Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much.
Ah, Twister. A film that embodies everything great and ghastly about the mid-90s when it comes to pop culture (Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s constant refrain of “It’s The Extreme!”, the soundtrack, the copious amounts of A for effort CGI) and yet remains unironically beloved by millennials everywhere. It’s a movie that is glaringly scientifically inaccurate and almost unbearably ridiculous and yet still manages to get its fingers into the soft bits of yours truly literally every single time I watch it. It’s the film that makes connecting The Lost Boys, Boogie Nights, Saving Private Ryan, The People Under The Stairs, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Mulholland Drive to The Terminator in my infamous Connect A Movie To The First Two Terminator Jawns Through Actors thought exercise possible. And, when you really, really think about it, it’s a film that perfectly encapsulates a type of horror that isn’t usually present in the brand of action films that flirt with horror, of which Twister may very well be the best at.
I don’t want to beat a dead horse and talk about all the little human moments in this film that melt my heart and believe me there are a ton of them. If it’s not clear, I absolutely adore this film. I love this film with my entire being and without a trace of irony. I will watch it whenever it’s on, I will go see it any time it’s playing at a drive in, and I can quote it almost verbatim as I’m watching it. And I think it’s a much better film than it gets credit for. It fills a very peculiar niche in the American zeitgeist. It popularized the concept of storm chasing and to this day is so closely associated with the profession that when Bill Paxton unexpectedly passed away a few years ago, storm chasers in the Midwest paid tribute to him in the coolest possible way, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it inspired many people to begin studying tornados for themselves.
While the film it most often referred to as an action/disaster movie, I want to talk about how it not so subtly employs a strangely cosmic sense of horror to evoke tension and dread in the viewer. It would be very easy to argue that this scene is the most horror movie-y part of the movie, and I don’t think you’d be entirely wrong for saying that. From the music, to the slow introductions of signs a tornado is coming, to the brief glimpses of the tornado as it approaches in the night, or even just the fact that The Shining is playing as the screen is torn to pieces, there is indeed a lot of horror movie DNA in that scene. It’s shot like a horror movie. But it’s not such obvious horror that makes Twister genuinely frightening. What makes this movie truly horrific is the horror of the impersonal, the unknowable, the monolithic and massive thing that dwarfs’ human beings and doesn’t acknowledge their existence.
Much as I think Godzilla works best when it’s a force of nature that co-exists on earth with humanity oh so uneasily, Twister is at its best when it’s highlighted how indifferent a tornado is to humanity. Ascribing malevolent intent to a tornado is, when you dive into it, silly. Just like ascribing evil intent to an animal. It’s why Jaws, a film about blue collar Everymen struggling to defeat something akin to a force of nature, is considered one of the greatest films of all time while Jaws: The Revenge, a film that postulates that a shark is apparently out for vengeance against the surviving members of the Brody family, is widely seen as one of the worst (although all cards on the table I don’t hate that movie). Malice is scary, but in the right hands indifference is so much more frightening. Lovecraft understood this concept perfectly; much of the horror of his life’s work comes from reducing humanity to less than a footnote in the cosmic history. Lovecraft’s miserably named deities and beings often aren’t even aware of the existence of mankind, let alone angry at us. And, like I just mentioned, Godzilla is often the same way. In the first film, there are numerous close ups of people whose lives have just been decimated by Godzilla’s passage through Tokyo. We see hospital rooms full of people who are absolutely fucked in every way by what happened. And yet, there’s no real place to direct any sort of anger. There’s no terrorist organization condemn publicly or rally international support against, or even simply to pin the blame on. There’s no all-points bulletin to put out in the hopes that the police or military can capture whoever did this, no real hope of organizing a mob against to chase down and defeat them. There’s just the shock and anguish and horror of what happened and the resulting life that now must accommodate that horror all while the perpetrator of that horror is unmoved by the destruction it causes. And to be fair and argue both sides, yes…there absolutely are times in the film in which it’s clear the filmmakers are trying to make the tornados somewhat animalistic. There are moments when the relentless roar of a twister is made to sound like some kind of unholy shrieking, or a snarl, or in one case where a tornado moves over a lake a bizarre walrus-y gobbling noise. In other words, they are trying to make a more traditional movie monster. But again…that is not where this movie is actually frightening.
Helen Hunt’s character in the film, Dr. Jo Harding, became a meteorologist after a childhood tragedy when her father is killed by a rare F5 tornado. This encounter led her on an almost religious quest to understand tornados. Sure, there’s talk of her trying to help people by developing an early warning system, but it’s apparent that she’s simply trying to understand why. Why do tornados strike so quickly and ruin lives. Why did a tornado hit my house and not my neighbors? Jo’s entire life is a futile attempt to imprint reason onto chaos, and while much of the film kind of dresses it up as a noble pursuit, it acknowledges that Jo’s quest is utterly meaningless at its heart. There’s a scene in the movie when they’re in danger of being overcome by a tornado and Bill Paxton’s character attempts to reason with Jo by telling her she’s obsessed, to which she angrily replies that he’s never seen what a tornado can do, and how it can miss a house and then come straight for you, to which he replies that this isn’t what happened to her at all as a child and that sometimes bad things just…happen. It’s a touching scene, and it’s mostly used to grease the skids narratively at getting them back together by introducing the idea of her realizing what she has in front of her…but it speaks truth to what’s actually frightening about tornados. Bill Paxton is absolutely right. The defining moment in Jo’s life was nothing in the face of the event that caused it because sometimes things just go wrong. We can’t explain it. It’s like Raul Julia in the otherwise abysmal Street Fighter adaption says: for me, it was Tuesday. There’s no real evil there. No malice. There’s just utter chaos. Indifferent, unpredictable, and ultimately apathetic chaos. It goes a step beyond the horror present in The Terminator in that a tornado actually cannot be stopped until it runs out of steam, which could be after levels a town and kills dozens or just kind of fizzles out in a field miles away from the nearest house with just some nerds with weather equipment to witness, which is way way more than you can say about a T-800 or T-1000 (both of which, by the way, are far more predictable than even a weak tornado). Neither of these phenomena can be reasoned with, and both are unfeeling and unyielding forces, but a tornado is strangely more unsettling in that it might just not destroy everything you’ve ever owned just as quickly as it might do so. In the scene mentioned above, when Bill and Jo are frantically attempting to escape a tornado after their research module is thrashed, the tornado remains largely unseen. Sure, it manifests occasionally to knock down a tree or shake some telephone poles, but the fear in the scene comes from the team encountering a tornado that they can’t pin down and remains elusive. It’s a manifestation of chaos, in that it might come down right on top of you or it might just go away. And this is where the film succeeds in inducing fear for me. It reveals the insignificance of the affairs of humanity, the indifference that nature has in ruining what we have built through the years in seconds. Witnessing a power that is completely without a goal and exists only to carve out a scar in the land and if something or someone is in it then so be it is what is truly frightening.
Twister might very well be almost ridiculously inaccurate when it comes to its depictions of tornados, but one thing it absolutely nails out of the park is that part of the terror comes not from the destructive power of one, but in the random and utterly detached way a tornado moves. A tornado can’t chase you, but it’s so huge and so fast that it might just kill you anyway if you’re in its way. The insignificance of humanity in this situation, the reduction of a human being to collateral damage, is something far scarier than this film gets credit for.