In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in June’s double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Handsomeness is inherent to any character played by Andy Garcia. But haggard, harried and haunted hold far more court in the countenance of Detective Sergeant John Berlin, the policeman at the center of Jennifer 8.
Berlin tried building a career in Los Angeles but left after, in his own perfectly noirish words, he felt like he’d said sorry on every street in the city. Maybe all but the one he called home, where his neglected wife turned away from him and toward other men as Berlin burrowed deeper into dead bodies and drained bottles. So Berlin relocates to Eureka, a northern-coastal California community where the colloquialized climate report reads “pissing rain from October to June.”
This shot at redemption comes courtesy of Detective Sergeant Freddy Ross (the inimitable Lance Henriksen), Berlin’s commanding officer as an L.A. rookie who also relocated to Eureka for a less rigorous routine; all Ross really has to worry about is a pesky reporter (Lenny Von Dohlen) and crime-scene lookie-loos. But a few months before Berlin’s arrival, Ross and the Eureka police department endured “the worst six months this station ever had” — the death of a young woman, code-named Jennifer and found with no head and no hands, whose murder went unsolved. As Berlin’s first day coincides with the gruesome discovery of a severed hand at the Eureka junkyard — where the sky weeps, steam rises from mountains of molding rot, and uniformed officers resemble ditch-diggers in a Dante work — Berlin reopens the Jennifer case.
This is the sort of functioning obsession and compulsion that drives its hooks into the nook, crannies and detective’s hunches of Berlin’s gut. “The worrying, the clicking, the picking. You can’t stop it, can ya?” Ross asks Berlin. “Might as well be back in L.A.” Berlin’s golden-boy anointment in Eureka already rankles his new colleagues, and his insistence upon thawing ice on the Jennifer case only increases their ire. But Berlin’s fascination with forensic pathology helps him learn the new severed hand came from a blind woman. The few friends he has left in L.A. tell him six blind women have been found dead with the same pathology in a 300-mile radius over the last four years. “Jennifer” was the seventh, and the previous owner of that severed hand? Well, meet Jennifer 8.
So goes the setup of writer-director Bruce Robinson’s ruthlessly oppressive but relentlessly impressive 1992 serial-killer thriller. After earning an Oscar nomination for his screenwriting work on 1984’s The Killing Fields and delivering the British cult classic Withnail and I in 1987, Robinson wrote Jennifer 8 in an effort to establish himself as a Hollywood voice. To read Robinson’s script is to survey a tried-and-true template of tough, terse mystery storytelling. Ross quips that someone’s handshake resembles “a partially excited penis,” another character intones “I loved that guy and the hardest thing to take in here is that he thought I killed him,” Berlin says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this and I’ve been doing it too long to be wrong,” and John Malkovich himself turns up in the second hour to investigate a different but intersecting murder and insists, “I’m running out of questions and you’re running out of lies!” While there are effective excisions for the final product (like omitting an Alcoholics Anonymous prologue for Berlin), Robinson’s instinct for character-driven complications to the film’s central investigation are realized in compelling ways.
Jennifer 8 certainly falls into that subset of visually arresting, narratively pulpy thrillers propelled by beautiful stars that powered its studio, Paramount Pictures, for years before and since. (An added attraction? The public’s penchant for a more merciless murder-mystery was piqued by the commercial and critical success of 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs.) Here, Uma Thurman plays Helena, a cellist and music teacher who survived a car accident at age 14 that took her family and her sight. Berlin learns that Helena was a friend to the woman now known as Jennifer 8 and believes Helena was once in the same room as the killer. He’s also certain Helena will become Jennifer 9 if he doesn’t act quickly enough … and that he loves Helena.
Robinson has bemoaned that Garcia’s good looks, relative to an older construct of Berlin in his writing mind, hinders the inappropriate nature of their romance — that viewers want them to wind up together. But Garcia and Thurman’s 14-year age gap matters immensely here in ways both overt and understated. Amusingly, when Helena first hears Berlin’s voice, she guesses he’s 53 years old. Berlin is indeed well on his way to becoming like his mentor, Ross, who jokes of a belly in his 50s, balls in his 60s and feet in his 80s. Berlin is a nub of a man whose only nudge toward engagement comes with a fresh murder case. He doesn’t need to look old, he just needs to feel as musty as the plastic-wrapped mattress on which he wakes up.
Plus, are Berlin’s romantic intentions so noble or is Helena just, as Ross’s wife says, a version of his wife who can’t run away? Garcia gives you the sense Berlin is trying to knock down one vice at a time (like swapping booze for Diet Coke) and not doing a terribly good job. As Helena throws Wordsworth at him to describe his troubled past (“thoughts that lie too deep for tears”), Berlin asks if that’s Hamlet. Berlin would fancy himself a similar savior whose sanity is suspect. In fact, it’s troubling how willing Berlin seems to burn this pasture to which he’s been put out — a slow knife Robinson expertly twists after a shocking turn that ends the film’s second act.
And while Jennifer 8 could stand more moments that develop Berlin and Helena’s initial bond beyond some interviews doubling as dates, it’s also the closest anyone ever came to crafting a proper noir for Thurman, an actress whose face was built for the genre. There is tremendous tension and affection in the way Helena tries to piece together the rationale for Berlin’s interest in her, as well as fear that she’s incapable of a strength she believes John wants her to express.
On paper, Jennifer 8 should have been a hit. But it could only muster $11 million against a $20 million budget, which was enough to execute Robinson’s endeavor for Hollywood stardom. (Indeed, Robinson directed nothing else until 2011’s Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary, another costly bomb that, if you’re feeling existentially uncharitable, also unleashed the trainwreck of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard upon us all.) Robinson has also said studio interference hurt Jennifer 8, with changing regimes all wanting different things and the result struggling to serve so many masters.
But it remains a sumptuous, sturdy thriller deserving of a second (or first) look. There is all manner of murder-mystery misdirection here, from orderlies with Coke-bottle glasses to that nosy newspaper man. Someone is also stalking and photographing Helena, too, so there’s a garden-variety pervert with whom to deal. Legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood) crafts ominous compositions. Production designer Richard Macdonald (Something Wicked This Way Comes) gives life to a soaking fall and frosty winter amid the story’s timeline and wide geography. Christopher Young (1987’s Hellraiser) contributes a chilling score with goosebump-sparking strings. And it boasts a cast of heavy-hitters like Kathy Baker as Ross’s wife, Kevin Conway as Eureka’s police chief and Bob Gunton as the administrator of Helena’s school.
Then there’s Malkovich as St. Anne, an FBI agent whose sinuses sniffle under the humid air of Eureka. St. Anne arrives in town after Berlin and Ross go off half-cocked and, from a booze and bullets perspective, fully loaded on Christmas Eve to investigate an intruder at the school. It’s a choice that ends in decisive, graphic tragedy. Although In the Line of Fire was still a few months away, Malkovich’s icy demeanor grips the film’s final act and also feeds a little bit of Berlin’s vertiginous paranoia to the viewer. Maybe St. John himself is the Jennifer killer. After all, why would the Feds send such a voracious shark into this small pond? Malkovich’s moments trying to tease info from, and trip up, people are masterful — the first great instance of that malevolent playfulness he would monetize for decades to come, and all while loudly sharpening his pencil and blowing his nose to throw off the subjects he’s interrogating with sonic havoc.
St. Anne’s scrutiny also revisits a note Ross scrawls to Berlin earlier about lying. Ross meant it as an innocuous elbow to his one-time protege’s rib. But in the wake of so much violence, St. Anne regards it as a shiv between them. While the note does not feloniously implicate Berlin, it is certainly a smoking gun for Berlin’s crimes of emotion — exposing a possessive aspect of his personality Berlin has so far proven profoundly unwilling to face down. Jennifer 8 is a suspect-everyone spectacle that takes its conclusion down to its literal last minute and does so with a complexity of character that’s perfect counterpoint to all the carnage — the sort of thing for which Mare of Easttown wins copious awards now but got lost in the shuffle 30 years ago.