End Of Days

Crimes:

  • Exploiting millennial fears without generating any tension or suspense
  • Casting Arnold Schwarzenegger, action superstar, as a tortured, suicidal widower who learns that shooting things is not always the answer
  • Regurgitating tropes that’ve been used in countless religion-inspired horror movies (stigmata, prophecy, Satan wanting to shtup a pixie-faced innocent), with the only difference being that this time, they’re harder to see

Defender: Director and cinematographer Peter Hyams

Tone of commentary: Humble, technically detailed. Hyams splits his time between enthusiastically praising his cast and explaining why he shot his Satanic thriller by candlelight and suggestion: “All the light used in this film is light that is warmed, so that there is an amber and oak tone in every sequence of the movie.” But he isn’t just concerned with tone. “I’m someone who believes that if actors are using flashlights in a movie, they’re using flashlights for the same reason we use flashlights,” he says, “because they can’t see except what their flashlight is illuminating. So this scene was basically lit with flashlights…” Hyams has been criticized for this choice in the past. His response: “I don’t think a movie that’s mysterious can be too dark. I love shadows.”

Heights frighten Hyams, so he “used a great deal of aerial shots looking down,” as well as “doing sequences with people who have to hang from high places.” In terms of creating scares that would appeal to a broader audience, he’s upfront about his manipulations: “If you look at the film closely, it’s obviously a series of things that startle people a lot.” He uses sound design and jump scares in an attempt to keep his audience uncomfortable. “I think the idea of making people edgy, by startling them constantly and then making them slightly nervous and suspicious of any door that opens and any phone that rings, after a while, makes people scared.” The resulting experience is a little like getting slapped at random intervals for two hours in the dark.

What went wrong: Not much. While Hyams doesn’t like watching his own films (“I find it the most painful thing in the world, because all I see is what I did wrong”), he doesn’t find any real faults in Days. There’s one shot he’s disappointed with, of Arnold Schwarzenegger tossing a handgun away: “I hate that shot of the gun going out. Looks too small.” 

There was some effort required for location shooting; while the film is set in New York, much of it was filmed in Los Angeles, which meant lots of trickery and computer effects were required to match shots. Certain scenes posed other difficulties: “This… is the one that you basically dread, as a director. It is the expository scene of the movie; it’s the scene where the entire premise is laid out. It’s a great deal of talk.” Hyams occasionally put a lot of effort into minor things without much reward. Talking about a sequence where he tried to create a visual effect, he says, “It’s something I probably spent as much or more time on as anything in the movie, and frankly, it didn’t work, because I don’t think anybody notices it.”

Comments on the cast: Everybody is aces. “Ninety percent of directing actors is casting,” Hyams says, and casting Gabriel Byrne as Satan was “to me, as important a choice as any made in the entire film.” Byrne’s sardonic performance is easily the movie’s highlight, but Hyams seems as impressed with Byrne’s sexual charisma as with his acting: “If I had been in high school with Gabriel, I would’ve been a very, very good friend of his. Hopefully I could’ve gotten his castoffs.”

Hyams was pleased with female lead Robin Tunney, who spends most of the movie looking terrified and screaming: “Obviously she’s beautiful, except this role could’ve just been another silly girl in distress, and she brought it something.” Kevin Pollak, who plays Schwarzenegger’s snarky sidekick, also brought something: his improvisational skills. Which was good, because “it was somebody you had to fall in love with.” Hyams even has nice things to say about bit players: “This actor Victor is actually a terrific actor. He is obviously a little bit odd-looking, except he’s really a wonderfully skilled and trained actor.” (This comes right before Victor, who plays a possessed homeless person, delivers his only line: “He’s gonna fuck you, he’s gonna fuck you, Christine!”)

But Hyams saves his biggest praise for one of the movie’s greatest liabilities: its leading man. Hyams goes on about how Arnold Schwarzenegger was “a dream to work with. One of the things about Arnold is that he will try anything. If you want him to look screwed-up, if you want him to look suicidal, if you want him to drink crap out of a blender, he’ll put more in.” He calls Schwarzenegger “a genuinely funny man,” and is even impressed by his physical appearance: “He looks like a really handsome guy now. A big handsome strong guy.”

Inevitable dash of pretension: Hyams generally keeps things modest. His biggest flaw is the forgivable mistake of confusing intention with effect. “When people are standing near a light, I think they should be lit,” he explains. “When people are not standing near a light, I think they should be dark, or darker.” The result is a dull visual sheen that, some striking images aside, renders each murky set instantly forgettable. Hyams also takes pride in the film’s deeper turns. “This is that moment, this is the conversion, this is saying guns don’t work,” he says of a scene where Arnie lays down a gun after 15 minutes of explosions. “You have to believe in God.”

Perhaps inadvertently, Hyams explains Days’ big misstep. “The movie was an attempt to combine two different kinds of films that I really hadn’t seen combined before. Quite often, films which are truly frightening, like The Exorcist, are not films on a big scale, and films that are large-scale and big rollercoaster rides are quite often not scary.”

Commentary in a nutshell: [Referring to a door knock that sounds like a gunshot.] “That’s simply a cheap trick.”

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