Time for a true confession on this October 31st. I’m not a big fan of Halloween. Never have been. Even as a kid, I wasn’t very motivated to go collect candy if it meant having to dress in a costume to do so. And while, like Michaeline, I do enjoy the occasional monster story, in my case stories like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and some of the really clever iterations of vampires and zombies that have come out in recent years, I’m not into the non-stop gore fests that crop up on cable TV at this time of year. Other turnoffs: crazed clowns, possessed dolls, and anthropomorphic killer cars.
For me, the best scary stories are the ones where the monsters aren’t so obvious, the ones where they hide behind very human masks, when they look like clean-cut college kids, a worried husband, or the neighbor across the street whom you’ve never met. If any of these ‘monsters’ sound familiar to you, then you, too, might be a fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies. While Psycho is more likely to get airtime at this time of year, if I had to pick my three favorite Hitchcock films, I’d say Rope, Rear Window, and Vertigo. (I didn’t realize until putting together this list that my favorite Hitchcock films star Jimmy Stewart. I’m sure some of the love I have for these particular movies comes from the chemistry between these two artists: Stewart, the all-American nice guy, contrasted with Hitchcock, the brash and notoriously difficult Brit.) These films are more than just great entertainment; each is a masterclass unto itself of great storytelling.
Rope. While film critics and analysts consider this one of Hitchcock’s weaker films, I have all the love for it. It’s the story of two young college men who murder another after a philosophical discussion with their professor (Stewart) about whether murder is the ultimate proof of one’s superiority over another. This movie is nonstop tension as we wait for the professor to discover the vile crime while worrying he might be the students’ next victim. The tension is heightened by long, continuous shots. There are no location changes and rarely a break in our gaze into the room with our murderers and the dead body (making us voyeurs of their crime – a common theme in Hitchcock films).
Rear Window. This time, temporarily wheelchair-bound L.B. Jeffries, played by Stewart, is now the voyeur, and he, too, sees a murder. Or he thinks he does. But there is ‘proof’ that the murder victim is alive, so no one in Jeffries’ world believes there’s been a crime. Except, perhaps, the murderer. And so begins the race to prove the neighbor is a murderer before the man can strike again, this time taking out the only witness to his crime, a witness who is confined and immobile…Can you say sitting duck?
Vertigo. This film has become Hitchcock’s most acclaimed and probably most studied film. But (as I only learned recently) it didn’t start out that way. In the beginning, it was panned. Let this be a lesson to us all. Sometimes the world is just not ready for the greatness of our art. (Hey, whatever we have to tell ourselves to get butts in chairs and fingers on keyboards.)
Back to the story…This time, Stewart plays a retired police detective with a gaping emotional wound. He’s developed vertigo and depression after watching another police officer fall off a roof and die. An old acquaintance begs Scottie to help with the delicate matter of following his wife who is ‘possessed by a ghost’. So Scottie watches, then stalks, then becomes sexually obsessed with the woman, who then commits suicide. Or does she? The film uses slight of hand and subterfuge to great effect. Nothing is as it seems. Scottie is an unreliable narrator not out of malice, but because he does not know what the hell is going on. Until the end. If you don’t know what that end is, I’m not going to tell you. Hie thee to thy favorite film delivery system and watch it!
There’s so much to parse through in Hitchcock films, there are entire college semesters devoted to his work. Obviously, this post can’t do justice to all the lessons there are to learn from studying the ‘master of suspense’, but I’m going to spend some time dissecting these stories again while pondering what they can teach me about building suspense and creating everyday monsters in my own work. And some time soon we’ll discuss the amazing documentary called Hitchcock/Truffaut that came out in 2015 and features several acclaimed directors discussing Hitchcock’s work.
But tonight, as I’m waiting for the trick-or-treaters who rarely make it to our neighborhood, I’m going to kick back with some popcorn and just enjoy one (or maybe all three!) of these classics. How will you be spending your Halloween? Are you watching/reading/writing anything scary to go with the season?