Jan 9, 2014


Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time. 

Dir. Patrick Stettner
Miramax / IFC Films
United States

“You're the kind of guy who needs proof. The hell of it is, we're only as loved as we think we are.”

We so often see “based on a true story” splashed across marketing efforts for genre films being released even today that it’s almost become a cliché. Not helping is that films using this claim have become increasingly absurd to the point that when we see that “true story” disclaimer, we’ve begun to accept it as the complete opposite. Even The Conjuring – a film I admittedly loved – exploited that pledge of authenticity. After all, since Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson were playing real people who really existed and who really investigate(d) paranormal phenomenon, I suppose they were right to cover every inch of their trailers and posters with the words “true story.” But when does that become a fair marketing ploy? What makes “it” a true story? That it actually happened, or that someone merely claimed it did?

What if it’s both?

That’s The Night Listener.

Robin Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a celebrated author and host of a late-night radio show called Noone at Night. Things aren’t going so well for him, as he’s currently separated from his longtime partner Jess (the always wonderful Bobby Canavale) and this separation is severely affecting his ability to continue on with his show. Instead, he dives headfirst into his work, trying to find something to distract him. Ashe (Joe Morton), a literary publisher and friend of Gabriel's, gives him a raw, unpublished manuscript; written by a teenage boy named Pete (Rory Culkin), it is a recounting of the disgusting abuse he suffered at the hands of his biological parents – his being forced to “star” in dozens of videos in which he was raped by friends of his parents. Riddled with disease following his abuse, Pete only has a couple months left to live, and in the meantime has been adopted by his social worker, Donna Logand (Toni Collete). Gabriel and Pete share an unlikely but sweet bond. Gabriel offers fatherly advice when he can, and Pete describes his day-to-day trials and tribulations of his hospital life. The two trade letters and phone calls,  (ahem...Playboys), and talk smack on each other – just how friends would. Gabriel even receives a photo of Pete in a red sweater and simple bluejeans, finally giving a face to the name.

After Gabriel corresponds regularly with Pete and Donna on the phone for over a year – a year! – Jess hears Donna and Pete talk over speakerphone and plants a seed in Gabriel’s head that sets The Night Listener’s events in motion: Jess is pretty confident that Pete and Donna are the same person – that Donna is fucking with Gabriel’s mind, going at great lengths to convince him that Pete is real. Gabriel becomes obsessed with discovering the truth: if Pete Logand actually exists, or if Gabriel is one of the many victims of a psychologically unstable charlatan desperate for attention and trying to escape a history of abuse that perhaps did happen after all.

There are dozens of people who know them.


Doctors. There's a nurse who comes and stays at the house.

You've only been told that.

What about the photo?

It could be anybody.

There's ways to prove this...

Echoing what I said in my Unsung Horrors write-up for Insomnia, I love it when Robin Williams goes serious. With that, this, and One Hour Photo, Williams has consistently proven he can do dark drama just as easily as comedy (and far better). I wish I knew what it was about him as a performer that allows him to carefully shed the manic screwball persona he's had since the days of "Mork & Mindy" so I could more ably analyze what it is about him I love, but I've got nothing. The guy just is – he's just as at-home bouncing off the walls and doing his army of weird (kinda stupid) voices as he is using just his eyes and his sad smile to convey a hundred different emotions at once. He's so good, and perhaps underrated, though thankfully filmmakers keep giving him the chance to defy convention and go for the throat. It's resulted in one much deserved Oscar for the actor already (for Good Will Hunting).

It's difficult to applaud young Rory for his role as Pete, as he hardly ever appears on screen. Because of the whole "is he/isn't he real?" approach, it was wise to limit his physical appearance, except in scenes in which he is corresponding with Gabriel over the phone, and Gabriel is using his imagination to fill in the gaps and paint this picture of Pete he's attempting to assemble using random bits of information gleamed from their conversations. Most of his "presence" is his voice on the phone, and the filmmakers do a great job of switching back and forth between Culkin and Toni Collete, making us unsure as to who is who, and when.

The Night Listener, however, is Toni Collete's film. She really is a powerhouse here – one minute she has our every sympathy, and the next we can't stand seeing how far she's willing to perpetuate her lie; at times we're nearly demanding the truth because we just can't take it anymore. "You've got a fucking lie for everything," Gabriel even tells Donna in an ugly confrontation. If it is a very unglamorous role. Her clothes are too big and her hair is greasy. Her "blind look," consisting of thick sunglasses, foggy blue contact lenses, and unkempt appearance create the look of a shut-in – one who never ventures out except to visit her normal stops and collect the sympathies of the folks in town who know her. She spends most of her role asking for and inviting this sympathy, but when she wants to be scary, she can be scary. I'll point to the scene towards the end in which Donna teases Gabriel with the "ending" his story requires and lures him to a motel – this after after she's emptied her Wisconsin house and moved, unable to be found. As he cowers in a dark corner and watches her leave, she slowly turns to look – look – at him out of the corner of her eye, as planes at the nearby airport scream in the background.

Chills every time.

Besides for “based on a true story,” another oft-overused and sometimes completely inappropriate phrase that inundates genre film marketing, once a critic utters the magic words, are “a Hitchcockian thriller.” If said phrase were reserved for actual students of Hitchcock, like Brian De Palma, or Richard Franklin, it could be forgiven. I think critics sometime forget that Hitchcock wasn’t just a storyteller, but a pretty renowned and stylistic director, too, which means it’s nonsense to describe any film that has a mystery as “Hitchcockian.” Cases involving mistaken identity, femme fatales, or quirky and potentially dangerous leads are hallmarks of Hitchcock filmography, let’s not shit ourselves, but that still doesn’t give you the right to label any old thing with the master’s name. Just because you can locate the most tenuous connection between a modern film’s gimmick and tie it back to that same trope once utilized by Hitchcock himself – sorry – that doesn’t suddenly mean the new Liam Neeson film in which he tears across Berlin kicking ass and trying to remember his name is a Hitchcockian thriller.

Even when filmmakers subject audiences to a story not as compelling as it should be, I am always struck much more by said filmmakers’ abilities to successfully channel the look and feel of a Hitchcock film. De Palma, no matter how outlandish his films have become, has this down in spades. He likely created the ultimate homage to Hitchcock with his 1992 film Raising Cain, turning John Lithgow into a psycho long before "Dexter" ever did. The Night Listener director Patrick Stettner seems a student of Hitchcock, but perhaps in less an obvious way. I love that a film with so much character interaction is still experienced solely through Gabriel's eyes and brought to life through his imagination. When Gabriel pictures Pete during a phone call, the boy is wearing the red sweater and bluejeans he's also wearing in his photo. And the first time Gabriel speaks to Donna, she doesn't have a face until Pete jokes that he's "got a thing for redheads" – and that's when we first see Donna, red hair and all. It's subtle, but effective if you realize the trick.

Every inch of The Night Listener is drenched in cold and pale tones. Effortlessly, it ups the bleak quotient and decreases any feelings of hope or joy. Pretty appropriate for a film in which not just Gabriel, and not just Gabriel's friends, but even a small Wisconsin town all fall victim to the lies of a deeply troubled woman. And every single one of them were in a small way guilty of helping to spread the lies and bring them legitimacy. It's interesting in that it forces us to take a step back and consider just how many things we hear on a day-to-day basis are actually falsities – either big or small – and how often we repeat them without actually knowing the truth.

The Night Listener is about escapism, and what we're willing to do and say – to ourselves and to each other – to perpetuate a lie and try to make things less unbearable. Jess confronts Gabriel in the film and demands he tell him where the couple were when Jess told Gabriel he was HIV-positive. Gabriel responds, "in the park in front of the guys playing drums." The real place was a crummy diner somewhere in the city. But Gabriel's version was more romantic, and it reads better on paper. A white lie, perhaps, but a lie all the same. Perhaps more telling, there's a scene on the plane while Gabriel is flying out to give Pete and Donna a surprise visit – fed up with the excuses being lobbed his way about why his previous invitation to visit them is being constantly rain-checked. Gabriel's seat mate on the plane asks him the purpose of his visit. Gabriel responds he's flying out to visit family: his son. Because he needs this. Now that Jess needs Gabriel a little less, Gabriel needs this idea of a new family more. It's no longer fact-checking the events of a pretty horrifying book – it's yearning for family, and not wanting to believe that's the last thing waiting for him at the airline's departure gate.

We tell lies because they're preferable to the truth, but sometimes we tell lies because the truth is just too painful to endure. We all wish we could live in the fantasy world we create for ourselves perhaps for only minute at a time  – where the person for whom we pine wants us just as much, or the struggles we daily face are no longer existent. While nearly none of us are willing to hold onto lies and bring them to artificial life like Donna Logand, the only thing stopping us is a lack of conviction and the imagination to do so. And that's kind of scary.

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