Friday, October 31, 2008

Don't Open the Box!

kiss_me_deadly What's in the box?

Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt. Whoever opens this box will be turned into brimstone and ashes.

The head of Medusa. That's what's in the box, and who looks on her will be changed not into stone but into brimstone and ashes. But of course you wouldn't believe me, you'd have to see for yourself, wouldn't you?

Listen to me, as if I were Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of hell. I will tell you where to take it, but don't - don't open the box!

Horror movies are often interpreted as coded messages of dread and loathing of the unknown, whether it be death (Night of the Living Dead), disintegration (The Exorcist, which uses devil possession as a metaphor for disease) or visions of oblivion. In the 50s, nuclear energy might have been a reasonable fear engine, but it was mostly used to grow things really really big: the ants in Them and the spider in Tarantula. These aren't really horror films, as they focus on the ability of science (and lots of ordnance) to restore order from disorder. Horror doesn't have much use for order.

But as the villainous Dr. Sobiran makes clear above, the thing in the box is biblical, mythological, apocalyptic.

The novel Kiss Me Deadly involves Mickey Spillane's detective hero  Mike Hammer with jewel robbers, dirty commies and dusky dames. In transferring it to the screen, director Robert Aldrich and writer A.I Bezzerides ejected most elements from the novel and replaced a box of jewels with a box of - something.

Aldrich and Bezzerides take the Spillane mix of gore and sex - Raymond Chandler gone rancid - and create a world turned on its head - even the opening credits run backwards. Hammer is not really bright enough to understand that the usual quest for nuclear secrets that 50s detectives pursued has been replaced with the secret itself - fission in a box - and briefly opens the box to a metallic screech of splitting atoms, a nova of light, and intolerable heat. He ends up with a heck of a sunburn, too. So he gets it - don't open the box! (What Dr. Sobiran intends to do with his box, and how he got its contents into it, is never quite clear.)

When Hammer, his sultry secretery Velda, Dr. Sobiran and treacherous femme fatale Gabrielle ("Kiss me, Mike. I want you to kiss me. Kiss me. The liar's kiss that says I love you, and means something else.") meet for the final showdown at Sobiran's beach house, people end up shot, dead, dying, and with Gabrielle, like Pandora, left alone with the box. See picture above or here to see how that goes.

So is this horror or a detective thriller run wild? Both, but mostly horror - the mounting dread, the monster in the box, an ending that promises no relief or restoration of order - that's horror. And this time, it's our friend the atom, divorced from any plausible purpose, that provides a glimpse into the destructive eye of it all. The gods can renege, can take back the very idea of life as easily as they gave it - if we mess around in their domain - and annoy them beyond reason.

This much discussed movie is nihilist to the core. As Velda puts it,

"They?" A wonderful word. And who are they? They're the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what?

But remember: this is horror, taking fears from the dankest part of ourselves and making us roll around in them. (As the old commercial said: "You're soaking in it.") Aldrich and Bezzerides use nuclear energy as a terrifying unknown - they're not making an argument (like, say, The China Syndrome), they're providing a fantasy of the world - and you - going to pieces one atom at a time.

Of course, it's all an intentional lie - that the part of us inherited from lizards might accept as truth, if only long enough for the frisson of being scared. (We can hardly wait to see what nightmares of ick the movie version of the Large Hadron Collider brings to earth or what hellish dimension it flings us into.)

And so to all our Nuclear Notes readers, we wish a happy Halloween - spent under the bed, trembling from the inside out and with a box of the great whatsit beside you, shrieking to be opened.

Gaby Rogers. Miss Rogers was one of three actresses officially "introduced" in this 1955 movie along with Maxine Cooper (Velda) and Cloris Leachman - who enters in the opening scene naked under a raincoat, describes Mike Hammer, whom she's just met, to a tee and is then horribly murdered via pliers by Dr. Sobiran. From such an ignominious debut, Miss Leachman went on to an Oscar, several Emmys, and a career stretching to the present day. Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer and Albert Dekker is Dr. Sobiran.

2 comments:

Joffan said...

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrgh!

GRLCowan said...

It always seemed to me that Cerberus must be the name of the dominant head, and one should occasionally pay some attention to Spot and Wolfie, too.


--- G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan 'til ~1996