Fear and Loathing in a Dead Guy’s House

There’s really only one significant scene missing from Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Part way through the book form breaks down for a particularly surreal interluding documenting Hunter S. Thompson’s search for the American Dream. The already strange novel gets stranger. The entire chapter takes the form of a transcript from an audio recording. Thompson and Gonzo role into a fast food drive-thru, order food, and talk with the proprietors of the establishment. The conversation’s mundane minutiae is recreated whole as the two drug-fuelled deviants get directions to the American Dream. Which turns out be some sort of druggy hide-away. Which turns out to have burnt down a decade earlier. And then the chapter ends.

The film hints at this scene a lot. When Thompson wakes up and replays snippets of audio records in an attempt to figure out what he did during his black-out phase there’s a few passing references to the scene. The term American Dream gets used a lot, and there’s a constant perversion of the American Flag throughout the film. Constant. Shots of hypodermic needles floating in front of it, shots of Hunter S. Thompson and Dr. Gonzo snorting ether off it, shots of Hunter S. Thompson wearing it on his head as he trips on pineal extract, and a whole lot more. It’s in more shots than a Michael Bay movie. Plus the form of the movie is already about as off-kilter as it can be, it might have struggled to withstand the effect of an interlude marked by its extra-distorted-weirdness.

The film is entirely told through Thompson’s POV. With the possible exception of one or two scenes the camera distorts the world the way Thompson’s bloodshot eyes see it. It slides the audience into it carefully though. The first scene, for instance, really only hints at the bats Thompson is seeing, instead giving us a fairly unaltered version of reality. Johnny Depp’s narration establishes the POV plainly, letting the audience in on the secret – for the next two hours they’re going to see the world as Hunter S. Thompson sees it.

Turns out it’s remarkably easy to see the world from another perspective.

This is where this article gets pretentious and self-involved, for those of you keeping track.

Three nights or so ago I was doing some filming. It doesn’t matter why, but suffice it to say there was some urgency to it, and we had no plan. We were going to film around town. Maybe. We also had a clumsy papier-mâché Shrek mask and a vague desire to freak some people out. Maybe. “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits…” We ended up in a dead guy’s home. He died ten years ago, and the house has been abandoned since then. Some construction company bought the property, and they couldn’t give a shit about us filming in the house. Which was lucky. At first it was kind of neat. It was unique looking, spooky, interesting. Most of the man’s possessions were still scattered around the house, and there was stuff there dating back to his time in elementary school. He was eighty when he died, so that was pretty impressive.

For those of you who’ve never gone trawling through the scattered remnants of a dead strangers life rest assured it’s a deeply warped experience.  “There was madness in any direction…” I’m not a superstitious person, but reading Christmas letters clearly opened right before this guy died brought a certain sense of violation too the whole affairs. We didn’t even know his name when we started. Took a few minutes of letter reading to sort out that the owner was Stanley Taylor, his dad was James Taylor, and his brother was Douglas Taylor. All from hallmark-type letters. This stuff wasn’t untouched mind you. It looked like, at the very least, the surviving family had stripped the house of everything valuable. Between that and the elements this mans life was heaped and lumped across the floor in maddening traces and patterns. It sort of looked like splattered viscera, except instead of someone’s internal biology it was someone’s clothing. And notes. And letters. And trinkets.

When looking through this chaotic tableau it’s interesting how deadened your senses get. Everything seems weird, so nothing seems weird. Consequently it takes a second for the truly weird things to make themselves apparent. Things like the obsessive compulsive behaviour that one assumes is hinted at by three identical calendars (and further hinted at by some old calendars we found later – he kept track of the weather on each day). That isn’t to say some things weren’t so dramatically weird as to immediately demand attention.

But for that we needed a flashlight and food in our belly.

Most of a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is shot in Dutch Angles.

It literally puts the viewer off-balance, because “why is my POV so screwed up!” If the camera is The Eye of God than when you start using Dutch Angles you imply that something is not right with God. He’s bent over drunk or prepping for a fight or reeling from an explosion. They’re a pretty cool evocative tool when used right, and a shitty crutch when used wrong. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a distorted picture of reality told through Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson. The camera just reinforces how off-kilter he is.

But the effect IS deadening. When your baseline is so distorted how does one convey further distortion? Think of it like music. If you have a song with a lot of harsh noise, like a Wold song or something, how do you hit an excessively loud note without just totally losing your audience?

I’m going to guess most of you found that Wold song too abrasive as is, so you can probably see what I mean. If it had to get more abrasive it would feel like dumb overkill and you’d probably stop listening. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas hits its peak early with the lizard scene and Gonzo’s fit. One distorts reality as far as the movie can allow – replacing the extras with lizards. The other huts a manic high of Dutch angles, projected images, and twisted sound design. This chunk of the film is filled with similar scenes, but these hit the hardest.

Sure, the scenes contrast one another, but they are all basically the same kind of nuts. The drug awareness assembly isn’t that different from the hotel room scenes, just more divorced from Thompson’s. The dash to the airport isn’t that different from the other vehicular mayhem we’ve seen, just longer and more focused. The scene with the maid is a lot like the scene with the hitchhiker, except the protagonists deal with it better.

The book runs the same gamut, and it alleviates some of this potential monotony by interjecting the hunt for the American dream. If nothing else the drastic stylistic change acts as a weird counterpoint to the rest of the book. Gone is Thompson’s rabid ravings and in their place is a bare and minimalistic transcript of an audio recording. Flowery and fevered narration replaced with everyday conversation. And the whole thing essentially builds to a wonderful punchline.

Terry Gilliam does not attempt this chapter. I’m inclined to think it’s because Terry Gilliam is a shrewd man who new what he was doing. Which probably means a quick Google would establish it was a deleted scene or something but allow me this moment of optimism. Because I’m inclined to believe Terry Gilliam, the shrewd bastard, new that dropping a scene requiring such a drastic formalistic change at that point in his movie epilepsy have broken it. It would have overwhelmed the audience and turned them off. He knows to leave the piercing peaks of weirdness he’s already provided alone.

Because these scenes are only effective if they stay slightly unique.

We had a few surreal peaks ourself, exploring this abandoned house.

The first came on our way back from his house. We needed snacks. We needed gear. “We spent the rest of that night rounding up materials and packing the car.” We’d found tapes in the house. A small box of them. Some of the tapes had funny little notes on them: “good singing” or “excellent fiddle music.” In a fluky turn of events the sketchy white van we were riding in had a tape player. The very first tape we played started part way through. Fuzzy static filled country and western filled the van. “The day that I stop counting is the day my world will end.” I shit you not that’s the first thing we hear. Off the tape from the dead guy’s house. The dead guy’s house with an unusual number of calendars on the wall. (And, though we didn’t know it at the time, a weird watch thing too.) “The day that I stop counting is the day my world will end.” We freaked out a little bit. “What kind of rat bastard psychotic would play that song- right now, at this moment?” It didn’t help that my co-cameraman knew all the lyrics and started singing it the rest of the day. “My grandfather used to play this all the time.” That’s some chilling stuff. Then we played a terrible punk song for the rest of our trip. “Turn the goddam music up! My heart feels like an alligator!”

After getting some all-natural root beer, cinnamon popcorn chip things, and a back of fruit juice jujubes we were armed and prepared. We gathered a tripod, flashlight, and second memory card and planned our second attack. The root beer was flavourless and the jujubes were that sour kind where only one or two colours are actually edible. It didn’t matter though, because I was having ideas. I get twitchy when I have good ideas. All adrenaline and frustration when all the humans around me don’t just bend and conform to my mental wishes. I hope it doesn’t quite look like a drug-fuelled-mania, but it’s certainly obvious to observers not privy to my interior monologue. Which granted becomes an exterior monologue whether there’s anyone to talk to or not. It’s good, it’s satisfying. It’s got to be an adrenaline thing right? Anyways I’d figured out, more or less, what I wanted the end result of this project to look like.

So went back out to brave the surreal other land that was this ancient abandoned farmhouse.

Stanley Taylor’s basement was another one of those attention demanding oddities that just cut through the noise. It was entirely empty, except for glass jars. Mainly pickle jars. It rather seemed like Stanley was ferociously consuming pickles in his latter years, but couldn’t be bothered to dispose of them properly. So he just hurled them down into the basement. It’s a fairly unsettling thing to examine. Imagine lowering yourself the solid two, three foot gap between the basement door and the broken stairs into a worn-black basement. The rest of the house has seemed hermetically sealed but the basement seems like the prime place to stumble across terrifying forms of life. Maybe even previously unsuspected forms of life. Eyeless deep sea monsters definitely crossed my mind, is what I’m saying. So you’re balancing on these crooked decrepit stairs and you point a camera in the general direction of the flashlight beam. Your just looking at the back of the camera so the first thing you see is sparkles. Just blurry glitters and sparkles and glints and bokeh as the camera focuses itself. Then you see glass. Broken curved glass. Pickle jars. The flashlight begins to search, almost frantically, for something that’s not pickles. It fails. You grab the light and explore the edges with more care and accuracy than your superstitious friend, who’s currently lowering himself in after you. You realize that when the pickles end nothing replaces them. An empty basement with shattered jars and one mop bucket. Nothing else at all.

The other thing we found this time around – an excess of disturbing religious texts. What is Hell, Who’s there, and Can they Get Out? was a particular highlight. “Jesus Creeping God! Is there a priest in this tavern? I want to confess! I’m a fucking sinner! Venal, mortal, carnal, major, minor – however you want to call it, Lord… I’m guilty.”

We explored a bit more before our (superstitious) ride took off and dropped us back into the infinitely normal suburbia from whence we came. “With a bit of luck, his life was ruined forever.” We were frenzied though, and decided to fetch our third trained mate and walk the fair distance back to the home to get more footage. The only thing we managed to do before this was watch the footage we had and discuss our plans and thoughts on it. Like a feeding frenzy. We were all excited. Awash with possibilities.

We figured there was more weirdness to uncover. “We’d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way out to the end.”

Terry Gilliam is a smart bastard.

He hasn’t just earned this title by showing restraint and cutting or never attempting the American Dream scene, he earned this title by knowing how to make some scenes stand the fuck out in the cacophonous surreality of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Once you’ve got neon-nightmare circuses, lizard monsters, projected war footage sneaking into reality, and Benicio Del Toro trying to kill himself with Jefferson Airplane it’s hard to make anything else seem shocking or tense or strange. Like trying to make one colour stand out when worn on a rainbow shirt. I guess a scarf or something? Maybe a pin? Whatever, something that would be worn on a shirt.

The trick is to contrast some scenes and texture the rest. I already mentioned the drug awareness assembly, and while it certainly doesn’t stand out as much as the American Dream scene would have to, or as much as some of the past scenes did, the texture of it is just different enough to keep it interesting. It’s one of the few crazy scenes that doesn’t see Johnny Depp twitching and writhing and muttering his way across the screen. Instead he stays calmly seated in a chair and we see something unfold with him as a static audience member. That and this scene is more clearly played for laughs than any of the other trips in the movie. The rest tend towards the nightmarish, and why this is certainly aggressive in tone it’s also pretty funny. The out-of-touch presenter explaining the code words associated with marijuana culture (square, hip, groovy, and cool) is equal parts funny and stressful.

The other great weapon in Terry Gilliam’s arsenal is a stronger, more general form of contrast. If you go back to music comparison it’s pretty simply explained. How do you best make a loud harsh peak in a loud harsh song seem notable? You make the verse before it quiet. This is exactly what Terry Gilliam does. There are a handful of scattered scenes in the film that see the camera straightening out, the music settling, and the ranting fading away. They almost all come before some especially savage or bizarre scene, and they are all fabulously well timed.

The first comes between the two hotel tenures. Half the movie sees Thompson and Gonzo in one hotel, half in another. There’s a lengthy scene between that sees Hunter driving and getting paranoid about his attempt to flee, then getting pulled over by a cop. The paranoid bit is definitely faintly odd, but still relatively toned down giving what it comes after. The scene with the cop is substantially less odd. The scene seems pretty normal at first, in fact. It slowly begins to get a little weirder, culminating in the cop demanding a kiss from Hunter S. Thompson.

The scene acts as a much needed breath between massive bouts of crazy.  The hotel room scenes are such throbbing insane moments that they desperately require a scene to allow the audience a break. Some plain deserts and stable camera work before Hunter S. Thompson starts ingesting pineal extract and hallucinating devils and demons while wreathed in an American flag.

The scene where Thompson wakes up in a hotel room after a black-out serves as a perfect example of this contrast in miniature. The shots of Thompson wandering through his chaotic hotel room (wearing a lizard tail) are pretty normal, pretty straight forward, and pretty calm. The cuts to fragments of what happened the night before are not. They’re neon soaked, Dutch angle heavy, incessantly noisy, utterly surreal fragments and the contrast makes them harsh and effective. Without the calm framing mechanism they’d be coming right on the tail of the savage pineal scene, and they’d be completely robbed of their effect.

The other such scene comes right before the movie’s end. In order to make the final speech and surreal shot seem notable the scene before is stripped down, bare, and normal. The diner scene shows Gonzo and Thompson trying to get some food. Thompson is pretty much back-grounded though this whole scene, typing away on his keyboard. Gonzo essentially menaces the waitress throughout this scene. It’s tense and disturbing and realistic, so it stands out something fierce. Its easily one of the more upsetting scenes in the film despite the lack of visceral weirdness. After this Thompson has to drive Gonzo to the airport. This scene stands in contrast to the rest of the movie again. Not only is it a more realistic, grounded scene, it’s also pretty lighthearted and fun. “I’ve never missed a plane.”

It makes the heavy ending all the more powerful.

Our trip didn’t end on a high note, but it did provide us with one or two more chilling moments.

The third trip to Stanley Taylor’s house saw us prepared to investigate. We started reading letters and really getting on our hands and knees and going through his stuff. It’s rather like forcing a Dutch angle on yourself, crouching holding a flashlight and a camera and picking through scattered boxes of junk. I came across a strange series of piles that looked like they rather might have come from a junk-drawer at some point. It was a pile of wrappers and packages and gears and razor-blades and shell casings and trinkets. I started going through these piles piece by piece. I found three packages, complete with warranties, from watches Stanley Taylor had mailed away for. No sign of any watches. But lots of gears and cogs. So then I can’t help but wonder if he was ordering watches and meticulously destroying them, or at least fancied himself better at fixing them than he actually was. This was not the weird discovery though. The startlingly weird peak came when I moved one of the boxes. I swore loudly and repeatedly until my comrades put down the letters they were reading. I’d found a tiny keychain pendant type thing. But it was a human skull. With a top hat no less. A startling thing to find in a dead man’s house.

The creepiest moment came later though, and like the most disturbing scenes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it was subtle in its nature.

I suddenly heard shouts from my partners in crime (not actual crime mind you, feel I should make that abundantly clear). One of the letter’s they found had borne fruit. Horribly creepy fruit. It was a letter from a hospital, presumably one more concerned with mental health than physical health. There is an empty mental hospital a town over, maybe it was there. But anyway it was a letter from a doctor allowing Stanley Taylor’s mother to be released from the hospital. This was conditional on her being monitored regularly. It also specifically mentioned a woman who would have to be warned of her release. Not to mention referencing past events that saw the mother “loitering” by the police station all night. It also specifically said that Stanley and his brother needed to stop “teasing” her about her mental problems. Slowly the significance of this letter dawned on us.

Our first though was that she probably suffered from dementia or something similar. But then we found some more documents that made her age clearer. At the time of the letter she would have been far too young to be suffering from dementia. So mental illness seemed like the only option. Not immediately relevant to the stuff we were looking at. Or was it? This knowledge started to cast the rest of the house’s musty contents into an eerie light. Maybe mental illness ran in the family. Maybe that explained the pickle jars, the calendars, the OCD notes, and the hoarding. Because he was a hoarder. Between the school books, woman’s purse (he was never married, so it was either his mom’s or his sister-in-laws), and a chain with every dog tag he ever owned that much was clear. We thought there was something off with the contents of the house before, but this cinched it.

I’m not necessarily saying it was some sort of horrifying back-woods cabin that Stanley lived in his whole life. I’m not necessarily saying he might have psychologically tortured his mentally ill mother while simultaneously inheriting his illness. I’m not necessarily saying it’s disturbing that he spent his whole life in the same house while his parents passed away and his brother moved out. It was by far the grimmest discovery made, and it was a subtle slow one.

It could have all been quite innocent. A quirky old man who slipped into senility as the years passed. He tried to keep up on some things, that much was clear. He’d tried to teach himself how to use a chainsaw, for one thing. But he also seemed to stubbornly live in the past. He certainly never had a toilet (you haven’t felt fear until you’ve found a ten year old role of toilet paper next to a bucket in an abandoned house). “Ignore that nightmare in the bathroom.” He’d never had anything more than a wood stove. There was some monolithic tank-thing in one side room. It seemed like it might have been a washing machine. It was covered in oozing black oil and none of us could work up the courage to open it. It wasn’t until the end of the third trip we noticed these things; that’s how distracting the more obvious oddities were.

Also on the subtly disturbing spectrum was the complete absence of animal life. No bats in the attic, no signs of mice, there weren’t even that many bugs. Not that we weren’t on edge, sticking my head in the attic was fairly nerve-wracking. But nothing was to be found. Sure it was a stone house, but surely something would’ve sheltered in there at some point? Of course on of my compatriots had to go and whisper “you don’t think they’d let us in if there was something toxic here right?” Not a single critter seemed to about, and it rather seemed like the place should have been teeming with them. “We’re right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo!”

It was surreal. Subtly surreal and savagely surreal. Depending on the moment.

A lot like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I’m not quite sure how successful this piece will be. Trying to toe the line between spoon-feeding the parallels I’m attempting to draw and not obfuscating them has been interesting. Ultimately it’s not that complex. I had a surreal experience and it reminded me a lot of the book and film I’d just consumed. I’ve been writing this whole thing semi-manically, which I suppose is appropriate. “The possibility of complete mental and physical collapse is now very real.” Hopefully the pretension works out in my favour. One experience reflected the other perfectly. Strange off-kilter headspaces and unexpected imagery.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Somehow I missed this piece when it came out (on my sister’s, and my grandfather-in-law’s, birthday, BTW). It’s certainly different than most of Sequart’s stuff but I dug it. It’s a little sloppy but that’s part of what makes it work. As I was reading it, the playlist in my computer got to “The Electrician” by The Walker Brothers, and “The Jezebel Spirit” by Brian Eno & David Byrne, a track that reportedly samples the recording of a real exorcism, and plays it against a funky groove. Somehow they felt appropriate.

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