My Take by Jim Carl - July 1, 2013
My Top 5 "Gotcha!" Moments in Movies
A great "gotcha!" moment in a scary movie is one you never saw coming, one you never suspected was on its way. It jerks you upright in your seat and instantly turns you stone- cold sober. In other cases, it petrifies you. This is not the same as suspense or fear which, if I have to define for you, probably means you're too wet behind the ears to be reading my blog and should go back to gnawing on your Orbit gum and analyzing the differences between the book and latest movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
You have to be of a certain age and mindset for a "gotcha!" moment to really work. And by work, I mean make a lasting impression beyond just giving you a good startle for a few minutes. I'm talking the type of psychological scar that carries into adulthood and keeps drug manufacturers in business. Kids know "gotcha!" moments better than adults. Adults argue that's because kids are so impressionable. But no, I would say it's because most children can't believe their parents took them to see a movie that screwed them in the head so bad. Kids never forget those moments.
Like a dog that’s been trained to sense when there's a ghost in the house, I've become psychically-conditioned over time to recognize when a "gotcha!" moment is coming, whether it's the editing, the framing, or just plain old-fashioned common sense. You've seen one madman with a knife jump out of a closet, you've seen 'em all, I'm only saying. But once upon a time when Carter and Reagan were in office and Bo and Luke Duke were throttling the General Lee all over Hazzard County and back, I was much more naive about such things, and there were moments in movies that made me lose my mind.
Here are the ones my doctors find most fascinating:
"The head pops out of the bottom of the boat."
It says something about my West Texas upbringing that some of my earliest movie-going memories are of The Exorcist, Escape from Witch Mountain, Ode to Billy Joe, and this movie. I could not have been more than seven years old. When I unlock this memory, the Texas Theatre in Sweetwater is filled with a packed and rowdy audience, mostly cowboys, gunslingers, and outlaws. I'm sitting between my Aunt Eva and my mother, somewhere in the center of the dark auditorium. The screen is huge, it seems, maybe 200 feet. And when Richard Dreyfuss swims under that sinking boat to investigate its hull...well, the next few moments in my mind's eye resemble those advertisements about 3-D they used to run in the early 80s. The cowboys are screaming, buttered popcorn is flying, and searchlights are scanning the room for escaped criminals in bloody, orange jumpsuits. My memory resembles something like that. Jaws holds the distinction of having the first "gotcha!" moment in my life. It was also the first---and last---time I ever held my mother at the movies.
THE THING (1982)
"The blood jumps out of the petri dish."
It's all about misdirection, isn't it? Have your characters talk, talk, talk until the audience grows complacent and then---BAM!---strike when they least expect it. That's what happens here. I've come to recognize this technique in lots of other horror movies but, for me, The Thing got there first. John Carpenter's remake has an example of this technique, brilliantly executed. That the blood screams as it jumps out of the petri dish makes the memory even more disturbing. Nowadays, whenever a character starts yapping on and on during a scare flick and the camera doesn't cut away to a reaction shot, I grow fidgety and start scrutinizing the edges of the frame for something to pop into view, and I'm rarely disappointed. I suppose I shouldn't bitch too much about this technique being overused---although I take great joy in doing so, especially to anyone who thinks Paranormal Activity is a scary movie---because it's hard to improve something that effectively works.
EXORCIST III (1990)
"The nurse gets it."
Sometimes, you don’t realize you’re being set-up for a whammy until it’s too late. The camera just sits there, silently observing from a distance, as characters move through the scene without much ado on their daily routine. This is a reversal from the technique I described in The Thing. Here, serenity is the whore that sells you out. Exorcist III has probably the last true "gotcha!" moment I ever experienced at the movies. I was 22 years old and saw this in a Times Square theatre with a sold-out crowd on opening night. If you've seen the movie, you'll probably agree when I write that it's a fairly competent thriller with one truly frightening and brilliant scene. It involves a nurse, a hallway, and a hooded figure carrying a really evil set of clippers. I've shown this movie to friends over the years just to gauge their reaction to this single scene, and it's never failed to deliver the goods. It amazes me that this scene hasn't been ripped-off in countless other movies, but no, it remains a true original.
"Carrie comes out of her grave."
My mother and Aunt Eva had an earnest discussion about whether or not to take me to see this movie. I must have been eight years old. Of course, what I didn't know then was that their conversation had centered around the explicit nudity during the menstruation scene in the girl's locker room and not the film's violence which, as most West Texan Catholic women in the 70s imagined, was perfectly fine for non-Baptist children, what with crucified Jesus hanging over our heads every Sunday morning in church. They made me stand in the theatre's lobby and hold their purses during Carrie's first 10 minutes, just to embarrass me, but the joke was on them because there was a crack between the swinging doors that permitted me to see the entire shower scene without their distractingly adult-guardian glares. I thought I'd gotten away with murder. And I probably looked it, too; grinning from ear-to-ear in the dark for the rest of the movie. That is, until Carrie's hand popped out of her grave and my heart blew out. I'm pretty sure I stopped grinning at that exact moment.
FRIDAY THE 13th (1980)
"Jason jumps out of the lake."
Here is the mother-of-pearl of "gotcha!" moments. The movie is over. The killer has been dispatched and the final girl has paddled in a canoe to the center of the lake. Look, there's the sheriff's deputy, standing on the shore as soft, misleading music cues the end credits. And then...WHAM. When I saw this at a drive-in with my mother in 1980, the people in the car beside us leaned out their window and---in that impeccable good taste associated with West Texans----offered my mother a roll of toilet paper, saying, "Maam, I think your son just shit his pants." I am not making this up nor exaggerating in the slightest. This really happened. Psychological scars are made of this.
Nowadays, I'm a lot more cynical when it comes to horror movies. I'm not saying that I haven't had a good jolt here and there, but I'm not prone to remember those "gotcha!" moments for very long, and am more likely to smile and think, "That oughta play well for an audience during Nevermore."
How about you? What are the best "gotcha!" moments you've ever had?