Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Killer Application - Rope

Alfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense. Many of his films hinge up on a murder, or an unjustly accused victim. He builds suspense in his films by keeping the audience wondering when the murder is going to occur or when the hero on the run is going to get caught. Throw in some deadly obstacles and a double cross or two and you've got some solid suspense entertainment.

I've tackled Hitchcock twice before. In Suspicion we have only the heroine's point of view to guide us. She begins to suspect her charming husband of being something more than he appears to be. The tension builds on this suspicion. In Psycho, Hitchcock provides us with the woman on the run, and keeps us wondering if she'll get caught. Then he murders our "lead character" and closes the movie with other characters walking into the spider's den. This is a bit of a hybrid, half hero on the run: half waiting for the murderer to strike.

"Rope" is a different type of hybrid. The movie starts with the murder: a young man is strangled right in front of the camera. The rest of the film is contained in the apartment where the murder has occurred and the where the body is still hidden. The two murderers host a party, placing a feast on the chest where the body is hidden. The party guests include the father and aunt of the deceased man, his fiancée and best friend. Also invited is the old professor who was a favorite teacher of not only of the victim, but of the murderers.

This macabre setting acts like a pressure cooker. The murderers are so confident and smug that they don't believe they can be caught, and that what they have done (with the murder and the party) is actually a work of art. They tempt fate, and the notice of the very observant professor (played by the always solid Jimmy Stewart), but guilt starts to take its toll on one of the killers, threatening to ruin the whole work.

The audience is now waiting to see if the killers get caught, at the same time we get to find out more about them during the party. And as the party continues we find them deplorable, arrogant and (Brandon especially) a bit deranged. There is a logic to their reasoning, but it's a logic that seems to come from people who think they are better and smarter than everyone else. The audience wants them to get caught by the end, but the old professor is now in very real danger, trapped in an apartment with two killers, who admire and fear him.

"Rope" is often considered an experiment in Hitchcock’s filmography. All the action occurs in the apartment, and Hitchcock goes further by attempting to make the whole movie appear as if it has been filmed in on continuous shot. The illusion is interesting and it required the actors to be comfortable with performing the entire film in long takes. There is very little editing at all, but the camera is not locked off. It moves almost constantly, following the characters around the apartment, peering over shoulders and looking around doorframes. Anyone interested in camera work should check the film out for that alone.

Hitchcock stated that he wanted to create a filmed version of a play, something that was locked off to one set, but that allowed the freedom of movement that a film would offer. It's interesting and yet at the same time it hurts the film. Despite all of Hitchcock's efforts the film ends up feeling stagy. Some of the actors play very broadly (especially the killers) and while that would be fine on the stage a bit more subtly would have done wonders for the film. In the end, the tension is built, but not to the heights of the more masterful Hitchcock thrillers.

What I find interesting from the story point of view is the fact that the killers are the main characters in the film. We can't sympathize with these men, they are too arrogant and sociopathic to really like. The cold calculation of the act of murder and the party are intriguing, but after establishing their motive (they do it to prove a philosophical point), the audience is more engaged with the cat and mouse game. Will they get caught? If so, what will happen? Will the teacher, who exposed them to the philosophy they cling to, attempt to stop them or understand what they are doing? It's an intriguing set of questions, it's too bad the execution doesn't elevate these to a more surface level.

Have you seen "Rope"? What did you think of it? Have you read a story or seen another movie where remorseless killers were the main character? How did the creators attempt to make you sympathize with them, or were you just waiting for them to get caught?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Huge Horror - The Giant Gila Monster

Sometimes I wonder about what makes some people scared. I had a teacher that said that all fear was based on fear of death. Even stage-fright was based on performing so poorly on stage that the audience will rush you, strip you naked and then hang you from a scrim light cord. Yeah, I had my doubts about that one. But fear of death does seem to be the main cause of terror in horror fiction. Most books and movies put the perils in mortal peril and then you read about them trying to escape one way or the other.

What influences these terrors can come from what the writer of the story fears. For example, are you scared of clowns popping out from under your bed and pulling you into a knife filled embrace under the bed - don't watch "Poltergeist". And while fear of clowns (or of heavily made up humans trying to make you laugh) makes some sort of sense, you have to wonder about the inherent horror of "The Giant Gila Monster".

Now the Gila Monster is a lizard and some people hate reptiles of any kind. On top of that, the bite of a Gila monster is very poisonous. Ok, that's scary. And if you make a Gila monster HUGE then you've got dangers from being stepped on, or tail swiped or even being bitten half (poison followed by being severed in twain! That's really scary). So you see the potential for horror, right? Well kinda.

In the hit film "The Giant Gila Monster" the horror of the idea isn't translated well into existence. First off the low budget of the film made it impossible to show the Gila Monster actually on the screen with any humans. So instead of the stop motion wizardry of a Ray Harryhausen creature - we get a regular sized Gila Monster walking across model train sized sets. And these are obviously sets, or model train sets - whichever was cheaper. Sure our giant critter gets lots of close ups, and cut aways, so it appears he watching the action. But you can tell he's just looking for a quick way off the stupid plastic hill and find a rock to hide under.

When the movie tries to get the poor stunt lizard to interact with anything it's hilarious - not scary. He knocks over a model train, which gets an overlay of screams to create realism. All it really does is confirm that the sets are model train sets. He pops his head through some balsa wood to make it look like he's terrorizing a barn dance (you end up feeling sorry for him. You know some human just shoved his head through balsa wood). In my favorite scene from the movie, a toy truck is shown driving down a deserted road. Cut to Gila Monster. Cut to driver humming to himself, wondering if he'd get his tanker truck full of gasoline back to the gas station in time. Cut to the Gila Monster. Out shoots his tongue! Cut to the driver. Eyes bug out and he lets out a scream. The camera tilts crazily. Cut to a toy tanker truck on a fake road falling over and bursting into flames. One of my friends asked, "Did the Gila Monster destroy the truck with its tongue?" Yes... yes it did.

So, were the creators of the film delusional? Did they think that the Gila Monster's tongue was so horrible that it would terrify the multitudes? Did they have larger ambitions than their budget would allow? Of was it just a quick cash grab to make this movie (and "The Killer Shrews" ) to slap on a double bill for a drive in?

Yeah I pick option three.

But I can see how a giant poisonous lizard could be terrifying.

Do you have a favorite cheesy monster movie? Can you think of a way to make a giant Gila Monster scary? Would this same story have worked well in a short story or novel form? Have you seen this movie (with or without the help of Mystery Science Theater)?