Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Thrillers - Barry P. ""

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Underrated Thrillers - Barry P.

Barry P. runs the eclectic movie blog Cinematic Catharsis, focusing on the little films that slipped through the cracks, with an emphasis on genre titles. Some regular features include: classic spotlights, capsule reviews and overlooked gems.
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A couple months back, I was invited by the great Rupert Pupkin Speaks to contribute a list of my favorite detective/mystery films. I’m delighted to return with my top five underrated thrillers:

1) These are the Damned (1961) This grim, thought-provoking thriller with a sci-fi twist from director Joseph Losey deserves to be better known. It’s a reminder of how the best films can shake up our perceptions and engage our minds to consider alternative viewpoints about our world. What starts out as a story about an American tourist’s (Macdonald Carey) run-in with a British motorcycle gang (led by Oliver Reed) quickly evolves into a tale of Cold War paranoia. I don’t want to reveal too much about the secret he discovers or the plot twists, but the Pandora’s Box theme seems as timely now as when the film was originally released. It does not coddle us with a pat ending, or sum everything up in a proselytizing morality speech. The film’s unrelenting cynicism is probably one of the reasons why it failed to connect with audiences of the time, and remains relatively obscure today. We’re never left off the hook for a second. These are the Damned is one of the forgotten jewels of Hammer’s crown, and is long overdue for re-appraisal by a new generation, taking its place among other genre classics of the 1960s. 

2) Psycho II (1982) It must have seemed like a fool’s errand to try to follow in the footsteps of Hitchcock with a follow-up to the seminal Psycho. No matter how skillful the sequel was, probably no one was willing to give it a fair shake. But director Richard Franklin proved he was up to the task, having observed the master in action on the set of Topaz, and demonstrating his penchant for creating suspenseful films in his native Australia withPatrick and Road Games (two more underrated thrillers). Franklin shows a commendable level of restraint, and Tom Holland’s screenplay (in the spirit of Hitchcock) employs a MacGuffin or two to divert our attention. It’s no surprise that Anthony Perkins excels in the role he pioneered two decades ago. His portrayal of the tortured Norman Bates was a continuation of the original character, the likely culmination of Perkins’ ambivalence about playing someone who defined and constricted his career. He’s a man with a horrible past he’s unable to shake, eternally condemned to wrestle his inner demons. Is Psycho II a perfect sequel? Not quite, but then again, nothing could possibly live up to our inflated expectations. 

3) The Nanny (1965) This Hammer thriller is a slow-burn examination of mental illness and its infectious ramifications on one household. Director Seth Holt takes his time setting up the premise, revealing more about the title character, played by Bette Davis, a little at a time. William Dix shines in his performance as Joey, a troubled, melancholy 10-year-old, who returns home after a two-year absence at a children’s residential facility. Joey was implicated in his sister’s drowning death, while Nanny was never regarded as a suspect. His subsequent fear of becoming Nanny’s next victim is the catalyst for his behavior. Naturally, his contentious relationship with Nanny picks up where it left off, and the dysfunctional cycle repeats. The filmmakers are careful to avoid labeling characters as discrete antagonists or protagonists, and we’re left to guess about Nanny and her relationship with Joey until the very end (Is she or isn’t she the monster that we’re led to believe?). Don’t miss it! 

4) Antibodies (2005) Writer/director Christian Alvart (Downfall) ponders the nature of good and evil in this complex thriller. The title serves as a metaphor for the inherent trappings of civilization and notions of morality that protect us from damaging thoughts and destructive impulses. When pious cop Michael Martens (Wotan Wilke Mohring) is tasked with interviewing serial child killer Gabriel Engel (AndrĂ© Hennicke) about his crimes, Engel gets inside his head. Shrouded by his religious faith and blinded by delusions of living a virtuous life, Martens becomes susceptible to Engel’s dangerous ideations as surely as a virus. As the infection spreads, he begins to doubt himself and his family. Alvart suggests that everyone, no matter how upright, has demons that we dare not reveal to the rest of society. Given the heinous crimes perpetrated by Engel, Alvart shows commendable restraint, revealing just enough to set your mind reeling, but not enough to turn away the audience. The tense atmosphere kept me on the edge of my seat for the duration of the 2-hour-plus film. Just when it appeared to be heading one way, there were surprises in store.

5) Circus of Horrors (1960) Anton Diffring stars as brilliant but twisted plastic surgeon Dr. Schuler. He has a gift for correcting facial deformities, but trouble follows him wherever he goes. While fleeing the authorities in England, he assumes a new identity in France, and wastes no time cheating the owner of a second-rate traveling circus (played by Donald Pleasence) out of his property. He acquires a troupe of performers consisting of people he’s helped along the way with his surgical skills – but there’s a stiff price to pay for anyone who thinks of leaving. The circus hops from town to town, with a series of mysterious deaths attributed to various “accidents.” The dim local police are slow to find a connection between the new owner and the deaths, until a meddlesome British reporter starts investigating the clues. Diffring’s performance as the amoral doctor is the best reason to see this goofy but fun circus-themed thriller. And just try not to laugh at the obvious bear and gorilla suits used in some key circus scenes. One word of warning: prepare to hear the song “Look for a Star” multiple times (apparently the producers wanted their money’s worth).

(Note: The preceding reviews consist of material previously published in whole or in part on Cinematic Catharsis)

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