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Oscar Horrors: The Dangerous Editing of "Fatal Attraction"

Boo! It's a bonus episode of "Oscar Horrors". We're looking back on horror-connected Oscar nominations until Halloween. Here's Daniel Crooke on a Best Picture nominee's brilliant rhythms

Fatal Attraction wants you to keep your doors locked. It gets off on invasion, on lulling you into a false sense of security, sneaking in through the back gate, and shredding the nerves of you and everyone inside. And then it wreaks increasingly deranged havoc with maniacal glee. Such manipulation is not only the mark of a great psychopath but of a great editor, as well. In Fatal Attraction, you’ve got both; Glenn Close’s rhapsodic performance as jilted stalker Alex Forrest slashes at unexpected intervals but she meets her match in the finely screw-tuned cuts of Michael Kahn and Peter E. Berger. Adrian Lyne’s classic cautionary tale of infidelity gone wrong and what happens when you turn down someone’s invitation to the opera goes for the jugular (and the groin and the brain) but it’s up to Kahn and Berger to keep your guard down, raise the hairs on your neck, and provide a clear path for Close to sneak up behind you with the knife.

In Fatal Attraction, you’ve got both: Glenn Close’s rhapsodic performance as jilted stalker Alex Forrest slashes at unexpected intervals but she meets her match in the finely screw-tuned cuts of editors Michael Kahn and Peter E. Berger. Adrian Lyne’s classic cautionary tale of infidelity gone wrong and what happens when you turn down someone’s invitation to the opera goes for the jugular (and the groin and the brain). But in the end it’s up to Kahn and Berger to keep your guard down, raise the hairs on your neck, and provide a clear path for Close to sneak up behind you with the knife.

Nine years of happy marriage, an adorable and adoring young daughter, and an immaculate Manhattan apartment (with a big family dog to boot) has left hotshot attorney Dan (Michael Douglas) with all the conventional hallmarks of societal success and a nagging pair of blue balls. The family cozily cohabitates, lounging around like a den of happy lions, but the slack pace and disjunctive economy of shots coats the flat in a suggestion that ignorance is domestic bliss. In the opening scene, the crisscross cuts between Dan and his wife Beth (Anne Archer) calling back and forth to one another in separate rooms while getting ready for the same party signals a latent lack of togetherness built around habitual, cozy beats. Kahn and Berger coax your guard down by leaving plenty of breathing room in scenes at home between spouses – and they will continue to trick you into a resting heart rate with scenes of banal sanctuary. This is a false security leaving plenty of entry points to exploit.

In an especially sexually frustrated Kuleshov experiment, they hold on Dan’s face while his horndog hopes of getting laid melt away into disappointed acceptance and then they cut to show us that his daughter Ellen has decided to spend the night in her parents’ bed. By pacifying tension between Dan and Beth with an easygoing pace but expressly demonstrating the cracks in their home life, Kahn and Berger leave plenty of open doors for an intruder that will catch the sleeping audience off guard.

The limp rhythms of Dan’s home life feel especially flaccid once Alex Forrest enters the picture. The electricity that Close sparks with each charged glare accomplishes much of the work but there are clear visual signals that Dan feels more alive and connected in these moments than he does back home. In their first couple of encounters, we see Dan and Alex flirtatiously parry together in two-shots or group shots. Their immediate chemistry and camaraderie feels more intimate than the schematics (and accompanying cuts) of his American family. Kahn and Berger choose not to cut until their second encounter, when a striking close-up of Alex interrupts a business meeting. She secretly signals to Dan that he has cream cheese on his face, above his lip, and then we cut to his accompanying close-up, turned on. It’s a moment of pure potential sex, infiltrated by the editors’ choice to disrupt the visual sameness they’ve used to hypnotize the audience. Their first sex scene is a horny mash-up of overeager, thirsty cuts of carnality; the shots become quicker, the film develops a sense of humor by using insert shots of bubbling kettles and spinning fans as euphemism, blood begins to pump in the film’s veins. Normalcy disappears. It is replaced by the pulses of a raging id.

After their weekend tryst, Dan rejects Alex. Once she begins her vengeance over the family, the film becomes marked by brief moments of accelerated terror brought to life by jarring shifts in motion and shot set-up. In the film’s most infamous scene, Kahn and Berger jump between Beth’s soft, slow approach to a mysterious boiling pot and a dizzy, fast tracking shot of Ellen’s feet sprinting in the backyard to her pet bunny’s cage. While Beth’s pace remains stagnant, the disorientation of the rushing motion and uncomfortable framing of Ellen’s chase intensifies with the addition of swift shots of the bubbling pot at askew angles. By the time she lifts the handle, the cuts speed up to a breakneck clip between horrified mother, clueless father, and shrieking daughter; the family unit completely disrupted by a tense mania that can only mean Alex is afoot. We barely see the dead rabbit cooking in the pot but we don’t have to – the true horror in the scene comes from the unsettling realization that security is an illusion, generated by the editors’ time-warping invasion.

Later, when Alex kidnaps Ellen and takes her to a rickety amusement park, they juxtapose the churning chaos of their roller coaster ride with a distraught Beth (mostly captured in close-up and point of view shots) driving through traffic to find her daughter. By the time they cut between the coaster flying down the track to Beth crashing into the car in front of her, they have taken security completely off the rails.

Editing is as much about the long-form rhythms that pattern a film as it is the showier forms of montage that whip, whirl, and dazzle you with frenetic flurries of image. One necessitates the impact of the other. Fatal Attraction finds mood through the pacing and shot variety of its peaceful scenes of domesticity versus the ones that coil danger in plain sight. Once Alex has weaseled her way into Dan’s life – namely, by exploiting his impotency – the visual modes of the film swerve with unhinged outbursts of violence and danger. The potency of Fatal Attraction’s most wacko moments relies on how the established parallelism that Kahn and Berger have built between Dan’s humdrum home life and stimulating, taut combat with Alex eventually intersect – when the danger of the latter overtakes the placidity of the former.

In this sense, the editing of Fatal Attraction is a nightmare generator. First, it establishes a supposedly static safe zone based on the rules and rhythms of your everyday life. Then, it exploits a central psychological vulnerability in order to find an open window to creep inside and subtly shifts the dimensions. Finally, through complete distortion of the dull atmosphere that made you feel secure in the first place, you are trapped with the monster you’ve allowed inside the house.

Season 3 Oscar Horrors is a Wrap
The Bad Seed - Supporting Actress 
Bram Stoker's Dracula - Makeup
Dr Jekyll & Mr Mouse -Animated Short
Flatliners - Sound Editing
Kwaidan - Foreign Film
Misery - Actress 
Pan's Labyrinth - Production Design
The Sixth Sense - Picture  
Sleepy Hollow - Production Design 
Sweeney Todd - Best Actor
The Uninvited - Cinematography
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? - Cinematography

Season 2
Season 1

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Reader Comments (14)

Watch this again and tell me Close can't be sexy.

October 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDON

I don't know whose idea these posts were but they are v entertaining,I would like Nat to review a few more horror type films.

October 26, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

Look at how Close doesn't display any emotions on the roller coaster.. It's so frightening and sociopathic. I love her in this! I also love that the villain is always in white!

October 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

Thanks for a fascinating article on the tricky subject of editing. I particularly enjoyed the passages on the film's slower moments with the family.

October 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Close creates a creature straight out of every straight man's nightmare

October 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Sexy and sexual aren't the same. Anyone can be sexual except you asexual monsters. Sexy is a combination of physical beauty and unteachable personal presence.

October 26, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I've always argued that Anne Archer's Supporting Actress nomination was about the editing (plus being swept up in the euphoria surrounding the film and that serious-as-a-heart-attack "If you ever come near my family again, I'll kill you, you understand?" promise), and this essay brilliantly explores and confirms that. Great read!

October 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNewMoonSon

Sorry Cher, but Close shld've won the Oscar!!

Shame tt the Academy chose to award Bates in another psychopath turn, but has no balls (puns intended) to honour Close in easily the best & most scary performance of 1987.

Maybe they r scared shit by how brilliantly scary & sexy Close is

October 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Bates had the luxury of her rivals being previous winners (except Roberts).

80s BA is filled with novelty winners: Hepburn for a 4th just because, Matlin because she's deaf, Tandy because she's old, Cher because she's Cher.

October 26, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Close is terrific in Fatal Attraction, but let's not take away from Cher's achievement. Her performance as Loretta is wonderful. In my opinion, she was a very worthy winner.

October 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

This analysis of how film editing works, even when it's not flashy, shows such insight. And the editing of Fatal Attraction is expert--did this lose to The Last Emperor?

October 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

David - it's interesting because I think she's displaying A LOT of emotion in that shot, namely along the lines of (directed to Dan) "That's right, fucker, I've got you. What are you going to do now?" I see calculation, pride but also a bit of sadness, like she knows it's ridiculous that THIS is what she has to do to get his attention.

October 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Yes, she is sexy, damn it!

Also, Alex Forrest does wear white on rainy days and black on rainless days. It makes her character that much more interesting.

Cher was great in Moonstruck, but technically speaking, Close's role was more difficult to portray than the other nominees. I can't see the other women playing Alex as well as Close, but I could see Close playing at least a couple of those other roles (Hunter, Streep, and Kirkland). Close playing Cher's role would be tougher to imagine, but you never with Close. She really hasn't failed to transform yet.

October 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Great post! I haven't seen this movie start to finish in a very long time, but the more I read your post, the more I remembered how fantastic those sequences were crafted together. I'll have to revisit this one.

October 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

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