Archive for August 29th, 2011

A Writer Reviews: Fright Night

Really there are three things I take away from Fright Night.  The first is rather less applicable than the other two, so let’s get it out of the way.

Lesson one: if your vampire movie has a somewhat thin plot, do everything you can to bring in both Colin Farrell and David Tennant, let them ham it up, and call it a day.  This is one of those movies that is certainly saved by the strength of the actors rather than the strength of the material, and the quality of individual scenes is directly in proportion to whether either Farrell or Tennant are in them.  It’s one of those movies that I would certainly say is fun, and I would see it again for that reason, but I would have a hard time calling good.  Unfortunately, as writers, it’s hard to get either Tennant or Farrell to pop up in the middle of our stories and do more with the material than what we’re giving them, so that’s not really applicable in terms of Writer Reviews.

So let’s focus on the other two lessons.

Lesson two: It’s okay if your character knows what’s going on.  One of the go-to tropes within horror is the character who has no idea what they’re in for.  The one that doesn’t know the rules, doesn’t know how to react, and has to learn everything as he goes along.  And that’s fine, there’s always going to be a place for those kinds of stories, especially dealing with the ever popular plotline of a group being picked off one-by-one by the evil supernatural force (though recently this has been changed from the supernatural evil to the natural evil, taking away any chance of knowing the rules, but that’s a subject for another time).  Fright Night goes the other way, and in doing so finds itself on similar footing as Zombieland.  The latter was popular almost entirely because of a main character with a very no-nonsense approach to surviving the zombie apocalypse and espousing his survival rules along the way.

Fright Night’s lead character understands how the vampire works, knows all the rules (especially the under-utilized “must be invited in” rule), and in a large part that’s where the drama of the movie comes from.  It’s not from someone accidentally doing everything wrong, it’s from someone doing everything right but it not being enough.  In doing so the movie can further emphasize just how vicious and powerful the villain is.  In a lot of horror the villain is survivable if the main characters would just stop, to put it bluntly, fucking up all the time.  To me, this kills the horror of the situation1 and replaces it with frustration felt towards the protagonists.  In extreme cases it leaves me cheering for the supernatural evil.

We, as an audience, know the rules.  We’ve seen enough of the stories, we know what to do, and we want to cheer for a character who also gets all the rules right.  They become us in the movie, our ideal of ourselves.  We’re the kids who used to dress up, who read and watched everything about vampires, and have been planning for the day when one moves in next door.  We’ll do everything right.  If it’s not enough, it’s not for lack of effort on our part.  However, there’s always that one broken rule, it’s the same one in both Fright Night and Zombieland.  Don’t get attached.  The character has to break that rule, or else they’re not human and we turn on them.  The movie does a fantastic job addressing that by having Tennant be the character who just walked away, and what that did to him.

Lesson three:  Don’t pussyfoot.  At no point did the movie ever try to pretend that Colin Farrell isn’t a blood sucking creature of the night.  And he plays the part creepily well.  There are lesser movies out there, however, that will play around with the is-he-or-isn’t-he, until finally making it the big twist at the end of Act One that SURPRISE the character who has been portrayed as a vampire in all the posters, in all the trailers, in all the television ads, and in all the Comic Con panels is…guess what…a vampire!  This isn’t a twist, this isn’t a reveal, it’s just wasting the audience’s time by treating things they already know as a surprise.

Now, it’s easier for a written story to be approached in a void that a movie cannot be.  Movies need to advertise themselves, and they need to advertise themselves unambiguously as what they are.  If you were to try to sell Fright Night as a teen coming of age drama set against a backdrop of the dying boom town that are the modern Vegas suburbs, and then have a vampire jump out a third of the way in, it doesn’t work.  It breaks your covenant with the audience.  Twist endings are fine, twist genres are not.  But that’s movies, we write books and short stories that don’t get multi-million dollar advertising blitzes (well, some people do, but they’re not reading this blog).  But there’s still going to be that potential cross-genre twist that will cause a reader to put a book down, give it two stars on Amazon, and walk away.

There are still cues when it comes to a book or story.  It’s still going to be shelved in horror.  It’s in a horror anthology.  It’s potentially specifically in a zombie or vampire anthology.  In those cases, don’t play around, don’t make me guess whether the creepy guy next door is just a little creepy or is in league with the forces of the undead.  There are times where that works, but there are other times where it just gets in the way of starting the story.  Know who your audience is, especially when going into a theme anthology, and don’t leave them guessing unless that’s an essential part of the plot.

So there it is.  Use your knowledgeable protagonist.  Let your antagonist be the evil thing he is.  Then have some fun with it, as it lets you get straight into the heart of a story and stay there longer.

1. They may still be scary, mind, but scary is things jumping out and yelling “boo,” horror is the underlying feel of dread running through the whole of the work.

Edit:  The movie ends with a song that I’m becoming rapidly infatuated with as I listen to it over and over.  It’s a cover of 99 Problems, a song I was only vaguely aware of but knew so little about that I wasn’t aware this was a cover.  Here’s the original music video, which is in no way tied to the movie, so has nothing to do with the movie, so has no spoilers:

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