Bite Size: Naked Massacre/Born For Hell (1976)

Despite kicking around for years buried in the bottom of bargain bin box sets as Naked Massacre—a recut and retitling for the US home video release— this 1976 film was originally titled Die Hinrichtung before receiving the largest of its limited theatrical releases as Born For Hell. An international co-production funded during the Canuxploitation tax shelter boom, the film is very loosely based on the true crime case of mass murderer Richard Speck.

Instead of a hard drinking career criminal in Chicago, Born For Hell‘s protagonist is Cain Adamson, a teetotaling Vietnam vet stuck in Belfast until he can catch another ship to take him back home to the United States. The Troubles are in full swing, and even his search for sanctuary in a church is interrupted by a bombing. Shell shocked and shit out of luck, he aimlessly wanders through the streets. During the day he idles by the pinball machine in a grungy dive bar. At night, he lays his head down in a bare bones homeless shelter.

Cain’s entire affect is withdrawn and despondent, desensitized not just to violence, but divorced from his own essential humanity. He’s a stranger in a strange land, terrified of where he’s been and what awaits him when he finally makes his way home. Yet for all of the horrors he’s seen, women seem to terrify him most of all. He attempts kindness by saving a prostitute from being robbed by dockworkers, only to brutally humiliate her when she questions his reticence toward her aggressive offer of quid pro quo sex.

Intercut with the soldier’s grim routine are the more lively habits of a group of young nurses. Often on call, their dormitory is across the street from one of his regular haunts. Even with no knowledge of the case the film draws inspiration from, it is obvious that there is something deeply unclean in his obsessive fixation on the women in that residence.

When the kindly Amy (Sweet Movie‘s Carole Laure) offers him some food they have left over from a birthday party, she inadvertently opens the door to the entire house’s demise. Somehow, Amy has become a stand in for the soldier’s wife in his decaying mind, despite no real resemblance to the photograph he trots out for sympathy. That bitch cheated on him, and now everyone’s got to pay.

Born For Hell is credited to director Denis Héroux, but the film’s star has stated in interviews that the actual day to day shooting on set was handled by long time cinematographer and script co-writer Géza von Radványi. Whatever the division of labor may have been, the pair turn in a film that is visually as bleak as its subject matter. There’s tons of smoke and shadow and fog, chainlink fences and combat boots often lurking at the edges of the frame. The only light and color in the film is in the home of the nurses, with brightly sparkling birthday candles and delicate Gunne Sax print decor underlining the joie de vivre of lovely young women who should have had their whole lives ahead of them.

Mathieu Carrière’s performance as Cain is very well measured considering the brutality of the subject matter. He’s blank and brittle in just the right proportions before becoming more explosive and unhinged in the film’s home invasion back half. What’s wrong with Cain starts behind Carrière’s eyes, and the gradual build up is what gives the film its best moments of creeping dread. Of the nurses, Carole Laure’s Amy gets the bulk of the characterization, but the international crew of actresses assembled —including Baba Yaga‘s Ely Galleani and Emmanuelle‘s Christine Boisson— all do well to inspire audience empathy despite the parts being more archetypes than fully realized individuals.

What sinks Born For Hell from realizing its larger ambitions is a grating tendency to cudgel the audience with clunky symbolism and obvious surface texts to illuminate its rather rudimentary larger themes. The main character’s name is Cain, and the violence of the time and place is alluded to, if not outright part of the narrative, in pretty much every outdoor scene. There’s tons of exposition broadcast network reports of crime and war on every visible television and entire set pieces centered in front of billboards reading “STOP VIOLENCE”.

Shortly afterward, a Vietnamese street hustler is introduced into the narrative, mainly to offer a lecture about the soldier’s fear of women. He also gestures toward Cain’s crotch, noting his marriage failed because he wouldn’t touch a woman “with that or with your knife”. After Cain goes on his rape and murder spree, a background character has a line of dialog explicitly comparing him “to that guy in Chicago” who “only got five”.

Born For Hell had a legitimate shot at an effective faux cinéma vérité character study. Every time the filmmakers’ brute force basic ideas, it ruins the realistic illusion. Whatever larger message that could have been becomes another pretentious edgelord shrug, expecting us to find profundity in a single minded snarl that it’s an awful world.

1986’s Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer is a vastly superior exploitation take on the true crime adjacent formula, nailing the grimly disillusioned affect that Born For Hell only postures at. Perhaps this is because Henry director John McNaughton —a Chicago native who experienced the public terror in the aftermath of the real Richard Speck’s crimes— recognizes that the truly jaded don’t feel the need to editorialize about their performative apathy. The bleakest outcome is when the depths of human depravity become too mundane to require comment, just the indifferent documentation of the camera’s unblinking eye.

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