Jennifer Lynch’s Chained shows us that horror films made by women don’t necessarily have to be about women; on the other hand, the perspective that, as a woman, Lynch brings to the serial killer subgenre is unique.
Shot in just fourteen days on a budget of $700,000, Chained tells the story of Bob, a middle-aged taxi driver (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) who kidnaps and keeps as a prisoner in his farmhouse a nine-year-old boy, Tim (Evan Bird), whose mother he has murdered. Bob attempts to take the boy under his wing and teach him to become a serial killer like himself. As Tim grows to be a teenager (the older Tim is played by Australian actor Eamon Farron), he tries to resist the malign influence of his adoptive ‘father’ who regularly abducts women to rape and kill them. But when Bob brings home a pretty college student called Angie (Conor Leslie) as Tim’s ‘first time’, things start to change.
As her fourth psychological thriller/horror movie, Lynch made Chained in 2012 after Boxing Helena (1993), Surveillance (2008), and Hisss (2010). Since Chained, Lynch has directed episodes of The Walking Dead (2015) and the forthcoming mystery-thriller, A Fall from Grace (2016), which stars her father, David. On its first release, Boxing Helena was critically reviled, but its central premise of a person held captive by a ‘loved one’ is intriguingly reflected in the plot of Chained. Love in Chained isn’t the romantic kind but familial love: it is very much about fathers and sons, and how fathers try to mould their sons in their own image - it’s the ultimate ‘bad dad’ movie!
Chained started out as a screenplay by Damian O’Donnell (not the one who directed East is East) rooted firmly in the torture porn style. Lynch freely admits that she signed on for Chained just so she could work again after the disastrous Hisss, a film taken out of her control during editing (Lynch’s traumatic experience making Hisss was captured in the documentary Despite the Gods). However, she took O’Donnell’s script and rewrote it herself to reduce its gratuitous violence in favour of a sharper focus on the psychology of the characters: her ambition was to direct a film about ‘how monsters are made’. In this, Lynch succeeds brilliantly: Chained is arguably the most intense study of male psychopathy since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986).
Chained opens with the nine-year-old Tim alone in the isolated farmhouse, looking through a tin of drivers’ licenses. We know immediately that something’s afoot: the photos on the licenses are all of different women. The front door smashes open, and Bob enters, dragging with him a girl who is bloody and dishevelled. He throws her to the floor, and there the scene fades. Lynch frames the action in a distancing long shot, to alienate us. She uses this strategy throughout the film.
Much of the action of Chained takes place in this farmhouse, in the kitchen area of this pre-title prologue. Chained is very much an interior film; but it never feels less than cinematic, although it is as claustrophobic a chamber piece as you are likely to see.
A title card tells us it is eight weeks earlier, and we start the story proper as Tim and his mum (played by Julia Ormond) take a trip to the movies. Dad Brad (Jake Weber) has told them to get a taxi home; but tragically for Tim, the taxi they get into happens to be driven by a monster. Pulling off the highway, Bob takes them to his own house and makes short work of Ormond in front of her son. Lynch leaves us with the image of Tim trapped inside the taxi, hysterically smacking the window with his hands as his mother is dragged away through the garage, through a door and out of sight. It is the last time he will ever see her. When Bob returns sometime later, still spattered with the woman’s blood, it is with the news that Mum is dead, and that Tim had better get used to the fact.
Bob lays down the rules. Tim’s job from now on is to clean the house: “you will serve me breakfast every morning for the rest of your life”. Tim also has to assist in the crimes by cutting out news stories of missing people, store cash from the victims, and keep the driving licences safe. From now on, the farmhouse is Tim’s world. Bob renames him ‘Rabbit’ (also Lynch’s working title for the film), and when Tim tries to escape one day through the attic window, Bob is ready for him. He attaches a long chain to Tim/Rabbit that allows him to move around the house but not flee it.
We cut to nine years later. Tim is now almost fully grown up, and a strange uneasy bond has developed between them. In his own twisted way, Bob can’t help but take a paternal interest in the boy: “You are not going to be ignorant”, he tells him, “you are going to study and you are going to learn.” What Bob gives him to learn, though, is an anatomy textbook so that Tim/Rabbit can find out all about the human body, to be an efficient killer just like Bob.
Lynch cast Vincent D’Onofrio because of his ability to play characters who are essentially damaged children, and D’Onofrio gives an astonishing performance as the lumbering, stuttering, semi-literate taxi driver-cum-serial killer. D’Onofrio’s Bob is an amalgam of numerous true-life cab driver murderers - David Berkowitz (the Son of Sam), Glen Edward Rogers (the Casanova Killer), Russell Elwood - all of whom used their taxis for finding victims. This lends the character a chilling believability on the surface. On the inside, Bob is not that far away from Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket (and there are even shades of Men in Black’s Edgar ‘The Bug’ in his performance). He is not a natural born killer; he’s made into one through the cycle of violence perpetuated in his family.
Although much of Chained is from Tim’s point of view, Lynch also takes us into the mind of Bob. In an early scene, Bob picks up a father and son in his cab. The pair has an argument, and the domineering father strikes the son. A flashback shows us that Bob had a tyrant for a father who kept the family in a constant state of terror. As the oldest son, Bob bore the brunt of the abuse. When he reached his teenage years, Bob’s father regarded Bob as a threat to his own position as head of the family. So Father forced Bob to have sex with his mother to stop him becoming a ‘man’. It is Bob’s psychosexual problems caused by his father and his family that made him into a sociopath.
Lynch and D’Onofrio invite us to see Bob as a pathetic character rather than as a monster because even Bob wants to be loved and understood. But what’s horrifying is the way that Bob tries to force Tim/Rabbit into the same way of being as himself; he knows only relationships based on pain, damage, and abuse.
For the most part, Chained is a two-hander between D’Onofrio and Farron. The on-screen chemistry between the two actors is electric. Farron plays Tim/Rabbit as an observer, someone who has learned not to put a foot wrong, because upsetting Bob means risking a beating, possibly far worse. But they are also very much the odd couple; they bicker like a father and son who don’t like each other but are forced together because they simply have no-one else. And having somebody - anybody - is better than having nobody. So the sense of identification between them grows, and we start to wonder if Tim/Rabbit may eventually buckle under Bob’s will. Stockholm syndrome is a psychological condition that can develop in people who are held hostage for long periods of time. They start to form psychological alliances with their captors as a means to survival; we begin to think that this might be happening to Tim/Rabbit in his relationship with his captor, Bob.
When Bob brings Angie home to be Tim’s ‘graduation present’ so comes the crunch. Lynch keeps us guessing as to which way Tim/Rabbit will jump. And later, when Bob allows Tim out of the house to accompany him on a hunt, there is a moment that mirrors the earlier image of the nine-year-old Tim trapped in the taxi as his mother is taken away to be murdered. It’s a bookend of sorts for Tim - one that marks the end of childhood, the loss of innocence; and the moment where Tim has to decide upon his own identity.
Lynch suffered problems with the American censor board - the MPAA - with Chained. The film was originally rated as an NC-17, which can cause problems for a movie because, in the States, the NC-17 is still associated with the old X certificate, which was reserved for sexually explicit films: some advertisers and cinemas refuse to show NC-17 films. Boxing Helena had been rated NC-17, but changed to an R after appeal. Lynch attempted to appeal for the rating of Chained to be changed in the same way, but the decision was upheld. Ultimately, Lynch had to cut the film in order to secure an R. However, the cuts were minimal: reductions were made to a throat slashing scene (the uncut version of the scene is included as an extra ‘alternate scene’ in the DVD release). But anyone who has seen the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006) knows that these things are often political: explicit or ‘disturbing’ sex and violence in independent films are often treated differently to the casual violence of big Hollywood studio pictures. As Lynch protests: “Apparently, it’s okay for teenagers to see girls getting their breasts chopped off and their heads lopped off if it’s funny and slick and sexy, but it’s not okay for them to see what real violence is and how hideously quiet and clumsy and haphazard it can be”. The delays to Chained caused by these censorship problems ultimately delayed the film’s release, and Anchor Bay Entertainment ended up putting it out straight to DVD.
Chained was only screened theatrically at film festivals, where it has occasionally been programmed in a double-bill with her father’s Eraserhead. It’s tempting to see Chained as some kind of riposte to the elder Lynch (critics speculate that Eraserhead was influenced by David’s terror of fathering Jennifer); especially when you consider Chained’s controversial twist ending, which undermines our assumption that it was pure fate that brought Tim to be Bob’s captive. The film seems to be saying that even good ‘normal’ families can be tainted by abuse. It’s the kind of ending that seems to tie things up a little too neatly on first viewing, but becomes perfectly logical when you later come to review all the events that preceded it.
But Chained is about much more than just the relationship between a father and child: it’s rumination on the way people can come to identify with the aggressor rather than the victim; how the cycle of violence is perpetuated by society’s patriarchs. Not a popular message, for sure, especially amongst those newspaper critics who hold ‘traditional’ values (The Daily Telegraph called it ‘a lurid disgrace’) - but one that makes for powerful, disturbing, viewing nonetheless.
Lynch has promised a special director’s cut of Chained, restoring some scenes that were cut in order to satisfy her contract with Anchor Bay Entertainment that stipulated a film of no longer than 90 minutes. Let’s hope that Lynch secures the funding to make this happen. Chained deserves to be better known than it is. It’s Lynch’s best film to date, and one of the finest horror movies so far to make it past the Hollywood glass ceiling.
CHAINED will be holding viewers captive when it screens on Horror Channel on August 22nd. Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freeview 70, Freesat 138.