The True ABCs of Death: W is for Wacko

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Suggested Audio Candy:

 

[1] Madness “Madness”

[2] Jerry Reed “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)”

[3] The Human League “Mirror Man”

[4] Starship “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”

[5] Billy Bragg “Handyman Blues”

[6] Dandy Warhols “We Used To Be Friends”

[7] Phil Collins “Sussudio”

[8] Huey Lewis & The News “Hip To Be Square”

[9] Jerry Whitman “Too Bad You’re Crazy”

 

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What are the first signs of someone slipping into perpetual madness? Engaging in conversation with oneself is considered a blatant indicator that the hinges are slackening and, should this be the case, then it’s high time I climb back into my straitjacket. Let me just run that past myself before I tighten the straps. Uncontrollable facial twitches are also a dead giveaway as is rocking back and forth in a daze, whilst foaming at the mouth. However, it’s not always quite so cut-and-dried and, should a dash of dementia go untreated for long enough, then bad things will invariably happen. A seemingly balanced individual can suddenly vacate their fixtures and commit heinous acts courtesy of the incessant rambling inside their head. Horror provides a second home for such individuals and there’s all kinds of crazy knocking about in its dark recesses.

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The human brain is a fascinating piece of kit and throws up far more questions than it can ever provide answers for. The genre has benefitted from the anonymity this provides on occasions too numerous to calculate and, since the freaks come out at night and most horror movies primarily play out after sundown, wacko has become rather commonplace. Considering the scariest instances play out in our own minds, wiring up to nodes of compromised sanity can signpost these perilous pockets exquisitely. Indeed, it is commonly stated that the most terrifying events are those that could just happen to you. Sow that seed and our overactive imaginations will nurture it accordingly. It just so happens that tucked away in my mental stockade is a brand new combine harvester with plenty of fuel in the tank.

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I guess the logical place to start would be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining right? Well fuck logic, I’m going postal. That said, the notion of Wendy Torrance loitering with intent any longer than absolutely necessary is just too much to endure and, if I leave this fishwife to fester then, should the theory of all work and no play making Jack a dull boy provide any indicator, the poor schmuck’s about to rack up an extortionate bar tab. Insincere apologies Wendy but you just have to go. I’d keep that apron on if I were you. Danny, fuck off back to your room you little mucus muncher, it’s time for mommy and daddy to have a few choice words. Lloyd, pour me some red rum old bean. Second thoughts, better make it a double.

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Where to start dearest? One: I’m fucking tired of looking at your gormless face all day and juggling the acid reflux it provokes. Two: I’m sick beyond the back teeth of your rancid cooking. Three: I’ve discovered that masturbation trumps those reflective moments post-coitus. Four: My typewriter’s almost out of black ink. Five: You spend far too long in the bathroom. Six: I need some more kindling for the log burner. Seven: This axe looks like fun. Eight: I can hear your nasal snivelling behind that door and it’s insufferable. Nine: I promised Danny I’d show him around the hedge maze. And, last but not least, ten: I think I want to go back to the Cuckoo’s Nest and hang out with Dourif and the guys.

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Thus, my plan is this – Hack you up into tiny pieces, hack Danny up too as he possesses 50% of your genes, have a night-cap with Lloyd, finish my novel, wait until spring breaks and plead utter insanity. It worked once already and, after all that intensive shock treatment, I’ve got the twitch down to pat. Besides, the chief owes me ten bucks. Now are you going to unbolt the door little pig or do I have to huff and puff? Okay, have it your way you putrid skank.

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I remember my first outing at the Overlook Hotel as though it were only yesterday. Never before had I willed someone on quite so enthusiastically as Jack when his last nerve bid adieu. If being considered compo mentis meant spending one more second cooped up with Wendy, then I’d gladly sign up for the loony bin. The Shining left me with decidedly mixed emotions. On one hand, her ongoing anguish supplied no end of ghoulish gratification. However, on the other, she escaped her harsh fate and that was borderline unforgivable. Over thirty years on, her incessant whimpering still reverberates through my personal head space and I hold Jack in utter contempt for not putting us both out of our misery.

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After spending a long, cold winter with the Torrances, I was desperate for a change of scenery and, having heard wonderful things about The Big Apple and its red-hot nightlife, there seemed no more fitting a locale to rest my chilblains. Indeed, New York City was hot topic during the late seventies and early eighties. Martin Scorsese’s neo-noir vigilante flick Taxi Driver was first out of the gate in 1976 and enjoyed massive critical success, earning four Academy Award nominations and the coveted Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or as well as rave reviews across the board. It also introduced us to one of the seventies’ most unforgettable anti-heroes in a certain Travis Bickle. After being honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine corps, Travis was struggling to find his place in society. Plagued by insomnia and battling clinical depression, he decided to try his hand at being a New York cabbie and, for a while, it appeared as though he had found his secondary niche.

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The great thing about being a taxi driver is that you can remain largely anonymous. You transport your fare from A to B and can do so without any need for interaction. This suits Travis down to the ground as people fascinate him and give him plenty to reflect on when keeping his personal journal. He is far less enamored by the rapid degeneration of the city he loves and the worrying build-up of sleaze and grime decaying New York from the inside out. After failing to impress a presidential campaign volunteer named Betsy with his dubious choice of date locations, he happens across troubled teenage prostitute Iris and decides the girl needs saving. However, his words of advice fall on deaf ears and this only serves to fuel his angst further. You can feel the vitriol bubbling beneath the surface but, when Travis acquires firearms from an illegal weapons dealer and shaves his head into a mohawk, we just know things are not going to end well.

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If I learned one thing from Taxi Driver then it was that, while mirrors are primarily for vanity, they’re not advisable for anyone teetering on the brink of burgeoning madness. If it is true what they say about talking to yourself being the first sign of the cart vacating its tracks, then it’s worse still when you can put a face to the voice inside your head and said reflection looks set to steal your lunch money. Eventually the bough breaks and Travis takes to the mean streets to dish out his own brand of rough justice, culminating in one of the most violent sprees in seventies cinema. More critically, it offered a heads-up as to the decline of The Big Apple and this became a running theme as the decade drew to a close.

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James Glickenhaus continued the trend for New York-based vigilante flicks in 1980 with The Exterminator and returning Vietnam Veteran John Eastland was finding it just as hard to integrate back into this spoiled society. As far as triggers go, his best friend and comrade in arms Michael being jumped in a back alley and left paralyzed, is all the encouragement required to flip the mental switch and, armed with an M-16 assault rifle and fully fueled flamethrower, he decides to take the law into his own hands. Granted, John may well have a few compromised screws in his top box, but his rampage is anything but ill-thought out and not just a one-night affair. Each sunset, he takes out the human garbage and, before too long, has become something of a local celebrity. However, the police aren’t best pleased with his headline stealing antics and a spot on Oprah isn’t appearing like a shrewd career move at this point.

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While John Eastman was causing the law enforcement no end of headaches, others were also proving just as troublesome elsewhere in Manhattan. William Lustig’s Maniac introduced us to Frank Zito and his intentions were far less honorable. Shacked up in a one bedroom apartment downtown, Frank is not so much a product of his environment as end result of unresolved childhood trauma. One of life’s little hoarders, his digs is decked out with all manner of accumulated junk and ominous heirlooms. Perhaps most questionable is his fascination with mannequins, not because he is looking to embark on a career as a window dresser, but because they provide him a home for his fast-growing collection of hairpieces. The problem is that, whilst admittedly possessing a face for radio, premature baldness has never been a concern for Frank.

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While trophy hunters often adorn their walls with moose heads, he has his very own keepsakes to denote each successful outing. Night after night he vacates his squalor clutching his violin case and returns a few hours later with the bloody scalps of his newest quarry. Where Frank goes wrong is that he has an exclusive chance to better his situation after a chance meeting with the beautiful Anna in Central Park. Mannequins are all well and good but the one thing they don’t possess is a hole to slide your dick into. Against all conceivable odds, he’s actually in with a chance with Anna. That is until the all-important second date. Granted, the course of true love seldom runs smoothly, but there are far better places to serenade your true love than your dead mother’s graveside.

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With their blossoming courtship irreversibly tainted, Frank plumps for her scalp instead, but this too ends in tears as Anna isn’t ready to surrender it. Dejected and empty-handed, he returns home where his bad run of form continues further. It turns out that not all mannequins are a kiss away from soul mates and, embittered by his inept display, his subjects turn on their owner in no uncertain terms. We’re starting to accumulate quite the inventory of household items not advisable for anyone suffering from declining mental health. Flamethrowers and axes are something of a given but mirrors and mannequins are evidently every bit as wretched. Meanwhile, those with a hankering for D.I.Y. are just as easily compromised, as attested by our next resident nutbag just a few blocks away in Union Square.

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Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer topped off a lousy year for New York’s tourist trade as it placed us in the loafers of struggling artist Reno Miller. Solitude is not the key issue here and, indeed, a little alone time is all Reno needs to keep the psychological flag above half mast. Regrettably, peace and quiet isn’t forthcoming and he only has himself to blame for part of his conundrum. You see, unlike Frank Zito, Reno has himself a steady girlfriend to keep him on the straight and narrow. However, inviting her best friend to share their poky apartment space is just a meltdown waiting to happen., especially when Carol and Pamela have a “special friendship”. It turns out that three’s a crowd and this sucks for Reno as he’s the one tearfully tugging himself off in the corner while the ladies exercise their lickers without him proving, without a shadow of doubt, that three is most definitely a crowd.

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While this is a dour state of affairs for poor Reno, the real burgeoning woe emanates from somewhere else entirely. Of all the neighbors to be saddled with and shamefully thin plaster walls to keep their pitiful reverberations at bay, punk rock band Tony Coca-Cola and The Roosters are potentially the most unsatisfactory imaginable. Given that their entire musical repertoire consists of one infernal number on perpetual loop, it doesn’t take long for the hinges to slacken. Moreover, living up to the name The Roosters, daily band practice commences at the crack of dawn. I shit you not, Ferrara’s film runs for 96 minutes and, 30 of those in, I was clutching deliriously at the nearest household appliance I could get my hands on. I’m glad that wasn’t a cordless drill as it ultimately would have been used to bore a hole in my own skull in a botched attempt at perforating both drums. Mercifully, on hand was a wrench, and The Driller Killer only cost me severe cranial bruising and faint internal bleeding.

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Don’t get it twisted, Ferrara’s film ain’t bad (so long as your sanity can withstand the battering). Where it succeeds wholeheartedly is its authenticity as you can’t help but feel like you’re the other neighbor at the other side of that wafer-thin plaster board. Reno finds a solution for his desperation in the form of TV advertised Porto-Pack. This new sensation affords you the chance to attach your drill bits and take them out on the town while band practice lingers on. It’s great news for the viewer as we get a break from Tony Coca-Cola but any down on their luck vagrants in the nearby vicinity are shit out of dumpster meal. Meanwhile, The Roosters play on and, sooner or later, that battery pack is going to need recharging. Hanging out with Reno was enlightening for sure but, I have to say, the end credits were my standout moment. Other than the hollowed out transient of course.

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Guess what? Chicago is balls too. That just so happens to be where I first met Henry and Otis. One of this rancid pair is admittedly more rancid and the titular terrorizer in John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer isn’t that deviant. He’s still a worrisome wackadoodle but far more crestfallen is old prison buddy and general Cancer lung, Otis. To rub salt in the slug’s sunburned shoulders, Otis invites his pretty young thing little sister along and we already know that three’s a crowd. I would imagine that Tony Coca-Cola and his Roosters have an amp set up around his frontal lobe and facing inwards as no music is required to corrode these wires. As Henry and Becky get close and bases are in potential breaching distance, Otis fumbles both egg and spoon and crisis talks loom for the formerly firm friends. Henry comes out better from their telling tête-à-tête. Otis, however, comes out in around half a dozen refuse sacks. And there’s no way I’m sharing their bath water.

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The sheer nonchalance with which Henry makes his point (and somewhat decisively it has to be said) is what makes this scene so deeply affecting. It’s also the reason why I left it until I was in mid-thirties to hop on that Big Apple-bound Boeing. That said, some of my most cherished memories come courtesy of New York in the eighties, although they weren’t supplied until a decade later. Right now I’ve had just about as much living in squalor as I can stomach, thus, our next destination is far more upmarket. I’m speaking of The American Gardens building on West 81st street to be precise, within farting distance of Wall Street no less. It’s time to see how the other half live. Thanks to Mary Harron’s sardonic 2000 satire American Psycho, I have just the wacko in mind. This cat’s so quotable that he positively demands a drum roll.

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“Patrick? Patrick Bateman? Is that you?”
“No Luis; it’s not me. You’re mistaken.”

 

How could I not? You see, Patrick’s kind of crazy just happens to run symmetrically with my own. He’s dapper, dashing as an unhinged serial killer can possibly be, blank to the point of apparent facial dysfunction, collected like a handful of lava marbles, and just so happens to possess exquisite taste in eighties pop slop. No Roosters here, we’re talking Phil Collins and Huey News & The News, otherwise known as “damn catchy”. Patrick engages in all manner of nocturnal activity and is far more comfortable posing in front of a full-length mirror. Indeed, his whole boudoir is mirrored. Add the fact that he’s raking the greens from Wall Street and multiply by the dirty blonde high-class hookers this affords him, and it’s time to snapshot some cum faces and bicep flexes. Bateman obliges and Sussudio is provided with eternal meaning.

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Of course, we’re talking about a madman here and Patrick isn’t only wanton winks and pulsing pectorals. He’s also a fucking psychopath with a tanked-up chainsaw and running sneakers at the ready. Should he grow weary of his elected wench, then it’s time to rev on up, make sure the Johnson is well tucked, and supply said chainsaw with a workout. But Patrick is not only in it for the slut cuts as there are plenty of alternative extracurricular activities to indulge in outdoors. One particular favorite of his is the nearby ATM machine as has discovered that he is not required to filthy up his credit card as this hole-in-the-wall requests an altogether different currency. A stray cat will pocket you fifty bucks and apparently it’s a hundred for a mangy mutt.

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Then there’s the inescapable matter of he old nine to five and it’s all fun and games at Pierce and Pierce. One of several vice-presidents, Patrick is repeatedly thwarted by flashed business cards with superior watermarks and the most disagreeable repeat offender is a gentleman by the name of Paul Allen. How dare this shit heel own a pad that overlooks the park? What gives him the divine right to be able to get a reservation at Dorsia? The temple vein is thumping and, to anyone not familiar with Bret Easton Ellis’s source novel, allow me to enlighten you as to the kind of hallucinations that further encourage it to pulsate so. Observing a breakfast Cheerio being interviewed on a talk show, being dogged pursued by a grudge-bearing anthropomorphic park bench, and picking bones out of his soap bar. These are just a handful of the culprits and it’s decidedly bad news for Paul Allen as enough is deemed enough.

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Of course, Patrick being the upstanding fellow that he is, Paul is invited for an impromptu round of pop trivia to test his mettle. Alas, he’s not too hot on his Huey Lewis & The News and that makes him sitting fire wood in Patrick’s books. No chainsaw this time, Patrick prefers something a touch more intimate and, when Jack Torrance froze to death in that cursed hedge maze, the allure was just too strong to finish what his comrade in madness started with a good old-fashioned chopper. Suddenly Paul Allen is looking decidedly Wendy-like and there’s no reason to compromise any doors either. One swing, straight down the equator, and this festering tumor is history. With Hip To Be Square as his witness, Patrick makes it so. Ciao Paul Allen.

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Regardless of whether or not Harron’s big-screen translation strays from its source fiction, American Psycho offers the most distinguished account of madness I have ever had the distinct privilege of being diagnosed with. I didn’t want to be Jack – brushing Wendy’s toenail clippings from the toilet seat. Neither did I wish to be Travis, John, Frank, Reno or Henry – slumming with pond scum, moody mannequins and tone def Roosters. However, I did have a desire to step into Patrick Bateman’s Armani suit and listen to No Jacket Required, whilst pounding a dirty blonde call girl’s paddock in, and blowing myself kisses. I’m not overly convinced that the whole kittens for cash technique is necessary but, other than my soft spot for felines, I make him pretty much spot on. Wannabe wackos come and go with each bowel movement, whereas debonair brokers of bedlam such as Bateman are strictly once-in-a-lifetime deals.

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Of course, there are plenty of other strains of crazy besides those listed above and one of those came courtesy of a filmmaker who is bordering on unhinged himself. The first time I was exposed to David Lynch’s wonderfully demented Eraserhead I had no clue whatsoever what to make of it. His surreal 1977 nightmare set the tone for what was to follow as Lynch has continued to bamboozle audiences ever since but, at the tender age of ten, I simply didn’t possess the tools to process his nightmarish vision. Henry Spencer is introduced to us as a disembodied head hovering in the sky and, the moment a spermatozoon vacates his mouth and wriggles off into the void in search of a womb to puncture, we just know things are only going to get more debauched and Lynch doesn’t disappoint.

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Mercifully, Henry is then gifted with a functioning torso and it appears the weirdness is destined to subside. Indeed, on the surface, he appears to be just your everyday schmuck. He has a steady girlfriend by the name of Mary X and her parents clearly approve as they have invited him round for a meal. After dropping his groceries off at his apartment (which is our first clue that Henry ain’t all that regular as it is chock-full of rancid vegetation), he heads off to his dinner date and takes his seat at the table. Things appear to be going to plan until the hors d’oeuvre is served up and the seemingly innocuous chicken on his plate begins to ooze blood and writhe uncomfortably. Things only get worse for Henry as, after her mother makes a pass at him, she delivers the news that the young pair have become parents. Needless to say, this comes as something of a shock to Henry, given that nine months of gestation isn’t applicable here and said newborn is ready to take home effective immediately.

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Worse still, the premature child is far from the bundle of joy one would expect to find beneath all that swaddling. In addition to resembling a disfigured dinosaur and being littered from head to toe with open sores, it flat refuses food and spends its whole time screeching incessantly. This drives Mary X to the point of no return and it is left to hapless Henry to rear the infant single-handedly. To his eternal credit, he gives it the old college try and finds an unexpected ally in The Lady in The Radiator who serenades him to help stave off any impending madness whilst stamping down any stubborn sperms that are still on the loose . Thank the heavens above for central heating. I swear I’m not even making this shit up.

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Regrettably, for all her noble efforts, Henry’s sanity continues to slip away. Haunted by hellish visions of being decapitated by the spoiled fruit of his loins, his disembodied head then sinks into a pool of blood, drops from the sky into the street below, and is discovered by a young boy who delivers it to a pencil factory to be transformed into erasers. Eventually, he can take no more and snips away his baby’s bandages to get a better look at what he is dealing with. This too proves a bum move as, after its internal organs overspill, the infant’s head turns into a planet and bursts wide open, revealing a man inside pulling levers. Enveloped in a billowing mass of eraser shavings, Henry decides that parenting isn’t for him and accepts the warm embrace of The Lady in The Radiator. With that, the film draws to an abrupt close and we sit aghast for a full ten minutes trying to fathom what the last 89 minutes have been in aid of.

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I learned a little about sex education in school but animated bunnies have nothing on Eraserhead. As an advertisement for contraception, it is bang on the money and the population explosion would likely be thwarted, should Lynch’s film be included in curriculum. Ultimately, it denotes man’s fear of fatherhood and reflects the director’s own consternation. However, of all the descents into madness, Henry’s plight is the perhaps the most thankless. Consequently, I didn’t consume chicken for some time afterwards and my virginity remained intact for far longer than would be deemed healthy practice. Perhaps if it had closed with a rousing rendition of Huey Lewis & The News as opposed to fading to blackened silence, it would have been a different story.

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I’m not sure there is any way to follow that up you know. Methinks our journey into psychosis should draw to a close here while I still possess a few marbles in my jar. I guess that, if a lifetime as a student of film has taught me anything, then it would be that we’re all susceptible to a dash of madness from time to time. What’s important is how we deal with life’s cunning curveballs as best we can and, if it’s all getting too much to bear, head down to the nearest Cuckoo’s Nest and hang out with Dourif and the guys. Granted, shock treatment is an uncomfortable procedure but, once that slate has been wiped clean, we can start again as fresh as a daisy. Right now, I’m off to bleed my radiator as she’s been singing out of tune for hours now and, while her dulcet tones are not as interminable as The Roosters, she certainly ain’t no Huey Lewis.

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