The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Black, more than anyone else, should have been the one to wind up The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Too bad he doesn't…
The movie is called "Blue Steel," and Jamie Lee Curtis stars in it as a female cop who can't convince her superiors that a psychopath is trying to kill her. But first he wants to scare her. So he materializes out of shadows and from behind parked cars and from darkened stairways, and he toys with her emotions until she's a basket case. Meanwhile, he's murdering other people all over town--and when the cops dig the bullets out of the dead bodies, they all have her name etched on them.
So in other words this is a thriller. And a particular kind of a thriller, in which the killer seems to have nine lives, and once you think you've disposed of him, he just keeps right on coming. Jamie Lee Curtis has made movies in this genre before, including the most famous one of all, "Halloween." There was a time when she was known as the Queen of the Screamers, back before she began to show her full range as an actress in movies like "Trading Places," "Love Letters" and "A Fish Called Wanda," and on her ABC-TV series "Anything But Love."
So how about it? I asked her one morning not long ago. This was out at the Sundance Park City Film Festival, up in the mountains of Utah, the day after "Blue Steel's" world premiere. Is it strange, I asked, to be back in a thriller again, with a killer who will not die? Earlier in your career, you complained about being trapped in horror movies.
"Yeah," she said, "but what I should have said was, I was trapped in them to the extent that that's how I got my entry into show business."
But then you branched out into other sorts of things, and now you're back in what is undeniably a horror film, even if it is your best since "Halloween."
"I don't look at it as a horror film."
It is in terms of how it's going to be advertised.
"I look at it as a much more suspenseful thriller. I've been in horror films, with ax-murderers and so forth. There's a difference."
This isn't a boy scout in "Blue Steel," I said, and that indeed was true. The psychopath is played by Ron Silver, in a performance that will not remind anyone of his work in the current "Enemies: A Love Story," although it is in its own way as effective. He plays a wealthy, respected commodities broker who happens to be in a grocery store one night when it's stuck up by a gun-waving loony. Silver hits the floor along with everyone else, and then the Jamie Lee Curtis character--in her first day on the job as a cop--walks in and tells the stick-up man to freeze. He turns to shoot her, she shoots him first, and his gun falls to the floor as he dies.
As the Silver character watches this bloody drama, something clicks inside of him. He secretly reaches over and pockets the gun, and slips away in the confusion. And then he starts killing people. Why does he engrave the female cop's name on each bullet he uses? Maybe, according to the movie's rather murky psychology, he really wants her to put his name on one of her bullets. He seems to have been totally unhinged by the sight of a woman in uniform killing someone.
"Blue Steel" was directed by a young woman named Kathryn Bigelow, whose previous credit was the thriller "Near Dark" (1987). Although it contains elements of the Killer Who Will Not Die from the horror genre, it doesn't stop there: Like "Jagged Edge" and "Fatal Attraction," it is about two people who fall in love before one realizes that the other may be very dangerous. Curtis actually begins to date Silver, not knowing who he is, and gets to like him before she witnesses the dark side of his personality. That's one of the reasons she finds it so hard to convince her superiors that this guy is a killer: As card-carrying chauvinists, they assume she's mad at him because he broke her heart.
"He is a horrific creature," Curtis said. "That moment where he comes out from behind the stairs, it almost reminded me of the 'Psycho' moment."
In your personality, I said, there seems to be a certain kind of zest for this kind of movie. In the movie, you have a line when you say, "I became a cop because I like to slam people up against the wall.' Did you become an actress because you like to say lines like that?
"Yeah, that could be said, although not by me. But see, what was interesting about my earlier days was that in those horror films I was always representing the best that women were. What I am very proud of is that I wasn't exploited. In all of my earlier work I was representing an intelligent, capable, bright, prom queen, head of her class, a college student type of woman--who faced tremendous adversity, and weirdo oddballs, and always managed to fight back against her aggressors, and be the victor."
She laughed. "If anything, it's in my more recent films that I've been exploited. They're legit films, so they're ok. They're A films, or studio films, or whatever. That's when I've been exploited, not when I was 18 years old. To me, 'Blue Steel' is coming back to being not exploited. It's a wonderful thing to play a woman like this cop. And yes, it is fun to rattle off lines like that. It's also very difficult, because it's very hard to make them real.
"One of the reasons I took this job is because I love using my physicality and my strength in a film, and I don't often get to do that. In my need to go off and do more dramatic films, I haven't been able to use it. I guess 'A Fish Called Wanda' used it in a different way, but this was a real real action film, and a wonderful thing for me."
Talking, using her hands, smiling wryly from time to time, she was fun to listen to because she's smart and thinks fast. She has been around the movie business for a long time; she was raised in it, as the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, and when she was a kid going to the movies, the stars were the parents of her friends. So she is analytical and a little cynical about it at times, and seems to view her career in terms approaching cold realism.
Curtis had compared one of the moments in "Blue Steel" to the shower scene in "Psycho"--the scene in which her mother, Janet Leigh, played a woman who is stabbed to death by a berserk motel attendant. and that had started me off on a little low-grade psychological musing. What would you say, I asked her, if someone told you that a lot of your career has been spent in horror films killing off various versions of Norman Bates?
"I'd say it's nonsense," she said, cheerfully. "It's too easy. It's too easy because it's not giving me any credit for just being me. I"m so uninvolved in that side of my life, that side about who my parents were. It's so distant to me that I'm sort of like, Oh, pu-leeese! It's as if Jane Fonda said her whole search was for Tom Joad in 'The Grapes of Wrath.' It's so easy. It's so absolutely simple to say that, and it's a lot more complex to look at the situations of my life, the criteria of my life, the chronology of my life, my work--even to look at me as a woman, the way I look.
"You know, when I was 18, I was not a pretty girl. I was real gawky and unstyled, my face was a little rounder, I didn't have any detail yet, I hadn't come into myself. I'm just now, 12 years later, coming into myself. If I were an actress today at the age of 18, I would never make it, because now our young actresses all seem to be very beautiful, and very talented right away. God, look at Winona Ryder. My talent was less discernable earlier in my career. I needed to mature. I needed to season a bit, and now I'm feeling great about it. So for me to make career decisions that have any connection with that early sort of stuff would be crazy. Any time someone says, I know who you are, I like go, oh yeah? Well watch this!"
I don't believe in the Norman Bates theory myself, I said, helpfully. But I got a good answer by asking the question.
"Now if you were to ask me, am I defensive about it? Absolutely."
It must be strange, I said, when your own mother happens to have appeared in the most famous movie scene ever made.
"And you know what? That scene in 'Psycho' didn't affect me. I saw that movie. I'm scared to death of scary movies, but that scene didn't affect me."
It didn't work for you?
"I think she's wonderful in it. But when you asked me about it, yes, it elicited a passionate response. I guess I want very much to he recognized for my abilities, for the work I put in, and yet it's still always there--who my parents were. As much as I love my parents, if that was the last thing ever said about me--that I was their daughter--I would be disappointed that my contributions weren't strong enough on their own." The fact is, I said, your career is so obviously on your own that many of your fans probably don't know who your parents are.
"I know that very well. Which was one of the reasons why it was easier for me to just keep going, because that I knew that was the case. But I can't fight people's natural first opinions. I was on Larry King's show the other day, and the first question I was asked was the same exact question I've been asked for the last 12 years, and I've answered it for 12 years: Do you think it helped or hurt to have famous parents?
"And I gave him the same answer as always, which is that people don't go to the movies to see somebody because of who their parents were. Who's going to put up money for a movie just because somebody's kid is in the movie? It's so insulting to think that that's the reason."
She laughed. "People don't go to see the people who are in the movie--let alone who their parents were!"
One obvious difference between "Psycho" and Curtis' thrillers, from "Halloween" to "Blue Steel," is that the woman is no longer defined as merely a victim. She fights back. And one of the peculiarities of the structure of "Blue Steel" is that she has to fight back again and again in two different ways, using both her physical strength and her cunning. A male protagonist in a similar plot would probably have spent most of his time trying to kill his enemy, but in "Blue Steel" the Curtis character also tries outwitting him, and manipulating him emotionally. I wondered if that approach had anything to do with the fact that the director, Kathryn Bigelow, was a woman.
"If you said the director's name was Bob Bigelow, I think the movie would elicit the same response," Curtis said. "I don't think people would say--wait a minute, a man didn't direct this movie. But there are some differences. I'm an actress, and therefore maybe I infused more sensitivity into the character than if this was a man's role. I liked the fact that I was scared. I really loved the fact that in that opening scene in the market when she shoots the guy, she's dying, she's so scared, and I loved that she's not just busting through doors, that she's scared, because it's human nature to be scared."
At the movie's Park City premiere the previous night, the reception had been friendly, but not overwhelming. "Blue Steel" is the kind of movie designed as a machine to whip up an audience reaction, and yet I hadn't felt frenzy in the little Egyptian Theater on Main Street, I'd felt something more like appreciation. Was that a disappointment for Curtis and Bigelow, who were also in the audience?
"It was like a trade screening," Curtis said. "Most of the people at this festival are in the business, in one capacity or another. And one thing I know about the movie business is, generally, people do not want you to succeed. It's a very tough business, and most people keep themselves very much in check. They give you some nice, polite little applause, they say 'nice job,' but they're not going to give you a standing ovation, especially not for something like this that's dark and violent. It's disturbing, and the images are very violent, and I don't think it's going to have kind of reaction. I know what kind of reaction this film can get. I already know. I know what people will do to this movie."
"The public will like it more than the people in the business. I remember when 'Trading Places' had an industry screening in Westwood. It didn't go well. I was 22 of 23, and I was devastated. I was so unhappy, and then we went to New York to publicize the movie, and [the director] John Landis took a bunch of us to Broadway to see it at 10 o'clock on a Saturday night. It was outrageous how vocal and raucous and exuberant the audiences was for the film. What I loved last night with 'Blue Steel' was, where their true feelings took over for them, the movie worked like gangbusters."
One of the worst things that can happen to a movie, she said, is that it's finished, and it's right, and then it's screened for the industry, and the filmmakers lose confidence and go back and starting trying to fix it even though it isn't broken. On the other hand, she said, it's possible to learn a lot about how a movie plays by listening closely to the responses of an ordinary cross-section of the public at a sneak preview. That's what happened with her enormous hit "A Fish Called Wanda," which didn't play that funny for American audiences until it underwent a little fine tuning.
"The biggest thing we changed about 'A Fish Called Wanda'," she said, "was the relationship between Archie and Wanda. American audiences had to have that be a real love story, while the Europeans could have dealt with her being a shark, a barracuda -- they would have found that more interesting. But Americans like apple pie and love stories.
"When I heard they were going to make some changes to make make Archie and Wanda's relationship more of a love story, I wasn't too happy. But all we did was add little things. We added a moment at the airport where I'm looking for him, instead of just leaving without him. There's a little scene now where he tells me that he can't see me anymore, that it's hurting his relationship. I remember that originally that was a scene where he's crying into his car phone, and he's saying 'Wanda, this is Archie, and I have to tell you I can't see you anymore, it's breaking my heart, but I can't do it.' And then he hangs up. Well, in the original version he got an Iranian restaurant, it was a wrong number and the movie went from that, to some guy saying, 'Hello?' So I guess it plays better now."
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