In The Midnight Meat Train, the recent film inspired by a Clive Barker short story, a demanding New York City gallery owner (Brooke Shields) prods a photographer (Bradley Cooper) to make his images edgier. “The next time you find yourself at the heart of the city,” she tells him, “stay put, be brave, keep shooting. Then come see me.” In pursuit of those photographs, the artist crosses paths with a serial killer who butchers his victims on the subway—and eventually succeeds the killer in his role.
Cooper’s character is the latest in a long line of horror-film protagonists to go from artist to villain. From Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), in which a filmmaker murders a series of young women, to John Waters’s Female Trouble (1974), in which the gun-toting performance artist screams, “Who wants to die for art?” before picking off a few audience members, such characters often cause as much destruction as creation. In André De Toth’s House of Wax (1953), a disfigured man makes “sculptures” by dipping his human victims in wax. Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood(1959) has its murderous sculptor coat his victims in clay.
Why is the line between artist and villain so easily crossed? “Artists are often depicted in movies as crackpots—from Lust for Life to Ed Harris’s Pollock,” says Joe Morgenstern, film critic for the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a small step from the extravagance of crackpotism to the theatricality of villainy.”
Jeanine Basinger, chair of the film studies department at Wesleyan University, agrees: “Pop culture has long told us that artists are madmen.” But to Basinger, the artist’s status as a creative person also helps make him a believable evildoer. “Audiences like to feel that villains are not like them,” she says. “The more exceptional a person is, the more likely he is to be a villain.”
On his blog at the Guardian Web site, art critic Jonathan Joneshas speculated that “art leads to awfulness” in many horror films because in exploring limits, it is predisposed to dwelling on the dark side. “Madness has been celebrated in artists,” he writes, “because it is art’s vocation to venture into the night.”
Barker, a prolific writer of horror stories and the director of Hellraiser(1987), also acknowledges that art’s dark, destructive nature connects it to horror. “When you’re making a work of art, you essentially throw away a lot of life,” he says.
But sometimes, even in horror films, art triumphs over carnage. The unraveled identical-twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons) at the center of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) enlist a sculptor to help them execute their menacing “Gynaecological Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women.” While those instruments are never put to the evil purpose for which they were intended, they succeed in a far less sinister way. They find their way into the front window of an art gallery.