Due to a variety of reasons stemming from trending, blatant cash-ins, and all-too-frequent voids of creativity, the horror genre is particularly prone to repetition. Yet individuals such as myself (and quite likely you) crave the fruits of the horror tree all the same. What others would call clichés, we call conventions. A cliché is something that has become trite with overuse; something we are tired of seeing. A convention is a customary practice, a rule. To us, horror films are like episodes of a favorite TV show. We tune in week after week specifically to bask in these familiar tropes, traditions, and archetypes. Here in Horror 101 we shall turn an academic eye on this vast world of horror movie conventions.
So come journey with me into the haunted recesses of one of cinema’s oldest genres. Don’t be chickenshit. No one has disappeared in here for years. Plus, I found this dusty old Ouija board we can get drunk and play with…
(Lesson 2 of 9)
As we discussed last time, boiled down to its simplest form a horror movie needs only a Hero and a Villain – a knight and a dragon, if you will. But that journey to the dragon’s cave would probably be a lot more entertaining if there were someone else along for the ride. Especially someone the Hero can make-out with.
Horror movies have changed a lot since the Classic Age of the Universal monsters, but one of the conventions that has held firmly intact is… The Couple.
Generally speaking, a Couple is comprised of the Hero and his/her Love Interest, but there are certainly plenty of films that buck this trend. Some films, such as Jaws (1975), have a same-sex Couple (Hooper and Brody). Same-sex Couples are less common because our two males or females can’t have sexual tension or hook up (they could, but that is the sort of thing the number-crunchers at studios and production companies aren’t likely to get excited about). Also, having two men in a Couple usually gives the film a buddy cop feel, more fun-loving and comedic – a Butch & Sundance tone – and Jaws, while definitely a horror movie in many ways, is also an action/adventure movie is an equal number of ways. Tremors (1990) falls into a similar groove.
There’s also been a somewhat recent trend – films like Jeepers Creepers (2001), Cursed (2005) and the House of Wax (2005) – where our Couple is brother and sister. Siblings definitely can’t hook up, but given that most horror Couples spend more time running and hiding than they do snogging and humping, the brother-sister Couple has the same vibe as a standard Couple – lots of cowering and holding each other in terror.
As I said, generally speaking – and we are dealing specifically with the general aspects of horror here – the Couple is the Hero and the Love Interest. But, to clarify, the mere existence of a Love Interest does not automatically mean that we have a Couple. Almost all horror movies have a Love Interest, but most don’t have a Couple. Jenny Agutter is the Love Interest in An American Werewolf in London (1981), but she and David Naughton are not a Couple. A Couple functions like a unit or a team, with other characters coming and going and dying, until the Couple is effectively all that is left. Every blue moon we’ll have two fully equal Heroes in a Couple, what is called an Even Couple – Jeepers Creepers again – but conventionally there is but one Hero in a standard Couple.
Accompanying our Hero will be one of these three counterparts:
• The Partner
• The Worthless Girl
• The Protector
The Partner is someone our Hero can rely on, and is frequently someone our Hero needs, like a Guy/Girl Who Knows Things (more on this character in a future class), who is supplying our Hero with crucial information pertaining to the villain(s), while also being conveniently super attractive. For this reason the Partner is often a scientist, paired with a law enforcement Hero (or the other way around), like Bridget Fonda paired with Bill Pullman in Lake Placid (1999). The Partner, while having his/her own character quirks of course, generally has their shit together in a way the Hero doesn’t. If executed properly this serves to effectively create the illusion that the two characters have relatively equal standing as Heroes, even though this is ultimately our Hero’s game.
Let’s return to our hypothetical classic horror film – Baboon Holocaust. One of our Horror 101 students fan-cast John Saxon last time, so let’s plug him in there and say the film came out in 1977…
Saxon is the sheriff of Quite River, our small mountain town. Recently divorced, he has taken to alcohol and really just doesn’t give a shit about shit anymore. So when Genevieve Bujold’s character, the plucky headstrong reporter with feminist ideals who has been trying to uncover the secret baboon experiments taking place at the underground government lab near Quiet River, arrives in town, initially she will butt heads with Saxon. Begrudgingly he will let her tag along, and when bodies start to pile up Bujold will slowly convince Saxon of the truth – “You’re trying to tell me coyotes did that to those campers?!” Bujold will frankly be of greater use than Saxon for most of the film, and will need to give him a few swift kicks to the ass (throwing away Saxon’s booze, for example), but it will be Saxon’s rugged manliness that ultimately prevails when it comes time to stop playing detective and start killing some genetically altered baboons.
The Worthless Girl
Imagine our Hero is running from a pack of those baboons. The baboons are fast but our Hero is making good time. In fact, the only thing that’s slowing him down is the girl that he’s towing in hand behind him. Not only is she clearly slowing him down, she is yelling stupid things like, “I can’t run this fast; I need to stop!” despite the fact that baboons are right on their tails. But our Hero has enough awesome for both of them. He’ll get them to safety. Then, as if this girl weren’t enough of a disaster, SHE TRIPS! She fucking falls down to the ground.
I can tell you right now, if genetically weaponized baboons were chasing me and the girl I was with – who according to standard horror convention I likely just met earlier that night – tripped, I doubt I’d even notice. And if I did notice, I can assure you I would not run back to help her. But I’m merely a cowardly and pragmatic horror fan, because that is exactly what our horror Hero does. He might even pick her up and carry her. He’s that badass and she’s that incapable. Meet the Worthless Girl: she’s hot, she wears heels in the woods, and her idea of “helping” is screaming loudly when she spots the monster.
The point of the Worthless Girl is a dramatically simple one – she gives our Hero an excuse to repeatedly (almost constantly in some films) demonstrate not only his valor, but his general manly capability. The Worthless Girl is the expanded version of the maiden sitting up in the tower, who can seemingly do nothing other than cry for help and sex up our brave knight as a reward for saving her useless ass.
There aren’t really any Worthless Boys. Cinema’s strict gender representations simply don’t allow for it – and audiences don’t either. While women enjoy seeing a female Hero kick ass, are they going to find the male Love Interest appealing if he is whimpering and screaming and unable to take care of himself? The only readily accepted way for a male Love Interest to become a Worthless Boy is by being injured, most likely in a very respectable way (possibly while trying to protect the female Hero). Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is forced to take care of and protect Hicks (Michael Biehn) in Aliens (1986), but only after he gets injured in heroic battle. Even this is a moot example, though, because Ripley and Hicks are not a Couple; Ripley is a Solo Hero.
Speaking of accepted gender representations in film, unsurprisingly the Worthless Girl was significantly more common in older films, back when men were men and women were props. A perfect example is Becky (Dana Wynter) from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). For the whole film she is by Miles’ (Kevin McCarthy) side, but she is never of any use – she holds no relevant information, like a Partner. At every moment she needs to be instructed what to do, “Wait here.” “Hold this.” “Run!” Whenever fighting needs to be done, she cowers nearby and waits for Miles to prevail, not even offering up the standard girlie assist of smashing a lamp over someone’s head. When Miles and Becky need to pretend they are Pod People, she blows their cover by being unable to contain her terror when they see a dog almost get hit by a car. And of course, when they run Miles needs to hold her hand, practically pulling her, until eventually she can’t take anymore, then he has to carry her. At least she’s pretty.
These days the Worthless Girl has been essentially phased out. Though, as one might expect, this has been executed in a fairly halfhearted fashion. The modern Worthless Girl will still be worthless for a vast majority of the film, but she will have at least one test-audience-friendly, out of place scene where she inexplicably proves capable. So now, in the 21st-century, we have the Progressive Worthless Girl. The PWG is still a push-up-bra-bimbo, but will at some point (in between all her tripping and screaming) suddenly wield a ax with expert confidence and take out a bunch of baddies; a feat which is invariably followed by a groan worthy one-liner that is either weirdly anachronistic to the PC-induced progressive moment, “That’s for making me brake a nail!” or hacky Grrrl Power lame, “I don’t do laundry!”
The Protector is what happens when you move a Worthless Girl into the protagonist position, creating a Coward Hero. On paper, the Protector has all the attributes of an Ass Kicking Hero; if we were tallying up points based on proactive acts of heroism, the Protector would certainly be the “hero” of this duo. He is doing the fighting and the saving, he is taking the hits – all while our actual Hero sits by whimpering with fear. But he is a second-class citizen within the movie’s hierarchy. The salt in the wound for the Protector is that quite often he dies during the climax of the film, ramping up the conflict for our Coward Hero, while harshly putting the Protector in his place – just in case he had any delusions of maybe being the film’s real protagonist.
The reason why our Protector is putting up with our useless Hero can cover a wide spectrum. It can be a matter of saving the human race, like Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, once more) ultimately giving his life to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in The Terminator (1984). Or it can just be basic human decency, like Ben (Duane Jones) nobly suffering through the truly impressive worthlessness of Barbara (Judith O’Dea) in Night of the Living Dead (1968).
A minor subset of the Protector could be called the False Protector. False Protectors always die right before the climax of the film. What makes them “false” is the fact that they ultimately never do much protecting – they aren’t part of a true Couple, but rather serve as a fake-out gimmick. False Protectors generally appear in films with a Misdirection Structure, where the Hero is completely oblivious to the fact that they’re even in a horror film until Act III – usually when they find all their friends dead. Then the False Protector will jump into action and be immediately killed moments later, leaving our Hero to fend for themselves. The first four Friday the 13th films all utilized the False Protector fake-out.
Did I hear the bell? Out of time it would seem. Make sure to watch some horror movies over the weekend, cause next time we will discuss… The Stragglers.
The Solo Hero