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 6 of 9)
Death, death, death…
Now that we have discussed the Jokester, our symbolic medieval horror story has a nice basic character composition: a Hero (the knight), a Love Interest (the maiden), a Guy Who Knows Things (the wizard), and the comic relief (the jester). That is certainly all we need to construct a horror movie about battling a dragon. But not a very lively one, right? Even if we kill all the non-essential characters, including the maiden, that leaves us with a measly three deaths. That sort of thing can fly in a truly well crafted film, but every horror fan knows that “truly well crafted” does not describe the wealth of films within the genre. Just like a mediocre comedy needs to keep the cheap gags coming fast and furious to keep our interest, most horror movies need to rely on a steady supply of death and dismemberment to keep the ship afloat. We need bodies, dammit! We need a Victim Pool.
A horror movie’s Victim Pool is determined by what kind of setting the film has, and can be cleaved into two fairly obvious lots:
I think the idea of “public” and “secluded” settings speak for themselves, but there is definitely a gray area that we should clear up.
Though it does not fully cover the classification, The Town would be a tonally fitting label for the Public Victim Pool; it captures the essence. Public films are about an ambiguous community, meaning that there are people at/in our setting that the Hero never interacts with, that we likely never even see, but that we know are there. The size of the community could be as small as 30 people or as large as several million. Cities are the most self-evident example of Public Victim Pools – we know there are hundreds of thousands of people out there while watching the The Host (2006), because we know what a city is. It does not need to be explained to us.
Things get a little trickier when Public Victim Pools become smaller, and at times feel secluded. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) takes place entirely within and immediately outside a nursing home. On top of that, from what we see, it seems like the nursing home is in the middle of nowhere. One might choose to describe the home’s location as “secluded,” but in terms of its Victim Pool classification, it is Public, because only a handful of the home’s many residents and employees are actual characters. Conversely, even though [REC] (2007) takes place in a big city with thousands and thousands of implied characters, it is not Public, because the Victim Pool is confined to the group of characters trapped within the apartment building. To further clarify, the act of characters being trapped in [REC] has nothing to do with it being considered Secluded. If they made [REC] 3 about a crowded shopping mall that became infected and was put under government quarantine, it would considered Public because we would end up with an ambiguous supply of potential Victims.
The obvious appeal of a Public Victim Pool is a nice endless supply of random people to kill whenever the moment calls for it. In a Secluded film, say the classic cabin in the woods with five drunk teenagers scenario, we are not left with much leeway when it comes to a body count. Anytime there is a kill scene it has to be one of those jokers (although we’ll see in a moment that there is a way around this). If we’re dealing with a Town, though, we can simply cut away from our Hero to some random jerkoff elsewhere and watch him get slaughtered. It is a wonderland of opportunity. But all good things come with a price. The inherent downside to Public horror films is that we can lose a certain sense of danger. You found your friend dead? Well, go drive to the police station, dummy. Problem solved. Movie over.
There are three simple ways to combat this issue: Subversion, Inundation, or Misdirection.
Subversion is the most direct way to combat the paradox of a Public setting. If the proximity of the police threatens the fabric of your film’s tension, simply change who your Hero is. Instead of having your film be about a teenage girl trying to reach the local sheriff, make the local sheriff the Hero. Make the film about a cop’s quest to find the Villain before it can kill again, like Detective Shepard (David Carradine) in Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), or have him valiantly trying to keep another character safe, like Det. Len Gamble (Lewis Arlt) trying to protect bride-to-be Amy (Caitlin O’Heaney) in He Knows You’re Alone (1980). This is the perfect place for a Detective Hero.
Inundation is the other effective option here. What better way to prevent our Hero from being able to seek help from other members of the community than by putting the entire community at risk? Help, killer baboons are attacking my house! What’s that? Oh, they’re attacking your house too? Well, fuck. Inundation is done by volume, either zillions of little Villains, like the spiders in Arachnophobia (1990), or one giant Villain, like the creature in Cloverfield (2008). Or maybe multiple Villains connected to a single hive-mind, like Slither (2006). Whatever the case, the key is that the danger is all encompassing.
Misdirection is the third choice a filmmaker has, and it is a slippery slope. If you don’t want to make your Hero a powerful authority figure, or flood your film with a Horde of creatures, your only other option is to produce a series of obstacles that prevent your Hero from being able to seek refuge in his/her community. Oh no, my phone won’t work! Now I can’t find the keys to my car! Now the Villain showed up just as I was banging on this door for help! Now this helpful neighbor just got murdered while trying to help me! Now I decided to lock myself in my house rather than just runaway! Now my other neighbor’s music is turned up too loud to hear my screams! Misdirection certainly can and has worked, but this is also pushing a film dangerously close to Mr. Bean-level farce. Film’s that successfully employ Misdirection generally do so by creating a stealthy Villain, which allows the Hero to be oblivious to the true danger until Act III. A film like Halloween (1978) creatively straddles the line between Subversion and Misdirection.
Our Horror 101 hypothetical classic Baboon Holocaust has always been a Public Victim Pool film. The John Saxon/Genevieve Bujold incarnation would be an example of using a Subversive tactic, making Saxon the Town’s sheriff who sees it as his duty to protect the community. The Tom Atkins incarnation was an example of Inundation; the entire community is in just as deep of shit as him, so he has nowhere to turn for help. I do not think Baboon Holocaust is a good subject for Misdirection, as doing so necessitates tinkering with the basic concept, but for teaching purposes, let’s say…
The film was released in 1987 and stars Deborah Foreman as a grad student studying animal behavioral science. She has an internship working at the research lab perched above the town of Quiet Valley – which unbeknownst to her is part of a government experiment to create super baboons to be used in the Soviet-Afghan War – for her father (Hal Holbrook) who is leading the program. There are fewer baboons in this version of the film, let’s say eight, and we have a main baboon, Sampson. Sampson is the smartest of the baboons and Foreman’s favorite. They have a great relationship. Too great it turns out, as Sampson is primally infatuated with Foreman. Early in the film Sampson will kill a jackass male member of the science team (Hart Bochner) who was making unwanted advances towards Foreman, but Sampson and the other baboons manage to hide the body. Then during a weekend break, Foreman decides to go visit her boyfriend (Dana Ashbrook) down in Quiet Valley. Sampson, leading the other seven baboons, breaks out of the lab and follows her. The Misdirection is that at first the baboons are not trying to harm Foreman herself, they are simply killing those around her. By the time Holbrook has found Bochner’s body, we will already be moving towards Act III, where Foreman will finally turn Sampson against her when she tries to kill the animal. In an unexpected twist, the baboons manage to kill Foreman and Holbrook, and the film ends ominously with a shot of the monkeys moving towards Denver.
Once we shift into a Secluded setting, things become a different beast altogether. Without the character options offered by a Town, the group of characters we are stuck with in a Secluded Victim Pool need to be doubly dynamic. We need an Eclectic Group.
There are two kinds of Eclectic Groups:
• The Random Cluster
• The Mismatched Friends
The Random Cluster (RC) differs from the Mismatched Friends in one simple way: the group is made up of strangers. Generally, some kind of disaster immediately precedes the isolation and union of the Random Cluster. Maybe a terrible storm causes various travelers to seek shelter in the same spooky place – The Old Dark House (1932). Or a spaceliner crashes on an alien world – Pitch Black (2000). Or maybe everyone just wakes up in a giant fucking cube – Cube (1997). How they get there rarely matters. Usually it is just a MacGuffin. The previously mentioned [REC] is a Random Cluster film.
A disaster is not always required to assemble a cluster. Sometimes the cluster is deliberately assembled, be it for spending a mysterious weekend in a haunted house – House on Haunted Hill (1959/1999) – or maybe taking part in a psychological experiment in the woods – The Fear (1995).
The Mismatched Friends (MF), or sometimes Mismatched Coworkers, on the other hand already knew each other before the beginning of the film. The MF are inevitably reopening some long-closed business – Friday the 13th (1980) – or going up to an empty cabin – The Evil Dead (1981) – or exploring an abandoned structure for a night of partying – Night of the Demons (1988). Who doesn’t love abandoned structure parties? In films like Leviathan (1989) or The Thing (1982), our Mismatched Coworkers have already been living in the Secluded Victim Pool for a while. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt, and despite supposedly being friends, our Mismatched Friends often bicker and seemingly hate each other even more than a Random Cluster.
While there are not necessarily archetypal types of RC and MF, there are certainly various archetypal characters that one tends to see pop up routinely. Shall we put together a Random Cluster film and see who shows up?
Our film will have been released in 1993, titled The Range. Tagline: “Where the deer and the antelope slay.” The set-up of the film concerns a City Slickers-like ranch that offers folks the chance to rough it “Old West” style. Our Secluded Victim Pool is comprised of the ranch’s employees, plus the inaugural group of tourists, including our Hero, Virginia Madsen, a travel magazine journalist covering the ranch’s grand opening.
While out pretending to be cowboys, some of our tourists stumble upon an old Native America relic. Of course, they disturb it. Almost immediately they find themselves besieged by animals suddenly driven mad with murderous rage.
Madsen will be a Reluctant Hero, a “city mouse” seemingly incapable of taking care of herself outside of civilization (at first). Because she is a Reluctant Hero we will want to give her a helpful Yes Man Love Interest (Clayton Rohner), who will have distinguished himself early on by agreeing with Madsen during a group argument, thus forming their bond for later. But that partnership will not come together right away. No, her first ally will be the Supportive Badass (Charles S. Dutton). If our Hero is a white female, the Supportive Badass is almost always a black male. He is big and strong and surly, but noble and he has a platonic soft spot for Madsen. Even though he has only known Madsen for a day or two, so supportive is Dutton that when the moment comes, he will die saving her.
The Supportive Badass’s natural enemy is the Aggressor, here played by Dennis Franz. The Aggressor is the guy who always wants to do the exact opposite of what our Hero wants to do, often saying things like, “Who put you in charge?” He is also the least empathetic member of the group. If someone happens to fall behind while our group is narrowly escaping some bloodthirsty buffalo, he will inevitably say, “Leave him! He’s probably already dead!” Generally he is sexist and racist too. He wants to be in charge, which Dutton will not allow. Sometimes the Aggressor can prove to be almost as big a conflict as the true Villain(s), like Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) in The Mist (2007), or the late-great Leslie Nielsen in Day of the Animals (1977), but Franz will follow the path of CJ (Michael Kelly) from Dawn of the Dead (2004) and redeem himself eventually by turning good.
Further polluting our pond will be a Lazy Jackass (Craig Bierko), who is equally as unpleasant as the Aggressor, but too ironically detached to be an actual problem for Madsen or Dutton. He is just annoying, cracking snide remarks and refusing to help do any work because he thinks the plan is “stupid” (but of course has no ideas to interject of his own). His death will likely generate cheers from the audience.
Our Guy Who Knows Things will be Charles Napier, their guide from the ranch. He will reveal the backstory about the Native American slaughter that happened here over a hundred years ago. Then he will die, leaving Madsen to put the pieces together and determine that the Indian’s angry spirits are driving the animals crazy.
Rounding out our group will be a Liability Player (Christine Taylor), who is so terrified and constantly spazzing out that she is putting everyone at risk. She will die running and screaming, trying to reach a Jeep, even though Madsen and the others are yelling for her to stop and come back to their hiding place. We also need to have a Parent and Child. In fact, since our budget isn’t that big, let’s do some merging. Franz will be the Parent, both trying to protect and trying to show off in front of his son. His genuine love for his kid will be part of why the audience will gladly accept his redemption. We should also have an Injured Person, who is holding up the group from the get-go, and who Franz always wants to leave behind (if this were a zombie movie, he/she would be the person who got bit right away). And we can’t forget the importance of the Mulligan, who will be Napier’s fellow coworker. The Mulligan is that character who dies right away, helping to visually establish the rules and the treat-level for our other characters (and us). Like a do-over stroke in golf, the Mulligan’s death sort of doesn’t count. It happens so we can get it out of the way, then the movie truly begins now that we know the dangers.
One of the many foibles of Random Cluster movies is how not random the cluster often feels. Quite often each of our various characters will end up having some useful and serviceable skill or talent. Sometimes that is actually part of the story (Cube again), but generally it is just clunky writing. It is expected that a Random Know It All may arise from the group, but things can get a little silly when everyone has a marketable skill, as though we’re watching a goofy sports comedy – I know how to build a bomb! I’m an ordained minister! I took karate when I was 12 but I guess I still remember all the moves! The Range will have some respect. None of that shit. Most of our characters will be realistically useless.
Now let’s put together a Mismatched Friends film.
Released in 1985, Scary Ferry tells the riveting tale of a group of obnoxious high schoolers who decide to go party in an abandon ferryboat. The film opens with our Hero, a pretty book smart girl (Ami Dolenz), waiting outside her house. She does not have a particularly strong personality, but we know she is our Hero because we opened the film with a scene of her by herself (filmmaking!). Then the rest of our teen collective pulls up in a van (either drinking, smoking pot, singing a song, or all of the above). We learn that Dolenz is a new girl at school invited along for this party-trip by her friend, the Proud Slut (Michelle Johnson). We know Johnson is a Proud Slut because one of the first things she will say to Dolenz is that Dolenz needs to get laid this weekend, then she’ll talk about her own plans to get laid.
Then the Caring Jock (Robert Rusler) will notice how noticeably attractive Dolenz is and come to her rescue when the annoying Party Animal Jokester (Eric Bruskotter) says something pervy to her. Rusler will say something like, “Don’t mind Dave, he’s just a jerk. Let me help you with your bag.” Now Dolenz and Rusler are effectively in love. Rusler is the captain of the football team, but he is a gentle soul and totally respects Dolenz cause she carries books. The books she carries let us know how smart she is. Because smart people own books.
During the van ride to the ferryboat we will get some awkward exposition. Dolenz will weirdly have no idea where they are going or why. Bruskotter will excitedly explain, “The Queen Anne! It’s a ferryboat! We’re gonna do a scavenger hunt! Party!” Then he will likely yell “Wooo!” Then it is revealed that another character, the Nerd (Stephen Geoffreys), our Guy Who Knows Things, has keys to the ferryboat because his family technically owns it. The ferryboat has been abandoned for years after a terrible series of murders put it out of business decades ago. It will never really be explained how Geoffreys is part of our main group, and most of the other characters make fun of him constantly even though they are all apparently friends. In fact, it does not really make sense why any of these people are friends, especially Dolenz and Johnson. (Mismatched Friends movies often feel like The Breakfast Club with death.)
Further crowding the van are a pair of Stoners (Steve Antin and Crispin Glover), both qualifying as Wacky Dude Jokesters. There will also be an Unbalanced Kid (an early performance by Charlie Sheen), who has serious anger issues – another person you wonder why they invited to this party. And for good measure we gotta have a Naked Girl (Kirsten Baker), who has absolutely no discernible personality, takes her clothes off, and dies almost immediately.
We get our characters to the ferryboat, and soon the murders will begin. Now, I had said earlier that the problem with Secluded Victim Pools is that we can’t have random death. There is a way around this: Auxiliary Deaths. Auxiliary Deaths are random characters who are technically within the small Victim Pool sphere but are unknown to our central characters, such as nearby campers or characters who have the misfortune to enter the Victim Pool late in the film – maybe a policeman coming to help our Hero, or Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) in The Shining (1980). Since we want as much death as possible in Scary Ferry, we will have a couple Auxiliary Deaths. Ours will be two other high schoolers who were driving up separately from our main van. The rest of our characters will think they just decided to flake (and this is 1985, so no cell phones), when in fact the second car just arrived late, and both characters immediately got killed. Then our unseen Villain unties the ferryboat and it starts to drift out into the lake, and everyone partying inside is having too much fun to notice. Dun dun dunnnn!
Well, once people start finding bodies they suspect Sheen is behind the murders, but the big twist is that it is Geoffreys, getting revenge for all the years his friends have made fun of him for no reason. Dolenz manages to defeat him in the end, but it turns out he isn’t dead after all when Scary Ferry 2: The Reckoning hits theaters in 1986.
That’s it for today class! See
you next time when we start discussing Villains.
The Solo Hero
The Guy Who Knows Things