and flat-out great that you attracted the attention of somebody who thought your life was SO GREAT that they wanted to take your place?”. The “stalker with a crush” entries in this genre basically ask the question “What if you were so beautiful and alluring that some man latched on to you and didn’t want to let go?” These stories stoke a latent desire in us to spark the jealousy and fixation of others. Is this need politically correct or morally sound? No, probably not, and this need for attention within ourselves, in my opinion, is one that we need to sort out early- it’s best to extricate oneself from this particular cycle of comparison and competition. Still, by relating to these protagonists we feel flattered.
Not all of these films follow this trope exactly- Poison Ivy is marching to the beat of a completely different tune (I think the message there is “Be careful what you wish for). However, The Good Son twists the flattery angle a bit. Sure, the family is beautiful and wealthy- but despite this surface there’s a bad seed within its midst. And there the movie taps into a very primal fear of evil hiding under the surface of our daily lives. And that’s what makes these movies so accessible.
Not a single villain in any of the films discussed- or any in the genre, really- possess any supernatural powers or deploy particularly outlandish or unrealistic methods. Similarly, our dear protagonists dispatch of the cray cray in rather believable ways. David McCall and The Seattle Grungy Bunch pull off a home invasion by cutting the electricity and bringing along a couple of handguns- and Marky Mark is disposed of when he is thrown through a window that was previously broken by an umbrella. Hedy and Allie fight using an array of guns, knives, screwdrivers, and sharp hooks. Even the loudness of a television and old-school Internet messaging boards come in handy during their battle. Nanny Peyton creatively rigs a green house to break the roof and pour broken glass down upon whoever opens the door (eat your heart out, Kevin McCallister!). Like Boston’s Finest up there she also is thrown out of a window but the movie gets added gore points because she gets impaled on a fence. Laura in Sleeping With the Enemy very simply shoots her husband with his own gun, and Henry (Macaulay Culkin) in The Good Son tries to get rid of his little sister by “playfully” leading her to skate over thin ice.
It’s not just the methods of fighting and killing here that take place pretty solidly within the realms of reality (for Hollywood) in these movies. It’s the way in which these “psychos” seep into the lives of the protagonists: Through an innocuous search for a room mate or a nanny in the newspaper, passionate high school dating and making out, seemingly invincible friendships, in the office, and most chillingly of all, through the almost unshakeable bonds of marriage and child-rearing. These are all situations that most of us navigate in the course of our daily lives- and the idea of them going so horribly, horribly wrong so easily is terrifying. Still, these are Hollywood productions- and one of the reasons we go see movies is for an escape from our daily doldrums. However realistic (relatively), these movies are no exceptions. Let’s take a look at things from that angle.
ESCAPE (IN MORE THAN ONE SENSE OF THE WORD)
Each movie discussed in my analytical retrospective pretty much cast its characters and setting in a world of black-and-white morality. There are wee glimpses of gray area- Allie reneging on a promise not to have her cheating boyfriend movie back in with her, the latent similarities between Ben and Martin, and the fact that Fatal Attraction’s protagonist is a man who cheats on his wife- but overall it’s very obvious who is right and who is wrong in these narratives. This is comforting for film-goers. Sticky situations in real life rarely have such obvious answers as “Call the police and/or shoot this person until they’re not a problem anymore”. Real life problems require a lot more thought and soul-searching on our part, and in most conflicts neither party is 100% correct or at fault. It’s heartening for audiences to escape to a world where morality and the right choices are clear cut.
The other kind of escape the audience seeks? The satisfying end to each and every one of these tales (and here there really is no other kind of ending): each of these stories ends with the protagonist very narrowly escaping death (or worse) at the hands of their nemesis. Thrilling, no?
So we’ve determined that these movies worked via the combination of ego-boosting, relatability, and satisfyingly simple moral world they create and inhabit. So why haven’t we seen more of these movies in the new millennium?
WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT CAN WE LEARN? AND WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Following Occam’s Razor- the theory that the simplest answer is usually correct- this genre at the time simply exhausted itself. How many different takes can there be on what is essentially the same plot? There have been a few- the aforementioned embarrassment The Roommate, as well as 2002′s Enough, starring Jennifer Lopez. Enough also tells the story of a battered wife (this time with a small daughter) trying to escape her relentless husband, although this film delves more explicitly into the psychological dynamics of abusers and their victims. Additionally, it seems to me that those films meant to thrill have taken a course either for the more fantastic or the darker and more complicated in the past decade. Perhaps the greatest reflected combination of this would be Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” saga, seamlessly blending this decade’s fascination with superheroes with its desire for raw, gritty drama.
Still, I actually believe there’s life left in this particular genre. It occurs to me that there are very few movies in this genre that have been made during the internet era. Catfish (2010), a faux-documentary about the relationship a young man builds with a woman he meets on Facebook and its ensuing unraveling (hint: She’s not who she says she is), comes close but this falls more under the mystery and suspense (rather than thriller) umbrella. In the age of sexting scandals, phone hacking, 4chan, Reddit, and countless other ways of spreading information, it’s quite feasible to make an excellent “obsession” flick that utilizes these technologies.
Finally, there’s a lot we can learn from the effectiveness of these movies, and I believe a great deal of it comes not from the “flattery” angle but from the “accessibility” angle. In a year when our most successful movies are about Snow White, a slew of caped superheroes (some with magic powers), and a televised fight to the death in a fictional future society, I think the freshest path to take would be that of engaging, adult-oriented films that take place firmly in our world with actual technologies. I loved The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises, too- but I’m ready for something scary, something fierce, and something ferocious that happens in the actual world of 2012. It’s an exciting place and we have a lot to work with- so let’s give the superheroes a rest, shall we?