The Call is Coming From Inside Nakatomi Plaza
At nine tomorrow morning, all the Halloween stuff comes down, and by 10, all the Christmas stuff is up. So yes, I feel OK about jumping in early on our annual holiday tradition of fighting about Die Hard. And yes, today, October 31st is the day to do it. Because Die Hard has never just been the Christmas movie you think it is. It’s a Halloween movie, too. Oh, I know, all the Christmas hats and Christmas music are a little distracting, but underneath all that cheer, it’s the nightmare before Christmas.
Die Hard is the story of a New York cop, John McClane (Bruce Willis) who gets caught in the middle of a hostage situation in which ex-terrorist turned uber-boomer, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), and his gang of ruthless Zoolander models take over a Los Angeles office building and hold the staff of the Nakatomi corporation hostage during their Christmas party. This is so they can begin a time-consuming breakdown of the Nakatomi seven-layers-of-security-tech thick vault. Before going to the party, McClane washes up in his wife’s executive office bathroom after his flight into LA. He hears the gunshots and sees the bandits take hostages. Before they find him, McClane disappears into the half-finished, still under construction upper levels of the building. McClane spends the rest of the movie trying to stop the heist, save the hostages, and stay alive by picking off Gruber’s men one by one.
But the minute McClane runs upstairs into the unfinished floors, Die Hard becomes a whole new kind of action movie. It’s never not a 1980s Joel Silver cop-as-rock-star epic– from 48 Hours to Lethal Weapons 1-4, no one thinks cops are the shit like Joel Silver–but in scene after scene, director John McTiernan reaches way outside the cop-thriller action movie to tell McLane’s story in the language of horror.
As soon as McClane bolts into unfinished floors of the building, Die Hard becomes what’s known in the trade as a haunted-house movie. In those, a group of people are thrown together in a cursed castle or haunted house. Stuck in there with them is something bad, really bad, that’s hunting them one by one. It lives in the dank basement, the cobwebby attic, in forgotten secret passages. Or it’s just a spook that goes where it wants. The genre dates back to the gothic 1700s. Movies have used it since the silent days, from the thrice-made Cat and the Canary to The Haunting, The Shining, Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, and Beetlejuice. Alien, both versions of The Thing, are all reworked haunted-house movies, with their isolated crews trapped in close quarters with alien killing machines.
For Hans Gruber, the second act starts with classic horror warnings that something isn’t right. “Get out,” as the Amityville house would tell him. Upstairs, McClane sets off a fire alarm, and Gruber sends a man up to kill whoever set it off. But once he’s up there, the hunter is spooked? He’s alone, it’s quiet–for an explosion-driven movie like this, McTiernan sure knows how to use quiet. When he hears a shrill noise–an electric saw–it makes us jump. When he reaches it that he knows that the thing in the attic has lured him.
They fight, and McClane breaks the man’s neck on the stairwell, killing him. Here McClane makes a decision most cops would not make, but Jason or Freddy Krueger might. He sticks a Santa hat on the body’s bloody head and sends it down to Hans Gruber in an elevator sitting on an office chair. On his sweatshirt, McClane has written, “Now I Have a Machine Gun Ho-Ho-Ho.”
The 80s were the golden age of slasher movies, and this funny, bloody image of Karl is pure Silent Night, Deadly Night schtick. When more killers come for McClane, he uses elevator shafts and air vents to get away, the phantom in his opera house catacombs. In vents, he spies on them thru grates, listens, gathers information. They’re hunted by a killer, too. Considering that Silver and McTiernan’s previous movie was Predator, a science-fiction horror movie where an alien hunts a group of Schwarzenegger-led mercenaries in the jungle, the parallels are obvious. It’s just that here, the monster is the hero.
McClane finally gets a police officer to come to the building, Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), who looks around and almost leaves, when McClane makes another choice most cops wouldn’t. He takes a Gruber henchman he killed and tosses the body out the window down 32 stories or so onto Powell’s car. Again, McTiernan keeps it quiet. Powell is singing a Christmas song softly to himself when we see the body drop from above and crash headfirst into the hood, and then Powell starts screaming. It looks a lot like Oliver Reed in Burnt Offerings, tossed out of the upper stories of a haunted house by his possessed wife, Karen Black, and crashing through his station wagon’s windshield with his son inside, screaming.
Powell then makes a choice most movie cops wouldn’t. He puts the car in reverse and rolls away, still screaming, as you do in a horror film, until the car rolls backwards off an embankment, trapping him there with the evil thing. Just like in every horror movie. By this time, McClane has killed three of Gruber’s men and finally brought the police. And again, he does something most cops wouldn’t do, but a slasher would. Following up on his dead man-in-the-elevator stunt, McClane can’t resist calling Gruber up– yes, the call is coming from inside the house, Hans–to taunt him Zodiac-style on his walkie-talkie, using the information he’s learned about Gruber’s crew to creep them out. And Gruber does what every cop does in these movies, he keeps his psycho talking, trying to get any clue he can out of him, while henchman Karl (Alexander Gudonov) listens.
I figured since I waxed Tony and Marco and his friend here …
I figured you and Karl and Franco might be lonely … so I
wanted to give you a call.
How does he know so much about us?
That’s very kind of you. I assume you are our mysterious party
crasher. You are most troublesome … for a security guard.
Bzzt! Sorry, Hans. Wrong guess. Would you like to go for
double jeopardy where the scores can really change?
Once McClane trips up and lets Gruber know he’s not a guard, Gruber wants more and baits McClane’s considerable ego. “You know my name, but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture …who thinks he’s John Wayne, Rambo, Marshal Dillon?” McClane banters a little bit more, but then like every movie killer about to reveal something, he hangs up. Gruber now uses what he just learned and barks orders to his men like a precinct captain. “Check on all the others. Don’t use the radio. See if he’s lying about Marco…and find out if anyone else is missing.”
Die Hard loves blood like a splatter film, too. When Gruber kills Mr. Takagi, Takagi’s blood sprays all over the conference room glass door. It’s there every time McClane runs past. There’s the increasing amount of blood smeared on McClane (his, and other people’s), and the oozing hole in the head of Ellis (Hart Bochner) after Gruber shoots him. Finally, there’s the pure gore of McClane forced to run on broken glass without socks or shoes, and then we wince as he picks the shards out of his bleeding feet. When Gruber learns that Nakatomi executive Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) is McClane’s wife, he finally has his bargaining chip, and lures out the monster. McClane, burned, bleeding, and limping on those feet, staggers out so that Gruber won’t hurt her.
McTiernan even shoots the final showdown like a monster movie. McClane lumbers out of the shadows like the mummy or Frankenstein, seen in silhouette framed in a doorway, knowing he’s walking into a trap. It all looks very much like the finale of 1951’s The Thing. Unlike that monster, McClane manages to kill Hans Gruber once and for all after Gruber tumbles out a window down to his death.
Just when we think we’re safe, outside on the plaza with an army of cops and medics, McTiernan plays off one more horror trope. Karl rises up from the dead (or so we thought) wrapped in a blanket, like out of a grave, and fires his machine gun one more time before Sgt. Al Powell shoots him down.
Christmas and horror aren’t mutually exclusive. Ebenezer Scrooge lives in a haunted house of Christmas ghosts. No, they’re not male-model-quality-hot ghosts with machine guns, but still. And Krampus is scarier than any Halloween monster. But McTiernan’s use of horror tropes, and of the creepy skill set of a monster transferred to a cop, are still unexpected turns the movie keeps throwing at us. That all helps make Die Hard an action masterpiece for any season.