Cinema is, as we all know, the stuff that dreams are made of, all our romantic reveries and adventurous daydreams come to life, a projection of the perfect world we'd ideally love to be living in, full of excitement and happy endings. Or it would be if it wasn't for one little problem: not all our dreams are so wholesome. In fact some are downright dark and scary. And nothing can get at the malign impulses that lurk in our subconscious quite like cinema. It's something filmmakers have known since the earliest days, audiences love the vicarious thrill of illicit acts just as much as wholesome ones.
Which brings us to the horror and fascination we have with those who disobey the most serious of all the Ten Commandments. As Ernest Hemingway once observed, ''when a man is still in rebellion against death he has pleasure in taking to himself one of the Godlike attributes, that of giving it. This is one of the most profound feelings in those men who enjoy killing.'' What he neglected to mention was the pleasure an audience often experiences, whether it's in the bullring or the omniplex, while watching this rebellion against death. It's a primeval experience, a ritualistic act, one that connects cinema to ancient rites and religious transfiguration. The cinematic killer enacts our hidden desire to kill and our hidden relief that the victim is someone else. They die for us, so we don't have to. They kill for us, so we don't have to.
So whether it's the serial killer, the vigilante or the hitman, the killer is always with us, haunting our dreams, charming our worst instincts, hunting us down with remorseless determination. With Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me set to be the latest profile of one of cinema's most troubling and enduring residents, it's time to look back on five of the more memorable ones.
1. Speaking of Hemingway, his famous short-story The Killers was the basis for one of the great film noirs of the 1940s. Two hitmen arrive in a small town to kill someone called 'the Swede'. They wait in a diner for him to arrive. The film goes on to expand on this simple set-up, giving us the back story as to why the Swede has ended up here, (it's all a girl's fault wouldn'tcha know) but it starts with a faithful recreation of the original story in all its noirish menace.
2. We can't talk killers, of course, without talking Hitchcock. Killers were one of specialities and I could easily pick five clips from his films alone. In the end I choose Bruno Anthony from Strangers On A Train. It's in incomparable performance from Robert Walker, the killer as psychopath, victim and charmer all in one. Hitchcock was always trying to implicate us in his murderous schemes, manipulating us to identify with killers, and here as Bruno murders the woman at the carnival, Hitch literally lowers her body into our laps, presents her to us as a sacrifical offering.
3. It's hard to imagine the western without killers. The gunslinger, the outlaw and the gun-for-hire were staples of pretty much every western ever made. So an enormous wealth of ornery so-and-sos in black hats to choose from then. I've gone for an Italian take on this most American of genres. Surely few killers have ever had a cooler (or better soundtracked) entrance than blue-eyed Frank in Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West. The fact that Frank is played by Henry Fonda, that paragon of liberal justice in films like The Grapes of Wrath and Twelve Angry Men only makes it all the better.
4. Not all movie killers are human, of course. Monsters, alien creatures and pissed-off animals have all menaced mankind over the years. Most of these can be explained by the unpredictability of nature or our instinctual fear of the unknown. Movies where we imagine being preyed upon by our own technology, on the other hand, are harder to explain. John Carpenter's Christine (1983) is a good example of this. In Stephen King's original book the car was haunted. In the film, however, it has no discernable reason for turning on humanity. It's just bad and it wants to kill us. Technophobia was clearly in the air. Maybe Christine travelled back from the same future depicted the following year in The Terminator, where all our machines have finally risen up against us?
5. And finally, a more recent phenomenon is the arrival of the female killer. It's been a staple of exploitation movies and comic books for some time of course, but it's been gradually making its way into the mainstream as trash aesthetics and comic book sensibilities have taken over popular culture. It's female empowerment meets geek boy fantasy in an unholy alliance and it surely reached a new zenith this year with Hit Girl's gleeful carnage in the wonderful Kick Ass.