Monday, April 4, 2011

Just When You Think It's Safe: The Fourth Act in Horror

I'm not entirely sure "The fourth act" is an official cinematic term. There is no entry for it on Wikipedia, which obviously means that it doesn't exist in real life, since Wikipedia is you know ...the true and honest authority on everything. Also when you Google it--a bunch of shitty movies come up--and if you can't get the facts from Google who can you turn to? By the way, thanks to Google I am now fully aware when the anniversary of the ice cream sundae is--thank GOD.

So, what is the "fourth act" you ask? The fourth act of a film is kind of a gotcha moment. It's when we put our guards down and breathe a sigh of relief that all the scary stuff is over. The fourth act, grips us by the face and yells things like, "JUST KIDDING" or "IT'S NOT OVER YET" and "HA!". It is actually quite a mean little bastard come to think of it. But even though it's mean, I've come to truly appreciate it and I always keep a look out for it and get all excited and pretend to be smart when it does.

But since there is no Wikipedia entry--I can't give an official run down of the history of the fourth act and when it started and any other smart details that I could copy and paste from somewhere in an attempt to pretend that I am also smart. So instead I'll just have to point out what my favorite fourth acts are and you will just have to tell me if I missed any important ones--since I'm pretty sure most of you are in fact smarter than I am. Then again, do any of you spend your time studying Wikipedia articles about the history of the Kellogg company or the natural mathematical properties of a spiral? Didn't think so.


My 2nd favorite example of a fourth act comes from one of the best movies in the entire universe. This was a moment that completely took me by surprise and made me spill water on myself. After resident bad ass and cat lover Ellen Ripley

escapes the alien and makes it to the escape shuttle, she prepares to enter stasis. Unfortunately, just as we let out our final breath of relief, the alien is seen sleeping soundly in the shuttle!! That's right, that crazy mother fucker is still alive! It's a moment that causes you to curse loudly and throw things. Can you imagine, going through all of that---thinking that you made it safe and sound and find that you are trapped on an escape shuttle with the alien and have no place to go?

Luckily, Ellen Ripley is a woman who thinks on her feet and she was able to successfully lure the alien into one of the engines and blasts it into oblivion. God bless. A fun fact about this particular fourth act is that it was later added in by the mind of Ridley Scott--who was displeased with the original ending of Ripley simply escaping off in the shuttle. The original plan was actually to have Ripley lose to the alien, have her head bitten off--and have the alien perform the final log entry in the voice of Ellen Ripley. Talk about your gut punch ending.

Personally I'm glad the film ends the way it does because what would Aliens be without Ellen Ripley? I hate every one in that movie except Ellen Ripley and Lance Henriksen and as we all know, robots aren't exactly capable of man handling an exosuit cargo loader the way that Ellen Ripley does. On second thought are they?

I think I just made an assumption that could technically be considered as robot racist. Don't hold it against me.


Following closely on the heels of the success gained from the fourth act in Alien, Poltergeist provides us with what is in my mind---the best fourth act in history. I tend to encounter this strange phenomena with Poltergeist. Even though I've seen it about 50 million and 3 times, I still always think that maybe *this time* the house will not turn on them one last time, and that *this time* the closet will not turn into a giant pulsating ball of pink flesh. Unfortunately it happens every time and every time that it does I get angry. I get angry at Craig T. Nelson who lets his family wait for him in the house. I get angry that Jo Beth Williams decides that now is the time to take a relaxing bath! God damn all of you!

I think what makes the fourth act in Poltergeist so memorable is that it's a fricking crazy fourth act. It's the ultimate false sense of comfort as evidenced by the fact that getting Carol Anne out of the closet world was in fact the entire point of the whole movie. Because she was rescued, and everything seemed to be fine---and because Zelda Rubenstein (RIP!) declared that the house was clean....we believed as the Freelings believed that they were safe.

As most of us know however, they are not safe. The beast still lives on and he is pretty angry. Like really fucking'm gonna turn the closet into a uterus and make coffins sprout out of the ground angry. It's the best fourth act in the world---in my opinion (Which is the right opinion).

The Ring

And filling out the brief list is The Ring. I forget if Ringu ends the same but I'm guessing it does because they are mostly the same movie. Okay, the authority on everything that is Wikipedia informs me that yes, it does basically end in the same way. So now all you original purists can be silenced!

After Rachel thinks that by simply finding Samara's body and nestling it closely to her bosom, is enough to end the curse--every one goes home and breathes a sigh of relief. Unfortunately for Noah who did not have the luxury of showing the tape to someone else--he gets killed by the very scary spectral image of Samara exiting from the TV screen. This is a more simple example of a fourth act and one that I'm sure people saw coming from a mile away.

Still though, you have to admit, it was a fourth act that was pretty mind blowing in all the right places. Sure, we may have not been as naive as Rachel to think that Samara's spirit had to be released, but when Aidan gets all wide eyed and terrified when he hears what Rachel has done--it's almost as if the hair on the back of our neck stands up. Samara's spirit is now free--she can do whatever she wants. Luckily she still seems to be restricted to coming out of wells in TV sets though. I imagine it would be marginally horrible if one day she realized she could walk around and just kill people as she pleased....yikes.

So, those are my three favorite examples of a fourth act. Now class, it's time for you to give me an example of a fourth act! I would also like to point out, that another good example of a fourth act comes from the finale of Season 4 of Dexter. Which I will not spoil but those that have seen will know what I refer to. Ah the good old days before Julia Stiles ruined everything!


Todd Miro said...

You picked some great ones, and they work because they are not simply cheap GOTCHA moments - They actually help complete the narrative. The most obvious GOTCHA I can think of is the last scene in Carrie at the graveyard, which spawned all-too-many clones.

matango said...

I love the ending to Poltergeist because I think it has the most realistic response of anyone ever in a horror movie: just freaking the fuck out and getting the heck away.

Andre Dumas said...

Thanks Todd! I guess Carrie could technically be considered although that's more of a "last final scare" than a fourth act. Don't forget after a fourth act should come the "fifth act" aka the end. Whereas that moment is just the end of Carrie. Interesting to think about though.

Hah yes matango I agree. I would definitely be the hickey ridden teenager pulling my hair out and flipping the fuck out!

Morbidementia said...

If you didn't coin the term "fourth act", you certainly wrote the most in-depth and informative treatise on the subject. Loved it!

Chris Hewson said...

I still haven't seen Poltergeist strangely. Yeah...I'm not proud.
Also, who's Julia Stiles?

Unknown said...

The one from The Ring was an especially effective one I thought. Fun post.

Andre Dumas said...

Whaaat haven't...seen....Poltergeist?!! Chris, stop standing around and get to it my friend!
Julia Stiles is an American actress who quite frankly....stinks at acting except when she's playing a super bitch in movies like 10 Things I Hate About You.!

demia said...

love it!but i cant see the video of poltergeist it was remove!!!!