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 4 of 9)
Welcome back, class.
Today we will be discussing something most horror movies simply cannot do without: exposition. Exposition is the unloved, bastard stepchild of screenwriting devices. Everyone hates it, and it is very hard to write with any subtly, which pretty much guarantees that it will arrive with zero understatement in most horror movies. Compounding this problem is the fact that a large percentage of horror movies are dealing with an uncommon element – monsters, legends, killer animals – and thus require a hefty serving of backstory exposition for both the Hero’s sake and our own.
Films like Tremors (1990), which make the bold choice to forgo any backstory, are a rarity. Generally background information is an intrinsic part of a horror film. Would Nightmare on Elm St. (1984) have worked without the Freddy legend? Someone needs to give our Hero the lowdown, so that when the time comes, our champion will know that the lake monster is blind, or that the murderous hillbilly hunchback is afraid of the color pink because it reminds him of his abusive mother. Someone needs to take the thankless yet vital position of the Guy/Girl Who Knows Things (GWKT).
The GWKT is the medium for the exposition, the keeper of significant knowledge – knowledge that our Hero needs in order to navigate the horror film (or at least knowledge that we need to watch it). The amount of knowledge that needs to be imparted can be as copious as a dense mythology, or as minor as a single piece of information. But without this knowledge, our Hero would be doomed. With such a wide spectrum of potential story relevance, the GWKT is an exceptionally pliable character. He/she could have but one scene in the entire movie, like Dick Miller in The Howling (1981), or be as important as a Partner. Even the Hero can be a GWKT, like Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) in Jurassic Park (1993), though generally the GWKT is a supporting character – unless we’re dealing with a sequel, at which time a surviving Hero usually becomes a GWKT, like Reggie Bannister (Reggie Bannister) in the Phantasm series. After all, who better to play teacher to our new batch of characters than a former student?
Despite this wide array of character possibilities, there are still four basic varieties of GWKT:
• The Expert
• The Know It All
• The Prophetic Local
• The Folk Teller
The Expert is a professional, either in reality or purely in practice. The two sub-varieties of Experts are the Scientist and the Fanatic.
The Scientist gets paid to know what he/she knows – knowledge is part of a career path. A Scientist, of course, does not literally need to be a scientist. He could be a government agent sent to investigate a mysterious meteorite crash, or a pretty female grad student studying baboons, who gets called in to consult with our small town sheriff in the Horror 101 hypothetical megahit, Baboon Holocaust. Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) in Jaws (1975) is probably the most immediately recognizable Scientist. Having the Scientist work for a museum or something similarly mundane and stuffy is always a useful set-up, as it then leaves the character dramatically unprepared for the adventure the movie sends them on, and thus in need of our Hero’s heroism. Sometimes the Scientist is even the person who created the villain(s), such as Kevin McCarthy in Piranha (1978), now aiding our Hero in an attempt to undo crimes of the past.
I mentioned Jurassic Park moments ago for having a GWKT Hero. Jurassic Park is also a notable example of a film with multiple GWKT, all of which are Scientists. Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern) are both there to tell us about dinosaurs, Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is there to explain chaos theory (and quirkily stutter), John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) is there to gives us background about the park, and Ray (Samuel L. Jackson) is there to let us know how the park’s security system works. There is a lot of explaining going on here. But at least they’re all getting paid for it.
The Fanatic does not get paid, at least not by any reputable source. Generally, the Fanatic acquired their knowledge out of personal necessity or obsession or possibly even via otherworldly means. Sometimes a Fanatic is treated like a Scientist, filling the same sort of role within the context of the film, but I am not willing to consider cryptozoology a genuine field (no offense to any Loch Ness Monster hunters who might read the site). A common point of conflict when dealing with a Fanatic is that the Hero might not believe their knowledge; if Jane Goodall gives you info about chimps, you’ll listen, but you might not if some weirdo is telling you. Thus, the Fanatic generally is best used in movies about Bigfoot or ghosts or something else fantastical or supernatural (though not always). The Fanatic is often independently wealthy, which allows them to spend all their free time learning about Yetis and ghosts. Lake Placid (1999) has both a Scientist (Bridget Fonda) and a Fanatic (Oliver Platte). Psychics – both legitimate and phony – fall into the Fanatic category.
The Know It All
The Know It All (KIA) can often know just as much as an Expert. The big difference is they did not come by their knowledge as part of a life pursuit (neither a career nor a hobby). It is a complete coincidence that they know all this suddenly relative crap. Experts usually get called in, assigned to, or at least seek out the central conflict of the film. The KIA just happened to be there, and are thus a signature fixture in Eclectic Groups (to be discussed in a future class).
The two varieties of KIA are the Random Know It All and the Inexplicable Know It All.
The Random Know It All (RKIA) usually found a book or, in a current annoying trend, was watching the Discovery Channel recently. The moment we meet an Expert, we are usually aware of their expertise; this defines their character. With the RKIA it usually comes as a total surprise. Also, the RKIA always seems to have come by their random information either very, very recently (like yesterday) or a ridiculously long time ago.
Giving Baboon Holocaust a rest for the moment, let’s say our film is Day of the Dragon, the story of some college kids who decide to spend the weekend partying in an abandoned zoo. The zoo was closed down years ago, after the star attraction, a Komodo dragon, went berserk and killed two zookeepers. Of course, it turns out the Komodo dragon is somehow still alive, lurking in the ruins eating hobos and stray dogs! When one of our kids narrowly escapes the dragon, and is bit on the ankle, suddenly another of our college kids will proclaim: “Wait! Last week I was watching the Discovery Channel and there was a special about Komodo dragons on! Their saliva is poisonous!” Or possibly: “Wait! When I was a little kid I took a vacation to Komodo Island with my family! My uncle was bitten by a Komodo dragon! Their saliva is poisonous!” The RKIA is not always completely without set-up though. Possibly, in a moment of weak foreshadowing, when we first meet our RKIA, he/she might be watching a TV program or reading a magazine featuring a Komodo dragon.
A recent example of a classic RKIA is Fiona (Erin Way) from the Roger Corman/Joe Dante web series Splatter (2009), a dumb-blond groupie who randomly translates some important African writing, then offers up this golden explanation for her ability: “I dated this really hot hip hop artist and he toured Kenya, and I have an ear for native tongues.”
As preposterous as the RKIA can be, they seem like Experts when compared to the Inexplicable Know It All.
The IKIA didn’t learn – he/she just knows. There is not even a Discovery Channel legitimizer. From a writing perspective the IKIA is the laziest type of GWKT, because they are often a major supporting character, yet will only drop a single piece of information (ie, they are a cheat, an attempt to circumnavigate the need to have a GWKT). So rather than trying to work an Expert, or even a RKIA, into Day of the Dragon, we might just have the moronic, sex-obsessed sidekick to our football captain Hero suddenly blurt out that Komodo dragons become exhausted after sudden bursts of energy, then move on with the movie as though it wasn’t weird that he knew that. Or maybe we have Simon Canton (Anthony Heald), a cruise ship owner, inexplicably have extensive knowledge of deep-sea lifeforms in Deep Rising (1998)
Of course, the irony here is that only in movies is it “unrealistic” for someone to have knowledge for no good reason. I know plenty of details about Komodo dragons, yet I am not a zoologist or even a reptile hobbyist. If you asked me how I knew these factoids, I’d say, “I don’t know. I’m smart?” But in movies it is generally poor form when a GWKT is not justified. That said, it is also possible to over justify…
In Salem’s Lot (1979), when we are nearing the climax, our hero, Ben Mears (David Soul) says, “I called my friend in San Francisco. He’s turned on to the occult…” and then he goes on to explain that he needs to stake the head vampire while he slumbers in his coffin during the day. This is probably going too far with the knowledge qualifying. For one thing, it is an awkward moment of “showing, not telling” (to use filmmaking language). Mears had a conversation with a Fanatic, thereby turning himself into a RKIA, but it would have been a stronger moment to have just shown that conversation instead of having Mears recount it. More relevant though is the fact that any small child could have told Mears to stake the vampire during the daytime. Yes, it is dramatic to not equip the Hero with all the answers right off the bat, but this is making him a little too stupid, especially considering that there is a 13-year-old in the film who manages to figure out the exact same thing without talking to a Fanatic. So this makes Mears less clever than a junior high kid.
The Prophetic Local
Being a stranger in a strange land is always a little scary. You don’t know anyone and you don’t know where anything is, so, in the days before cell phones, if something went wrong you were screwed. It only makes sense that most horror movies are fish-out-of-water tales about tourists, college kids on a weekend camping trip, or an unfortunate road-tripper with a flat tire. Prophetic Locals always appear near the beginning of a film. They are cautionary GWKT, giving our Hero a warning that only a local would know.
There are three kinds of Prophetic Locals: the Concerned Samaritan, the Ominous Townie, and the Crazy Guy. All very different, they do agree on one thing: you kids shouldn’t go to the [insert location our kids definitely go to].
The Concerned Samaritan (CS) is usually a shop/gas station owner or hitchhiker-friendly driver, and they are always upset to hear where our main character(s) are going: “Camp Crystal Lake? You don’t wanna go there.” They’ll then inform our Hero that wherever they’re going is haunted or was the site of a grisly mass-murder (and the killer was never apprehended!). Our group of eager idiots will shrug off the warning and continue on their way. Enos the Truck Driver (Rex Everhart) in Friday the 13th (1980) is a Concerned Samaritan.
The Ominous Townie (OT) is very similar to the Concerned Samaritan. The difference is that he/she is hesitant to be completely forthcoming. The OT has secrets and seems nervous talking with our Hero. Usually there will be several OT hanging out together in the mechanic’s garage or local bar. That way when our Hero asks about the abandoned house on the hill, they can all look back and forth uneasily before one of them finally answers. They’ll try to get our Hero to steer clear of his/her destination without out actually showing their hand, but still leaving a few hints in the process, “You might want to carry something pink if you’re going up there.” Of course, things would go a whole lot smoother if they simply said: “Seriously, don’t go to the abandon house on the hill. There’s a murderous hillbilly hunchback who lives up there who is afraid of the color pink because it reminds him of his abusive mother. He’s constantly killing the travelers we fail to properly warn about him, so this time we’re gonna see what happens if we appropriately warn you. You will die if you go there because he’ll kill you. We can’t stress this fact enough. There’s a hunchback up in that house. He’ll kill you.”
The patrons of the Slaughtered Lamb in American Werewolf in London (1981) are Ominous Townies… “Stay on the road.” “Beware the moon.”
The Crazy Guy is usually a hobo or the town drunk or someone with a mental handicap. He knows just as much as the Samaritans and the Townies, but is so completely nuts that no one has any reason to heed his warnings, especially because our Hero never asked the Crazy Guy for help/advice. The Crazy Guy jumps out in front of cars, or stumbles up to our kids while they’re pumping gas, then proceeds to ramble nonsensically about how they are all going to die. One of our kids will likely be made nervous by the encounter and usually ask the group something like: “Do you think that could be true? That there’s a murderous hillbilly hunchback living up there?” To which the others will say, “Oh, that guy was just crazy.” Then they all die later.
When our kids almost run over Abel (David Wiley) with their van in Friday the 13th Part III (1982) he makes double-sure that that they don’t pay any attention to him by holding out a severed eyeball. Nothing makes people less likely to listen to what you are saying than shoving something disgusting in their faces (especially in 3-D).
The Folk Teller
The Folk Teller (FT) deals with local mythology – either true or created for the movie. In their mind they aren’t imparting special knowledge, which is what separates them from a Fanatic. Folk Tellers often don’t even think what they’re saying is true, they’re likely just telling a spooky story to little kids or drunken friends. Of course, the Folk Teller is unwittingly giving us, the audience, the villain’s backstory, while often letting the Hero know how to kill said villain – or in the case of the various Folk Tellers that Helen (Virginia Madsen) interviews in Candyman (1992), how to summon the villain. FT often inhabit movies with another GWTK, which allows us to hear both the spooky local legend backstory and then later on, when our characters are all trapped somewhere, the other GWKT can reveal that he’s known the real story all along. I’ve already referenced the Friday the 13th series twice here, so might as well follow the rule of threes: Part II (1981) features a classic Folk Teller convention, the campfire ghost story, in which Paul (John Furey), the head counselor, recaps both Jason’s origin and the events of the first film.
Let’s return our new horror classic, Day of the Dragon, and revamp it into the ultimate GWKT epic. Since this seems like the kind of film that would have come out in the wake of Anaconda (1997), let’s say its release date was 1998. It was a simpler time, when the industry hadn’t yet figured out that no one cares about Josh Hartnett, so he is cast in the lead, sporting his signature veg-head hairdo he seemed to have in every film he was in at the time.
Hartnett is a budding photographer. For a reason that is never logically explained to us, Hartnett and a small group of friends, both crew or sexy models, are going to the Woodbury Zoo for a photo shoot. When they get lost they stop at a small-town barbershop to ask for directions. Unfortunately, the barbershop is riddled with Ominous Townies who tell the group to stay away from the Zoo, and refuse to give directions. When Hartnett and the others leave the barbershop they are followed outside by a Concerned Samaritan (Robert Picardo), who apologizes for his friends and gives them the directions they need, but also advises the kids just stay in town to take their pictures. Just then Slow Dave (Jeffery Combs), our Crazy Guy, comes out of no where, holding a dead cat and blathering about how “the Keeper” is going to get them. The CS tells them not to listen to Slow Dave, “He ain’t right in the head.”
Once Hartnett and gang get back in their van, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Hartnett’s girlfriend, wonders aloud what Slow Dave meant by “the Keeper.” “You mean you don’t know?” Sean Patrick Thomas’s Folk Teller asks, before he launches into the legend he read on-line about Woodbury Zoo – which is that they had to close down after a zookeeper went mad, kidnapping zoogoers and feeding them to the Komodo dragons… and some say the ghost of the Keeper and the ghost of his dragon are still there!
When they arrive at the zoo, Peter Facinelli, who is our Expert, greets them (he’s there to supervise their photo shot). Facinelli works for the company that still owns the zoo, and thus knows all the details of the zoo’s layout and history, such as the real reason it closed – the Komodo dragon attacked and killed a zoo keeper. Soon people are splitting up and getting eaten by possibly the undead Komodo dragon, allowing our Random Know It All to hand out various factoids about the giant lizard: “I subscribed to Zoo Books when I was a kid!” It also seems like the legends of the ghost “Keeper” may be true too! The big twist at the end is very Scooby-Doo-like, as it turns out that Facinelli brought the non-ghost Komodo dragon to the zoo, because he wants to make it impossible for the zoo’s owners to sell it – thus allowing him to buy it cheaply, and re-open it himself. Facinelli has been the one propagating the “Keeper” legend. In the end, he is eaten by his own dragon.
Well, look at the time! Class just flew by today. Homework for the weekend is to watch a horror movie and figure out what kind of GWKT it has. See you next time when we discuss… The Jokester.
The Solo Hero