This week, I continue my breakdowns of opening shots for hidden meanings, veiled truths, and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow with George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. This 1968 classic invented the zombie film, and zombie mythology, as we know it. Despite its virtually non-existent budget, amateur cast, and decided lack of zombies for a convincing swarm, “Night of the Living Dead” is one of the most effective horror films ever made. It conjures dread and mounting despair better than any zombie film other than “28 Days Later” (which I think represents the pinnacle of the genre, zombie purists be damned). Here’s how the first couple of minutes play out.
We’re treated to a series of shots of a car winding down a dirt road as eerie music plays. This isn’t subtle, but then horror is rarely a subtle genre. These shots are very effective at achieving their purpose; creating the sense of desolation that ends up being so important later in the film, when the characters are stranded in the middle of nowhere at night, surrounded by zombies.
Romero is having some fun here with foregrounds. One of the most basic aspects of a good horror film is blocking our field of vision. The director can be as arbitrary as they want; once they establish that there’s danger about, they throw some obstructions to block our view. Obstructed foregrounds are less key for zombie films than, say slasher films, but Romero uses them well during the opening credits to toy with our emotions and establish that vital aspect of horror movies: the sense that something is wrong.
The sound of the car pulling onto an asphalt road jolts us a bit. It’s not a thrill technique; it just makes us aware that the car is arriving at its destination. In another film, this trigger might be used to establish a feeling of hope, say, if the characters are on the run and looking for civilization. Here, we’re just curious to see where the car is going.
Sweet heavens above, they’re going to a graveyard. Why the hell would they do that? Don’t they know they’re in a movie called “Night of the Living Dead”? Indeed, one of the joys of horror films is that our familiarity genre gives the director a lot of narrative leeway. Romero doesn’t need to do much to let us know that something bad is going to happen soon. We haven’t met the characters yet, and we’re already assuming the worst for them.
That American flag is sure conspicuous. It’s worth noting that “Night of the Living Dead” became popular largely because it was widely viewed as an allegory of government oppression during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Is that flag symbolic of the death of America?
Nah, I don’t think so. My best bet is that Romeo thought it’d look cool in the shot.
No genre relishes in convention more than horror. We can assume two things from this scene so far. Given Johnny’s cynicism and smarminess about about visiting their father’s grave puts a big marker on him as a potential victim. We’re less sure about Barbara. Horror films tend to have a lead female who survives a while.
Johnny pulls out the wreath that they’ll lay at his father’s grave. You can’t see it here, but it looks like a cross. Frankly, it looks more like a gravestone than a typical wreath. It doesn’t bode well for Johnny to be holding it.
Just now, Johnny notices the radio. The signal is poor, and the newsman is gargling some urgent, breaking news. Have you heard of Chekov’s Gun? It’s a trope coined after the legendary writer Anton Chekov, who once wrote “”If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” This shot isn’t a proper example of that, but it’s close. Something major is happening. We just can’t quite understand it. Could it be… the living dead?
Naturally, Johnny turns off the radio right as the signal begins to improve. Seriously, the guy is just asking to get bitten by the undead.And, now disconnected from the rest of the world, out two characters head off into the cemetery. You think anything bad is going to happen in there?
As we near Halloween, I’m going to shift this blog’s attention to one of my favorite genres: Horror. No genre is as visceral or as reliant on the camera as the audience’s eyes. And as I continue to over-analyze opening scenes, I turn my attention to one of the greatest horror films, Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Unlike the dreadful, inept remake from 2003, the 1974 original is a near-perfect exercise in building dread and terror out of thin air. Its grindhouse title belies a genuinely disturbing, stunningly crafted and shot horror film, one almost devoid of gore. Here’s how it opens.
First, an ominous voiceover recites the title card, which tells of a horrific, apparently true story of nightmarish summer afternoon which resulted in the murders of five young people. Now, a bit of film history. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was technically “inspired” by a true story, if you use the word “inspired” as loosely as possible. The genesis for the film came from the story of serial killer and grave robber Ed Gein. Gein enjoyed digging up graves to eat the corpses and make, ahem, skinsuits so he could pretend to be female. Apart from “having cannibals”, there are no details from the Gein case in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. As far as I know, the level inspiration the Gein story had on the film began and ended at “cannibalistic grave robbers are terrifying”.
None of which is reason not to pretend that your film is a true story. Horror films have done this for ages. Horror is a visceral genre. We don’t watch horror movies; we experience them. The more real it feels, the frightening it is. Even “Fargo”, which is very much not a horror film, famous opened with a fake claim that it was a true story. It’s a classic film narrative device, and it sets an ominous tone. Now, back on topic:
That’s not a mistimed screencap. For a few moments the screen is black, and we hear scraping sounds and dissonant background music.
Holy whatnow? That was creepy. A camera flash, followed by a rotten hand, in a pair of almost subliminal quick cuts. The shots are accompanied by ominous, non-melodic violin music.
We can start piecing together what’s happening here. The scraping tells us that the departed is being either buried or exhumed. I’m not sure which is worse in this case. Either way, the gravedigger is also taking pictures. Make of that what you will.
The screen goes black again as a radio broadcast plays, saying something about…
graverobbing. I guess our buddy here was being exhumed. The radio broadcast mentions a grisly graverobbing crime spree, in which corpses are being arranged as ghastly monuments.
This opening has told us nothing about the film so far. It has much in common with a cold open on television, when a scene that has little to do with the main plot opens the episode before the credits. The scene’s purpose is to set a tone that draws the audience in. Horror films occasionally use a similar device, usually in the form of offing minor characters, usually unnamed or extras, in a memorable fashion (think the skinny-dipping scene in “Jaws” or the first-person murder in “Halloween”). Here, Hooper eschews bloodshed in favor of plain unsettling imagery. Already he has toyed with our senses, depriving us of sight apart from some subliminal shots, before hitting us with an unforgettable image that gets worse as it pans out. He hasn’t shown a single character yet, or even an action. Yet we’re already preparing for the worst.
Over the next few posts, I’m going to have some fun parsing through the opening shots of some of my favorite movies, trying to glean significance from whence there may be none at all. For starters, my favorite movie of the last 10 years (give or take a Millennium Actress): Children of Men.
The film opens with a voiceover on a black screen, telling us of the death of “baby Diego, the youngest person on the planet”. This is an odd, disarming way to start the film. A baby’s death is always sad, but why the detail of “youngest person on the planet?” Isn’t that honor passed on every few seconds, whenever a new baby is born?
Shot 1: A crowd of people, eyes glued to a television set, faces forlorn. I love two things about this shot. For one, it shows the level of detail that director Alfonso Cuaron pays to each shot and each scene. Even muted, we can tell the crowd is watching TV thanks to the set behind them at about the same elevated level of whatever they’re looking at. Additionally, he uses the first shot of the film to introduce its most common recurring visual motif: society’s embrace of pets as surrogate children. We don’t know the film’s story yet, but already Cuaron is setting us up for its introduction visually.
Shot 1 (continued): Enter Clive Owen’s character, the protagonist Theo (we learn his name later in the movie). He barges through the crowd to get a cup of coffee. He’s less interested in the news of Baby Diego’s death.
Shot 2: Here we are. Baby Diego was no baby. He was 18. From that information alone we can glean the significance of his murder. For some reason, there are no more babies. No more future. This teenager was the last person ever born.
The shot also establishes a time and place it’s 2027, and given that the broadcast in on BBC (or at least its copyright protected knockoff, BCC) and, well the accents of the newscaster, we’re in England. All this without an establishing shot.
Shot 3: Not that Theo seems to care much. He nonchalantly takes his coffee while the rest of the crowd looks on at the newscast in despair.
Shot 3 (continued): This is definitely England. London, actually. Just in case we missed the date on the telecast, the giant plasma screen tells us we’re in an future world more akin to “Blade Runner” (where sci-fi technology did nothing to eliminate inner city slums) than the sleek vision of “Minority Report”.
Shot 3 (continued): At this point, we’re aware that this is a tracking shot. There hasn’t been a cut since Theo left the coffee shop. Cuaron uses them a lot in the film. This shot sort of serves as an appetizer to some truly crazy tracking shots later in the film. Tracking shots can be tricky to use well. If they’re too self-indulgent, too obvious, they become distracting. We’re aware that the director is trying to impress us. But Cuaron uses tracking shots well in this film. They create a documentary feel. That’s important to what happens next…
Shot 3 (continued): And that there’s an explosion. The coffee shop we were just in has been blown up. Note Theo’s reaction. He’s shocked. His coffee’s all over the place. He’s frightened.
It’s vital to this film’s success that Theo is a completely normal man. He survives some incredible situations, and he never plays the action hero to do it. He’s not particularly brave or strong or apt at combat. He’s a normal guy, and normal guys are terrified of explosions when they happen in the coffee shop you were in 10 seconds prior. Cuaron seems to be playing with the action movie cliche of heroes ignoring explosions like minor annoyances.
Shot 3 (continued): And just so we know this wasn’t some pranksters playing with firecrackers, we get this disturbing shot of a dazed woman with her arm blown off, as screams of horror are heard off screen.
What did these three shots, which lasted just over a minute and a half, do? They set everything but the movie’s plot in motion. They establish the protagonist, a cynical but vulnerable man. They establish the state of the location: bleak, depressed, violent. No matter what happens in this story, the stakes will probably be high, simply because death can strike at any time. Effective science fiction films are aware that no genre is better suited to visual storytelling. Expositional dialogue drags science fiction. In three shots, Alfonso Cuaron establishes elements of a film that some sci-fi movies need a good half-hour plus to do. Cuaron is an extraordinary visual filmmaker, but his creativity extends beyond his ability to conjure aesthetically beautiful or astonishing shots. He fills the screen with details that help add to the story. He never allows for clutter, unlike most sci-fi CGI orgies. He’s efficient. For a lean, thrilling film like “Children of Men”, efficiency is vital.
I’ve long disliked the term “Guilty Pleasure” as it applies to movies. I love the movies I love because they’re great, dammit, and I refuse to feel guilt about it. However, I think everyone has a movie or five that evoke headscratches from others when you talk about how much you love them. I have a few of those. However, I’m not here to feel guilty about them. I’m here to defend them as the works of art they are. Or at least as damned entertaining films.
Tops for me with this list is “Starship Troopers”. It’s pretty widely known as both a tremendously dumbed down version of a famous book, and as a tremendously dumb film in general. Its acting evokes soaps. Its violence is comically over the top. While it attempts the satire and political commentary of its source material, its ham and silliness undercut it.
That is precisely why I enjoy it so much. Somewhere along the line, I think director Paul Verhooven realized that this film would not work as a satire. Satire needs to be ruthless and cutting. This film is neither. Oh, sure, there are bits here and there that show its initial intentions (the propaganda sequences, for example) but mostly, this film’s embrace of its own cheese makes it giddily entertaining.
Some films are meant to work only on the surface. Kill Bill Vol. 1 is one of the best examples of this. It’s all plot points and style. It works brilliantly because the plot landmarks consist of glorious fight scenes, because Tarantino’s dialogue is as sharp as ever, and because the performances are all superb.
“Starship Troopers” is nowhere near “Kill Bill Vol. 1’s” quality, but it works in the same way. It’s a surprisingly finely tuned exercise in a style that’s rarely played straight. It kids you that it’s poking fun at its genre while, at its heart, it’s embracing it fully.
“300” is another film that raises eyebrows when I say I love it. “300” is definitely more well-liked than “Starship Troopers”, but it’s popular cannon fodder for film snobs. As someone who doesn’t consider the label “film snob” pejorative, I both aspire to film snobdom while loving “300”.
For my defense of this film, I turn to a quote from the late, immortal critic Pauline Kael: ” Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” This quote is widely dissected. I’ve always viewed it as Kael calling the bluff of critics who scoff at anything populist and “not artistic”. Truly artistic films, she says, are pretty rare, and therefore not being art or, more so, being trashy is no reason not to love a movie.
“300” is great trash. Like “Troopers” it’s all surface. It’s basically a live action version of the comic. And while comic fans worshiped the film for its literal adherence to Frank Miller’s book, that’s not at all why it’s good. The movie is good because the original comic isn’t. Miller’s “300” is every bit as shallow and posturing as the film. Unlike the film, its images are static when they demand to be moving. As they are, they’re fleeting spectacles, interestingly drawn characters with smattering bits of originality. The film brings these images to life in a way I think Miller failed with the comic.
As result, while the film “300” is stupid, shallow, and one-dimensional, it’s also chock full of superb moments of visual creativity. The seen with the oracle might have been an excuse for gratuitous nudity on paper, but it’s beautifully photographed and is more artful than it has any right to be. Famous stills (like the iconic image at the cliffside) from the book are haunting and spectacular in the film. These images and more could have served art better than they did here. But there’s no shame in brightening a bit of great trash.