You might be old enough to remember those heady years when local theaters played Friday the 13th triple features and there were occasional midnight screenings of April Fools Day at one of your town’s then-dwindling complement of drive-ins. If this was before your time, then maybe you’ve at least rented Silent Night, Deadly Night on a slow Sunday afternoon sometime around the Yuletide season. And if so, then you know that Hollywood serial killing used to be not just fun but festive: in the 1980s, we were blessed with an unprecedented (and hopefully never-to-be-repeated) spate of serial killer movies named after major and minor holidays.
Presumably, Halloween kicked off this trend but whatever its origin, these movies played off the way holidays disrupt the routine of civilized society. Flicks like Friday the 13th tend to gloss over workaday life in favor of more arcane, folkloric rituals: they’re set on days when strangers in costumes can knock on your front door, when you may be worried that some unnamed force will visit bad fortune on you, or when it’s suddenly permissible to lie. At home in the supernatural and at a comfortable distance from quotidian life, the killer in these movies nimbly surfs the season’s arcane rituals he dresses like Santa Claus, or dons a hockey mask and fits right in with the trick-or-treating set. Meanwhile the killer’s foolish victims, unable to think outside their routines, try in vain to survive by using the contraptions provided by their day jobs. They’re usually fucked when they do this, though, because they haven’t figured out that the killer’s appearance has transported them someplace outside technology and rationality so, naturally, the telephones and lights don’t work and the car won’t start the first time. The woman (and it was, in those days, almost always a woman) who finally vanquishes the killer, manages it only once her fear drives her to an insanity akin to his. She generally does it in a primitive way, echoing the grisly deaths the killer has visited on his victims. Friday the 13th‘s lone survivor, for instance, decapitates Mrs. Voorhees with a machete. Intractable to conventional logic or modern machinery, the killers in these movies are only vulnerable to a force that matches their own psychosis.
But serial killing just isn’t that weird anymore. Or it isn’t in The Watcher, anyway, as FBI Agent Jack Campbell (James Spader) explains to his arch-nemesis, self-aggrandizing mad killer David Allen Griffin (Keanu Reeves). He has the numbers to back up his argument, too. Turns out (according to him) that as he speaks there are twelve serial killers active in the Midwest, and five in Chicago alone. Thus to Campbell, Griffin is merely “paperwork,” and once he is in prison, Campbell will just move on to the next miscreant without giving him a second thought. This is how The Watcher interprets one of the serial killer movie’s crucial cliches, the psychological link between the killer and the cop pursuing him. This cliche usually makes some kind of comment about the dark side that supposedly lurks in us all, but here it just takes on all the languor of a ten-year marriage. Campbell asks Griffin, “What do you need?” “What I need is you,” comes the answer. “For a long time, I was the only one you had.” Griffin says of his relationship with Campbell, “We’re yin and yang… black and white.” Campbell, though, never really refutes or endorses the metaphysical link Griffin insists they share. Instead he tells Griffin basically what he wants to hear, humoring him like an indifferent spouse.
In other words, killers are boring. Not only does The Watcher make ritual killers more commonplace than they have ever actually been in real life, it gives them an urban-favoring demographic that more or less mirrors the general populace. And as they approach the CBD, their reliance on technology increases. Back in 1960 Norman couldn’t even be bothered to turn on his neon “Bates Motel” sign, but killers these days are just as adroit with 8mm video and point-and-shoot cameras as they are with crossbows and piano wire.
Or at least Griffin is. In fact, it’s intrinsic to his modus operandi. To get Campbell’s attention, Griffin FedEx-es him photographs of women he’s about to kill, and looks on with glee and amusement as Campbell fecklessly struggles to find each woman and save her life. (This product placement, by the way, incontrovertibly proves the old saw that any press is good press—it’s completely beyond me why FedEx would want to characterize itself as a company that delivers death threats on time, but, uh, I’m sure those guys know what they’re doing.) Griffin’s M.O. illustrates not only his talent at maneuvering technology to his own ends, but also his keen understanding of life in the digital age: “We’re all stacked on top of each other,” he tells Campbell while standing over the corpse of his latest victim, “But we don’t really notice each other, do we?” His comment is meant to stoke Campbell’s frustration when no one comes forward to identify the doomed woman even after he puts her picture on local television. But it also shows that Griffin is enough of a city dweller to recite conventional wisdoms about the impersonal facelessness of urban life.
Griffin’s thing with the pictures works, at least partly, because he picks “loners” for his victims. The girl he’s just killed when he and Campbell first talk on the phone, for instance, recently moved into town and hasn’t met anybody, and even her coworkers have trouble identifying her. It’s relevant somehow in the crime scene investigation for the detectives to point out that though she has a cat named Frank, she has no boyfriend. And just before her untimely demise, she gets a call from her mother, who has delusional fears of being poisoned by her pharmacist. In other words, the victim’s lifestyle is just a bit less reclusive than Jason Voorhees’, and if Hollywood killers tend to come from bad families, her family background, too, is streaked with anxiety and paranoia. In The Watcher, killers resemble victims, and vice versa something you never saw in most serial killer movies of the ‘80s.
I mean, yes, the female avenger in the splatter flicks of yore is also immersed in anxiety and paranoia but only near the end, after an hour and a half of running, hiding, and repeatedly witnessing murders. She’s also generally alone by this time, but only because her enemy has killed everyone else. So The Watcher‘s victims start off where the heroines of movies like Friday the 13th end up, but it doesn’t matter much because the desperation and terror that drove old-time splatter movie heroines to solitude and psychotic rage isn’t quite available to The Watcher‘s victims anyhow. At one point a prospective victim savagely brains Griffin with a boombox, but really this is just the exception that proves the rule. In the place of, say, Jamie Lee Curtis’s consuming fight-or-flight reflex, the women in The Watcher generally respond to their plights with a surreal, light-headed complacency more typical of damsels in ‘50s movies like It Came From Outer Space which is to say, they faint.
“When she passes out from fear and pain,” says Campbell, describing Griffin’s nefarious methods, “he’ll revive her, over and over.” Well, okay, sure: fear and pain. Only, having fallen into Griffin’s clutches, Campbell’s twenty-something psychologist Dr., uh, Polly (Marisa Tomei) seems more saddened than frightened by the prospect of eminent death. She sighs achingly, even tragically, but never puts much elbow grease into loosening the ropes Griffin’s tied her up with, even though she’s trapped in a room filled with burning kerosene. At this point she and most everybody else in this movie are in danger of going up in flames, but there doesn’t seem much chance she’ll be driven mad or even to action with fear. And why should she have to be? Why, for that matter, should Campbell have to try too hard to understand the killer’s psychosis?
No wonder serial killers these days are so damned dull. When they live in the same everyday place as their victims, and pursue their detectives instead of the other way around, they no longer preside over the frontier their ‘80s predecessors did the crude topological and cultural metaphor of the summer camp or suburban mental hospital as a stand-in for madness and aberration. The Voorhees family and Michael Myers lived one step removed from daily life but they could get to you from where they were or, if need be, you could get to them. When the killer really lives next door, though, and isn’t appreciably crazier than you are, there is no more need for the supernatural, or the irrational, anymore. In fact, The Watcher‘s hemmed-in, pervasively technological urbanscape only allows for one superstitious though maybe not entirely irrational belief: that the one who photographs you can steal your soul.