The original 1988 poster art
Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile (1988) begins innocently enough. A guy named Harry (played by Anthony Edwards) meets a girl named Julie (Mare Winningham) while visiting a museum in Los Angeles and seeing the La Brea Tar Pits. They fall head over heels in love with each other, and Harry spends the day meeting Julie’s family. It turns out that Harry is only visiting Los Angeles and that he’s got a bus to catch the next morning, but he and Julie agree to meet for dinner later that night. Then Harry goes back to his hotel to take a nap, but a power failure prevents his alarm from waking him up at the right time. Julie waits at the restaurant for a couple of hours, and since she thinks Harry’s skipped out on her, she goes home heartbroken. Then Harry wakes up during the wee hours of the morning, realizes what happened, and races to the restaurant. When he sees that Julie isn’t there, he feels like his life is ruined…but not yet.
Suddenly, Harry hears a nearby payphone ringing off the hook. When he answers it, he’s greeted by a man who sounds terrified and who’s trying to reach his dad. “This is it,” the guy says, “It’s finally happening.” He mentions something about how “they” have already launched and how “we” are about to launch a counter-strike. Harry shakes his head, thinking this is all a joke, but then he hears someone fire a gun on the other end of the line. The man Harry’s been speaking to becomes silent, and someone else picks up the phone to say, “Forget everything you’ve heard. Go back to sleep.” Then the phone clicks and Harry, confused and disturbed right out of his mind, walks into the restaurant where he was supposed to meet Julie. There’s a couple of people in there, and Harry needs to tell someone about what he’s just experienced, so he tells them. Almost everyone in the joint becomes convinced that the U.S. and the Soviet Union have finally declared war against each other and that a nuclear holocaust is scheduled to arrive at any minute.
And that’s when everyone loses their goddamn minds.
The rest of the film follows Harry as he races against time to find Julie and take her with him out of the city. As he struggles to do this, more and more people hear about the apocalypse that’s supposedly coming, and some truly insane things happen. There’s a gas station explosion, a police shootout, and even a full-scale riot with people firing guns at each other in the streets. But is there actually a nuclear apocalypse just around the corner? Is everyone simply going crazy over mere hearsay? Which of these possibilities is more horrifying? That’s about all I can say about the plot of this film; if you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to watch it yourself.
While it might not sound like a “true” horror film (since it doesn’t include anything paranormal), Miracle Mile fits my basic definition for the genre (and in much the same way that 1954’s Godzilla does). It’s a movie that’s designed to find our phobic pressure points and provoke a “fight-or-flight” response (which it does not with zombies, vampires or aliens, but with the threat of full-scale nuclear war and the ugliness of the human condition). I think a major part of what makes the movie so scary is that it starts out like some quirky independent comedy. (In fact, that’s exactly what I thought it was when I first caught it on TV many years ago; I wasn’t expecting it to take such a dark turn.) But as soon as Harry answers that payphone, the tone of the film immediately changes, and we’re shown just how destructive and horrible people can be when they’re terrified for their lives.
It’s always fascinated me how audiences expect horror films to be scary, but not too scary. They like to be shocked by cheap jump scares, and they might enjoy the thrill of looking over their shoulders as they walk back to their cars from the theater. But with only a few exceptions, audiences initially respond very poorly to films that actually upset them. It’s easy to shake off a movie with obnoxious characters who predictably get bumped off after we’re subjected to a few shocks and jolts, and those are the horror flicks that make lots of money. It’s much harder to shake off a film with extremely likable characters who are thrown into a nightmarish situation that’s truly unpredictable (in every sense of the word). Movies of this sort seem to want to actually hurt us, and they tend to die a quick and quiet death in theaters. If they’re good enough, they might eventually be promoted to cult status a decade or two later. (By then, the zeitgeist has already changed and we’re better able to handle the nightmares we couldn’t handle in the past.) Miracle Mile – which is about as full-tilt as any excursion into Cold War paranoia can possibly get – is one such film (and like a fine wine, it just gets better with age).
It may seem like an unusual choice for a movie to watch on Halloween, but if you’re looking for a flick that’ll do more than just make you jump (and laugh a little nervously afterwards), give Miracle Mile a try. It’s definitely one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen.
An example of just how bad your morning commute can get