I like M Night Shyamalan’s work. He’s a very capable writer-director. What’s more, I like The Happening, which almost everyone seems to despise. But he does tend to waste a lot of money. I think his films would usually be better if he had less to spend. And this was very much on display in the Jeep crash scene from that film. I couldn’t help but compare it to the notorious meathook scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Now, you may think this is unfair. After all, this is one of the greatest scenes ever created for a movie. But I think it is still worth doing. This is a scene that cost almost nothing to shoot. It involves two camera setups. It was probably shot in an afternoon. Yet it is visceral in its impact.
This is exactly the opposite of the jeep crash scene in The Happening. It relies on motion-controlled cameras, computer graphics, stunt workers, and doubtless cost hundreds of thousand dollars — if not more. Yet it has no real impact on the viewer. It doesn’t even need to be in the film except to provide the film’s heartwarming epilog.
Meathook Scene: Shot by Shot
There are many things that make this scene one of the most frightening in movie history. There’s the excellent acting, the incredible music, and the context coming right after Pam (Teri McMinn) flees the “chicken” room. But I want to focus on the shots, which may be brilliant, but only in their simplicity.
- The first shot is from above and behind a row of two meathooks. One is prominent in the foreground — slightly out of focus. We see Leatherface carrying Pam, who is screaming and struggling, into the room. He carries her toward the hook.
- Cut to the reverse angle, from floor height. Leatherface continues to carry Pam to the hook, lifting her up as if to impale her on it.
- Cut back to the first angle. The hook is in the foreground, Pam’s back is brought down toward the hook. This shot is very short — perhaps a quarter second.
- Cut to the second angle but swifted so that the camera is directly in front of Pam. Leatherface releases her body, which comes down starply, apparently impaled on the hook.
- Axial cut to close-up of Pam screeming.
Why the Meat Hook Scene Works
I think one big reason the whole film works is that it comes across as cinéma vérité. Yet as this scene shows, it is nothing of the sort. But it does have a certain documentary simplicity. The camera is always on a tripod here. It never pushes in, zooms, or even pans.
What’s probably most important here is that the movement of Pam is seamless. As the second shot ends, Pam has been lifted as high as Leatherface can manage. Throughout the third shot, he lowers her. At the start of the fourth shot, she is coming down and then is dropped. To the viewer, it seems like a single shot.
Of course, it is in that fourth shot when Pam is dropped that makes it seem real. This is doubtless because Pam actually is being impaled. Gunnar Hansen really is putting the harness that McMinn is wearing on that hook. There’s even a little natural bounce that sells it.
To some extent, this is an example of practical effects being easier. That whole final “hooked” shot would be hard to make work if it had to be animated. But other than wearing the harness, there really is no “movie magic” in this scene. It’s doubtful it could be any simpler.
Jeep Crash Scene: Shot by Shot
I can’t really do a shot-by-shot analysis of the Jeep crash scene because it is all done in one shot. That is the problem! Let’s go through it.
- It starts with a medium shot of the Jeep from the side. As the Jeep accelerates forward, the camera tracks with it.
- The camera falls behind and pans with the Jeep as it drives into the tree.
- The camera stops panning as the Jeep hits the tree and we see the driver fly out the front windshield.
- John Leguizamo exits the Jeep while the camera zooms in and follows him.
- The camera continues to zoom as he sets down and cuts his wrist.
A Technical Achievement!
There is a 10-minute documentary on the DVD that goes over the process. Basically, they use motion-controlled cameras. Then they composite them into the final scene.
Why did they do this? They spent a lot of time and money to make the scene happen in one shot. It’s 16 seconds from when the Jeep takes off to when we see Leguizamo leave the car. I doubt many people even notice it is in one shot. If they do, I don’t see how they would care.
The biggest problem here is that the most important part of it is in long-shot. Two people are thrown from the Jeep but we only barely see the second and that is after the body has landed. And despite 30 additional seconds of zooming, we see no detail of Leguizamo cutting his writs.
This is a perfect example of filmmakers pleasing themselves rather than the audience. Getting this scene was a technical accomplishment. But it deprived the audience of a great moment in the film.
A Better Jeep Crash Edit
I’m not a film editor. But I think it would have been more effective to eliminate the single-shot and get into the action. Following the crash, this would work better:
- CU on Leguizamo as he stares emotionless.
- POV of the dead bodies in front of the Jeep.
- Medium on Leguzamo as he calmly opens the door.
- Follow him as he notices something on the ground.
- POV of broken glass.
- CU on Leguzamo has he sits.
- Tilt down to his hand holding a glass shard as he cuts into his wrist and blood flows.
- Cut to other group.
Pretty standard idea there. It could probably be done with half the shots. But that would cut together in an effective way. The only problem: it wouldn’t have given the crew a tech boner.
Financial limitations often bring out the creativity in people. But that isn’t what’s going on here.
The people who made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were just trying to make an effective film. The Happening was made by a bunch of jaded professionals. So why not have some fun with a technical challenge?
The problem is that after they spent the cost of a nice house on this technical feat, they had to use it in the film. And the film is worse for it.
Screen captures from the two films are used under Fair Use.