Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

KILLER ME, the directorial debut from Zachary Hansen, is part of that regular breed. An extremely low-budget work with psycho drama aspirations, it has attracted generous amounts of critical acclaim in minority film circles, and has also been touted as a fine example of cutting edge, provocative cinema. It has also, and perhaps subsequently, been placed by a select few on that self same, very high pedestal that is justifiably occupied by its distant cousins - both exemplary products of extreme film-making - HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1990) and CLEAN, SHAVEN (1996). We will shortly see whether Hansen’s movie holds up. It should be acknowledged, however, that the desire to ‘discover’ startlingly inventive cinematic gems away from the crass commercialization of Hollywood - with its emphasis on sequels, abysmal remakes of good films, dodgy comic book and retro TV adaptations, CGI overdrive, excess sentimentality, and the execrable culture of cinematic irony - is a highly attractive one. But the work of over-enthusiastic underground writers and zealous contributors to the genre press often causes hype to overshadow fact, and this is a serious crime in the arena of film criticism. Despite the fact that beauty, or in this case the quality of a film, is supposed to belong in the eye of the beholder, films such as KILLER ME should be subjected to the harshest scrutiny. We should gaze long and hard before allowing ourselves to jump on the hyperbolic bandwagon, and if the object is severely flawed, we shouldn’t hail it as a glittering jewel.

Based on this apprehensive introduction, UNRATED readers will have gathered by now that not only did KILLER ME fail to live up to the expectations it had unwittingly aroused, but that I genuinely did not like this film. Despite being low-key, gritty, and focusing on the alarming states of a potentially dangerous mind with occasional flashes of creativity; it is also intermittently soggy and sentimental, is overtly cute, and holds a now tiresome attachment to the Oedipal mother-fixation theme. The film also features some extremely forced acting, and - worst of all – is absorbed with self-pity, by - and subsequently for - its main characters. Derision aside, for readers who are still eager to view the film we shall examine both the interesting and irritating aspects of the production.

During a promising, and highly expressive, opening montage, the screen unveils fragments of a distressing memory that refuses to die. Director Hanson bombards us with shapeless aural wailings, and unsettles us with a disorientating stream of consciousness images as striking, cryptic fragments of an alarming event play out on screen. Scattered throughout the film, these snippets of aural and visual expressionism represent the major problems of our protagonist Joseph (George Foster). As a young boy, he was witness to the murder of his mother, via razor blade, by none other than his own father. Joseph, now an adult, relives the event, amending details in a cathartic attempt to deal with the trauma. In some cases, Joseph imagines that it is he, rather than his mother, who is sliced by the blade... He then wakes up with a scar around his stomach, obviously self-inflicted. If that weren’t enough, Joseph also seems to have a strong compulsion to commit murder, represented by various disturbing dreams and fantasies. In order to understand himself and the workings of his mind more clearly, he is studying a degree in criminology. During a lecture, a genetic test reveals that one student - whom we can take to be our protagonist - has the extremely rare triple Y chromosome combination and this genetic aberration serves to heighten Joseph’s Oedipal trauma and explains the violent visions that unfurl before him.

Director Hansen and cinematographer Neal Fredericks - the latter of whom shot THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - use some interesting visual devices to further immerse us into Joseph’s extreme mental states. Fredericks’ tight framing of frequently elliptical scenes that occur within the man’s apartment result in a tremendous amount of visual information being left off screen. The seemingly random way in which images are placed together presents to us a sense of spatial disorientation; it is difficult for us to surmise the layout of his apartment, and consequently we are privy to the world concentrated through Joseph’s confused - and confusing - emotional and psychological experiences. To further this tendency of relying on a style of narration that is essentially subjective, we are presented with the dichotomy in which illusion and reality blur together. However, as we will see, it is with this ‘ambiguous’ representation of madness that the film severely falters; the main criticisms being that it is far too easy to interpret what is real and what is not, and also consequently that Joseph’s fantasies have very little effect on the outside world.

To address the former complaint, we ‘see’ Joseph kill somebody, whose identity is not established, near the beginning of the film. This ‘event’ is almost immediately signposted as a dream, because in the next shot reveals Joseph waking up from his slumber. In a later sequence he follows a man - whom he had witnessed acting abusively toward a child - into a cinema, with the intention of killing him. Joseph pulls out his knife, but the man’s daughter startles him, causing him to flee nervously. The scene plays out amid the flickering lights in the auditorium that dance on the contours of Joseph’s head and upper body. These intermittent flashes literally represent the illusion created by the film strip passing through the projector, illuminated by the light generated by the carbon rods, and projecting its image on screen (the cinematic illusion). Consequently, the association between the main character and the onscreen lights infers that events may not be real. It is an image, a fantasy, a dream in the dark. In a potentially more disturbing scene - I say potentially following the disappointment of witnessing another red herring - Joseph, hiding in some park bushes, witnesses what appears to be the assault, rape and murder of a female jogger. However, we cannot escape the notion that Joseph is completely removed from the scene - he doesn’t affect it and it doesn’t really affect him - and that this lack of proximity might suggest a strange, dislocated delusion. Hanson reinforces this by the depth of the scene’s composition; a huge amount of space separates Joseph and the distressing ‘event’. They are set out on different spatial planes, possibly different planes of reality, too. The depiction of Joseph is that of the detached artist, surrounded by the demons of his imagination, and in this case, he is an artist if we consider that he is the creator of the sequence to which we are witness. This inches toward my second complaint: unlike thrilling psychodramas in the vein of GOD’S LONELY MAN and TAXI DRIVER, and the existential thriller LIGHT SLEEPER, our introverted protagonist has no compelling conflicts with the outside world. Joseph is too busy looking at himself in the mirror, eating uncooked macaroni with cheese, throwing temper tantrums, and dreaming up ludicrous scenarios of which the alert viewer cannot possibly fail to see through.

Following what appears to be a flawed but appealing psychodrama, KILLER ME takes an unfortunate detour after the half hour mark. Joseph has an admirer, Anna (Christina Kew), and the two of them strike up a tentative, unconsummated, and, frankly, childish relationship. Anna, like Joseph is extremely reticent, but she demonstrates far more ability to connect with other people. This is evident during the scene in which she, an extremely mousy nervous wreck, asks him out to dinner. Although this would superficially seem like a highly contradictory, and unlikely behavioural trait, on closer inspection this isn’t the case. Many quiet, shy, and introverted people - including those represented in cinema by protagonists such as Ernest Rackman, Travis Bickle and John Le Tur (see above paragraph) - have great difficulty connecting with people outside of their own hermetic existence, and as such they utilize forceful means in order to make themselves register with others. However, Christina Kew presents the character of Anna with excessively overdone facial expressions - she widens her eyes too far, giggles, grins, and frowns too much, etc. - thus exaggerating the mechanics of performance. Her face is a literal catalogue of unconvincing expressions that fails to engage audience belief in the drama onscreen.

The romance between the couple is equally embarrassing with its cute and naive displays of affection. For example, the day after Joseph and Anna spent the night together - innocently I might add - she pays him a visit to his workplace at the university library. Joseph asks her if she’ll go away with him to his favourite place. She replies, coyly, "Are you asking me out?" It gets worse: Joseph’s response is a squirm inducing child-like smile. When they arrive, Anna asks why he likes the place so much. He replies that his mother used to take him there, that he had a wonderful childhood, and that his mother was amazing, etc. At least, later on in the film, after Joe’s Oedipal madness relapses, Anne tells him "Stop it, you’re acting like a child." My sentiments, exactly!

The film also falters in its attempt to make us feel sorry for Joseph. For example, on one occasion, he tells Anna about his pet fish, and after being questioned as to the name of the said pet, he replies that it doesn’t really have one, and that "I was afraid that if I named it I’d become attached to it and it would die". Later, when they’re in bed together, he talks about how "Sometimes I wish I were so strong, but other times...I feel I can’t do anything." After much poorly delivered petting and cooing Anna tells him "I want to feel strong with you" (yeeuch!). There’s something pathetic and desperate about the characters, but unfortunately the film doesn’t use any kind of cinematic devices to distance us from their pitiful existence. The depiction of their relationship consequently comes across as sugary and manipulative, as the film forces us to wallow in their sentimentality.

Nevertheless, KILLER ME does improve slightly toward the final third. Director Hansen demonstrates an interesting use of symbolism, which is evident in a late subjective sequence. Consider this: Rose is the name of Joseph’s mother. In one of his traumatic flashbacks, Joseph’s father attacks him. Joseph fights back, killing the dream image of his father by slashing his throat. Dozens of red petals then emerge from the gash to float down around him. However, after seemingly overcoming this traumatic primal scene, he then develops a desire to kill Anna for she has become a maternal figure to him. Joseph’s desire to kill her - which he represses as much as he can - seems to be a result of the anger directed at his mother for leaving him, boosted by his YYY chromosomes, and causing him to attempt to take his father’s place in the distorted Oedipal scenario (i.e. in this case to kill the ‘mother’). This can be seen in the aforementioned ‘park murder’. During the killing of this jogger, images of a tearful Joe are juxtaposed with visions of his sadistic desire to strangle Anna. This combination shows that the former is a displacement of the latter. Joseph’s subconscious mind is transforming sadistic desire into trauma, and turning the imagined death of Anna into the killing of an individual obscure to him, in order to make himself feel guilty, and to stop himself from doing something bad. In spite of this, these sparks of interesting characterization are a matter of too little, too late, and by the time you reach the end (whose details I shan’t enclose) you may feel (thankfully) that the filmmakers have just given up.

Vanguard present the film in a respectable transfer. Although the film was shot within the full screen ratio, images were composed to accommodate a slightly matted 1.66:1 version, accounting for the prospect of theatrical exhibition (exhibitors prefer to use widescreen). As such, this ‘re-framing’ is not harmful to the intentions of the director and the cinematographer.

Mathew Sanderson

Directed by Zachary Hansen

English language
USA / 2001 / 80 mins

Audio commentary
Deleted scenes

A Vanguard DVD release

Region 0 / NTSC / widescreen 1.66:1 non anamorphic / Dolby mono



home current issue news links subscriptions contact
Design and coding by Mike Strick