Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Director: Scott Glosserman

Writer: David J. Stieve and Scott Glosserman

A team of film students making a documentary follows a man around as he prepares to initiate his on horror movie-style killing spree.

I don't know how this movie slipped under my radar for so long. It's a very interesting exercise in postmodernism. First, a definition for the big word. As far as film goes, postmodern theory suggests that the cinematic medium has permeated our culture so deeply that it enters a state of conventionality that affords future films to comment on and become "[nostalgic] for past forms, genres, and styles" ¹. Essentially, postmodern films are acutely aware of their predecessors and comment – knowingly or otherwise – on them through their own narrative and imagery. This trend is most common in genre films like the western, horror or science fiction films. There are certain codes and symbols that subsequent films build on that, as scholars in genre theory argue, "evolve" into alternative forms of the same genre. But genre theory, like all theories, is not perfect and is far too big a topic to tackle here.

Reflexivity is the mode in which Behind the Mask works with postmodern theory. Behind the Mask, as its title suggests, is not only aware that it is a slasher film but actively deconstructs the slasher mythology already in place. Since the inception of this subgenre ², certain narrative conventions, themes, and images are repeated and built upon until we get to a film like Scream (1996) which attempts to explain these conventions as the "rules [...] to successfully survive a horror movie." It does all this from within its own narrative. Scream opened a cinematic Pandora's Box when its subtext was brought to the surface and took control of its narrative text ³. While the film itself, along with writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven, is aware of its position as a slasher movie, its characters are not, thus preserving the liminal space between the artwork and the artifice.

Behind the Mask penetrates this space with the combination of two cinematic apparatuses: the digital video (DV) camera and the film camera. The conceit of the film is that a group of film students are making a documentary on an up-and-coming slasher villain, Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel). That is the diegetic world of the film. What makes Behind the Mask stand out is its use of a second non-diegetic narrative that actively comments on the primary, diegetic narrative. The difference is visually cued by the switch from DV to celluloid. When the documentary about Leslie (the diegetic narrative) is in action, the film is shot on DV and when the slasher movie that Leslie is creating (the non-diegetic narrative) in is action, the filmmakers use celluloid film with all the lighting and sound cues associated with the horror genre.

Normally in a horror film of any kind, the audience tends to align themselves with the hero(ine) of the story and hopes for their survival. As slasher films reaped obscene amounts of money and lucrative franchises were churned out, the villains (Jason, Michael, Freddy, etc.) became the hero/villains of the story. The victims were just a means for more inventive death scenes in the next entry. As I like to say of these series, "how are the kids going to get it this time?" With Behind the Mask, when in diegetic mode, we are aligned with interviewer Taylor (Angela Goethals) in her mission to understand why Leslie is a serial killer. When the film slips into non-diegetic mode, we take the place of the narratively absent Taylor until the final segment of the film when the non-diegetic narrative fully takes over the diegetic narrative and we are again positioned as spectator/victim/killer.

As serious as all this sounds, Behind the Mask treats its subject with a light heart. Leslie Vernon is a personable, witty, attractive man who has taken it upon himself to do justice to his predecessors. We like him and want him to succeed in his violent plan but at the same time, we want Taylor to fulfill her necessary role in both the film and Leslie constructed narrative. Leslie is as much the author of the final segment of the film as the screenwriters or director. He wields such authorial power that he can change the story plotted out during the diegetic segments.

This is a film ultimately designed for horror buffs who can appreciate its wit and tongue-in-cheek charm. Even those who are unfamiliar with slasher movie conventions will get a kick out of it. The performances by the principle actors are strong and well pitched, but the minor details and touches really bring the project home. One that springs to mind is when Leslie's mentor Eugene (Scott Wilson) is recounting the "old days" of the business while cutting up carrots for dinner. We hear him steadily chopping but as he becomes agitated, we hear the chopping accelerate to an inhuman speed and the disturbed look on Taylor's face. The pay off is the pile of carrot mush with the butcher knife sticking straight up in the cutting board. It's funny but unnerving at the same time.

Behind the Mask is as equally respectful to the slasher subgenre as it is a send up. It lampoons the more ridiculous elements while seriously analyzing the more salient themes. Not a perfect film but refreshing nonetheless.

Further Reading:

Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover

How to Survive a Horror Movie by Seth Grahame-Smith


¹ Hill, Val. "Postmodernism and Cinema." In The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, edited by Stuart Sim, 93-102. London: Routledge, 2005.

² Like some other scholars, I cite 1974 as the birth of the slasher film with the release of both Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There were, of course, earlier instances of slasher themes and images in films like Psycho (1960), Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Straight-Jacket (both 1964), and Bay of Blood (1971). However, the first films to fully flesh out the now iconic images didn't appear until the mid-1970s. The 1980s saw the introduction of the prolific franchises (Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street) and a flood of like-minded, one-off entries that were quick moneymaking enterprises. The end of the 80s saw a winding down of the subgenre, in both box office returns and creativity, which fully resurfaced in the mid-1990s.

³ Scream, of course, was not the first horror film to attempt this kind of narrative reflection. A personal favorite is the commercial unsuccessful 1987 slasher/comedy Return to Horror High. A feature film crew is slaughtered while trying to film the "true story" of a high school massacre year earlier. The screenwriter, the only survivor, recounts the failed production to police.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Zombi 2 (1981)

Director: Lucio Fulci

Writer: Elsa Brigante and Dardando Sacchetti

While searching for a missing doctor on a remote island, a young woman, a reporter, their ship's captain, and his girlfriend are besieged by the living dead.

Fans of Italian horror films tend to break off into two camps. Either you're a fan of the more artistically and visually exciting Dario Argento or you're a fan of the equally nonsensical hyper-violent style of Lucio Fulci. I enjoy both but nine times out of ten, I'll watch an Argento film. Why the difference? I think it has largely to do with the filmmakers' unique approaches to their films and the finish products. While Fulci is the more prolific of the two, having director more than double the number of films; Argento has a more cohesive style. Fulci has worked in nearly every genre of popular cinema in Italy while Argento has stuck to horror and giallo.

At any rate, I'm getting on a "who's better" tangent. I'm sure the number one question right now is, "if this is Zombi 2, where is Zombi 1?" Zombi 2 is the European title of the film while in America it was known simply as Zombie. However, George A. Romero's epic Dawn of the Dead (1978) was recut by Dario Argento and released in Europe as Zombi. There's much debate over whether Zombi 2 is a rip-off or merely an attempt at cashing in on the success of the Romero picture. Whatever the case may be, Zombi 2 is a gorehound's dream come true.

Zombi 2 is vintage Fulci: there's a somewhat coherent plot, buckets of gore, and truly terrible dubbing. The plot breaks down thusly: a young woman's scientist father is missing on the island of Matool. She and an English reporter hitch a ride with a couple going on a two-month pleasure cruise. The four find the island, the girl's father, and an island full of zombies. Death and mayhem abound. The young woman and reporter escape to warn the rest of the world but it's too late, zombies have already started to swarm New York.

If you want to enjoy Zombi 2, don't worry about the plot, it's only there to connect the death scenes. To its credit though, the scene of zombie violence are some of the most memorable. Most notably, a half-naked chick vs. a zombie vs. a shark. That's right, A SHARK. The attractive girlfriend on the pleasure cruise decides to go scuba diving…in just her string bikini bottom and scuba gear. There's our eye candy. She swims around the deep until a zombie suddenly appears to kill her. She escapes but a shark swims over, possibly to investigate, and the zombie attacks the shark and bites it, which makes the shark swim off. Obviously pissed, the shark return and bites the zombie's arm off in retaliation. Possibly one of the greatest scenes in the history of the subgenre.

While the acting, story, and music are laughable, the effects are pretty top notch. The zombie makeup is a significant improvement on the gray-tone of Romero's film. These zombie look like they've been decomposing for a while, especially the famous worms-in-the-eye-socket zombie that graces the poster. My favorite moment is the eye-gouge scene. Fulci shows his ability to create suspense through editing with this scene. While the doctor's wife tries to protect herself from zombies by barricading her bedroom door, a zombie hand bursts through the door and grabs her head. Fulci cuts between her panicked face and a giant splintered chunk of the door. He zooms in on the wood when cuts to a wide shot of her face, eyes wide, approaching the door. He cuts back to the zoom-in on the wood then to an extreme close up of the eye and the wooden spike, now an inch away from each other. At first glance you think, "There's no way he's going to show that!' then you see the splinter enter the eye through the pupil, penetrate through the eyeball, and break off in the eye socket. It's unnerving despite the obvious use of a dummy and special makeup effects.

At the end of the day, Zombi 2 is not a great movie but it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch. While my favorite Fulci film is The Beyond (1981), this is a close second. Whether it's a rip-off, a marketing money machine, or just another exercise in extreme Italian-style horror goodness, this fact remains: Zombi 2 is going to eat you.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Blood Feast (1963)

Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Writer: A. Louise Downe

Suzette Fremont's birthday party is fast approaching and unbeknownst to her and her mother, the "Egyptian Feast" the strange Mr. Fuad Ramses has planed is anything but delicious.

Before we really get started, let me say that Blood Feast is not the best movie ever made. The plot is simple, the acting is laughable, and the effects are ridiculous but all put together, this 1963 gem is one of the most important horror films ever made. A terrible and terribly important movie in the same breath? Well it's true. Blood Feast is the film that not only paved the way for all the horror on screen today but put up road signs, off-ramps, and roundabouts. Four decades before Hostel (2005), Blood Feast provided as much blood and violence as you and your sick bag (given away at theatres as a gimmick) could handle.

Like Mario Bava, Herschell Gordon Lewis is a filmmaker that is ultimately shafted amongst the ranks of film, and even horror, buffs. However, unlike Bava there's a good reason for it. While Bava is a highly artistic, visually stunning filmmaker, Lewis is after the shock and the buck. Gordon, along with producer David F. Friedman, got their cinematic start not in horror but in a different genre: the nudie-cutie. It's exactly what you think it is. Before the pornography we know today, there were films that presented sex (specifically nudity) in a "sociological" light, usually in the form of nudist camp movies. This style is briefly spoofed in Gremlins 2 (1990). Deciding that they could only make so much money with the nudie-cuties, Lewis and producer Friedman took notice at what was missing in horror films of the day. The four-letter word with which horror fans worldwide became all too familiar: gore. Up to this time in the States, the level of violence and gore in Blood Feast had not been seen on movie screens. As unfathomable as it may sound, without Blood Feast future hits like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Straw Dogs (1971) would not have come about when they did. Yes, it's that important.

In exchange for the excessive gore and violence and an as yet unheralded place in film story, the sex is kept down to the bare minimum (pun intended) and the "foul language" is non-existent. There is a brief shot in the first scene of an actress' nipple but otherwise, this film contained nothing censorship-worthy but the red stuff. Playing down one or two "taboos" means a filmmaker gets to play up another. Lewis does not go for suspense of the mind but for the reflex of the gut. From the opening scene of an attractive young woman butchered, we know what we're in for: 67 minutes of bits and pieces.

Like the rest of Lewis' oeuvre, Blood Feast takes not just a certain type of viewer, but one with a saint's worth of patience. The film, like all the others I've seen by the director, suffers greatly from its tedious pacing and horrific acting. Blood Feast clocks in at just over an hour but you feel every second of it. It's another of the "six-pack movies" I mentioned æons ago. The kind of movie where you get either a group of buddies together and watch it with some cold ones or just have it on in the background of a Halloween party. Either way, it's good for a laugh. The performances alone provide all the camp one could possibly ask for.

Without Blood Feast, the slasher genre as we know and love it would not be what it is today. Trite? Yes. True? Also yes. For every convention, there is a broken boundary somewhere in the wreckage of history. The level of violence and gore we find in today's horror film is a direct descendant of Blood Feast.

Can't get enough of the Feast? Ready for seconds or maybe even thirds? You're in luck. There's not only a belated sequel (Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat [2002]), but as Lewis fans know, Blood Feast is only the first in a trilogy of films known as "The Blood Trilogy." Antonioni has his nameless art house trilogy (1960-62), Bergman has his debatable Silence of God Trilogy (1961-63), Dario Argento has both the Animal and Three Mothers Trilogies (1970-71 and 1977-07 respectively), and Michael Haneke has the Glacial Trilogy (1989-94), so why shouldn't Lewis have his? Following the success of Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965) soon appeared using similar shock tactics. The Blood Trilogy proved to be more successful than any of the films individually.

Boiled down, it's an hour of your life you can't get back but for the viewer with the right mentality, it's a vaguely rewarding experience. Blood Feast is horror schlock of the highest degree. If, for whatever reason, you happen to like this and the other entries in The Blood Trilogy, check out Lewis' other films. He's nothing but versatile, tackling nearly every campy subgenre known to man.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Director: Mario Bava
Writer: Giusseppe Barilla, Marcel Fonda, Marrcello Fondato, Mario Bava

The models at a house of high fashion are stalked and murdered one by one. Can the murderer be discovered before all the girls are dead?

It's sad, really, that as important to the horror genre as Mario Bava is, he's still a grossly underappreciated figure. His films have had such an enormous impact on the horror and thriller forms in film that the absence of his name is really a travesty. Blood and Black Lace stands as one of the high watermarks of a prolific career including nearly forty films. Along with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), Bava nearly invented the giallo in Italy with this film. A breed of intensely violent thrillers so named from the yellow-covered pulp novels that were popular in Italy after the Second World War. And Blood and Black Lace has a very pulp narrative to it. The story revolves around the potential exposure of a drug ring based out of an Italian haute couture house. After the death of a model, her diary surfaces, which may, or may not, contain incriminating evidence that could indict the individuals involved. While this is central to the narrative, the audience is not especially interested in it. Already by the mid-60s horror audiences are more interested in the sheer spectacle of the death scene than the mystery at hand. This type of body-count picture was later fully developed by Bava in his 1971 classic Bay of Blood (a.k.a. Twitch of the Death Nerve). We have a central heroine with whom the audience is most interested but the deaths take precedence over narrative and for the visual beauty of the film, and that’s totally fine.

What stands out the most in this, and many of Bava's later films, are the very cinematic death scenes. Bava films his deaths scenes with an attention to achieving the highest level of artistry and visual pizzazz, an aspect that would be picked up by Dario Argento. Each death is filmed and presented in such a way that the violence is almost supplanted by the aesthetic glory of the shots. Take for example the first death of the film, the one that kicks the narrative into gear. A model in a bright red rain slicker is taking a short cut through the woods (I know, pretty cliché but trust me, it's fantastic) when she's attacked by the killer. The scene, like those that follow it, is lit and colored so well and dramatically that the death takes on a surreal, hallucinatory quality. Despite the fact it's supposed to the middle of the night, the woods are lit to spooky perfection and the model's rain slicker stands out against all the darkness. Violent though the scene is the model and the shots retain a beauty from the previously mentioned lighting and camera set-ups.

My favorite death scene from this film is also the most tragic and shocking. Unlike the others in which we first see the victim then the attack, the death of Tao-Li (Claude Dantes) begins as she's strangled underwater in her bra and panties. By this time in America, the Production Code was only beginning to allow this kind of sexually and violence on theatre screens. But this scene provides such intense imagery that, according to Bava scholar Tim Lucas, that the end of the scene, which sticks out in my mind above all else in the film, was cut for American and home video release and only recently reinserted. As Tao-Li's body sinks under the bathwater, her eyes opened, her wrist is cut to make her death look like a suicide. Bava cuts to a close up of her face under the water and from the bottom of the frame, in sharp contrast to the light blue water and white bra, Tao-Li's blood begins mixing with the water. While this is stock-in-trade for modern horror, Bava's presentation of the shot is disturbing for showing what Lucas refers to as "the angel in the wreckage." While the scene is destructive, the presentation is such that it is equally beautiful.

As I said before, I think it's a crime that Bava is not a more widely celebrated or even discussed director. His influence is seen in the work of such commercially successful directors as Martin Scorsese. Perhaps I have affection for and affinity to critically slighted filmmakers but Blood and Black Lace stands as one of greatest but too little seen horror masterpieces.

Suggested reading material:
Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark by Tim Lucas

Friday, December 19, 2008

You Are Now Leaving Salò

I've always called myself a glutton for punishment and I really lived up to it this past semester. I signed up for the Italian Cinema class because the professor is one of my favorites. The one big project of the class was with pick a film, not viewed for class, and put together an annotated bibliography on it. As a Grad student, I had to go further and write the first draft of a paper based on said bibliography. My main intersection with Italian cinema is their horror scene but it was only covered very briefly (though I had the opportunity to give an impromptu mini-lecture on Dario Argento), I decided to pick a film that would present a real challenge for me. I've always like a good challenge which is where my procrastination comes from. I tend to wonder, "how long can I wait to do this before it becomes humanly impossible?" Well, I obviously waited too long on the bibliography since it wound up being crazy late. On the upside I learned a word in Italian, "eccolo." It means, "here it is."

Obviously, the film I chose was Pier Paolo Pasolini's final effort before his murder, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). When I first saw the film back in February it was to check off and mark the 666th film I'd seen from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book with which I am obsessed. Seven months had passed and I had to see the movie again before I could really proceed with any work. I wrote an entry here about it and I think my disturbed state comes through so the prospect of a second viewing was daunting at best.

Since misery loves company, I decided to sit my good friend Tyler down and make him watch it as well. As I see it, Salò is a very important film regardless of its reputation and content. Luckily, the Criterion Collection had re-released the film in a two-disc special edition so the quality was outstanding. I think it's a tribute in part to how good of friends Tyler and I are that he'd sit down to this movie that I talked about only with a shudder and watch it without knowing a single thing about it. I offered him a shot before we watched the film. All I told him was to remember the word "manga."

Tyler and I have been friends since early high school and have spent hours upon hours watching the most extreme horror films we could get our hands on. He's a man with a strong constitution, I mean he's married for god's sake (actually, his wife is wonderfully sweet and I adore her). In all the years we've been watching and talking about horror films, I've never seen him that bothered by a movie. I kept hearing him shift in his seat and mutter "oh, god" or "what the fuck?" throughout the film, especially when the title card reading Girone della Merda came up with the "Circle of Shit" subtitle. That issued an "oh, shit" from him. I'll admit I got a kind of sick glee from subjecting Tyler to Salò but I had to sit through it as well.

After the film, he was visible shaken and still can’t stand hearing anything in reference to it. The worst was yet to come for me. I knew that I wanted to write something regarding the politics of the film. The Criterion re-release included a nice booklet with half a dozen new articles about the film and a reprinted on set article by Pasolini's friend Giedon Bachmann. These and a handful of other articles were my sources of information for writing my paper.

What I didn't expect was to become so wrapped up in the research process. The more I read, the deeper my interest in the film became to the point where most of my conversations somehow got back around tothe work I was doing on Salò. I had appreciated the film's artistry after my first viewing but following all the researching and note taking I couldn't get the images out of my head.

I had to take at least a week off from research and from Salò in general to clear my mind. After this sort of cinematic detox period, I was ready to come back to my percolating paper, this time with the feeling that Pasolini's very conscious and literary use of structure was, for me, the key to understand the political allegory. Writing the paper was thankfully smooth and uneventful, my little TV next to me jumping between this scene and that shot. As I said in my blog entry for Salò, the visceral effect of the film is achieved from the overall culmination of the images as they pile up on each other. Viewing the film again in the fragmented form I require to write a paper proved that the "punch" of the film was taken out because a given scene or shot had no context.

So, what's the point of this quasi-editorial? I felt the need to purge Salò from my system, if only for the time being. It has become one of my favorite movies in the past month but one that I could only watch maybe once or twice per year. It is truly haunting but I think that's really a mark of its power and greatness. I see Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom as sort of the black sheep of the international film canon but its place there is firm.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Horror of Dracula (1958)

Director: Terence Fisher
Writer: Jimmy Sangster (screenplay), Bram Stoker (novel)

A damned nobleman and vampire, Dracula, travels from his home in Klausenberg to London to wreak havoc and satisfy his bloodlust.

The first largely successful film from the great English film studio Hammer, Horror of Dracula established a new level and style for the horror film. Gone are the deep shadows and awkwardly long takes of Tod Browning's 1931 classic, replaced by lush, if not lurid, colors and a gothic atmosphere. While the story remains only slightly changed, the approach of director Fisher is what sets Horror of Dracula apart from its predecessors. By the time this film was released, the Golden Age of American Horror had long since come to a close. The Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, the Wolfman, etc.) had denigrated into slapped-together, camp-filled shells of their former selves. Honestly, when a monster meets Abbot and Costello, it's about time to hang up the fangs. The Hammer cycle of classic monsters, however, proved to be enormously successful and lucrative, eventually making Hammer the most financially successful studio in British cinema history.

One of the many fascinating elements of Horror of Dracula is the approach to the supernatural material in the plot. Several times, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) will either refute or debunk the tried-and-true vampire myths with which we're all so familiar. He's a hardened scientist who only believes what he can see and test. There are a few moments of levity, like the good doctor's scenes with Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and their homoerotic undertones, stemming from the sexual repression that seems so prevalent in Victorian-era British works. Like the werewolf, the idea of vampirism in this context is really more of a metaphor, best portrayed by Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling). At the beginning of the film, she acts like the standard, straight-backed Victorian English wife. One can imagine that what little intimacy between the two is most likely performed fully clothed in one of their separate rooms. After her encounter with Dracula (Christopher Lee), she acts more sensual and seductive around her husband. As such, the status quo must repress these unnatural sexual urges in their women. Pity, Mina becomes more attractive when she's lustful.

After Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee is possibly the most recognizable Dracula in cinema history. While Lugosi has that Hugarian accent and mysterious air, Lee elevates Dracula's aristocratic aura to its true and deserved elegance. He comes across not as frightening but approachable, refined without being elitist and quite intimidating with the right lighting. Peter Cushing, in my mind, is the ultimate Van Helsing. His cold, English rationalism makes him more believable foe for the Count's equally cold sense of impending doom.

The narrative of Horror of Dracula is a little different from Browning's film or most other incarnations and is a welcomed change. Instead of Helsing having to convince Harker of vampirism, he's already a protégé of Helsing's and in Klusenburg, under the auspice of a private librarian, to kill the Count at the start of the film. In this film, Helsing has to convince Holmwood that Harker's death (nope, not the hero here) is the result of the Count's vampirism. But iconic story elements are still intact like Lucy demanding the garlic flowers be removed from the room and her coming back from the dead.

But it's not all doom and English gloom, there are humorous moments like the aforementioned homoerotic relationship between Holmwood and Helsing and their scenes with the Customs Official and the Undertaker (my favorite character in the whole film). A fun and interesting take on the Dracula legacy and one of the greatest vampire films ever made. Though my knowledge and experience in Hammer films is significantly lacking, this film alone makes me want to plumb the depths of their catalogue of films.

Recent books of note:
The Hammer Story by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes
Hammer Films – A Life in Pictures by Wayne Kinsey
A Thing of Unspeakable Horror by Sinclair McKay

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

M (1931)

Director: Fritz Lang
Writer: Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang

A child murderer is on the loose and terrorizing a small German town. The police are out in force and the criminals band together to bring the maniac to justice.

One of the greatest German films ever made, by one of Germany's finest directors: Fritz Lang. M tells the story of a man, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), who has the uncontrollable urge to kill children. The film, however, is not a whodunit. We know from the start that Beckert is the murderer. The premise alone is chilling and Lang's crafting of the film only adds to the terror. The first death is the most upsetting and sets the tone for the rest of the tragedy to come. As Elsie Beckmann (Inge Langut) is walking home from school a police officer first helps her cross the street when a car nearly hits her. As she walks she's bouncing a ball but stops to throw it in the air and catch it. Lang's camera holds on her for a moment then moves past her to focus on a large pillar with a poster advertising a 10,000 Marks reward and explanation of the murderer's reign of terror. The poster engulfs the frame but Elsie bounces her ball off the poster, that is until a man's shadow comes into frame and hovers over the word "Mörder." His shadow bends over and he talks to Elsie. After cutting to Elise's mother who is waiting on Elsie, growing worried, Lang cuts to the man (whose face we cannot see) whistling and buying Elsie a balloon.

At the end of the scene with Elsie, her mother is leaning through a window calling her name. Lang then cuts to the empty stairwell, the empty attic, Elsie's unused place at the table, all the while we hear Frau Beckmann's voice calling. Then Lang cuts to a little field where Elsie's ball rolls into frame then to a shot of power lines with Elsie's balloon caught in them. We don't have to see her, but we know Elsie is dead. It's all the more upsetting that we just see her ball and balloon, both strong images of childhood and innocence, without Elsie.

M was Lang's first sound feature and his use of sound is what gives the film its potency. Lang uses the killer's whistling the tune "Hall of the Mountain King" to signal his desire to kill. The consistent use of this tune creates an association in the viewers mind such that whenever the tune is heard, anxiety fills the viewer who wonders, "is he going to do it again?" The most troubling result of the aural connection is Lorre's performance. He taps into the psychology of the serial killer but in such a manner that evokes sympathy in the viewer. We see him struggling to suppress his desire. But that tune, a manifestation of his Id, is too great for him to control and thus he kills. However, he gains no satisfying pleasure from his deeds, as he writes to the press demanding that the police capture him. This act is a haunting precursor to real criminals such as the Zodiac Killer of the late 1960s who wrote to San Francisco newspapers, taunting the police.

Apart from a study of psychopathology, M is also a cutting satire of justice. Because Beckert is on the loose, the police are combing the city and the criminals (that is, the nonviolent criminals like con artists, pickpockets, safe crackers, etc.) can't work. The criminal underground assembles to try to track down Beckert as well. Lang is not saying that the police are incompetent, on the contrary they nearly catch Beckert before the criminals. His point is that while these people may be "criminals," they still have a sense of morality against which Beckert has transgressed. Their form of justice is absolute as demonstrated in the kangaroo court. The band of criminals are more than willing to kill Beckert. However, just before the mob descends on Beckert, the authorities intervene and he is found guilty in proper court.

The final shot of the film, the mothers in mourning, is the most heart-breaking because of Frau Beckmann's feeling that it's her fault, and the fault of the other parents, for not having kept a closer eye on their children. Their complacency in society is to blame for the loss of their children just as much as Beckert.