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Dexter obviously doesn’t have a conscience, and his adoptive father knows it. So in the absence of one, Dad constructs an artificial super ego that allows Dexter to subsist and serve as a positive force. What better way to utilize his violent, asocial behavior than going outside the law to eradicate fellow serial killers. The forensic chops to stay a step ahead of the legal process also endears him, and lets us give a pass to his baser elements. Along the way, Dexter puts in place all the human elements that suffice for a normal life, and they come in the form of wife, sister, co-workers and child. The sedate home life even appears as though neuroplasticity has taken hold, and scaffolds what his childhood trauma negated. But like Star Trek’s Mr. Data, feigned emotions are simply window dressing for those around him. On the other hand, the death of his wife and then sister trumps the science and sends Dexter into seclusion. All those he cares for are now safe. The ending didn’t necessarily please his fans. But his dad and Data would have been proud how the serial killer grew beyond his programming.
By today’s standards, Norman Bates is a light-weight. He only killed four people. The same goes for the man Bates is based on. Ed Gein’s tally amounts to a single deuce. But the tandem receives credit for giving birth to the genre. Norman first clued America on how serial killer ruthlessness always stood covert to a competing dichotomy. In Norman’s case, shy politeness put Janet Leigh at ease and provided cover for the monster below. Of course, all it took was a blink for his seethe to rise up and subdue the audience on a societal level. But his id was just as quick to be sequestered. Norman leaves us knowing that there’s no match for those who think they can outlast his patience. This especially as we were forced to finally acknowledge that it’s all our mother’s fault.
Mr. Brooks is another serial killer with an artificially constructed frontal lobe. He’s got a loving family, heads a successful company and obviously realizes that his competing darkness isn’t what society wants. His manufactured guilt may also be a pragmatic product of the limited shelf life that his off hour occupation holds. Either way, he normalizes his addiction by joining others who are also slave to their demons. Brooks attends AA meetings. Pretty clever, but so is an alter ego that accompanies him in the form of William Hurt. The jockey back and forth with Kevin Costner brings the conflict to life and always hedges toward the futility of Mr. Brook’s struggle. Of course, when the CEO realizes that his daughter has the same proclivities, there’s no discourse. He kills to keep her out of reach of the legal system. Mr. Brooks has feelings after all. Those meetings really do work.
Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer who you want to have over for dinner. He’s worldly, provocative and can sling the sarcasm when necessary (Oh and Senator, love your suit). His perceptive nature also has the ability to act as a mirror and can actually heal. He masterfully silences Jodie Foster’s spring lambs—thank you, no charge. But his calming lilt definitely calculates, and when the moment presents itself, all reason abandons him. His gentlemanly nature is quick to win out, though, and his rage once again becomes an imperceptible simmer. Of course, he will throw in some fava beans and a nice chianti when he returns your gracious invitation.
Serial Killer was probably not even a term when “M,” terrorized the streets of Germany and laid victim to numerous little girls. This monster was likely the image such miscreants had before true study of them began. A feral little animal that begs for mercy to a vengeful public. But the serial killers we’ve come to know in film and real life have just as little emotion toward their well being as to their victims. Still, the film variety certainly manages to engender a degree of acceptance. The qualities we cannot resist are usually centered around intelligence, wit and diligent elusiveness. On the other hand, no one has ever evoked empathy like Pete Lorre’s portrayal and did so in a way that adhere’s to actual reality. “I can’t help it,” he screeches and cries over and over. The torture, helplessness and guilt he conveys in the underground people’s court is one of the greatest moments in cinematic history. So powerful that the audience is in acceptance when the vigilante court hands him off to the Berlin's legal process. We’re forced to look in the mirror at our own inescapable weaknesses, and this puts M at the top of the list.
Rich Monetti can be reached at [email protected]