October 17, 2012

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - Be Afraid of the Light

by Luke Burns

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) - dir. Robert Aldrich

The sinister truth about Kiss Me Deadly was right under our noses the whole time. There were plenty of clues: the terrifying, illegible, backwards-scrolling credits1; the fact that the movie opens with a woman running for her life from some unknown malign force; but most of all, it’s the main character, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), who shows us the true nature the movie we’re watching. Kiss Me Deadly isn’t just a film noir — it’s a straight up horror film. It’s a monster movie, and Mike Hammer, our hero, is the monster.

Mike Hammer looking like he stepped out of a
Universal Monster Movie.

To be sure, Mike Hammer is a brutal, violent fellow. It would be easy to say that his capacity for violence is all the evidence you need to show that the man is a monster. Similarly, one might say that from the point of view an uptight repressed 1950s authority figure, Hammer and his renegade ways seem quite monstrous indeed. But neither of those explanations gets at the aura of visceral terror that surrounds Hammer. In order to understand the extent of the horror that Hammer inflicts, you have to look at how other characters react to him. Specifically, look at the reactions of two thugs (who I will refer to as Goon 1 and Goon 2) who come after Hammer on two separate occasions, and get more than they bargained for both times.

Take the scene where Goon 1 and Goon 2 come after Hammer while he’s ostensibly changing into a bathing suit to take a dip in a bad guy’s pool (it’s a long story). The goons come towards the camera, advancing on Hammer, who is only visible as a dark shadow in the foreground, on the edge of the left side of the frame. Goon 1 approaches the shadow, stepping forward enough that his head is out of frame. With a dramatic and sinister sting of music, he’s thrown to the ground, unconscious. It would be a pretty standard scene of a PI treating a thug to some chin music, except that we don’t actually see what happens to Goon 1, and Goon 2 doesn’t stay and fight, he flees in terror. He cannot get out of the room fast enough, and once he’s gotten out, the camera lingers on his confused and frightened expression while eerie music plays. What did Hammer do to Goon 1 that was so bad it warrants that look of terror? What did he do that was so bad that it had to take place out of the frame?

A similar scene plays out when Hammer, having been captured by the bad guys, manages to work his way free of his restraints. He’s going to escape! At this point, we expect a “hero on the run” sequence, with Hammer hiding from his captors, trying to elude them and get to safety. This does not happen. Hammer hides, but in the way that a monster hides in order to jump out and terrify his victims before devouring them.

Goon 1 (Unlucky Goon!) enters the room where Hammer is being held, prepared to send the nosy PI to meet his Maker. He barely has enough time to register that Hammer has escaped before the door behind him swings shut, seemingly by itself, plunging the room into darkness. Once again, we don’t see what happens to Goon 1. The film cuts to another room, where Goon 2 is contentedly looking out a window at the night sky. Then we hear the bloodcurdling scream of Goon 1 — it’s a scream of utter terror, not pain — and Goon 2 goes to see what’s wrong.

Goon 2 enters the darkened room and nervously looks around. It’s a sequence that feels just like the part in a slasher movie where one of the characters goes off on their own to investigate “that strange noise…” There’s an odd kind of tension that builds because you expect Hammer — our hero, remember — to jump from the shadows at any moment to dispatch Goon 2. But he doesn’t. In true monster movie form, the monster has disappeared before we could get a good look at him. All that’s left is a corpse with a look of utter horror (and, let’s be honest, a little bit of goofiness) on its face. Another disturbing detail is that it’s not even clear how Hammer killed the guy! There doesn’t seem to be a mark on him! Goon 2 swallows hard. He’s still scared, but knows he’s lucky to be alive. It's easy to imagine this as the start of a monster movie. In the next scene, investigators would be called in to look at the aftermath of Hammer’s escape: “What could have done this, inspector?” “Well, whatever it was, it wasn’t human.”

Once you understand Hammer’s true nature, you start to notice other monstrous things about him. Hammer gets shot in the gut at point blank range, but keeps going, Michael Meyers style. He lies on his couch for hours, like a slovenly vampire lolling about in a coffin, waiting for night to fall so he can begin his investigation. More broadly, there’s the delightful lumbering Frankensteinish quality that Meeker brings to his portrayal of Hammer.

The fire of the Atomic Age.

Frankenstein is actually a good reference point for the end of the film, which shows that fire — in this case, fire of the atomic, end-of-the-world-variety — is still “baaaad”, and that there are worse things coming out of the lab than a reanimated guy made of stitched-together dead bodies. This latter fact is perhaps the main reason why we fail to see Hammer for what he really is. Your ordinary, run of the mill Frankenstein or Wolf-Man is small potatoes in the atomic age. Darkness, shadows and the monsters they contain are nothing in the face of the all-destroying power of the blinding, bright light of the bomb. What horror can compare to the horror of nuclear annihilation? Given the choice, we’ll take a good old-fashioned monster like Mike Hammer any day.
1 - This style of credits would later be used by another horror noir, Seven.

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