MIRACLE MILE may not actually fall under the category of horror, but
it is one of the scariest movies ever made. It’s a cold war thriller
like no other, a nightmarish depiction of naked fear and panic in the
face of nuclear annihilation.
The low-budget MIRACLE MILE, released by the late
Hemdale Pictures in 1989, was not a success. It was savaged by critics
and largely ignored by audiences, yet the film stuck with the few of us
who bothered to turn out for it. This includes a major Los Angeles based
critic, who admitted at a revival screening that he’d changed his mind
about the film after his initial negative review.
In fact, MIRACLE MILE had been attracting attention in
screenplay form several years before it was greenlit. The script was
given a prominent place in a mid-eighties piece in AMERICAN FILM
magazine about the 10 Best Unproduced Screenplays in Hollywood (Bruce
Joel Ruben’s then-unproduced script for JACOB’S LADDER was also
mentioned). Its writer Steve De Jarnatt ended up directing the film,
with Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham headlining.
Romantic sad sack Harry, a 30-year-old aspiring
musician, believes he’s finally found true love with the sunny Julie.
The only problem is that on their latest date the power goes out in
Harry’s building and he sleeps past 12 PM. That’s the time of the
appointed rendezvous outside the coffee shop where Julie works, located
on the “Miracle Mile” portion of Wilshire Boulevard. Harry turns up four
hours late, by which time Julie has gone home. It seems all is
lost...and then Harry hears the ringing of a pay phone.
On impulse he answers it, and hears a desperate voice
babbling that “we’re locked in...we’ve shot our load,” and will be
“getting it back” in an hour and ten minutes. Apparently the unseen
caller works in a missile silo and is referring to nuclear missiles that
have just been fired at Russia, who’ve responded in kind. The person
thinks he’s calling his dad in Orange County, having dialed the wrong
area code. Before Harry can ferret out any more info there is the sound
of gunshots and a stern voice telling him to “forget everything
you’ve just heard and go back to sleep!”
Harry feels compelled to tell the coffee shop’s early
morning patrons of what he’s heard, which leads to a mad dash by many of
those patrons to LAX. Harry makes his way to Julie’s place, picks her up
and heads for a helicopter rendezvous atop a bank building.
But now he’s faced with a new problem: there’s no one
to fly the coptor, and where does one find such a person at 4 AM on the
Miracle Mile? It doesn’t help matters that time is running out and panic
is spreading among LA’s populace, fuelled by rumors of an impending
nuclear Armageddon--started, of course, by Harry himself!
MIRACLE MILE works largely because it’s so
unprecedented in style and execution. The opening scenes have an amiable
eighties romcom feel, with Anthony Edwards doing a reprise of his
likeable nerd act from REVENGE OF THE NERDS and GOTCHA. There’s no
indication of an apocalyptic turn of events, which makes the
relentlessness of much of the rest of the film, set entirely in real
time, all the more shocking.
It’s precisely that aspect, alas, that got the film
into trouble with critics and audiences. Back in 1989 movie heroes
tended to be pumped-up musclemen of the Stallone-Schwarzenegger variety,
while Anthony Edwards is something else entirely: a thoroughly average
guy hopelessly unequipped for the bizarre and horrific circumstances he
finds himself thrust into.
The prime criticism MIRACLE MILE received was that
Edwards’ behavior is illogical. A search for a helicopter pilot in an
all-night gym? Ridiculous. Crossing a riot-torn street because there’s a
guy on the other side who looks like (but isn’t) the desired pilot? Even
more so. But who among us can honestly say they’d behave differently?
The film’s illogic is that of a nightmare, punctuated with several
impossible-to-forget images: a dying man trying to climb a descending
escalator, a corpse’s head obscuring the view through a manhole, a
ranting madman watching missiles zip through the sky above him, etc.
Problems? There are a few. The idea of setting the
majority of the action on and around the Miracle Mile section of
Wilshire Boulevard (most likely for budgetary reasons) feels a mite
contrived; we’re supposed to believe the protagonists both live and
work in the area, which I had difficulty swallowing. There’s also the
issue of the low budget, which doesn’t do Steve De Jarnatt’s ambitions
justice, particularly in the cute-rate riot scenes and crummy special
effects of the third act.
But MIRACLE MILE works, functioning both as
edge-of-the-seat entertainment and alarmingly prescient social
Hemdale Film Corporation
Director: Steve De Jarnatt
Producers: John Daly, Derek Gibson
Screenplay: Steve De Jarnatt
Cinematography: Theo Van De Sande
Editing: Stephen Semel
Cast: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar, Lou Hancock, Mykelti
Williamson, Kelly Jo Minter, Kurt Fuller, Denise Crosby, Robert DoQui,
O-Lan Jones, Claude Earl Jones, Alan Rosenberg