Posted by Greg Ferrara on October 10, 2012
Almost every movie ever made that involves any kind of conflict has a showdown. It may not be the grand finale and it may not last more than a few seconds, but showdowns are a part of dramatic structure. They can be big, like the showdown between Shane (Alan Ladd) and Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) at the climax of Shane or small, like the showdown between R.P. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when he wants to let the gang watch the World Series and loses initially (she doesn’t allow Chief Bromden’s vote) only to pull out a victory seconds later by pretending to watch it anyway. They can come in the form of a standoff between rich young publisher and legal guardian, as in Citizen Kane, where Kane (Orson Welles) tells Thatcher (George Coulouris) that at the rate of a million dollars a year he’ll have to close this paper in… sixty years or they can come in the form of an imaginary standoff between two movie patrons (Woody Allen and Russell Horton) and a magically produced Marshall McLuhan (um, Marshall McLuhan) in Annie Hall. But for pure bang for the buck, showdowns rarely reach the visceral heights as those produced by horror. Here are some of my favorites.
Horror movies and showdowns go together like Frankenstein’s monster and awkward conversations and when it comes to the vampire sub-genre, the showdowns really shine. A vampire movie simply isn’t a vampire movie if it doesn’t end with the vampire, or Dracula as is so often the case in classic cinema, being destroyed in the end. There are so many to choose from that I’ll restrict myself to Dracula himself and leave the other vampire slayings from all the other vampire movies to anyone who wants to vote them up. In restricting myself to Dracula, there’s still plenty from which to choose and the methods for Dracula’s defeat vary wildly from one interpretation to the next.
In the 1931 version of Dracula, with Bela Lugosi of course, the count is killed off-screen. As far as showdowns go, it’s a non-starter. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that you could kill Drac off-screen but in 1931 they worried about the violent imagery of a man, undead or not, having a stake driven through his chest and opted to not show it. In the 1992 version by Francis Ford Coppola, Drac meets his end as he does in the novel, by Bowie knife to the neck. It’s a decent showdown with lots of action and fighting, complete with a time-lapse sundown leading up to it but, still, it’s not the best one for me.
Interestingly, death by sunlight has occurred a few times starting with Nosferatu (yes, I know, technically his name is Orlok, not Dracula, but we all know he’s supposed to be Dracula and would be were it not for copyright problems back in the day) in 1922, where Orlok, when exposed to the sun, disappears in a poof. It’s not really a showdown as much as bad timing on the count’s part so we have to move ahead to 1979 for a much more intense “let there be light” showdown in which Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) hoists a sunburned Drac (Frank Langella) up to the crow’s nest of a ship for a show-stopping showdown in a decidedly not-showstopping movie. But the best for me, by far, is the showdown between Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and Dracula (Christopher Lee) in Hammer’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula) from 1958. The Cushing/Lee showdown works best because it has a fever-pitch in which brawn (Dracula) is undone by brains (Van Helsing). And it’s not just that Van Helsing remembers it’s daytime outside and need only remove the drapes, it’s the confident, tearing run he does across the top of that grand dining table and the deathless leap he makes to the drapes that really sells the whole thing. The icing on the cake? Making a cross from two candlesticks as Dracula burns, melts and, eventually, turns to dust.
Monster movies have their own set of rules and they usually all contain a pretty big showdown. King Kong may be a monster movie of sorts but it’s not considered a horror movie by any stretch of the imagination and yet I have to include it because it does have a forty foot gorilla terrorizing New York City and one of the most singularly iconic showdowns in movie history. Kong climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and battling bi-planes before falling to his death is pure cinematic poetry. Really just some of the greatest fantasy/adventure movie imagery ever burned into the imagination of filmgoers.
But when it comes to other monster movies, I prefer the small scale showdowns over the big ones. Now I love The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Blob and Them! but for monster showdowns, I’ll take The Thing from Another World any time. The Thing has a showdown of brains and brawn versus brains and brawn. Both parties, the thing itself and the North Pole encamped group, have muscle and intellect. Both can anticipate the other’s moves and the entire movie plays like a game of hide and seek with no one particularly willing to find the hiding party. Through technology and power, they trap the thing for an (ahem) electrifying showdown. The finale and the movie itself are both personal favorites.
Then there’s the intellectual showdown, where one outwits the other.
Last week I wrote up Night of the Eagle and would definitely include the showdown between Norman (Peter Wyngarde) and Flora (Margaret Johnston) as a battle of wits. When the showdown begins, Norman is in Flora’s office snooping around. She shows up and at first, they play it coy but soon both parties reveal they know everything about the other, including Norman’s knowledge that Flora practices witchcraft. Flora taunts Norman with a supreme confidence in her abilities to defeat him and his wife, Tansy, who has been countering Flora’s spells from the start. As Tansy lays asleep in her bed, Flora constructs a house of cards in front of Norman and sets it on fire. Norman knows her power with spells and when she taunts Norman that his house is now burning down with Tansy inside it, he has to decide whether it’s real or a bluff. He finally dashes out of the office to save Tansy as Flora laughs (and yes, the house was on fire). Flora wins, but only that battle.
The Exorcist provides the kind of showdown that at first seems like pure brutality but quickly reveals itself to be something else. As Father Karras (Jason Miller) finds Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) dead of a heart attack and little Regan (Linda Blair) laughing, he says to himself, “Okay, the holy water, chanting and analyzing didn’t work. It’s clobberin’ time!” At which point he flies into a rage, drags Regan across the room and proceeds to beat and choke her. It is then that he dares the demon to take him instead and seeing as Regan is very quickly becoming damaged goods, the demon takes Karras up on the offer only to realize Karras has tricked it when Karras hurls himself out of the window and down a long set of stone steps to his death.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining also has a terrific showdown, one that operates on several different levels. First, Kubrick fools the audience into believing the real showdown will be between Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) by having Jack’s son Danny (Danny Lloyd) contact Hallorann telepathically. But before that showdown can even get started, Kubrick gives it the ax and sets up the real showdown between Danny and Jack while at the same time sending Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) on an Overlook self-guided tour of horrors that plays as a showdown between Wendy and the hotel. While Wendy winds through the maze of the Overlook, Danny leads Jack through the hedge maze on the grounds and gains just enough of a lead to retrace his footsteps and leap to safety, leaving Jack frozen solid with confusion.
If I keep describing every single favorite horror showdown, this post will run 78 pages long so let me trim this down to just mentions now and acknowledge that I have left off dozens upon dozens of the most classic, well-known and most beloved showdowns in horror history because I simply don’t have the room to name them all (but you are, of course, welcome to). But quickly, before I go:
Freaks: “Gooble, gobble, one of us.”
Carrie: The prom to end all proms. No, really, after that kind of disaster, they really should’ve ended the prom.
Alien: The slow, methodical and quiet way in which Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) secures herself, and the cat, before sending old no-eyes sailing out the back door.
Poltergeist: Not the big finale (a bit overdone for my taste) but the showdown between boy and clown. It really grabs you around the neck.
Cat People: The “showdown” in the pool between Irena and Alice.
The Old Dark House: Psychotic brother Saul against the world.
Doctor X: Everyone handcuffed in place while Dr. Wells has a, um, free hand to do as he pleases.
Rosemary’s Baby: A great showdown of active resistance instead of a show of physical force. When Rosemary grabs the knife, it looks like we’re in for a bloody showdown but instead, Rosemary does something much more powerful: She asserts her motherhood and tells the witches they can blow it out their ears. She hears them, she just ignores them. Well, except Roman. He’s in Dubrovnik so she can’t hear him at all.
And about a million more. So many horror movies have great showdowns that this could become an ongoing series of blog posts and after a full year of weekly posting I still wouldn’t be able to cover them all. The reason horror movie showdowns are so compelling is because the players are always greatly mismatched in strength and ability. In a western, two gunfighters may have certain strengths and weaknesses that have to be overcome but, still, it’s two people, both with firearms and a knowledge of how to use them, going against each other. In a straightforward drama, the showdown may be between two people who have grown apart over the years and argue from two completely different life perspectives. But with horror, it’s almost always human versus something far stronger, bigger and supernatural. It means if the human wins he or she will have defeated something far more powerful by using cunning and wits and know-how. In the end, our love of the horror showdown has more to do with our love of the underdog than anything else. And a battle where the underdog might prevail is always a showdown worth showing up for.
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