I first saw Servando González’s 1965 film The Fool Killer (aka El asesino de tontos) almost twenty years ago and it’s haunted me ever since. The film features Anthony Perkins in one of his best roles and I got the urge to watch it again last year while I was obsessing over Perkins’ music career. For some unknown reason The Fool Killer isn’t available on DVD yet so I had to purchase a used VHS copy of the film to see it.
I shouldn’t have been too surprised that The Fool Killer was unavailable on DVD because Mexican director Servando González is almost unheard of in the United States. I haven’t had the opportunity to see any of the director’s other films myself so my own appreciation of his work revolves around my deep affection for The Fool Killer, but I was disappointed to learn that the director had passed away in October of last year. Servando González’s death appears to have gone almost completely unnoticed by the film community except in Latin America. This is really unfortunate because The Fool Killer clearly shows that González was a talented filmmaker with the ability to create wonderfully atmospheric films that could remain with viewers long after they had ended. Trying to find any noteworthy information about The Fool Killer is nearly impossible, but I thought I’d share some of my own thoughts about Servando González’s exceptional film in an effort to broaden appreciation of his work.
The Fool Killer is an extremely dark and ominous film starring thirteen year-old actor Edward Albert as a deeply troubled young orphan named George. After a brief opening montage filled with idyllic images of the American countryside, the film begins with George receiving a nasty beating from his foster parents while they recite Bible verses at him in an effort to soften the blows. Poor George blames himself for the beatings he receives because he thinks that the “foolish things” he’s done shouldn’t go unpunished. But dropping a butter churn and playing with dandelions are clearly not acts worthy of the beatings he gets. After the physical pain wears off, the emotional scars become evident when young George decides that he’s had enough abuse and heads out into the world on his own. His odyssey will take him through the dusty back roads of rural Tennessee where he’ll encounter an unusual cast of characters who consciously and unconsciously guide him on his journey.
The film is based on a novel of the same name written by Helen Eustis, but the legend of the “Fool Killer” was first written down by author O. Henry (aka William Sydney Porter). I’m not sure how much of the legend is based on fact or if the whole concept is a work of fiction conjured up by the author’s absinthe fueled imagination, but according to O. Henry his tale of the Fool Killer was based on an old southern myth, “like Santa Claus and Jack Frost and General Prosperity and all those concrete conceptions that are supposed to represent an idea that Nature has failed to embody.”
In his short tale O. Henry’s also tells us that the Fool Killer was a “terrible old man, in gray clothes, with a long, ragged, gray beard, and reddish, fierce eyes” who “come stumping up the road in a cloud of dust, with a white oak staff in his hand” and would “kill anyone who perpetrates some particularly monumental piece of foolishness.”
A similar tale is told to young George when he stumbles across a filthy shack inhabited by a hard drinking old man who calls himself Dirty Jim. Dirty Jim lives alone and when he meets George he invites the boy to live with him. These two unlikely companions develop a friendship that is occasionally disrupted by Dirty Jim’s drinking and unsanitary living habits. Dirty Jim is played brilliantly by actor Henry Hull who was 75 years old at the time. Hull was an accomplished stage actor but today he’s mostly remembered for his film work including the starring role in the first werewolf film made by Universal Studios, Werewolf of London (1935). Hull went on to appear in many memorable films such as Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941) and William Dieterle exceptional Portrait of Jennie (1948), but The Fool Killer provided Henry Hull with a role that the 75-year-old actor could really sink his teeth into and he makes the most of his screen time.
After George suddenly becomes ill, Dirty Jim decides to leave him with a female neighbor and her daughter. George isn’t particularly happy about his circumstances and he becomes obsessed by the tale of the Fool Killer who Dirty Jim described as being tall and thin while “carrying a sharp chopper” (scythe). Like the monster in O’Henry’s tale, the Fool Killer in the film is said to wander the earth ridding the world of foolish people and George begins to fear that the Fool Killer will come for him some day.
When George sets out on his own again he meets up with a tall and lanky Civil War veteran named Milo (Anthony Perkins). In the dead of night George mistakes Milo’s menacing shadow for the dreaded Fool Killer, but after the two meet and get to know one another they quickly become friends. Unbeknownst to George, Milo is suffering from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to the devastating and disturbing things he experienced during the Civil War. Anthony Perkins does an extraordinary job of making Milo a character who the audience both sympathizes with and fears. The actor was incredibly adapt at playing psychologically damaged young men and if you enjoy Perkins’ work in other films such as Fear Strikes Out (1956), Psycho (1960) and Pretty Poison (1968), you’ll find his performance in The Fool Killer just as impressive.
As the boy’s relationship with Milo deepens, it also begins to suffer due to the soldier’s troubled past and invisible war wounds. Milo is angry at the world and doesn’t suffer fools lightly. He finds fault in everything and seems to enjoy expressing his dissatisfaction, which is easy to understand, but makes young George uncomfortable and confused. George looks to everyone for acceptance and clearly wants to form some kind of family bond with anyone who will give him the time of day. The film hints at the abuse young George has obviously endured, but this aspect of the film is never exploited. We do sense that George’s guilty conscious over perceived wrongs (or “foolishness”) often gets the best of him and they seem to manifest in his own feelings of shame clearly rooted in the abuse he’s suffered. The complex dynamic between these two unlikely companions comes to a head in a beautifully shot scene that takes place inside a religious tent revival meeting that resembles a side show from some macabre circus. George insists that he and Milo attend the rival meeting and get “saved” but the situation only manages to stir up some deep sense of shame in George as well as seething resentment in Milo who finally becomes totally unhinged under all the strain. As Milo falls apart he begins to transform into the mythical Fool Killer that haunts George’s nightmares.
I often have trouble relating to child actors, but Edward Albert is extremely believable as little George. Albert made his acting debut in The Fool Killer and many of his scenes are surprisingly authentic. He is often forgotten today, but Edward Albert appeared in some interesting films throughout his career such as Butterflies Are Free (1972), Midway (1976), The Greek Tycoon (1978), The Squeeze (1978), Galaxy of Terror (1981) and Butterfly (1982). His role in The Fool Killer is especially noteworthy because of the range and depth of emotion he was able to convey at such a young age.
Servando González really does an incredible job of evoking the rural south in his film. He was able to capture the undeniable beauty of the pastoral countryside as well as the eccentricities of the people who inhabit it, but he doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the South that often take the shape of religious zealots nor does he ignore the deep scars left in that part of the country from the hard fought Civil War. Like Charles Laughton’s magnificent Night of the Hunter (1955), which The Fool Killer undoubtedly took inspiration from, González’s film is drenched in American Gothic imagery and he was able to convey an almost suffocating sense of dread that’s not easy to forget.
Anyone familiar with Mark Twains’ stories of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn will also immediately recognize some of their classic character traits in young George. In many ways George seems to be a composite of both Tom and Huck. George even narrates a good portion of the film and I find it impossible to shake the image of Huck Finn that thirteen year-old actor Edward Albert’ invokes. The original author of The Fool Killer as well as script writers Morton Fine and David Friedkin undoubtedly owe a bit of debt to Mark Twain as well as, but it’s interesting to note that Helen Eustis published her original novel in 1954. An entire year before Laughton’s Night of the Hunter was released.
Besides Servando González’s impressive direction and Álex Phillips Jr.’s beautiful cinematography, The Fool Killer also features a memorable score by award winning Mexican composer Gustavo César Carrión. Outside of the typical musical cues usually found in Hollywood films of the same period, the music in The Fool Killer is often eerie, rustic and unsettling. The discordant sounds that permeate the soundtrack perfectly express the dark and grungy tone of the film. After watching The Fool Killer a second time I was occasionally reminded of Neil Young’s effective score for Jim Jarmusch’s impressive 1995 film Dead Man. I suspect that Neil Young may have been inspired by some of Gustavo César Carrión’s score for The Fool Killer when he was composing the music for Jarmusch’s movie.
In a strange coincidence (or is it?), it’s worth noting that Lee Marvin starred in a televised version of The Fool Killer in 1956 for Kraft Television Theatre. I was unable to find any substantial information about the televised adaptation that featured Lee Marvin, but hopefully it will surface someday. Since Jim Jarmusch’s appreciation of Lee Marvin is well known I wouldn’t be surprised if he was also aware of Marvin’s television role in The Fool Killer along with Servando González’s film of the same name.
Currently The Fool Killer is only available on VHS and used copies can be found selling at Amazon for about $22, but I’d love to see Servando González’s film get restored and released on DVD since the quality of the Republic Pictures video is abysmal. Unfortunately most of the cast and crew of the film are dead so information about the movie will continue to be hard to come by, but The Fool Killer would be a wonderful addition to Criterion’s DVD library. Considering the limited amount of films made by Mexican directors that are available on Criterion DVD, I think The Fool Killer would be a worthy candidate for the Criterion treatment.