What we learn about death portrayed on-screen

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in ‘Psycho’

Blood and gore, that’s what attracts us, right? Everything from the gruesome kill shots to the slashing stab wounds, we’re in it to watch the life bleed away from that anonymous collection of young victims.

But, reel deaths, the ones that truly linger for me, are the quiet moments. Remember, in “LA Confidential,” when Hollywood cop Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) bought the farm? He had been plugged by his commanding officer Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) in what was the ultimate betrayal, but he had enough time to whisper a hint that would prove to be Smith’s downfall. With his dying breath released, Vincennes expires, and what a way to go. We watch the light in Spacey’s eyes fade, in what has to be one of the saddest, yet magical bits of acting that’s ever graced the screen. He shows us what its like to leave this mortal coil.

We’ve been treated to the horrific slash dash scenes, knives ripping flesh, blood everywhere, since Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” but most filmmakers and audiences forget the fact that we never saw the knife dig into Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in that shower at the Bates Motel. We didn’t need to see it. The lasting fear, some would argue, was in the expert back and forth cutting of the scene, the music, and yes, the blood that eventually flowed down the drain. I, on the other hand, believe it was the fear in Marion’s eyes. She saw the inevitability of death and gave us a glimpse of it, too.

Which is why there’s something so redundant about movies today. Every filmmaker feels the need to do all of the heavy lifting for us. Show, don’t tell. That’s the mantra, but it would be wonderful if you showed us a bit less. Recall how to let our eyes play tricks on us. Or, better still: employ the eyes of your actors, the light in their eyes. Let it flicker and fade into the abyss.

What films, beyond the horror or slasher genres, have gotten this tricky aspect right?

For one of the best examples, you have to go back to 1984. James Cameron—have you heard of him? —released a little sci-fi action flick called “The Terminator” featuring an indestructible cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that travels from a distant future to 1984, on a mission to assassinate a waitress named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) who, some time in her not-so distant future, will give birth to a would-be savior.

What’s so unique and fascinating about this film though, in this context, is that we learn everything we need to know about life and death, and the eyes themselves, from Schwarzenegger’s android villain. We get our first real glimpse at this machine, not when it emerges from a time portal naked as a newborn, but after its initial sparring with the police and the lone rugged protector (Michael Biehn), sent by Sarah Connor’s son to look after his mother (thus insuring his own future, in more ways than one). The cyborg has suffered damage and retreats to repair itself. Its face and one eye have been scarred down to its cybernetic bone structure, and the machine must cut away the flawed and unnecessary skin. Cameron knows the visceral impact such a scene will have on his audience, and he manipulates us like a pro. It is a squirm-inducing sequence that could match—shot for shot—any slasher moment.

The truly brilliant thing is that Cameron returns, in a fashion, to this again, toward the end of the film. As Connor and her protector have battled the terminator through a series of action set piece, each time figuring that they have taken their foe out. And let’s be honest, any other antagonist would have been toast during any one of these exchanges, no doubt, but not this terminator.

Once Sarah Connor reaches the truly grand finale, facing off against the still scrappy, legless exoskeleton doing everything it can to wrap its metal fingers around her throat, she triggers the compression charge that compacts the life out of the terminator. Cameron, genius that he is, draws us back to the eyes of the terminator, now not really eyes at all, just two shining unblinking red orbs, capable of haunting our dreams. In the end, it is only when the lighted windows into this soulless machine go dark that we can safely say that this war has been won.

And with that, Cameron and his terminator join the ranks of suspense masters like Hitchcock, De Palma, and Almodóvar, the storytellers connected to the mythic tradition. Remember the Greeks, who placed coins on the eyes of their dead to pay the ferryman to transport the bodies to Hell?

The look of death, it’s in the eyes, my friends.

 

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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