Die Hard is a Halloween movie
At nine o’clock tomorrow morning all the Halloween stuff is gone, and at 10 o’clock all the Christmas stuff is done. So yeah, it feels good to jump early in our annual holiday tradition of fighting Die Hard. And yes, today October 31st is the day to do it. Because Die Hard was never the Christmas movie you think of. It’s also a Halloween movie. Oh, I know, all the Christmas hats and Christmas music are kinda distracting, but beneath all that glee, it’s the nightmare before Christmas.
Die Hard is the story of a New York cop, John McClane (Bruce Willis) who finds himself caught in the middle of a hostage situation in which an ex-terrorist has become a super-boomer, Hans gruber (Alan Rickman) and his gang ruthless Zoolander models take back an office building in Los Angeles and take Nakatomi staff hostage at their Christmas party. This is how they can start a long decomposition of Nakatomi’s thick vault with seven layers of security technology. Before going to the party, McClane washes in the bathroom in his wife’s executive office after his flight to LA. He hears the gunshots and sees the bandits taking hostages. Before they find him, McClane disappears into the half-finished and still under construction upper floors of the building. McClane spends the rest of the movie trying to stop the heist, save the hostages, and stay alive by taking out Gruber’s men one by one.
But the minute McClane climbs up the unfinished floors, Die Hard becomes a whole new kind of action movie. He’s never an 80s Joel Silver cop epic like rock star– from 48 hours to Lethal Weapons 1-4, nobody thinks cops are shit like Joel Silver – but scene after scene, director John McTiernan goes far beyond the crime-thriller action flick to tell McLane’s story in the language of horror.
As soon as McClane slips into the unfinished floors of the building, Die Hard becomes what is called in the trade a haunted house movie. In these, a group of people are thrown together into a cursed castle or haunted house. Stuck in there with them, there’s something bad, really bad, chasing them one by one. He lives in the damp basement, the cobweb attic, in forgotten secret passages. Or it’s just a ghost going wherever it wants. The genre dates back to 1700s gothic. Films have used it since the days of silence, since the three times The cat and the canary at The Haunting, The Shining, Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror and Beetlejuice. Alien, both versions of The Thing, are all reworked haunted house movies, with their teams isolated trapped in close quarters with alien killing machines.
For Hans Gruber, the second act begins with classic horror warnings that something is wrong. “Get out,” as the Amityville house would say. Upstairs, McClane sets off a fire alarm and Gruber sends a man to kill whoever set it off. But once up there, the hunter is afraid? He’s alone, it’s silent – for an explosive movie like this, McTiernan knows how to use silence. When he hears a shrill noise – an electric saw – it makes us jump. When he reaches it, he knows the thing in the attic attracted him.
They fight and McClane breaks the neck of the man in the stairwell, killing him. Here, McClane makes a decision that most cops wouldn’t, but Jason or Freddy Krueger could. He sticks a Santa hat on the bloodied head of the body and sends it to Hans Gruber in an elevator sitting on an office chair. On his sweatshirt, McClane wrote “Now I have a Ho-Ho-Ho machine gun”.
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 looking for McClane, he uses elevator shafts and air vents to escape, the phantom in the catacombs of his opera. In the vents, he spies on them through the gates, listens, collects information. They are also being chased by a killer. Whereas Silver and McTiernan’s previous film was Predator, a sci-fi horror film where an alien hunts a group of mercenaries led by Schwarzenegger in the jungle, the parallels are obvious. It’s just that the monster is the hero here.
McClane eventually summons a police officer to the building, Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald Vel Johnson), who looks around and almost walks away, when McClane makes another choice most cops wouldn’t. He picks up a Gruber’s henchman he killed and throws the body out of the window for about 32 floors at Powell’s car. Once again, McTiernan remains silent. Powell softly sings a Christmas song to himself as we see the body falling from above and crashing head first into the hood, then Powell begins to scream. It looks a lot Oliver Reed in the holocausts, thrown off the upper floors of a haunted house by his possessed wife, Karen Black, and crashing through the windshield of his station wagon with his son inside, screaming.
Powell then makes a choice that most cops wouldn’t. He puts the car in reverse and drives off, still screaming, like you do in a horror movie, until the car backs up an embankment, trapping him there with the evil thing. As in all horror films. At this point, McClane killed three of Gruber’s men and finally called the police. And again, he does something that most cops wouldn’t do, but a slasher would. Following his stunt as a dead man in the elevator, McClane can’t help but call Gruber – yes, the call comes from inside the house, Hans– to taunt him Zodiac-style on his walkie-talkie, using the information he learned about Gruber’s crew to scare them away. And Gruber does what every cop does in these movies, he keeps talking psycho, trying to get every possible clue from him, while henchman Karl (Alexander Gudonov) listens.
I told myself that since I waxed Tony and Marco and his friend here …
I thought that you, Karl and Franco could be alone … so I
wanted to call you.
How does he know so much about us?
It’s very nice of you. I guess you are our mysterious party
crash. You are the most inconvenient … for a security guard.
Bzzt! Sorry, Hans. Bad guess. Would you like to go for
double jeopardy where scores can really change?
Once McClane stumbles 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 kid? Another orphan from a failed culture … Who thinks he is John Wayne, Rambo, Marshal Dillon? McClane jokes a little more, but like any movie killer about to reveal something, he hangs up. Gruber now uses what he just learned and barks orders at his men like a precinct captain. “Check all the others. Do not use the radio. See if he’s lying about Marco… and find out if anyone else is missing.
Die Hard also loves blood like a splash movie. When Gruber kills Mr. Takagi, Takagi blood sprays on the entire glass door of the conference room. He’s there every time McClane walks past. There’s the increasing amount of blood smeared all over McClane (his and other people’s) and the hole oozing in Ellis (Hart Bochner) head after Gruber shoots him. Finally, there’s McClane’s pure blood forced to run over broken glass with no socks or shoes on, and then we wince as he removes the shards from his bloody feet. When Gruber learns that Nakatomi’s Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) is McClane’s wife, he finally has his bargaining chip and attracts the monster. McClane, burned, bleeding and limping on her feet, staggers so that Gruber doesn’t hurt her.
McTiernan even shoots the final showdown like a monster movie. McClane emerges from the shadows like the Mummy or Frankenstein, seen in silhouette framed in a doorway, knowing he is walking into a trap. It all looks a lot like the 1951 finale of The Thing. Unlike this monster, McClane manages to kill Hans Gruber once and for all after Gruber falls out of the window to his death.
Just when we think we’re safe, out in the plaza with an army of cops and medics, McTiernan plays another horror trope. Karl rises from the dead (or at least we thought so) wrapped in a blanket, like coming out of a grave, and fires his machine gun once more before Sgt. Al Powell shoots it down.
Christmas and horror are not mutually exclusive. Ebenezer Scrooge lives in a house haunted by Christmas ghosts. No, these aren’t quality male ghosts with machine guns, but still. And Krampus is scarier than any Halloween monster. But McTiernan’s use of horror tropes and creepy skills from a transferred monster to a cop are still unexpected twists the film continues to throw at us. All of this helps make Die Hard an action masterpiece for any season.