Year Released: 1992
Directed by: Bruce Robinson, Conrad L. Hall
Starring: Andy Garcia, Lance Henriksen, Uma Thurman, Kathy Baker, John Malkovich
(R, 127 min.)
"Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears…" William Wordsworth
Feast on a filet mignon mystery that will pique your intellect and send a shiver up your spine. While the underpinnings of the film are ghastly in themselves – a serial killer has just finished off his eighth victim – the horror does not slap you in the face. Instead it nibbles around the edges of the screen like a malevolent shadow with a hunger that will not die.
The film is beautifully structured with just the right note of dissidence in the form of Andy Garcia’s L.A. cop John Berlin, who seems the only one convinced that a serial killer is on the prowl in his new jurisdiction of Eureka, California. The case builds ever so slowly, doling out clues in small doses as they inevitably lead to a climax.
It all starts routinely enough. Berlin is barely settled into his new digs when the crackle of a police monitor indicates a body found at the local dump. It is a derelict with his throat cut, but his wound is “well rehearsed,” with three trial cuts before the big one, pointing toward a suicide having had trouble getting his nerve up for the fatal slash. Sad, tragic even, but certainly not a focus for the police, except that the knife is nowhere to be found. Further searching does not unearth the weapon, but it does turn up two dead dogs and then “something horrible,” a hand. And next a bloody brassiere.
Berlin noses around some and begins to see a link between the hand and a case labeled “Jennifer” from a couple of years earlier, a body found with no head and no hands. Only no one really wants to talk about it, since the six- month investigation sucked up tons of time, manpower and money and never even identified the victim, let alone the killer.
Berlin, who smokes nonstop and clicks his cigarette lighter incessantly when he’s thinking, is still the uptight LA cop in spite of his move to the hinterlands, and he puts all of that manic energy into solving the case, decorating his office with a manikin wearing the found brassiere and a black wig to match the dark hairs on the hand. A magnified blow up of the hand is taped to his wall, where he worries about the many scars on the fingertips. Later that night, it hits him. The scars are from reading Braille. The victim was blind,
Tracking down a blind girl named Amanda who has not been heard from in six weeks, Berlin and his old friend and boss, Freddy Ross (Lance Henriksen), go to a local blind school to interview the last person to be with her, Helena Robertson (Uma Thurman), who teaches music and cello there. Of course, Helena is blind, too, and the interview, according to Ross, who seems to be along just to humor his friend, is essentially worthless. At first it seems Ross is exactly right. Their blind eyewitness quietly mocks any notions they might have of any sixth sense of hers leaping out to help them.
Is it his doggedness or Helena’s quiet grace and beauty that has Berlin continuing the conversation over tea, while an impatient Ross rolls his eyes in protest? But then she remembers a few nuggets. The man who left with Amanda seemed comfortable around blind people, even shaking hands as blind people do, with two hands, and he smelled of cigarettes, just like Berlin. He seemed short of breath, used breath freshener, and his name might have been John.
Before he knows it, Berlin is just as involved with his witness as he is with the case, and he must work doubly hard to make sure she is not the next victim.
Not only is the plot well crafted and suspenseful, but the characters and atmosphere enhance our edgy awareness. Eureka is dark and wet, more like Seattle than sunny south California, steeping the scenes in the damp misery of rain, which makes the ghastly discoveries at the soggy landfill all the more loathsome. The Shasta Trinity Institute where Helena lives and works is absolutely Gothic, a sterile catacomb of dark hallways and lonely passages, especially during the Christmas vacation when it seems primarily populated only by Helena and an especially creepy resident janitor.
Andy Garcia hits just the right notes of nervous intensity, warmth, and vulnerability, while Thurman plays her role with a shy pluckiness that is reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s preyed upon blind girl in Wait Until Dark. John Malkovich wears his coldly arrogant police inquisitor role like a velvet glove as he works to convince us that John Berlin is not the innocent he purports to be.
Why settle for the usual adolescent gore and pointless plot fabrication when you can savor the subtle suspense offered in this classic gem.
Here are a few more classics for the suspense connoisseur, all from the grand master, Hitchcock:
While things move too quickly for our principle characters to sit down to any leisurely dinners, they do mention order out pizzas, and a roast chicken that John Berlin promises to cook for Helena, before confessing that he knows next to nothing about cooking. And then there’s the Christmas party turkey Freddy Ross’s sweet wife Margie serves. I certainly can round up some past recipes for these, my Greek pizza from Seattle being something not to miss.
But for something never mentioned before I will have to be a bit more creative. I have chosen a delightful variation of cheesecake, made with fresh California persimmons and walnuts. The recipe is from Eureka, where I’m sure all that rain increases the yield.
2 cups chopped walnuts
1/3 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons melted butter
2 cups pureed persimmons
3 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 1/4 cups white sugar
3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/4 cups sour cream
3 tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C).
Chop the walnuts in a food processor until fine. Mix together in a bowl with the brown sugar and melted butter. Press the mixture into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan.
Bake in the preheated oven for 12 minutes. Set aside to cool completely.
Combine the persimmons, cream cheese, 1 1/4 cup sugar, 3/4 cup sour cream, cinnamon, and ginger in a food processor. Blend in processor until smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape edges of food processor bowl with a spatula. Add the eggs, one at a time, and process until fully incorporated. Pour the mixture over the cooled crust.
Bake in the preheated oven until mostly set with the center being slightly jiggly, 60 to 75 minutes.
While the cheesecake is baking, whisk together the 1 1/4 sour cream, 3 tablespoon white sugar, and vanilla extract. Spread evenly over the cheesecake while still hot and return to oven another 10 minutes. Allow to cool completely. Loosely cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate 4 to 8 hours or overnight before serving.
Recipe Source: allrecipes.com