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.
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 3 of 9)
Thus far in class we’ve been focusing on those plucky characters who manage to victoriously survive the carnage of the horror films in which they appear (generally speaking, of course), so we might as well follow this road to its conclusion before moving on to other things.
There is a certain prestige that comes with surviving a horror film. Your typical horror production doesn’t have the budget to let actors go to waste when audiences are thirsty for kills, so if a character isn’t put to the ax it naturally seems like they must have been fairly important. Normally, if we’re left with two characters still standing at the end of a film, it might be safe to assume they comprise a Couple. Not necessarily. In John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) both MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) survive, but all things considered, that was just dumb luck for Childs. MacReady is the Solo Hero. Childs is what we’d call…
Stragglers aren’t the Hero, or the other half of a Couple. Put in mundane terms: Stragglers are the other people who don’t die. They are the individuals fortunate enough to have slipped through the cracks – or slipped through the kills, rather.
The question of who qualifies as a Straggler becomes a bit tricky in films about Towns (a term to be explored in depth in a future class), where we potentially have a very large number of peripheral characters. In Jaws (1975), Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is never eaten by the shark, but he’s also never in harm’s way. You could call him a Straggler, as he does appear in the sequel, but strictly speaking he does not fit the bill. Neither does Mrs. Brody (Lorraine Gary), as both characters become non-existent midway through the film. True Stragglers emerge from our Victim Pool, not the entirety of our film’s cast.
There are four basic types of Stragglers:
• The Dependent
• The Magician
• The Helpful
• The Lucky
The Dependent Straggler is a lot like the Worthless Girl, in as much as he/she needs the Hero to get them through the film safely. Without the Hero’s intervention, the Dependent would be doomed. A Love Interest without enough screen time to be a Worthless Girl is the most frequent Dependent. Figuratively, the Dependent is the damsel in distress, up in her tower, waiting for the brave knight to come rescue her. Beth (Odette Yustman) in Cloverfield (2008) quite literally exemplifies this medieval analogy. Dependents often serve the purpose of plot motivation, giving our Hero a mission to accomplish, but they do not always need to be completely helpless. Liz (Kate Ashfield) in Shaun of the Dead (2004) is a Dependent, despite the fact that she isn’t totally useless or trapped under a pile of rubble somewhere. As long as the Hero is more directly responsible for keeping you alive than you are, you’re a Dependent.
A subset of the Dependent is the Prop Kid. The Prop Kid is an interesting character, as the archetype defies conventional classification. Let’s take Rachel (Dakota Fanning) from War of the Worlds (2005). Based purely on screen time, I think it would be reasonable to try and label Rachel a Worthless Girl. She fits the criteria: she is never away from Ray’s (Tom Cruise) side, and Ray is constantly forced to protect her. Yet, despite this, Rachel and Ray are not a Couple. While Worthless Girls are indeed Worthless, they still bring something to the Couple table – usually sexual attraction – whereas Rachel is more of a prop than a person. It is a fuzzy line, I know, but an easy way to out a Prop Kid is to perform what I call the Treasure Test. The “treasure” could be anything valuable, from monetary (a priceless gem), to personal (dead wife’s ashes), to scientific (antidote to the plague). The test is simple, just ask yourself: would the events of [insert film] be altered if [insert character] were replaced with treasure? In this case, no. War of the Worlds‘ story would play out almost exactly the same if Rachel were an urn of ashes or a briefcase that contained the secret to defeating the alien invaders. Rachel is a Prop Kid.
Of course, sometimes our Hero just saves some people too, without sexual attraction or familial bonds required as motivation. In Pitch Black, (2000) both Imam (Keith David again) and Jackie (Rhiana Griffith) would’ve been heliophobic monster chow if it weren’t for Riddick (Vin Diesel), but for a majority of the film he didn’t really give a damn what happened to them. In fact, he wasn’t even trying to save Imam. It just worked out that way.
The Magician Straggler’s routine is a disappearing/reappearing act. He/she will vanish from the movie either immediately preceding the climax or possibly during it (if it is a lengthy action filled set piece). Then, once the dust settles, the Magician will reappear. Maybe even bring a little levity: “Hey, what did I miss?” Wacka wacka. Roll credits. The reason for the Magician’s disappearance can vary wildly. Maybe they were just running late, their car rolling up outside the haunted mansion after the shit already hit the fan. Maybe the tomb door closed unexpectedly, locking them safely outside and away from danger. Maybe they were knocked out. Maybe we even thought they were dead. Maybe we simply forgot about them. The Hero’s wacky best friend is very often a Magician, but they certainly don’t need to be wacky. The previously mentioned and very unwacky Childs from The Thing is a Magician.
The key to the Magician is that they reappear after the climax. If they reappear during the climax, they are…
The Helpful Straggler is not only responsible for his/her own survival, but quite often they are partially responsible for our Hero’s survival too. After we’ve forgotten about her, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) reappears during the climax of Scream (1996) to helpfully shoot the villain when Sydney (Neve Campbell) is in trouble. But neither disappearing nor rescuing the Hero are actually required to be a Helpful Straggler. Lending a helpful hand to defeat the villain – and not disappearing or dying – is what matters. Since normally you don’t want random supporting characters out-shining your Hero, Helpful Stragglers are often part of horror movies with teams or families aiding the Hero, films like Critters (1986) or Nightmare on Elm St: Dream Warriors (1987) or the big daddy of Straggler films, Tremors (1990) which features a whopping seven Stragglers – some Helpful, some Dependant.
The Lucky Stragglers found a loophole. The Hero doesn’t save them, and they don’t exactly fend off the villain either. They just kind of… don’t die. Often the Lucky managed to escape death because they kept themselves separate from the fray, like Reverend Meeker (Del Close) in The Blob (1988). Other times the Lucky just gets, well, lucky – managing to avoid being in the wrong place at the right time. Rughead (Clint Howard) catches a break in The Wraith (1986), narrowly avoiding the wrath of Charlie Sheen for no particularly concrete reason. He just walks away at what turns out to be an ideal moment.
Let’s return to our hypothetical horror classic, Baboon Holocaust. We let John Saxon have some fun last time. This time we will bump the film up to, say, 1985, throw Tom Atkins in there, and load the film up with Stragglers.
Atkins is an author who has come to Quiet Valley with his wife (Dee Wallace) and their eight-year-old son (some annoying kid) while he tries to finish up his latest book. When the baboon horde escapes from the government facility and attacks the town, Wallace becomes trapped at the library. Now Atkins must grab his son, a Prop Kid, and lug him like a sack of precious dirt across town, while he fights off baboons left and right – working his way toward Wallace, a damsel Dependent. Along the way he joins forces with his ex-military neighbor (Ken Foree), who proves extremely badass until ultimately succumbing to the baboons while the trio are trapped in a gas station. Atkins reaches the library just in time for the climax to hit. In the library we have a handful of other characters, including the lovably neurotic male librarian (Sydney Lassick), all of whom die one-by-one until finally it is just Atkins, Wallace, and Prop Kid. Atkins manages to get his wife and son out of the building, with himself inside keeping the baboons trapped. Atkins seems doomed, but then – what’s this?! Ken Foree to the rescue, just as Atkins is about to get babooned! He’s a Helpful Straggler! Together the two men successfully burn down the library with all the baboons inside. Our family is safe, and – hold the phone! What is that sound in the dumpster? Is it a baboon?!?! No, it’s Sydney Lassick! It turns out that when those baboons pulled him into the trash chute, they ended up crushed and he survived after all! He’s a Magician Straggler! He even has a stupid one-liner; looking up at the burning library he quips, “Well, I don’t normally support book burning, but in this case…” Ah ha ha. They all laugh as we pull back into a crane shot and Harry Manfredini plays us into the final credits crawl. The end.
Well, that’s it for today, class. See you back here next time, when we’ll discuss… The Guy Who Knows Things.
The Solo Hero