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Posts Tagged Horror
I don’t typically go in for the haunted house possession movies, just not really my thing. But this weekend I ended up watching Insidious as part of an I-pick, she-picks double feature with my wife. (My pick: The Illusionist, the animated one not the Edward Norton one, brilliant but depressing.)
Through the first act of the movie I actually quite liked it. Mostly because it obeyed one of my big musts for a horror movie: it trusted itself to be scary. It didn’t resort to the cheep scares, the visceral equivalent of fart jokes in a comedy, but kept things going mostly through tone and dread, which is where horror actually lives. Yes, it’s my old go to distinction between scares and horror that I know I’ve touched on before.
But in its strength early on also lies its weakness as the story progresses. And it’s something that writers need to be aware of in all their works, but especially in works of horror: tone. Horror is one of only two genres (the other being comedy) that I would probably define by its tone rather than its content. It’s also why those two genres tend to cross all other genres, and even each other at times. It’s how Alien can be a horror movie set on a space ship, or Galaxy Quest can be a comedy set on a space ship. The space ships make the movies science fiction because of content, but the chosen tone makes them horror or comedy.
It’s also worth bringing up my other big horror cliche, that it and comedy are really two sides of the same coin. Both are about crossing lines, it’s just a question of which lines are crossed. Gene Weingarten has a fantastic theory that humor is the natural human defense mechanism against the existential terror of the world around us. Babies laughing during a game of peak-a-boo are laughing in relief after the horror of watching their parent disappear right in front of them. It’s a terror-then-release thing, and one of the reasons that humans seek out frightening experiences for the rushes of first the fear and then the release.
Getting back to Insidious, tone awareness ends up being the problem with the movie.
Dark comedy is fantastic, and there is plenty of room for the humorous within a horror story. But that needs to be set in the tone early on, and not be something that emerges as the movie continues. If lighter tone doesn’t show up until Act Two of a story, it’s not dark comedy, it’s a failure of tone. And that happened in Insidious when the two spirit detectives showed up and started using a View Master to track down spirits hiding in the house. It was a moment that took both my wife and I out of the flow of the movie and start asking just what the intended tone was. When eventually the main spirit guide shows up, she puts on a gas mask that, while used to very creepy effect in Doctor Who, just didn’t work in the movie.
The tone problem continued into the real dramatic high of the movie, when the father astral projects into the spirit realm and encounters all the evil souls looking for an empty body to possess. Perhaps one of the problems is that concept works better on paper than it does on film, because unfortunately for each spirit that was introduced there was something unquestionably silly about them. The murderess who looked like a 50s mannequin. The demon with translucent skin just a little too eager to lick peoples’ faces. The big bad demon of the whole thing, the flame-faced demon who just had greasepaint on his face rather than, as I expected, something more akin to Nicolas Cage in Ghost Rider. The old lady that looked like an 18-year old in a Halloween old lady costume. These probably weren’t entirely in the script, they were in the art department, the make-up, the directing, but they were real issues with the tone. And it’s why I wonder if the story would translate better on paper, as there’s little chance that a reader who comes across a phrase like “the demon’s face was a veil of fire” would imagine a creature like a poorly made-up clown or Darth Maul wannabe.
For the movie it made for a disappointing last 50 minutes after a strong opening 30. For a writer looking for a lesson, it’s this: beware of your tone in horror. If you want campy, do campy, but do it from the beginning. Don’t let it show up too late in the story, or else you’ve set the table for readers just to pull out the tablecloth from under them.
Let’s start by saying I liked Super 8. It’s fantastic to see a movie come out that’s a purely original story, not an adaptation, not a sequel, but something new and different. It’s also why I really loved Source Code. It’s why I was disappointed that Darren Aronofsky was briefly tied to the next Wolverine movie. And it’s why those three filmmakers, Aronosky, Duncan Jones, and JJ Abrams, are easily my three favorites right now. Alright, yes, Abrams does the occasional adaptation like Star Trek, or adaptation-and-sequel like Mission: Impossible, but he also comes up with fantastic new ideas and is able to get them very successfully onto film.
Alright, this is turning into way too much of a love letter to Abrams. That’s not what this is about. This is about looking at Super 8 and seeing what lessons can be taken from it and applied to all types of writing. And there are really two.
Lesson one: Horror is never enough.
Borders Books became infamous among my writing group when the decision was made to scrap the horror section and divide the books between fiction (if written by Stephen King) and science fiction (if written by anyone else). The thing is, there’s a very small part of that decision that I can understand. Horror should never be just horror. Horror is a theme or a mood that should be applied to other genres of stories. When Blake Snyder wrote Save the Cat, he looked to define genres that movies fall into, but he didn’t pick the standards like comedy, horror, or science fiction. Instead, the genres that he went for were story arcs. There’s Buddy Love, Golden Fleece, Dude with a Problem, Monster in the House.
And so we’ve got Super 8, which is a Coming of Age story. It just so happens to be a coming of age story with a giant monster from outer space rampaging through the middle of it. And that’s where the power of the story is. Even while the main characters are trying to survive as the town around them is being destroyed by both the monster and the military trying to capture it, the elements of the story are ultimately about a boy trying to come to grips with being himself, falling in love, bonding with his father, and discovering the voice to stand up for himself. All while trying to avoid getting stabbed in the chest by a rogue bit of lens flair.
So much lens flair.
Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that while this gets classified largely as horror (though I could make an entire other post, and may later today in Unleaded, about whether monster stories should all be horror), that’s not all the movie is. Perhaps there was a day back with Godzilla was first destroying Tokyo where that was enough for the movie, but it’s not anymore. The audience typically wants more. They want the story of the people. That’s why Cloverfield was so popular, and it explains the popularity of Super 8.
Lesson two: Ending everything.
I’m going to talk about the ending. So you know what, I’m going to put a handy little break right after this paragraph. Don’t keep reading after the break if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want spoilers. If you linked directly in, or are reading on RSS, stop now. Come back after you’ve seen it. It’s not my fault if you get spoiled. Though if you are about to leave and haven’t seen the movie yet, let me just say: hang out for the credits.
Last night I had a devil of a time sleeping, to the point where I gave up for several hours and ended up sitting on The Escapist, a site that I visit largely for Zero Punctuation. I sat down with a series of videos I was aware of but hadn’t watched called Extra Credits. It’s a series of animated lectures on various topics regarding how game developers can better approach the market and in the end make better games. Ultimately they’d love to see games be brought to the level of being widely acknowledged as an art form, much like writing and movies are.
That I’ve found some inspiration from the series, thus, shouldn’t surprise me too much. It does often take the approach of how games can have better told stories, so that there are episodes that are applicable well beyond the field of video game design shouldn’t be a surprise. In particular, I found two videos on the topic of horror.
And now, some required viewing with my own thoughts after.
This touches a lot of frustrations that I have with modern horror cinema. At some point film makers decided that the way to scare people was to throw black cats and monsters at them. And the video touches on that exact point from the video gaming perspective: the point when the technology allowed filmmakers to get lazy by showing the evil horror lurking around the edges of older movies. Silent Hill had atmospheric fog obscuring much of the game because the PS1 rendering engine couldn’t handle the graphics the designers want. Jaws had a shark that you only got to see glimpses of because their mechanical shark broke down and couldn’t be used as thoroughly as planned.
In the end it comes down to the idea of sure we can but does that mean we should. Movies can be the ultimate in survival horror because the audience isn’t allowed to make any decisions that alter the outcome of the movie. They’re just being grabbed and dragged along for the ride. And the most terrifying thing that any person will ever encounter is the thing in their mind, filling in all of their personal fears and neuroses.
Don’t look at the name of this video. It’s called symbolism,but a lot of it is exploring the questions of what makes horror actually work. And it’s boiled down into the triple concept of horror: Self, The Other, and The Uncanny. I really can’t improve on the video by commenting on it. In the end, it’s a short and perfectly crafted exploration about what can make things scary, with an introduction to the psychology of why.
So give them a view, they’re fantastic viewing. And if you’re entertained by the style, certainly give the rest of the series a chance.