Natural Born Killers (1994)
by Steve Habrat
Leave it to Oliver Stone to tackle an issue like the American public’s fascination with serial killers, blood, sex, guts, and all out mayhem. Natural Born Killers is without question one of the most controversial films ever made, a psychedelic road trip into Hell that boasts hallucinatory images, shotgun wielding satire, and a blood drenched riot as a finale that leaves the sane viewer with their mouth on the floor. Natural Born Killers is notorious for inspiring a long list of copycat murders in the wake of its 1994 release including the shooting of William Savage and Patsy Byers, the Heath High School shooting, the Columbine High School massacre, and the Richardson Family Murders. Natural Born Killers deals with the morbid intrigue we have with cold-blooded killers and how the media glamorizes and glorifies their actions. The film touches on all the major figures in death including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Whitman, and David Koresh, to name a few. Through all the controversy, director Stone has some thought provoking things to say and we can’t help but feel ashamed in ourselves for how we hang on the violence projected into our homes via the nightly news. We, as a society, were guilty this past summer when we hung on every second of the Casey Anthony trial and now, we are guilty of it again with the recent Chardon, Ohio school shooting, where news cameras were onsite to catch every drop of blood and every tear from those affected. We still haven’t learned from the message Natural Born Killers tried to deliver to us.
Natural Born Killers follows the horrific killing spree of Mickey (Played by Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Played by Juliette Lewis) Knox, two bloodthirsty individuals who have been twisted and mutated into heroes by the media for the carnage they leave in their wake. The film hops around and shows us glimpses into their troubled pasts, the pursuit of a Detective Jack Scagnetti (Played by Tom Sizemore) who has a few secrets of his own, Mickey’s Manson-esque interview with self-centered Australian tabloid journalist Wayne Gale (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), and their stay at a prison run by Warden Dwight McClusky (Played by Tommy Lee Jones). After a year stay at the prison, Mickey and Mallory are to be moved to a mental institution after being deemed insane, but the Warden, Gayle, and Detective Scagnetti all have plans of their own for the deadly duo.
You can’t evaluate Natural Born Killers without discussing the hyperactive style and array of colors Stone bathes the film in. He shoots with multiple types of film including Super 8, 16mm, black and white, animation, and video, the film flipping from one style to another with frantic randomness. Stone also adds heaping amounts of stock footage including footage of the 1993 siege on the Branch Dravidians, the Nazis, and the Charles Whitman shootings. In addition, Stone also shows us Mallory’s disturbing upbringing at the hands of her abusive father and cowardly mother. Stone presents this to the viewer as a 1950’s sitcom, adding laugh tracks and upbeat music, suggesting that we sensationalize the past of criminals and use their pasts as entertainment. Stone further suggests that we sensationalize violence every single day and use it as a form of entertainment. Even though the film deals with gruesome topics and we should be appalled by it, we keep watching and easily digesting it because he molds it into shameless entertainment. Even if you hate the film and find yourself mortified by it, you can’t say that you weren’t entertained while watching it.
The characters of Mickey and Mallory are contorted into a modern Bonnie and Clyde with a sprinkling of Charles Whitman and Charles Manson. They relish in their hellish fame and joyfully tell their fans “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” as they are led into court. Stone makes them charismatic despite their urges to kill and maim. They use theatrics in the massacres, usually leaving one person alive to tell the tale of Mickey and Mallory. Mickey is a brewing storm of fury that is bottled up and when provoked, slowly uncorks and spews forth with a wrath that will make your head spin. Mallory isn’t as discreet (I use that term loosely here) as Mickey, she unhinges at the smallest little things. But in a sick way, we root for Mickey and Mallory, who actually just want to be left to themselves by the end. Their love for each other trumps their murderous impulses. Stone purposely wants us to root for them, forcing us to listen in on their warped viewpoints Mickey explains to Gale. He also paints them as tragic victims by their troubled pasts, another action by the exploitative media. But Stone uses Gayle to show us how infectious the mental sickness is, the virus spread with a camera and microphone. Mickey sparks a gruesome riot and awakens a killer in Gayle, who begins to enjoy the murder and mayhem. Stone seems to be foretelling the idea of individuals who find inspiration in these monsters.
Natural Born Killers doesn’t pour much hope in the ones who are sworn to protect us. They use murders and psychos for their own personal fame and gain. Wayne Gayle uses them for reputation, Scagnetti uses them for vengeance, and McClusky uses them for his career. In the end, we have to wonder if any of the individuals out there really care about our safety or well-being. These twisted people realize that they can capitalize on death. By the finale, Mickey and Mallory are the rebellion to these individuals–bring down a flurry of bullets with an army of inmates tearing through the prison. Natural Born Killers says that those who claim to protect and serve are really no better than the ones they are trying to capture and put behind bars, something that the real life individuals who are guilty of this crime should be ashamed of.
Natural Born Killers is a film that should be approached with caution, a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. As I have pointed out, many miss the intellectual message of the film and see it as a trippy view into how murder can make you famous. How murder will make the world remember your name, a message that is formed by a weak, delusional mind. For the viewer who wants a thought provoking experience, I encourage you to see Natural Born Killers, a film that holds a slot in my top twenty films of all time. I have always found myself fascinated by how the evening news projects violence into our homes on daily basis. Think of how no one stopped disgraced politician Budd Dwyer as he pulled out a gun and blew his head off on live television, on a snow day when young children were able to see it. If you have seen the footage, you know that the camera kept rolling and the cameraman even zooms in on the bloody mess, making sure we see every minute detail and every smudge of gore. Then it was rerun for everyone to see, presented as a spectacle of a desperate man with no other option. Think 0f how the news covered the events of Waco, how we hang on the interviews with the deranged and manipulative Charles Manson, or our round the clock coverage of any given school shooting. We are the ones who are guilty of making these monsters heroes. We are the ones who sensationalize death and tragedy, refusing to try to intervene or turn away from it. We haven’t learned from our mistakes, that I say with firm confidence. Natural Born Killers is as relevant now as ever, morphing the film to a polarizing classic.
Natural Born Killers is now available of Blu-ray and DVD.
Christmas Vacation (1989)
by Steve Habrat
If you are in the market for big laughs during the holidays, stop your search at National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the third and perhaps best entry in the Vacation series. Hugely slapstick and loaded with good intentions, Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold is somewhat of a bumbling hero to the comedy realm. He wants nothing more than to spend quality time with his family and goes to great lengths to make sure their trips and holiday’s are something to talk about for years to come. Yet this should not be confused with intellectual depth, an attribute that is severely lacking in much of the National Lampoon cannon. But as a mindless distraction, Christmas Vacation will tickle your funny bone with its dry wit, raucous charisma, smart aleck one-liners, and none other than Griswold himself. I wish I could go on about how this film makes profound statements about the meaning of Christmas, but I can’t stretch it or sugar coat this film.
Clumsy oaf Clark Griswold (Played by Chase) wants none other than to provide his family with a good old-fashioned family Christmas. One with the perfect tree, warm company, gaudy outdoor decorations, and a big fat Christmas bonus so he can build a luxurious pool in his backyard for his children and extended family to enjoy. Along with his affectionate wife Ellen (Played by Beverly D’Angelo) and his disinterested offspring Audrey (Played by Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (Played by Johnny Galecki), the Griswolds face entertaining their in-laws, snooty neighbors, wild animals laying waste to their home, and the unannounced visit from their southern fried cousin Eddie (Played by Randy Quaid), a beer swilling moron who makes Clark look like a rocket scientist.
A much more adult oriented holiday funny flick, Christmas Vacation is loaded with toilet humor, sexual innuendos, and a finale that includes kidnapping and a massive SWAT siege on the Griswold homestead. It main goal is just to make you belt out hearty laughs at the expense of Clark’s pain. They throw him into every situation imaginable, ranging from tumbling off ladders while covering every inch of his home in white Christmas lights, to him stepping on boards and whacking himself in the face. The impatient one-liners from his children are also winners; one includes a disastrous trip to the lingerie section of a department store. At odds with Clark is Cousin Eddie, who spouts off with even more stupidity than Clark, although Clark’s comedy centers more around him getting hurt or frustrated. Yet Christmas Vacation manages to be spot on about your in-laws and extended family shacking up with you for the holidays. Personalities conflict, arguments arise, tempers flare, and you have to put up with at least one family member you have no desire to see. In Christmas Vacation’s case, that is Cousin Eddie.
If dealing with nagging family members is the extent of this film’s depth, we can only further evaluate it on its performances, which are all quite fine and bursting with the right amount of silliness. The film relies on its how-much-worse-can-this-actually-get premise to the point where it literally ends in explosions and fireworks. Quaid’s Cousin Eddie steals the show with his asinine remarks and constantly hindering the fun that Clark and Ellen try so desperately to provide. It’s nice to see him on Clark’s turf this time around and not in his native hillbilly setting. D’Angelo’s Ellen really doesn’t undergo any drastic change to her character. She still sticks by her Clark even at his dumbest. William Hickey and Mae Questel show up as the elderly Uncle Lewis and Aunt Bethany. Lewis is cranky and shrill, constantly snapping and disinterested in the entire effort by Clark. Aunt Bethany is a senile old bat that delivers one hysterical quote after another. Just try not to burst into hysterics when she sees Clark’s outdoor lighting scheme for the first time. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest show up as Clark’s hip neighbors who scoff at his attempts for a family Christmas. They also deliver their fair share of memorable moments to keep Christmas Vacation afloat.
Credit should also be given to director Jeremiah S. Chechik who allows the film to coast along and expertly balances out the laughs. He makes a moment where Clark watches old films of Christmas and his childhood a tender moment. He allows the film to be warm and accommodating, making us almost feel like actual guests in the Griswold home. We see scenes of darkened rooms where the guests are sleeping. We laugh over Rusty and Audrey awkwardly sharing a bed and being furious over each other’s movements. We almost feel like we are staying over with all of these characters. The inviting nature of this film always made me a softie for it. I will say that the film seems to wait a little too long to reveal its big twist and the hurries the final events. You’ll forgive it though.
Christmas Vacation is the furthest thing from cinematic brilliance but it sure can get the inevitable moments we all face at this time of the year correct. The film opens with a snazzy cartoon number and a catchy little tune you will be humming along with. It’s also insanely quotable and will have you and your family spouting off lines to each other for days. Ranking as the most polished and probably the most consistent Vacation film, it easily has the most replay value. It is without question the most family friendly entry, just outdoing the sub par Vegas Vacation. It should also be noted that the film has aged miraculously, never truly reeking of the 80s. Hell it even makes a good holiday double feature with A Christmas Story. If you the adult finds this a tough glass of eggnog to drain, your kids will sure be howling with delight. If you can lower your pretensions long enough to appreciate an innocent laugh, you’ll enjoy dropping in on the Griswold’s old fashioned family Christmas for years to come. I just hope you make it out alive.
Christmas Vacation is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.