Why are you still watching?
Violence and complicity in The Last Horror Movie
Rebecca McCallum tackles the controversy of violence and audience complicity through an exploration of the bold and brutal The Last Horror Movie (2003)...
The Last Horror Movie (UK, Julian Richards, 2003) opens with a newscast reporting about an unknown convict on the run before transitioning to a diner where the walls are splattered in Argento-style neon blues and reds. This may not be utterly believable as an authentic American setting (particularly as ’50s-themed restaurants are to be found in abundance on most high streets these days) but director Richards is very cleverly using shorthand references and tropes from the genre that are instantly recognisable. Along with the diner itself, the phone call to a teenage girl in an isolated setting and the subsequent unwanted return call from someone with a violent motive, all trigger off remembrances of slasher films gone by, most specifically of course, Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). Richards has spoken of how he was: ‘bored silly’ by the plethora of ’90s slasher films and in response, he wanted to see the horror genre return to the realistic, fear-fuelled grittiness of the ’70s. In adopting this approach, we spend less than five minutes in ’90s slasher territory before the veil masking The Last Horror Movie falls, making way to explore the grimier landscape as seen in John McNaughton’s Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986).
The shot dissolves from the murderous event in the diner to a middle-aged man who is purposely positioned to address us through direct conversation with a video camera. Max (Kevin Howarth) is a handsome, imposing character who creates an immediate impression and in whom we develop an instant interest. These confessional style scenes (which are scattered through the film) were shot over the duration of one night in order to preserve momentum. To the otherwise static nature of these shots, Howarth chose to perform whilst sitting on a swivel chair, a touch which he credits as adding a cruelty to the scene. As he swings back and forth with ease, this is both indicative of how relaxed he feels and evokes a quieting menace. Behind Max is a shelf of home videos, all neatly lined up in their pristine cases. At this early stage in the film, no information about him has been shared and therefore, we can only suspect that he has a slightly odd and self-obsessed penchant for filming himself. However, what we will shortly discover is that Max is a freelance filmmaker who shoots weddings for a living along with his shy and submissive assistant (Mark Stevenson). This renders the collection of videotapes perfectly unsuspicious…or does it?
Engaging and charismatic, there is also a sense of something deeply ‘off’ about Max and presenting as vain and violent, he is an amalgamation of Patrick Bateman (American Psycho, Mary Harron, 2000) and Heath Ledger’s Joker (The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, 2008). His deep complexities alongside the time we spend with him mean that when Max moves in closer towards the camera, we are encouraged to both lean in to study his speech and facial expressions in a bid to know him better, while also moving back cautiously to distance and protect ourselves. These intimate and unedited glimpses into Max’s psyche serve to shock, but paradoxically they also persuade us to draw in closer to him in the same way we would to the villains of Shakespeare, such as Richard III or Iago. Howarth’s measured and beautifully subtle performance creates a feeling of privilege at the unrestricted access we are granted, designed to stretch the audience’s notions of what they deem to be acceptable.
Immediately, Max is critical of the slasher film we have just watched: ‘you didn’t actually miss very much, the characterisation was two dimensional and the dialogue was just embarrassing’ and if we were being honest, we agree with him. What we don’t yet realise is that this is yet another mechanism that Max uses to hoodwink the audience. ‘I think, you’ll find this much more interesting’ he affirms, after revealing that he has recorded over the rental tape we are watching. He then proceeds to tease the viewer with a playfully rhetorical question: ‘well, you hired a horror movie didn’t you….?’ In this introduction to the film’s protagonist, Richards retains ambiguity and suspense as we wonder what could possibly follow now that we have been promised an alternative to the trashy, formulaic horror.
With only his precursory sentence to prepare us, we are then launched unexpectedly into a montage of what appears to be real violence. This catches us completely off guard but also compels us to ask deeper questions about the boundaries of our appetite for horror. On filming these scenes, Richards revealed that: ‘they were deliberately shot without cuts and in real-time to create a sense of actuality’ and such a commitment ensures these moments feel both raw and authentic. Our unreliable narrator takes us outside and we learn that this is not just a confession to camera but, a video diary that will uncover all of Max’s murderous activities. Whilst taking a lift to the top of an apartment block, he explains in a causal and unemotive tone that this is where he: ‘did his first one.’ As he moves higher and higher up, unaware, or not, we have now joined him for the ride.
Building on the unsettling nature of events so far, Max describes how he threw a man off the top of the apartment block and as we see a piece of debris flutter from the heights of the ledge down to the ground, we are reminded of the fleetingness and vulnerability of life. Matter of fact and direct when explaining how he originally saved the victim from drowning on a previous occasion, Max reveals that in his opinion, the man did not express adequate gratitude for being given a second chance. In response to this, Max chose to invert his original gesture and extinguish the stranger’s life.
The cementing of our relationship with Max comes first and foremost through what he refers to as our complicity with his heinous acts. Each scene that depicts a murder minimises the distance between the audience and the protagonist, for, who are we to object when we are perfectly content to watch people suffer? The nuanced gestures which Howarth peppers his performance with such as telling us to ‘shush’ or winking before approaching a victim, also serve to implicate us in his undertakings and strike a complex balance between inducing quiet laughter and utter repellence. This is solidified not only by the amount of time we spend with Max but through all the private places and situations we see him in. Over the course of the film, he addresses us numerous times from his car as the world outside breezes past him unaware. We also observe him performing intimate tasks such as shaving in the mirror and often find ourselves in enclosed spaces with him while he whispers softly to camera.
‘One of the agendas of the film’ explains Richards: ‘is to give the serial killer an opportunity to explain himself as a way of suggesting that he isn’t as far removed from us as we’d like to think’. When the film was in its inception stage, Richards describes how he was interested in: ‘unlikely serial killers’ such as Dennis Nilson and Jeffrey Dahmer. Watching Max interacting with his family over dinner parties and with friends at picnics in the park, there is a plausible air of normality about him which makes him fascinating to scrutinize. Serial killers are widely perceived as lonely, unloved characters occupying the fringes of society, but Max eschews this stereotype through his playful attitude and ability to build and maintain a range of human relationships. However, given what he divulges through his video diary, this is offset and overshadowed, by a constant fear that at any time, he may snap into serial killer mode.
Max is shown at work filming numerous wedding ceremonies, an inclusion Howarth sites as being reflective of: ‘different strands of life and class’ and this, in effect, acts as a commentary of society on a much broader and intriguing level. As we watch Max filming these special occasions, the tension bubbles quietly under the surface. What is more, given our insider knowledge we are filled with a sustained dread about who he might: ‘do’ next. The voyeuristic theme also acts as a neat segue into and juxtaposition of him wielding a meat hammer against the agonising screams of his latest victim. Rather than remaining fixed on the attack, the camera loses its angle and the chair falls back as blood spreads over the lens in a homage to Nicolas Roeg’s psychological masterpiece: Don’t Look Now (1973).
Before long, we find ourselves opposite Max again in front of the video shelves. Forcing us to ask the first of many uncomfortable questions about our attitudes towards ourselves as consumers of violence Max declares rhetorically: ‘I’m probably right in thinking you don’t approve’. As he speaks the words, he leans in close to the camera, an unwelcome invasion of our personal space. With his features occupying the entire shot, there is nowhere for us to divert our attention and we are compelled to reflect on his statements. Opening up a conversation about the nature of the word: ‘evil’ he acknowledges that while many equate watching too many horror films with violence and wrongdoing: ‘those who watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ did not all rush out to: ‘buy meat hooks’. Not only does this encourage us to explore our own attitudes to horror, but it shines a light on the attitudes held by society.
The Last Horror Movie plays with our own set of prejudices, judgements and reactions based on what we have learnt and never is this more successfully achieved than when we see Max waiting outside a busy school. Children pour out of the gates to meet their parents at the end of the day but as one young boy is approached by Max, we are programmed to react with fear and dread. We know what Max is capable of and it is not a far reach to imagine him kidnapping and murdering a child. As the boy approaches, Max puts out his hand but their interaction is subtle enough that we are not able to discern if they are actually familiar with one another. Although their greeting isn’t cold, it’s not overly warm either and they never refer to one another by name. Max invites him to become: ‘part of our film’ as he points off into the distance and the boy readily agrees. As this scene draws to a close the audience concludes that this marks a new low for Max, waiting tentatively to see what unfolds. As it transpires, Max’s behaviour is genuine and well-intentioned here as we soon see him deliver Ben (whom we realise is his nephew) home safely into the care of his sister. There is a distinct chill to seeing Max interact with his family in these domestic settings as although the camera continues rolling, his true personality is masked from those who trust him most. It is also hard to resist applying a dark reading to every word he speaks such as when he declares to his nephew: ‘I think we should eat Nico!’
While Max seems obsessed with documenting not just the gruesome murders but also the everyday moments in life, he is careful to share with us that this does not define him. Assuring us that he does ‘do other things’, Howarth delivers the line with a good dose of dark humour. Because Max has to keep his activities secret, he doesn’t get ‘a lot of coverage’ and this, we discover, is what has led him to make the documentary. The inexperienced and vulnerable assistant (a homeless man that Max has picked up from the streets), is pressurised into taking the next step and agrees to ‘do one’ in order to be deemed on board with Max’s project. This presents the viewer with another uncomfortable realisation-if Max can manage to persuade this mild-mannered and meek man to become a murderer then there is an increased possibility that we ourselves, or others around us, could also ‘get on board.’
Speaking to a victim who lays dying on a kitchen floor, Max reveals more about his manifesto: ‘we are trying to make an intelligent movie about murders, whilst actually doing the murders. But at least it’s interesting. That’s the point.’ In a step of newly advanced depravity, we see a middle-aged man witness Max murdering his wife. However, rather than showing us the murder, the camera remains fixed on the husband’s reaction. Once the deed is complete, Max turns to the camera, asking the viewer if they were at all curious to see what was happening. He then shows us the murder in full before presenting one of the film’s biggest questions: ‘if you didn’t want to see that, then why are you still watching?’
Not long after, in a rare, quiet moment, Max watches an old family cinefilm and for the first time, he provides no commentary or remarks. We are given no explanatory information but it is clear that this has an impact on Max. Later, in the privacy of his car, he makes an odd and ambiguous remark about his sister, Sam who was also featured in the cinefilm: ‘you should’ve seen the things she did to me when we were kids’ he sighs, before starring into the distance for a sustained moment. We are left to wonder whether the family film (interestingly another documentary, like his own) has touched a nerve or if this is a lie and therefore another example of Max’s master manipulation of the audience.
Towards the final act of the film, we learn that Petra (a friend and old flame of Max’s) has the leading role in an amateur production of The Duchess of Malfi. Here, Richard’s plays with the notion of real violence versus imagined violence as Petra is shown being strangled by Max’s assistant for a scene rehearsal. Unlike Max’s serial murders, the violence performed on this occasion is not real. This will feed into the assistant’s subsequent realisation that he cannot go through with murder because behind the camera it didn’t feel real. However, when placed on the other side (Max’s side) of the camera, he understands the horror of the violence being perpetrated. In turn, this speaks to how as a society we are desensitised to violence and how it can often be hard to separate actual violence from imitation.
Hauntingly, when he eventually does away with his assistant (who in rejecting the project, became a threat), Max’s young nephew Ben is seen holding the camera at a family meal. Max guides him, offering advice ‘remember to keep it in focus, ok?’ as we are left to consider that this innocent boy will be his Uncle’s next recruit. In the films’ closing scenes we watch as Max visits the home of Neil, a man who rented the video he has recorded over and holding a gun to him he asks, ‘why did you watch that film to the end?’ demanding him (and us) to reflect on the implications of watching real, not performative violence. In a final twist and in his last address to camera, Max’s eyes met directly with ours as he declares’ ‘Whatever happens, this is going to be your last horror movie’.
The Last Horror Movie is a probing and intimate film that plays with inviting us to form a connection and understanding with a serial killer whilst we try and reconcile this with our natural repulsion towards the acts that he commits. Just as Max leans in towards us in the opening shots, we are forced to question why, as viewers, we too hold a compelled desire to ‘lean in’ to view the scenes of violence presented to us. By the same token, the film also challenges the assumptions about horror consumption by taking the care to distinguish the difference between actual and simulated violence. Abhorrent and charming, Max is a complex central character who is able to intoxicate us with his humour and willingness to allow us a unique insight into his chaotic world.
As we watch the horror escalate through use of the handheld documentary style, Richards constructs a sense of believability and in doing so, manages to achieve his objective of evoking the gritty realness of 1970s genre films. Furthermore, in its portrayal of Max, a man who as a serial killer seems less like a monster and more like someone who we might know at work, The Last Horror Movie teaches us that perpetrators of violence can often be found hiding in plain sight. In his own mind at least, Max is the artist, and we are the consumers. As willing and interested viewers of his hideous creations, this throws up some searching and ambiguous truths about our own relationship to violence before leading to the most pertinent question of all….’why are we still watching?’
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