October 13, 2016
There’s no denying the main power struggle in THE UGLY was born from the womb of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Here we have a lovely, young psychologist trying to worm her way into the mind of a serial killer with predictably unfortunate results for everyone involved. But what THE UGLY lacks is the realism of Demme’s film (or Harris’ novel, if you prefer). THE UGLY is a film that flirts with the surreal, at times diving headfirst into it, and that makes Scott Reynolds' feature debut a completely different kind of serial killer film. It has a grubby, nasty side to it and an insidious ability to work its way into your subconscious. When I first saw the film, I found it tepid and a little too contrived. Watching it periodically over the years, it has become one of my favorite horror films of the 1990s. It has a special quality that I don’t think I’ll be able to adequately sum up in words. It is definitely something you will feel after watching the film.
What is contained within the narrative won’t be of much surprise to anyone well versed in serial killer films or even real life serial killer lore. Simon Cartwright is in custody at a mental health facility. He has committed a string of brutal murders over the years and psychologist Karen Shoemaker is called in to access his mental state. Over the course of their conversations, we begin to learn (and more importantly see through a series of flashbacks) all about Simon’s unhappy, abuse-filled childhood. Dubbed “Simple Simon” by the other children and bullied by his domineering mother, Simon’s inner schism began to form early on in his life. Now in his twenties, that schism has broken wide open and Simon is compelled to cut the throats of women by a force within him that he calls “the Ugly”. To make matters worse, Simon has been suffering from visions of his dead victims, all dressed in bloodstained white dresses.
As I’ve said, the look of the film is what really sets THE UGLY apart from other serial killer films of this kind. At times, the film feels like some kind of wild piece of surrealistic art. At other times, it is drenched in a wonderful impressionistic glow. The techniques used by Reynolds range from relaxed, almost floating pans to quick cut editing complete with enhanced shutter speed. We move from strong, almost overbearing, Bava-esque lighting schemes to cool, soothing exteriors, often in the space of a few seconds. The use of black blood (providing a symbolic look into the way Simon views his victims, so inhuman they bleed a black slop instead of red blood) makes the violence on display, much of which is strong, into a peculiar, often beautiful, visual display. The use of flashbacks and quick-draw dream sequences (twice in the film Karen undoes Simon’s shackles, both times leading to her murder) are interesting in that they not only provide us a glimpse into Simon’s mind but also complicate the narrative, making the film feel more like a stream of consciousness affair than a formulaic serial killer film.
The film walks the tightrope line between sympathy and outrage. It isn't difficult to feel something tender for Simon (the films most strangely touching scene is how our killer responds to cornering a victim, only to learn that she, like him, suffers a defect that probably causes her an undue amount of grief from those around her). Simon is not a killer of the natural born variety. He's a broken product of a broken upbringing. Whether he's truly insane or indeed haunted by supernatural forces beyond his comprehension is left up in the air, but there's no denying that Simon would have more than likely turned out fine had he not been assailed from a young age by the true “Ugly” of the film, his mother, the bullies, the societal pressures to feel normal and be normal.
This emotional undercurrent is most certainly downplayed throughout the film, giving way repeatedly to the more standard horror elements of the serial killer film. But it's there and it becomes more and more apparent to me the more I watch the film. Oddly enough, THE UGLY has become, through my repeated viewings, something Reynolds probably never intended it to be. It's a horror film and a damn good one at that. But saying it's “just a horror film” would be unkind and untrue. There's definitely more to it than that and I look forward to plumbing the depths of the film many more times over the years.