Blu-ray

{Blu-ray Review} Every Day and Hour Now Outrages Are Taking Place: Born for Hell (1976)

“You can kill, or get killed, but you’ve no right to kill yourself.”

Released in the U.S. under the much more lurid (and worse) title Naked Massacre – imagine, just imagine, having a title like Born for Hell at your fingertips and opting for Naked Massacre instead – the logline of Denis Heroux’s 1976 shocker, which recently hit Blu-ray from Severin, is pure exploitation.

Based loosely on the real-life crimes of Richard Speck – which were committed only a decade before the film came out – in order to get that “it could happen to you” inspired by true events text crawl up front, Born for Hell tells the tale of a Vietnam vet set adrift who eventually breaks into the home of eight nurses and methodically torments, brutalizes, and slays them. What sets it apart from any number of other movies with similar premises is the decision to shift the action from Speck’s Chicago to then-contemporary Belfast in the midst of the “Troubles.”

Courtesy of Severin Films

This is all part of a larger effort, on the part of the film, to contextualize the crimes of its Speck-alike as part of “the spirit of uncontrolled violence at loose in the world today,” as one in-camera news reporter puts it. Before we even really meet our killer, he has already been caught in a church bombing and watched a group of children pantomime an execution by firing squad.

Is this intended to suggest that our killer isn’t really responsible for his actions? Or is it, rather, an indication that the system has failed to get him the help he needs, as surely as it has failed his ultimate victims by not protecting them from him? Or is it just a way to further sensationalize its tale of brutality and degradation? You can find plenty of people online taking just about every one of these positions, and I honestly couldn’t say for sure which one I agree with.

What I will say is this, the movie takes a long time getting to the crimes themselves. We spend a lot of time with our antagonist, as he drifts from shelter to bar and back again. We watch him watching the habits of the nurses, see him rescue and then torment an older prostitute. He spends time with a fellow drifter from Vietnam, who suggests that women are all prostitutes, and that our killer is “afraid of women.”

Nor does it spend all of its time on the killer. We meet all the nurses who will become our eventual victims. They get various subplots and backstories. One is in love with one of the others and is trying to find a way to tell her. One is pregnant. One is engaged but her parents don’t approve. One witnesses a death in the street on her way home from the hospital, a result of the violence that is gripping the city.

Courtesy of Severin Films

The film’s brutality toward these women doesn’t start until around the halfway point, and when it does, it follows the playbook of Richard Speck’s actual crimes relatively closely, even while embellishing several points, including the only thing that could possibly justify that Naked Massacre title, when he takes the lesbian nurse and her unaware love interest and attempts to force them to have sex with one another.

These sequences are also extremely hard to watch. Not because of any actual violence or gore – there’s some of both, of course, he does kill eight women before the night is out – but because they are so grounded in a kind of reality. Mathieu Carriere turns in a sweaty, unsettling performance as our killer, alternating convincingly between cold-blooded and pathetic. Among the victims, there are no final girl heroics, and no A24-style histrionics – just people coming apart in various ways, and not always ones that “make sense.” Because our reactions to stress and trauma rarely “make sense.”

There’s no music during these scenes, and precious little to pull you out of the immediacy of the harrowing ordeal the women are undergoing. Off-key dubbing and tempura paint blood can only do so much to break the illusion of this queasy nightmare.

“The tension is repulsive,” Bob McCully writes in his Letterboxd review. “The violence is incredibly sleazy. There’s no music and no hope. […] You are sinking with these women, deeper and deeper into his throat.”

Which is to say that Born for Hell – good or bad – is most definitely an unpleasant watch. And it should be. We can argue whether films like this glorify their sex predator, serial killer antagonists by humanizing them, and we can debate whether the movie has a problem with women or just accurately depicts men who do, but we should all be able to agree that it should probably not be fun to watch even a fictionalized reenactment of a night of hell in which Richard Speck tormented, brutalized, and killed eight real women.