Monday, June 15, 2020

"The Most Traumatic Ordeal a Human Being Can Experience" - Night Killer (1990) - Film #180

Cinephiles frequently point to the work of Claudio Fragasso and Bruno Mattei when they discuss the high points of horror cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. Night Killer (1990) (aka Don't Open the Door 3) is an exemplary work by these two masters, a chilling portrait of psychological torture and experimentation handled with the taste, depth, and sophistication one would expect from Messrs. Fragasso and Mattei.

Oddly, some of your universe's critics view Night Killer negatively. For example, reviewer homecoming8 dismisses the film with the parting words, "For die hard fans of the genre only but don't get your hopes up because "Night Killer" has not much to offer." Reviewer BA_Harrison dismisses the film even further by declaring it "another godawful piece of low-rent horror garbage so bad that it has to be seen to be believed." And reviewer fanatic_movie_goer dismisses the film thusly: "It doesn't have any good characters, the directing is horrendous, the cutting is mushy, the score is bad..."

Of course, Night Killer is not to be dismissed so quickly. Please read on for a full appreciation...

The film begins onstage at a dance rehearsal, where the dancers gyrate and jerk around in a pleasantly frenetic fashion while the female choreographer bends over, bouncing slightly in a not-so-pleasantly suggestive fashion. One of the dancers is late, so she navigates the maze of backstage hallways to change, unaware that someone with a monstrous hand is stalking her.

As soon as she is finished pulling on her leotard, the stalker slams his hand through her chest, killing her.

The killer also uses his monstrous (though rubbery) hand to slash the throat of the choreographer, who has come looking for the dancer. The choreographer can only stagger through the maze of hallways to the theatre balcony, where the killer guts her and she falls off the balcony, stopping the rehearsal (the cruelest twist of all).

The film cuts to a young girl’s bedroom, full of dolls, stuffed animals, toy clowns, and other frightening paraphernalia, where young mother Melanie gets her daughter ready for school. Melanie is a writer who sits at her typewriter smoking until a man with a sinister voice calls, prompting her to tell him to never call again, and also to stand in front of a mirror fondling her breasts.

“Well, this is you, Melanie Beck,” she says to herself (or perhaps her breasts). “This is you. You have a daughter, a marriage on the rocks. Nothing but gray skies ahead.”

Then she gets another call from someone with a slightly more sinister voice who threatens to rape and kill her. Instead of calling the police, she walks straight to the nearest window to see if she can see who was calling her. Fortunately, there is a phone booth across the street, and she sees a man put down the phone and walk away. Only then does she call the police.

After she describes the phone call, the policeman asks, “Would you let me have your number, please?”

Melanie, at her wit’s end, cries, “I have two lines!”

“Give me both numbers,” the officer says, solving her problem.

“Oh, yes.” She gives him her phone numbers.

After she puts down the phone, she walks around her house and smokes, while the killer uses his long, sharp fingernails to steal her keys. (The killer wears one glove with long fingernails and another, regular black glove—the perceptive audience member might ask why he steals the keys with the more awkward glove.)

The phone rings again and Melanie answers. The killer is on the other line. “I can’t wait five minutes,” he says, appearing behind her with another nearby phone. “I’m too horny. It’s the same for you, isn’t it, Mrs. Beck?”

Continuing to hold the phone to his ear even after Melanie has turned around to see him, the killer says, “Oh, that’s it. You figured out where I am.”

In a sequence of events I must confess I do not fully understand, the killer allows Melanie to answer the phone, only to imitate her husband’s voice to dissuade the policeman who is calling, and at the same time somehow allowing Melanie to hang up the phone in another very dark room, from which she is able to lock the killer out. Fortunately for Melanie, the killer is unable to get through the door despite his sharp fingernails, which easily penetrated human bones and organs as if they were butter.

She pulls her gun from a drawer. The killer appears around a corner (somehow). He shoves Melanie against a wall, pulls off his mask (revealing his face to Melanie but not to the audience) and then for some reason shows her a switchblade, which must be somewhat less efficient than his long fingernails. “Are you ready to play, Mrs. Beck?”

She screams.

The film cuts to a psychiatric hospital, where Melanie suffers from amnesia. In a wonderful stream of first-class movie dialogue, a detectives walks down a hospital corridor with a doctor. “That woman is our key witness. She’s the only who’s ever seen this guy’s face, you know. She’s the only one who can identify him.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. Yes, she did see his face. The trauma has completely erased it from her memory. She doesn’t remember anything. She’s even forgotten her own name.”

“Well, let’s show her the mask. She’ll remember this thing, won’t she?”

“It won’t mean anything to her. If she can’t recognize people, she certainly won’t recognize the mask.”

“Is it true she’s even forgotten she’s got a daughter?”

When the doctor introduces Melanie to her daughter, Melanie shows no recognition at all. Meanwhile, Melanie’s friends take custody of her daughter, explaining everything to a news woman, including the fact that the male friend scuffled with the killer and received a scar on his face from the killer’s switchblade.

After being released from the hospital, Melanie drives to a hotel, where she is pursued by a lothario. When he follows her into the ladies’ room, she pulls her gun on him. “All right, take off your pants,” she orders.

He looks shocked. “‘M’pants?” he says.

“Uh-huh. And your socks, and your shoes. And now! Or your career’s over.”

He complies. She also forces him to throw his pants into the toilet.

“Now flush it!” she says.

He flushes his clothes down the toilet.

She leaves. The man refuses to get his clothes out of the toilet, so he walks into the hotel lobby, telling the desk clerk, “I got molested in the little boys’ room!” Then he runs outside, where apparently he had a change of clothes and a spare set of keys in his Jeep. He drives away.

At the beach, Melanie attempts to commit suicide by downing many bottles of pills. Her lothario pursues her, finds her on the beach, and kicks away her pills. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he asks.

Sensibly, she replies, “Committing suicide.”

“Well, you gotta drink seawater to throw up all that shit you’ve been taking.”

He forces her into the ocean and shoves her head under the water. “Drink!”

Instead of sucking in as much water as possible to complete her goal, she drinks a little, then vomits onto the sand. For some reason, at the end of the scene, he pushes her face into the sand.

(Note: This sequence involving attempted rape, gunpoint nudity, and attempted suicide is what filmmakers call a “meet cute.”)

Elsewhere, in a bar, a man whose face we don’t see picks up a young woman. “I wasn’t born yesterday,” she tells him. “If a stranger asks for something, there’s a rat hidden somewhere. That’s what my mama always used to say. But seeing as I could never stand the sight of the old lady, I’ll come out with you and risk the unknown.”

The man takes her to his art studio, which is full of semi-violent paintings as well as his mask and sharp-fingered glove. When he dresses up, the young woman simply asks, “What are you doing?”

Somewhat oddly, they reenact the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but this version ends with the “wolf” strangling the woman, forcing her head into a tub of latex, and shoving his hand through her abdomen (which I don’t believe is canonical to the story).

The “romantic” story of Melanie and the lothario, named Axel, continues in his hotel room, where she wakes up alone and confused. He brings her Kentucky Fried Chicken and then gropes her, as a result of which she points her gun at her own temple while he goads her into killing herself. She does not commit suicide; neither does she shoot Axel (a crime for which no jury in the world would convict her).

The killer’s next victim is a blonde woman who works at an aquarium, whom he is able to kill by thrusting his rubbery fingers through her chest.

Meanwhile, Axel ties a topless Melanie to the hotel bed with flimsy strips of t-shirt. She resists, of course, but only verbally, before he forces her to kiss him and beg to be untied.

The film moves to a scene in which a gaggle of reporters interviews first the police detective in charge of the slasher case and then Dr. Willow, who has been treating her. The reporters, perhaps unrealistically, are familiarly with every little detail of the case and Melanie’s ordeal, and Dr. Willow is happy to provide further details to the public, possibly endangering the concept of doctor-patient confidentiality. “Melanie Beck,” he tells the reporters, “is living in a state of disassociative schizophrenia triggered by the trauma of the experience she was forced to undergo. The poor woman went through the most traumatic ordeal a human being can experience.” He adds, “The pure evil of the violence that was put upon her has unhinged her mind. The patient now has a fragile grip on reality.”

“Hasn’t Mrs. Beck made various suicide attempts?”

“Yes. She swallowed a whole bottle of barbiturates and we saved her only by pure chance.”

“Why would she want to kill herself?”

“To punish herself. To expiate the sense of guilt that was tormenting her. You see, in those eight hours, the assailant vented all his sadistic rage on her. At first, she resisted him, but by the end she was completely passive. In the end, she accepted it. The survival instinct. And paradoxically, that’s why she wants to commit suicide. To punish that part of her that passively gave in to the onslaughts of the maniac.”

The interview is intercut with shots of Melanie in the motel room, closing the curtain, putting on lipstick, and loading Axel’s gun. He runs into the hotel room, but she fails to shoot him, shooting the mirror instead. She tells Axel, “I wanted to be beautiful for you. Just for you.”

“Do you remember?” he asks her.

“Yes, I remember. You’re the one who’s got to kill me.”

He then gives her a dress, a fuzzy black hat, and sunglasses.

Oddly, Dr. Willow goes on television to smoke the killer out, apparently believing he has some kind of leverage over the killer. “This is an ultimatum for the murderer who’s been terrorizing this county. Your time is nearly up. We’re on your tracks. You made a fatal error in abducting Mrs. Beck. An error we were expecting. If you will call 555-7784 within 24 hours, if you will release Mrs. Beck, and if you will turn yourself in, the police guarantee you no harm.”

Contradictorily, we see the somewhat awkwardly worded headline of the Virginian-Pilot newspaper: “Maniac Victim Kidnapped Where-about Unknown!” The front page also features a massive photo of Melanie.

Coincidentally, the motel clerk calls the police to tell them he has seen Melanie Beck. Only the detective arrives at the motel, believing he can handle the maniac on his own. He breaks into the room but it appears to be empty. As he looks through the room, Axel knocks him out by hitting him over the head with a gun.

Elsewhere, Melanie’s friend Sherman who took custody of her daughter, after watching news coverage of the kidnapping, decides to go after the killer with his own gun.

On the rainy streets of Virginia Beach, Melanie realizes who she is when she sees the newspaper with her photo on the front page. She runs away from Axel, awkwardly sprinting down the street, arms akimbo, as she tries to keep the black fur hat from flying off.

Coincidentally, she is rescued by her old friend Sherman, who has been driving randomly through the streets. He drives her back to her house, where he leaves her alone with the house keys. She looks out the window to see the man she believes to be the killer at the phone booth across the street and the original abduction scene begins to repeat itself.

The killer appears in his mask, but he immediately removes it to reveal himself as Sherman. He explains his motivation—he believes Melanie to be a whore undeserving of taking care of her daughter (there is no indication why he killed the other women). The filmmakers present a flashback—it’s unclear whether Melanie or Sherman is flashing back—in which Sherman tries to force Melanie to commit suicide, unsuccessfully as it turns out, because she stabs Sherman in the face.

He also tells her that she and Axel tried to set him up somehow. When he points his gun at her (for some reason abandoning the rubbery murder-hand), she seduces Sherman and then stabs him with a pocket-knife in the crotch.

He attempts to shoot her, but Axel enters the house, using the tried-and-true move of crashing through a window (having apparently bounced off a trampoline to do so, based on the angle of entry). Axel shoots Sherman and kisses Melanie. Thus, the film has a happy ending, with Melanie choosing to become romantically involved with her second rapist rather than her first rapist—though Axel is revealed to be, in reality, her husband, a former police officer.

In a final interview scene, Dr. Willow boasts on camera about the grossly unethical and illegal plan to capture the slasher. “Mr. and Mrs. Beck acted as, well I guess you could say guinea pigs of a sort.”

“What do you mean guinea pigs?” asks the reporter.

“One was voluntary, the other involuntary. Mrs. Beck had sublimated her trauma to the point where she couldn’t deal with it. She had to relive the experience in order to overcome it.”

“Well,” asks another reporter, quite reasonably, “wasn’t that a rather dangerous approach?”

“I must say that there were some differences of opinion between us and Detective Clark. However, you see, it was just a theory of mine. The important thing is that it worked.”

In the end, Melanie and Axel lie in bed with their daughter between them—a happy, reunited family. When their daughter leaves, however, she opens up a Christmas present early, only to find, for some reason, the killer’s mask in the box. “Do you recognize me, Mrs. Beck?” she says, imitating the killer’s voice. “I’m back. Just for you. Just for you.” The film ends with the girl’s chilling laugh.

Night Killer is another film whose lack of a sequel is almost maddening. The film's coda sets up the little girl as the perfect heir to the slasher's legacy, though presumably her motivation would be less sexual than Sherman's. His weapon, on the other "hand" (so to speak), would make an excellent weapon for a young girl who aspires to be a slasher, given that the rubber hand is imbued with the power of thrusting through human torsos as if they were proverbial butter, or even proverbial margarine. Has there ever been a slasher franchise with a little girl as the killer? Probably. Has there ever been one called Night Killer? Probably not. Think about it, if you dare.

Another quality of Night Killer that places it firmly in the firmament of classic horror films is the ubiquitous Pepsi product placement. Pepsi was a groundbreaking company in terms of sponsorships of motion pictures, and their corporate desire to work with the great Claudio Fragasso and Bruno Mattei shows they were cinema connoisseurs as well.

We can only end with a list of the many achievements Fragasso and Mattei have gifted us as filmmakers, separately and together: Hell of the Living Dead (1980), Monster Dog (1984), Rats: Night of Terror (1984) , Beyond Darkness (1990), Zombi 3 (1988), Zombi 4: After Death (1989), Troll 2 (1990), Shocking Dark (1989), Robowar (1988) -- the debt we the audience owe these gentlemen is one that can never be repaid.