Caring is creepy: The 10 scariest screen couples
By Dennis Hartley
With this being Devil’s Night eve and all, I thought I’d cobble together a little filmic fright fest for your holiday enjoyment. Now, it would be easy to trot out the usual merry assortment of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies and such, but tonight, I’m dealing with something much more frightening than any of the aforementioned. Yes, gentle reader, I’m talking about something…someone much more threatening and evil that has stalked all of us, at one time or another. At times, (shudder!) it has even managed to creep, uninvited, into our bed late at night. You know who it is of which I speak, don’t you? You don’t want me to say it, but I’m afraid I’m going have to. I am referring, of course, to the boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife…from Hell. Now this is some scary shit:
Antichrist-There have been a number of films dealing with the tragic loss of a child and its soul-crushing aftermath for the parents (Don't Look Now, The Accidental Tourist, Ordinary People, etc.) but none of them are in quite the same realm as Lars von Triers’ 2009 psychodrama. Actually, anyone familiar with the offbeat Danish director’s oeuvre might come to the conclusion that he’s not dwelling in quite the same “realm” as the rest of us to begin with (SFX: cuckoo clock chiming). After their little boy accidently tumbles to his death from an open window while they are making love in an adjoining room, a couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) each deals with survivor’s guilt in their own (shall we say) “individually unique” ways. In a bit of narrative contrivance (von Trier scripted as well) the husband just happens to be a therapist; he convinces his wife’s overseers at the laughing house that she would be better off under his personal care. The couple head out to a remote vacation cabin, to let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out, as it were. And boy, do they ever hatch out. Like most of von Trier’s films, this one is visually arresting, mentally confounding and most definitely not for the squeamish.
Baby Doll- Back in 1956, this darkly comic and deliciously squalid melodrama from the pen of Tennessee Williams was decried by the “Legion of Decency” (the ChildCare Action Project of its day) for its “carnal suggestiveness” (oh the horror!). OK, there is something suggestive about a peephole view of a sultry, PJ-clad 19 year old (a 25 year-old Carroll Baker) sensuously sucking her thumb, while curled up in a child’s crib. This is how we are introduced to the virgin bride of creepy old Archie (Karl Malden), who is breathlessly counting down the days to Baby Doll’s 20th birthday. Although they have been betrothed since she was 18, Archie is beholden to their deal-no consummation until she turns 20. In return, Archie swears to renovate his rundown property and cotton gin so he can bathe her in luxury, ‘til death do they part. In reality, Archie is as bereft of coin as he is lustful in loin. This leads to an ill-advised business decision; he sets fire to the cotton gin owned by his prosperous rival (Eli Wallach). It doesn’t take long for Wallach to figure out who the culprit is; but instead of getting mad, he decides to get even… by seducing Baby Doll first. The seduction scene is a classic; it doesn’t “show” anything, yet reveals all (it is mostly left up to the viewer’s naughty imagination). Elia Kazan directed.
Blue Velvet- Any film that begins with the discovery of a severed human ear, roiling with ants amidst a dreamy, idealized milieu beneath the blue suburban skies instantly commands your full attention. Writer-director David Lynch not only grabs you with this 1986 mystery thriller, but practically pushes you face-first into the dark and seedy mulch that lurks under all those verdant, freshly-mown lawns and happy smiling faces. The detached appendage in question is found by an all-American “boy next door” (Kyle MacLachlan), who is about to get a crash course in the evil that men do. He is joined in his sleuthing caper by a Nancy Drew-ish Laura Dern. But they are not the “scary couple” of this piece. That honor goes to the troubled young woman at the center of the mystery (Isabella Rossellini) and her boyfriend (Dennis Hopper). Rossellini is convincing enough as someone whose elevator doesn’t go to the top floor, but Hopper channels 100% pure uncut batshit crazy, squared as Frank Booth (possibly the all-time greatest screen heavy).
Crazy Love-This astonishing 2007 documentary takes that most venerable of trash TV talk show topics, “Why do women love bad boys?” to a whole new level of jaw-dropping incredulousness. For the benefit of readers completely unfamiliar with the Bizarro World “love story” of Burt and Linda Pugach, I won’t risk any spoilers. Suffice it say, if you think you’ve heard it all when it comes to obsession and dysfunction in romantic relationships, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. One thing I will tell you, is that despite the thoroughly despicable nature of the act that one of these two people visits upon the other at one point in their life journey together, it’s still not cut and dry as to whose “side” you want to be on, because both of these characters got off the bus in Crazy Town a long time ago. This film is the antonym for “date movie”. Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens directed.
The Honeymoon Killers -Several decades before Natural Born Killers was even a gleam in Oliver Stone’s eye, writer-director Leonard Kastle made this highly effective low-budget exploitation film (based on a true story) about a pair of murderous lovebirds. Martha (Shirley Stoler) and Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) meet via a “lonely hearts” correspondence club (the precursor to internet hookups) and find that they have a lot more in common than the usual love of candlelit dinners and walks on the beach. Namely, they’re both full-blown sociopaths, who cook up a scheme to lure lonely women into their orbit so they can kill them and take their assets. Stoler and Lo Bianco have great chemistry as the twisted couple. The stark B & W photography and verite approach enhances the overall creepy vibe. Martin Scorsese was the original director, but was fired after a week. Kastle (who died earlier this year) never made another film. It may not surprise you that this is one of John Waters’ faves (check out Stoler’s “look” in the photo above-do you think she just might have given Glen Milstead some “Divine” inspiration?).
The Night Porter - Director Liliana Cavani brilliantly uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allegory for the horrors of Hitler's Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been unfairly maligned and misunderstood over the years; it tends to be lumped with exploitative Nazi kitsch like Ilsa - She Wolf of the SS and Salon Kitty. At once very disturbing…yet oddly compelling.
Reversal of Fortune-The aristocrats! Prior to the highly-publicized travails of O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony and Michael Jackson’s doctor, one of the more sordid media circus court trials of the last 30 years involved a Rhode Island blue blood named Claus von Bulow, accused of the attempted murder of his wife Sunny, who lapsed into a coma in December of 1980 (which she remained in until her death in 2008). Barbet Schroeder’s 1990 film is a dramatization of von Bulow’s appeal trial (he was initially convicted of two counts of attempted murder). Jeremy Irons picked up a Best Actor Oscar for one of his career-best performances as the oddly mannered Claus. Glenn Close is Sunny; to answer the obvious question, she is “present” in most part as the narrator (not unlike William Holden in Sunset Boulevard ) and also in flashback sequences, which gives us a glimpse of their oddball relationship. My favorite dialog exchange is between von Bulow and his attorney, Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver). At one point, Dershowitz gives his client a long thoughtful look, and says, “You’re a very strange man,” to which von Bulow replies, “You have no idea.” Irons’ nuance in that deceptively simple line reading is so perfect, it gives you chills. Nicholas Kazan scripted from Dershowitz’s non-fiction book.
Sid & Nancy - The ultimate love story…for nihilists. Director Alex Cox (Repo Man , Straight to Hell, Death And The Compass) has never been accused of subtlety, and there’s certainly a glorious lack of it here in his over-the-top 1986 biopic about the doomed relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb chew all the available scenery as they shoot up, turn on and check out (like The Rose or The Doors, it’s a given that this backstage tale is not going to have a particularly joyful ending). It is a bit of a downer, but the cast is a blast to watch, and Cox (who co-scripted with Abbe Wool) injects a fair amount of dark comedy into the story (“Eeeeeww, Sid! I look like fuckin’ Stevie Nicks in hippie clothes!”). The film also benefits from Roger Deakins’ outstanding cinematography (he has since become the Coen brothers’ DP of choice, working on 11 of their films to date).
Swept Away- The time-honored “man and woman stuck on a desert island” scenario is served up with a heaping tablespoon of class struggle and an acidic twist of sexual politics in this controversial 1975 film from Italian director Lena Wertmuller. A shrill and haughty bourgeoisie woman (Mariangela Melato) charters a yacht cruise for herself and her equally obnoxious fascist friends, who all seem to delight in belittling their slovenly deck hand (Giancarlo Giannini), who is a card-carrying communist. Fate and circumstance conspire to strand Melato and Giannini together on a small Mediterranean isle, setting the stage for some interesting role reversal games (think of Giannini as a one-man Occupy Wall Street). This film has a polarizing effect on viewers, which I think can be attributed to its fascinating feminist dilemma: How does one react to an obviously talented and self-assured female director with unmistakably misogynist leanings? BTW, in case you are curious about the Guy Ritchie/Madonna remake? Two words: Stay away.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Not me. But I’ll tell you who does scare me. George and Martha, that’s who. If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after (too) many years of shrill, shrieking marriage, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”. Mike Nichols’ 1966 film (adapted by scripter Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this lovely middle-aged couple (which is more than enough, thank you very much). After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple over to their place for a nightcap (George Segal and Sandy Dennis). It turns out to be quite an eye-opener for the young ‘uns; as the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece. Everyone in the cast is fabulous, but Taylor is the particular standout; this was a breakthrough performance for her in the sense that she proved beyond a doubt that she was more than just a pretty face. It’s easy to forget that the actress behind this blowsy, 50-ish character was only 34 (and, of course, a genuine stunner). When “Martha” says “Look, sweetheart. I can drink you under any goddam table you want…so don’t worry about me,” you don’t doubt that she really can!