Old murder movies on video -- A review of ''M,'' ''In Cold Blood,'' and more

By Ty Burr
Updated October 19, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

Old murder movies on video

Fascination with murder is a perversity of human nature, perhaps of the American variety in particular. We scour the newspapers and we scan the TV screen, studying every banal homicide account with a curiosity less morbid than restless, seeking a dark kind of reassurance. But the best crime reporting tells us something about the human condition, and when good filmmakers turn their attention to the killers who walk among us, they seek to do more than scare us with a bogeyman in a hockey mask. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, recently out on video, and the films below use true crime as a jumping-off point for all sorts of cultural observations. The intent of these films, among the best ever inspired by real-life murders, is to try to make some sense — any sense — out of a mind unknowable even to itself.

M (Nelson, 1931)
It doesn’t really matter that Peter Lorre looks nothing like Peter Kurten, the notorious ”Vampire of Dusseldorf” on whom director Fritz Lang based his ground-breaking early talkie. As a bug-eyed child murderer who becomes the focus of manhunts by both the police and the criminal underworld (whose enterprises he’s disrupting), Lorre paints one of the most unnerving portraits in the history of movies: a figure utterly cut off from humanity and terrified at what he’s capable of. His performance seems even more amazing when you consider that the actor left the set every night to appear in a light musical stage comedy. In black and white. A+

In Cold Blood (RCA/Columbia, 1967)
From the opening shot of former child star Robert Blake looming out of the darkness to its final, harrowing execution sequence, this reenactment of a 1959 crime (two drifters wiped out a small-town Kansas banker and his family) gathers an inexorable force that set the tone for countless TV movies. Director Richard Brooks is less interested in the insights into time and place that distinguished Truman Capote’s brilliant book than in exploring the sad, needy relationship between the two killers, childlike Perry Smith (Blake) and slick Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson). As one character points out, ”Neither one of them would have done it alone, but together they made a third person.” In black and white. A

The Honeymoon Killers (Vestron, 1970)
Dumpy nurse Martha Beck and her lover, Ray Fernandez, had a nice career going in the late ’40s: Ray would marry wealthy widows and Martha would kill them. Electrocuted in 1951, they’re memorialized in this strange, tawdry, unbelievably intense cheapie from one-shot director Leonard Kastle. The jerry black-and-white photography feels like news footage from hell, and the performances are great: Tony LoBianco as genial Ray, Mary Jane Higby as a nattering victim, and, best of all, Shirley Stoler as crabby, passionate Martha, a Wagner heroine in flats. A-

Helter Skelter (CBS/Fox, 1976)
This network adaptation of Vincent Bugliosi’s best-seller (originally broadcast in two parts, it has been shortened for video) takes the In Cold Blood approach to the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders by Charles Manson and his Family. Methodical and a bit boring, Helter Skelter is a mixture of Dragnet deadpan and heavy-breathing made-for-TV techniques. It also assumes a familiarity with facts viewers might not have 20 years down the line. But Steve Railsback is so vivid as Manson that he forces you to look into the abyss. If your kids ask you what happened to the ’60s, give them this tape. B-

River’s Edge (Nelson, 1987)
Or give them River’s Edge, which says that the real inheritors of ’60s hippiedom are affectless, inarticulate teens capable of shrugging off a best friend’s murder. Fictionalized from a 1981 incident in California, it’s a skillful but overpraised film that hammers home its theme (crass commercial culture has gutted the minds of our children) with the subtlety of a jackhammer. The best thing here is the ferocious acting: Keanu Reeves as the one kid with a conscience, Dennis Hopper as a crazed ’60s survivor, and Crispin Glover, from another planet entirely, as the teens’ speed-freak leader. B