Master Cat! Jennifer Chang (aka Zhang) wrote and produced the feature Dead Inside, which has played the NewFilmmakers LA, Boston International, and Los Angeles United film festivals and is being repped at Cannes by Bleiberg Entertainment. The film just won “Best Screenplay for a Narrative Feature” in the Women’s Independent Film Festival. Here’s her surprising guest blog:
“Finally reaching the tower where the princess is being kept, the hero finds… she’s not there! And not only that, it’s a trap! It looks like the Bad Guy has won… The hero now has to come up with a new plan.” - From a blog Blake wrote on the subject of Finales in 2007
If you’re like me (and in some key ways, you must be, because you’re here), then you can categorize your movie-going experiences into pre-Save the Cat! and post-Save the Cat! experiences. Like Neo at the end of The Matrix, I now often feel like I can see the code when I’m watching a movie. I’m waiting for and anticipating the Catalyst. I’m identifying the “false victory” or the “false defeat” moment at Midpoint.
And I feel like a smartypants.
But speaking of the ends of movies, I was marveling recently at how cleanly Blake’s “5-Point Finale” lays out a film’s – nay, every film’s conclusion. And, getting more granular, I realized how much I enjoy the “High Tower Surprise” within every film’s finale. Nothing beats that moment when the hero is inches from tasting victory, when suddenly… BLAMMO!
Agent Smith is on the other side of that door and he’s just shot you through the heart!
The alien has hidden itself on your escape pod, and now there’s really nowhere to run!
Bruce Willis was dead THE WHOLE TIME?!
But along those lines, I thought it’d be fun to share, in greater detail, three of my favorite “High Tower Surprise” moments from movies I love, in no particular order.
Oh yeah. SPOILER ALERT!
1. Labyrinth: This beloved Jim Henson classic features a young Jennifer Connelly as plucky-but-petulant daydreamer Sarah, David Bowie rocking a spectacular pant-bulge as the Goblin King, and a finale that stands out in memory as one of my favorites because of how literally it demonstrates the Save the Cat! principles. At the end of a journey through the magical and treacherous labyrinth, Sarah has actually stormed the castle after having assembled her team by the third act. And as she charges up the stone steps of what is indeed a high tower, she stops short and turns to her friends and tells them she has to go alone. “Why?” they ask.
Sarah: Because that’s the way it’s done.
Didymus: Well, if that is the way it is done, then that is the way you must do it.
(I’m always tickled by this part of the film. It’s like the movie has become self aware.)
And so Sarah does. Alone, she ascends the high tower to what should be her victory over the Goblin King. But at the top, she faces the embodiment of the “upside-down world” (yet another way the movie seems to be tailor-made to STC! specifications)… where the staircase is twisted into an M.C. Escher-style paradox; no matter which staircase she climbs and which passageway she takes, Sarah cannot reach the baby brother she has come all this way to rescue. And meanwhile, the giant ticking clock (there it is again!) that the Goblin King has set into motion to raise the stakes at the start of the film’s third act… well, it starts to run down.
So here, in the high tower, Sarah must dig deep down, realize that life is not fair anywhere, relinquish her childhood delusions, and grow the eff up. She tells the Goblin King, “Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City…”
…And if you know the rest, you’re awesome and we should hang out.
2. Identity: One by one, the guests who have been stranded at a motel in the middle of the desert, in the middle of a rainstorm, have been picked off by a mysterious killer. And even more mysterious — their bodies have been disappearing. And more mysterious still — they all share the same birthday. Alright, that detail seemed rather lame when it was revealed until…
…the High Tower Surprise moment. The only people that have survived at the motel are John Cusack, his love interest played by Amanda Peet, and the supposed killer. John Cusack is hot on his tail when suddenly he’s jolted out of the rainstorm, out of the desert, out of the motel… and into a strait jacket in a psychologist’s office. The psychologist tells him that he is not who he thinks he is. He’s not even a real person. He’s merely one of the multiple personalities that lives inside a serial killer. And if he doesn’t succeed in going back in and killing the personality that’s responsible for the mass murders in the outside world, the killer’s insanity plea will fail, he’ll be executed, and everyone inside of him will die.
Did. Not. See. That. Coming.
And I loved it.
3. Se7en: I can just see all your faces out there grimacing now as you recall what the High Tower Surprise Moment was in this movie. Detective Mills and Somerset have their killer in custody, at gunpoint. After he has staged 6 gruesome murders that each correspond to a deadly sin, they have now effectively stopped him from committing the seventh murder… the one that would have been an homage to “wrath.” But surprise… that’s when a box arrives. And the murderer casually mentions to the detectives that he paid a visit to Det. Mills’ wife that afternoon.
This High Tower Surprise takes the cake, for me. It’s completely unexpected, brilliantly sprung on the audience, and oh-so stomach-turning and heartbreaking that the impression it leaves is indelible.
As an aside — some recent work on productions has left me with a banker’s box with a wigged styrofoam head in my trunk, and every time I pop the trunk and see it, I start wailing, “What’s in the box? What’s in the box!” And then I try my best to avoid annoyed looks from the other people in the parking lot.
Anyway, nothing would delight me more than seeing some of my fellow Cats! share some of your favorite High Tower Surprise moments in movies down in the comments below. Let’s take a cinematic trip down memory lane, up a high tower where…