NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993, Selick)

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Tim-Burton-Henry-Selick

Whether or not I had a shot for The Nightmare Before Christmas, I had to post it this October.  I’ve seen this movie too many times to count.  Its such a perfectly formed concept – I can’t imagine how excited Tim Burton must have been just coming up with the title.  Burton says the idea came to him when he happened to spy a store window display being swapped out from a Halloween to Christmas.  He wrote a poem, in the style of “The Night Before Christmas” and then went about dreaming up and doodling the iconic characters that would inhabit his indelible world.

Here’s that poem, illustrated with artwork inspired by Burton’s and narrated by Christopher Lee!

Now it’s interesting that neither Oogie Boogie (if you ask me, the tedious villain in the film) nor love-interest Sally are ever mentioned in the poem, which presents the bare bones of the story.  The addition of these 2 characters in its development I think was both disastrous and inspired.  I think Sally’s inclusion is wonderful – what story isn’t usually improved by a romantic layer.  Sally’s struggle to find happiness and love exactly mirrors Jack’s and their ending up together seems destined and satisfying.

In a rare gripe at Shot4Shot, I have to ask: is anybody with me that Oogie Boogie’s role is superfluous and boring?  I’ll come right out and say it, I hate Oogie Boogie.  And not in a good way.  After quite a few viewings, I finally asked myself, why am I getting so bored & irritated with the 2nd half of this movie?  (The irritation was proportionate to how much I loved everything else.)  Then it occurred to me – you could cut out Boogie entirely and it makes NO difference to the flow of the story – in fact, it ONLY IMPROVES IT.  Also in fact, whenever he’s on screen it stops the story dead cold.  How could they not have seen that?

So I have developed this patented method of skipping the chapters in which Boogie appears (and a little fast-forwarding just after Jack crashes and realizes he was wrong, to when Santa says he can still set things right).  What an improvement!  It makes it a perfect experience, though one that’s only about 65 minutes.  I watch the movie usually off bluray on a 1080 HD projector.  Dreamy, let me tell you.  Someday, I’ll have the means to recut the film in that format, omitting editorially that offending offender Boogie.  Good riddance, I’ll say.

Tim Burton, McDowell or Caroline Thompson?

Someday I’ll ask Caroline Thompson (who wrote most of Burton’s classic stuff like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood) just how hard she fought to omit Boogie.  (It’s just a hope and theory of mine that the person who crafted such solid scripts as the two Eds couldn’t possibly have made such a fundamental mistake in Nightmare.)  Did Boogie come from Burton or story-adaptor Michael McDowell or a studio demand?

But back to all the things there is to love, and there are so many.  Nothing is more thrilling nor Halloweeny than the opening.  I recently saw the Tim Burton exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and there’s no better way to appreciate or prep yourself for a viewing of this film’s world.  Take a little peek at it here!  Here’s the opening –

And, if I had to pick a favorite shot — though this movie is not really about “the shots” so much as the imagination of the world, the design, the characters, and Danny Elfman’s wickedly clever & infectious score — I’d say this one at the very end of “What’s this?” gets me every time.  When Jack hears Santa and quickly looks over, the camera whip-pans to Santa’s silhouette in his doorway.  They achieve so much sense of motion – whether it be Jack’s open jaw and snap of the head, the blurred Christmas lights of the swish pan, or the warm and fuzzy effect of the classically imagined and rendered North Pole when Santa opens his door.  Happiness. It’s here –

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POLTERGEIST (1982, Hooper)

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Director-Controversy

October keeps rolling out the scary movies.  I’ve been having the best time screening all horror films this month.  Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Reanimator, and Nightmare On Elm Street…Part III, to name a few recently.  And let’s not forget Poltergeist, speaking of Tobe Hooper.  Watching the film back-to-back with Texas Chainsaw is a real head scratcher.  Texas is a gritty, surprising, and really smart ride that hasn’t aged a day (in all important ways).  Save for maybe one shot, I’d say it was about as un-Spielbergian as you can get.  Then there’s Poltergeist, credited with Hooper as director, which is decidedly un-Hooperian.  (That was a fun word to type.)

I first saw Poltergeist in the theaters the same year E.T. came out, 1982.  (Saw Poltergeist with my dad, E.T. with my mom.  Interesting & fitting.)  Man, it scared the crap out of this then-11 year old; I practically slid under the chair when “Marty” digs and rips the skin from his own face. The following few summers it went into heavy rotation on HBO, and whenever it would come on I’d drop everything, scramble for a VHS tape, hit record and sit until it was over.  Last year when I went through all the old VHS tapes at my mom’s house, I found no fewer than 6 partial recordings of this childhood favorite.

The Spielberg-Hooper Poltergeist Debate

For years and years there has been boiling the controversy that Spielberg actually directed Poltergeist.  According to the articles here and here, that rumor – Spielberg or Hooper – has its roots in an LA Times article by a reporter who visited set and mistook Spielberg’s direction of 2nd unit as fact that he was directing the whole picture.  Hooper says the rumor cost him work throughout the years, but it’s also notable that his subsequent horror efforts have never approached the artistic or commercial successes of Chainsaw or Poltergeist.

And many of the shots in Poltergeist really suggest that Spielberg had, at the very least, a very heavy hand in its direction.  There are some oners in the film that I find hard to believe that Spielberg didn’t design.  (According to the articles, Spielberg was responsible for designing all storyboards.  Man, poor Hooper.)

Here’s a juicy bit from the second page of the second article linked above, from http://www.poltergeist.poltergeistiii.com. The quote is attributed to an unnamed crew member, so while its veracity is unclear its intrigue value is extremely high –

“In the beginning, Steven did occasionally yell action and say cut. Sometimes the actors got two different sets of directions from two directors. Sometimes they would be the opposite directions. After about three days of that, Beatrice Straight put her foot down and said she would only listen to one director. That was Tobe. After that, Steven was often on the set, but since he was prepping ET he wasn’t there all the time. The only time I ever saw him really fight with Tobe was after an entire day of shooting a scene with Beatrice Straight and the other two scientists involving a great deal of gobblety-gook dialogue, Tobe just couldn’t get the shot. Steven came onto the set and was very upset – there was a lot of ugly yelling – and Tobe just stood there taking it. Beatrice Straight, again the hero of the day, finally stood up to Steven, said that the dialogue (which I believe Steven himself had written for the scene) was unplayable and that Sir Laurence Olivier himself couldn’t act such badly-written dreck. She made it very clear that Tobe was not to be blamed. Steven was very quiet and about five minutes later the cast and crew were all dismissed for the day. The next day the actors came back to the set and were handed new dialogue, which again I believe Steven had rewritten. It was 100% better and Tobe shot the scene in about an hour with no problem. But before shooting commenced, Steven got up in front of the entire cast and crew and apologized for the outburst and said Tobe was not to blame for the previous day’s delays. It was one of the most generous, selfless and courageous things I had ever seen on a movie set. “

There seems to be an incredible array of opinions and anecdotes on the subject.  I think someone has to write a book sorting it all out – that would be a fascinating read.  I wonder who would cooperate with its writing – Spielberg, Hooper? Maybe toward the end of everyone’s careers, when the sting has faded and the stakes are minimal.

So for today’s shot, I thought I’d just throw at you one of the most memorable moments and a fun gimmick of a shot which has been often imitated. The kitchen table chairs scene.  M. Night Shyamalan used it to a much lesser impact in Sixth Sense, and I also recently saw it in the new TV show on FX American Horror Story.

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In conclusion, here is a super fun making-of that’s not on my DVD or Bluray – I wonder how this got out.  But it has great behind-the-scene glimpses I’d never seen until just now.  From the first 3 minutes, it’s no wonder everyone thought Spielberg was the director.  And what’s cinematographer Alen Daviau doing there?  He and Spielberg were preparing E.T. together at the time.  Who knows – but what is for sure: you could have the world’s most sober drinking game if you drank every time Hooper was included in this making-of featurette!

HALLOWEEN (1978, Carpenter)

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Jamie Lee Curtis Michael Meyers

It’s about time I got Mr. John Carpenter on the blog – he’s responsible for so many memorable shots and pretty much invented the slasher genre with today’s movie.  Many speak of Carpenter’s long opening oner of Halloween, and rightfully so – it’s super engaging, creepy and set a standard for the POV shots in horror films.  Also, I could spend days blogging about his work in The Thing.

So much about horror films is keeping a step ahead of the audience’s expectations (which admittedly must be infinitely harder today compared to 1978), and while some of the scares in this movie may seem dated, even though Carpenter was actually inventing what-would-become the cliches, many of the suspense scares seem as current today as the day they were filmed.

Now, if this movie isn’t fresh in your head – what better time of year to rent it up and enjoy.  Hate to spoil a fantastic moment from this iconic film.  This here is my favorite piece of direction in the movie, both because it startled the bejeebers out of me when I first saw it (is that how you spell “bejeebers?”) and because it’s so innovative and clever.

Carpenter & Curtis dial up the Halloween Horror

Interestingly, Jamie Lee Curtis reports in this in-depth article on the first film, published over at halloweenmovies.com –

Carpenter worked closely with Curtis, creating a “fear meter,” since the film was shot out-of-sequence. “Here’s about a 7, here’s about a 6, and the scene we’re going to shoot tonight is about a 9 1/2,” said Curtis, remembering John Carpenter’s directions.

I would take a wild guess and say that the fear meter went up to 11 in this climactic sequence.  (Maybe she learned the dial could go that high from her husband?)  Here’s the clip with my favorite shot –

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A brilliant and quiet moment using a light dimmer and loads of suspense.  The audience KNOWS he’s there, knows that gaping, dark doorway is NO GOOD, and EXPECTS “The Shape” (as the killer, Meyers, is listed in the credits) to BURST from there.  But since horror is about reversing on expectations, Carpenter does something much creepier – he slowly brings him into view, like our eyes are adjusting to the dark.  Indeed, what makes it so frightening is that he was there the whole time, close enough to breath on us.  By our noticing so late, we fear the darkness (and the director) that much more – what other horrors lurk that we’re not noticing?

What’s the bogeyman?  As Donald Pleasence‘s Dr. Loomis reports, “As a matter of fact, that was.”  You can watch the conclusion of the film in the clip below, if you’re up for it.

CARRIE (1976, De Palma)

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Piper-Laurie-Amy-Irving

Happy October, everyone!  I’m going to kick it off Stephen King style, and keep the scary films coming this month.  And what better way to start than with a bucket of blood?

Blood is a major visual theme in Brian De Palma‘s bold and super fun film Carrie, starring Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie and Amy Irving.  And everyone knows this climactic use of it.  (If you don’t, do yourself a favor and watch the whole movie before you get it spoiled here.)  De Palma is also famous for his long single shots, oners, and this one in Carrie is as sneaky as it is gorgeous ( just when you think it can’t go any further, it does.)  It was quite a few viewings before I clocked it as a oner; the dramatic suspense is so effective that the last thing you’re thinking about is what the camera’s up to. And that’s when movie’s are at their best, if you ask me.

Robert McKee on Brian De Palma’s suspense

I’ve been obsessed recently with Robert McKee‘s book Story, a fascinating telling of how and why story works, specifically the medium of the screenplay/movie.  In it, the born-teacher McKee talks about the three kinds of suspense, which he labels: Mystery, Suspense, and Dramatic Irony.  Re-watching Carrie last night, I couldn’t help but think about this.

Mystery is when the filmmaker hides a known fact to the antagonist from the audience.  (Serial killer is behind one of many doors, but the character and audience don’t know which.)

Suspense is giving the audience and the characters the same information.  (In above example, character sees the shadow under the door of the serial killer, and the monster is shown holding up an axe, waiting for our hero to open the door.  They both know, but how will it end?)

Dramatic Irony was Hitchcock’s favorite device.  Hide from the protagonist a fact known to the audience…

Well, everyone probably knows what a devotee of Hitch that De Palma is, and this scene in Carrie couldn’t be a more classic example of what McKee calls “Dramatic Irony” suspense.  We root for Carrie’s escape from her world of tortures, and it looks like that sweet lamb has finally gathered the courage and confidence to do so.  But we also know that a shit storm is a brewing, a powder keg (filled with pig’s blood) is about to go off, and that Carrie is going to unleash some serious psychic kick-ass on her tormentors (as foreshadowed and promised by her breaking the lighting fixture with her mind during the tampon-pelting scene in the opening.)  That’s a lot of fuel for the suspense fire, so De Palma is in no rush and we’re all the happier as an audience because of it.

So enjoy the deftly blocked and executed oner that really sucks you into the world of suspense that De Palma, Stephen King and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen have built.  If you continue the scene, you can behold the ethereal and dreamlike use of music and slow motion that De Palma uses to such evocative and ironic perfection throughout this film.  (And the inspired & gripping use of falling crepe paper!)

The shot starts at 1:24 –  and remember, they’re all going to laugh at you.