Archive for the 'Mutants Monsters and Madmen' Category

01
Oct
12

Mutants, Monsters and Madmen-NOW AVAILABLE!

Last year, you guys may remember that I spent the entire month of October watching and talking about assorted scary movies, chronologically tracing the evolution of horror films from the 1920s up until the present day. I really enjoyed that little project and I think a lot of you did too. And now, as Halloween approaches again, I’m ready to launch the next stage of that project, my new eBook Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen.

This eBook collects the 35 essays I wrote last year, plus five brand-new ones written just for this collection. Over the course of this book, I look at how the things that scare us have grown and evolved over the last century, dishing on some of the greatest, most influential and most memorable scary movies ever made. This eBook, available now for a mere $2.99, is hopefully going to be the first in a series, in which I’ll tackle different cinematic topics the same way.

If you read the essays last year, check this one out and enjoy the new ones. If you haven’t read any of them, dive in now for the first time. And tell all of your horror movie-loving friends about it as well! After all, the reason I decided to write this book in the first place is because I wanted to read a book like this one, but I just couldn’t find one. The market is out there, friends. Help us find each other.

(And lest I forget, thanks to Heather Petit Keller for the cover design!)

You can get the book now in the following online stores:

Amazon.com (for your Kindle or Kindle app)
Smashwords.com (for every other eBook reader)

And in case you’re wondering, the movies covered in this book include:

*The Golem (1920)
*Nosferatu (1922)
*The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
*Dracula (1931)
*Frankenstein (1931)
*The Mummy (1932)
*Freaks (1932)
*Cat People (1942)
*The Fly (1958)
*Peeping Tom (1960)
*Psycho (1960)
*Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Terror (1962-New in this edition!)
*Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
*The Haunting (1963)
*The Birds (1963-New in this edition!)
*Wait Until Dark (1967)
*Night of the Living Dead (1968)
*Last House on the Left (1972)
*The Exorcist (1973)
*The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
*Jaws (1975)
*Carrie (1976)
*Suspiria (1977)
*Halloween (1978)
*Alien (1979)
*The Shining (1980)
*Friday the 13th (1980)
*The Evil Dead (1981)
*Poltergeist (1982)
*The Thing (1982)
*A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
*Return of the Living Dead (1985)
*Hellraiser (1987-New to this edition!)
*Child’s Play (1988-New to this edition!)
*Misery (1990)
*Scream (1996)
*Ringu (1998)
*The Blair Witch Project (1999)
*Saw (2004)
*The Cabin in the Woods (2012-New to this edition!)

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01
Nov
11

Story Structure: Horror-An Epilogue

Happy All Saint’s Day, guys. Halloween is over, the pumpkin on your front porch is starting to get soft, the kids are lying on the couch with their fairy wands bent and the dust of a thousand pixie sticks on their cheeks. But that doesn’t mean horror is going away.

If there’s one thing that should be clear after sitting down to watch a 90-year cross-section of horror movies, it’s that horror is eternal. Those things we fear change, yes, and evolve over time, the same way the human race changes, but as long as we are capable of nightmares, there will still be things that make us afraid. And as long as we have those fears to prey on, storytellers are going to take advantage of that. And horror aficionados wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yesterday, I asked the question of where horror is going to go in the future, and I apologize if you’ve been sitting around for 24 hours frantically clicking “refresh” on your web browser to hear the answer, because the truth is that I don’t know. When horror changes, it seems to happen all at once – the monsters of the 30s and 40s, the aliens of the 50s and 60s, the slashers of the 70s and 80s. Today, most horror films are divided between the “vengeful spirit” camp (drawing on such sources as The Ring and The Blair Witch Project) and the “torture porn” camp (courtesy of Saw and Hostel), with a few other divergences to give us remakes of or sequels to long-standing franchises. But when Myrick and Sanchez were making Blair Witch, they never could have predicted it would change the way horror movies are made. Nobody can predict such things, not even me. 2011 hasn’t been a banner year for horror, with the only films that have really succeeded so far being the third Paranormal Activity and the newest PG-13 ghost story, Insidious. Looking ahead at 2012 releases, there’s not much that looks like it’s going to crack into the mainstream. I could be wrong, of course – I hope I’m wrong, but most of the films I’m looking at on the “coming attractions” pages look like simple variations on a theme.

When horror changes again, it’s going to be for the same reason it has always changed in the past. Someone will think of an angle or a monster or a way to exploit a nearly-universal fear that nobody has tried before, and people will be both horrified and thrilled by it, and a thousand and one filmmakers will try to imitate the same thing. It’s the cycle, it’s how it goes. And then, years after it has gone out of vogue, someone else will try it again and bring it back again. Slashers and teen horror felt a resurgence after Scream, vampires came back after Twilight, and zombies seem to rise from the dead again with regularity every five to ten years.

If I had a wishlist, it would be that future filmmakers make smart horror. This could take several different forms, of course – a taught mystery like Saw will always be welcome, regardless of any other trappings. On the other hand, the extremely clever 2007 film Trick ‘r Treat took four pretty standard horror tropes and wove them together in a brilliant celebration of Halloween monster movies, and don’t be surprised at all if I decide to include it in the expanded Story Structure: Horror book (more on that in a minute).

In the end, I’m like everyone else. I want to be scared and I want to be entertained, I don’t want to be pandered to and I don’t want to be insulted. The great films will shake themselves out and the weak ones will be forgotten. And every time you close your eyes at night, horror will look for a way to go on.

That said, let me talk a little bit about the future, not of horror movies, but of my little Story Structure project. Last spring, I was perusing the Amazon Kindle store, looking not for horror novels (those are aplenty) but for nonfiction books that talked about horror movies. I don’t remember why, exactly, I was in the mood for such a thing, but I was, and the pickings were slim. Stephen King has his nonfiction dissection of horror, Danse Macabre, but I’ve already read that one… plus it’s 30 years old. A lot has happened since then. There were other books about different horror types – zombies are still popular, for example – and plenty of books that tried to offer a humorous send-up of crappy horror, but while I do enjoy that sort of thing that wasn’t what I wanted. Nobody, it seemed, had turned out a decent book talking about what horror is and how it grows and changes.

Then it occurred to me… wait a minute. I’m a writer. And a geek. I write about stuff like this as a matter of course. And chances are if I want to read this kind of book there’s somebody else out there that wants the same thing. And if I can’t find it, neither can they. And that means there is a niche to be filled.

So with the help of Erin and a few others, I complied the list of films I would view and write about for the sake of this project, turning out one article per film. And I was starting in May, I had the whole summer in front of me! Surely I could knock out 35 films by Halloween! (And I did, but as is so often the case, circumstances conspired against me and it turned out to be a much closer race than I thought. I didn’t write the article on the final film, Saw, until October 29, while on the table next to my laptop sat the costume I was going to wear to that night’s Halloween party.)

And one at a time, I wrote the 35 articles that are going to make up what will be, in effect, my first nonfiction book. I’m going to revise these articles a bit, add 15 more movies to bring the total to an even 50, and then in 2012 I’m going to offer it up for the Amazon Kindle and all other eBook readers for a mere $1.99. And what’s more, this is only the first Story Structure project. I realized early on that horror is by no means the only genre that grows over time, and I started making more and more lists: science fiction, fantasy, comedy, sports movies, war movies, crime dramas, Christmas movies… I have more than enough lists to make this an annual event for the next several years. And I certainly enjoyed doing this enough to make that effort. Next year will probably be a direct follow up to this year’s project, as I am very anxious to shift gears from talking about straight horror to one of the greatest storytelling hybrids that exists: the horror/comedy. Those of you who lamented the absence of movies like Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice, or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein on this list, it’s not because I forgot them. It’s because they get a whole project all to themselves.

But first, I gotta finish this one. And although I do still have the movies that I cut from the original long list to give me the abbreviated 35, I decided against just popping them back in to round out the 50. Some of my perceptions about horror have changed ever so slightly in the course of this project, as I found patterns and tropes that I wasn’t prepared for. I want to use the 15 empty slots to expand on those different ideas. That said, I have in no way decided definitively what 15 movies will round out Story Structure Volume One.

So I’m opening it up to you. Was there a movie you can’t believe I forgot? An entire subgenre of horror you feel I neglected? A legendary filmmaker who wasn’t represented? Here’s your chance to correct me. In the comments, tell me any movie you think I should keep in consideration when I beef this bad boy up to 50. I only have two criteria. First is that the film should be significant in the realm of horror. By this I mean…

  • It ushered in a new breed of horror (like Saw) or revitalized an old one (like Scream) or…
  • It introduces a new type of monster (like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead) or a horror icon (like Dracula or Freddy Krueger) or…
  • It be the first or seminal work of a major writer, director, or performer (like Stephen King’s Carrie or Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left) or…
  • It’s really freaking good.

Also – and this isn’t a hard and fast rule – I would really like suggestions from the 1940s and 1950s, because that’s one era I feel my first 35 films really neglected, mainly because I couldn’t really find many important horror films that didn’t belong more rightly in the realm of science fiction. If you’ve got a suggestion, I definitely want to hear it.

The other major criteria is one of availability. It has to be available on Netflix (either streaming or via disc – I wasn’t part of the mass exodus when they pissed off their customers a few months ago) or available for free, legal streaming online somewhere. If the only way I can see the movie is to download a bootleg subtitled copy from some Bulgarian bit torrent site, I’m really not interested.

Although the suggestions are wide open, these are the movies that are currently under consideration to fill out Story Structure Volume One: Horror.

  • White Zombie (1932)
  • Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
  • The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
  • The Blob (1958)
  • Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
  • The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)
  • The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
  • The Birds (1963)
  • The Raven (1963)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
  • The Omen (1976)
  • The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
  • Dawn of the Dead (1978)
  • Sleepaway Camp (1983)
  • Child’s Play (1988)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  • Dead Alive (1992)
  • The Sixth Sense (1999)
  • Final Destination (2000)
  • 28 Days Later (2002)
  • Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

Nothing is guaranteed a slot on the list yet, though. If you disagree with something here, tell me why. If there’s something you consider more deserving, tell me why. Convince me. I want you guys to enjoy this as much as I do. And keep watching to find out when the book will be available (because the added 15 articles won’t be showing up online)! You can keep an eye out here at Evertime Realms, or – even better – you can become a fan on my new Facebook page. There you’ll hear information about this and about everything else I’ve been working on.

One last thing, gang… the title. I’ve honestly never been that big a fan of Story Structure, I’ve gone with it for lack of a better idea. I need something that can stand as a banner title for any sort of movie or genre I choose to examine, with the specific genre revealed in the subtitle — Story Structure: Horror, for example, only with a bit more zing. If anyone has suggestions, I’m all ears.

In the meantime, friends, thanks so much for playing along! It was a great month, and I can’t wait until next year, for Story Structure (or whatever) Volume Two!

31
Oct
11

Story Structure Day 35: Saw (2004)

Director: James Wan

Writers: James Wan & Leigh Whannell

Cast: Cary Elwes, Leigh Wannell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Makenzie Vega, Tobin Bell

Plot: A man named Adam (Leigh Wannell) wakes up in a tub of water in a darkened room. Draining the tub, he begins calling for help, only to find that he’s trapped in an ancient, grimy bathroom with Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes). Both men are chained to pipes in the filthy room, neither with any memory of how they came to be there. In the middle of the room, lying in a pool of blood, is a dead body clutching a gun and a tape recorder. In his pocket, Adam finds a microcassette with “Play Me” written on it. Gordon checks his own pocket and finds not only a tape, but a single bullet and a key. Adam snatches the tape recorder from the body and plays his tape, which contains a taunting message. Gordon’s tape, however, tells him that his goal in the “game” is Adam’s death, that the dead man killed himself because there was so much poison in his blood, that there are “ways to win” hidden all around him, and that if Adam is still alive by six o’clock, Gordon’s wife and daughter will die.

Inside a toilet tank, Adam finds a pair of rusty hacksaws and tosses the black bag that contained them into the tub, out of Gordon’s vision. Adam’s saw breaks and he hurls it in anger, cracking a mirror. Gordon realizes the saws won’t cut the heavy chains, but will cut through their feet. He realizes they’ve been captured by the mysterious “Jigsaw” killer, a man who has been kidnapping people and placing them in horrible deathtraps.

In flashback, we see detectives David Tapp (Danny Glover) and Steven Sing (Ken Leung) uncovering a previous Jigsaw trap. The police find a series of other victims and the traps in which they died, although Jigsaw himself hasn’t killed anybody; he instead places victims in situations where there will cause their own deaths in an effort to survive. At one crime scene, Detective Kerry (Dina Meyer) finds a penlight with Gordon’s prints on it. At the hospital, Gordon speaks to students about the condition of a cancer patient (Tobin Bell), and is interrupted by orderly Zep Hindle (Michael Emerson), who feels Gordon doesn’t care for his patients as people. Tapp and Sing bring Gordon in for questioning over the penlight, and Gordon admits he was with someone else when he the crime was committed. When his alibi holds up, Sing has Gordon listen to the testimony of a woman named Amanda (Shawnee Smith), one of the few people to survive a Jigsaw trap, as she tells how she had to dig a key out of someone else to free herself from a reverse bear-trap. When she frees herself, a puppet riding a tricycle congratulates her for staying alive. In the police station, a broken Amanda  — a drug addict — admits that Jigsaw “helped” her by making her value her life.

Returning to the present, Adam realizes the mirror he broke is two-way and smashes the rest of it, revealing a hidden camera. Gordon begins to search the room for an “X,” as implied by the tape, and remembers the last thing he said to his daughter Diana (Makenzie Vega). Diana believed there was a man in her bedroom, and Gordon reassured her that he was safe and that he wasn’t going to leave her and his wife Alison (Monica Potter). Despite his reassurance, Diana goes to sleep listening to her parents argue in the other room.  Gordon tosses Adam his wallet to show him a picture of his wife and daughter, but Adam instead finds a picture of Alison and Diana tied up with a message written on it: “X marks the spot. Sometimes you see more with your eyes shut.” Adam hides the picture from Gordon. In flashback, again, we see that Diana and Alison were trapped in the house right after Gordon left. Their captor is the orderly, Zep. Through the window, Tapp is observing the house from across the street in a room full of surveillance equipment, photos, and news clippings about Jigsaw: he has become obsessed, and believes Gordon is the killer. We see how he and Sing tracked down Jigsaw to a warehouse, where they find one of his victims trapped and gagged. Rather than free him, Tapp decides to allow him to remain trapped as Jigsaw arrives so he can observe what happens. The hooded Jigsaw tells his victim that he’s going to be a “test subject,” and Tapp and Sing jump out with their guns. Jigsaw steps on a button and a drill begins that will kill the latest victim. While Sing rescues the victim, Jigsaw slashes Tapp’s throat and flees. Sing stumbles into a trap, triggering a rifle that blows his own head off, and Jigsaw staggers away. In the present, Tapp (his neck scarred and voice damaged) is determined to get Jigsaw.

Back in the present, Zep watches the video feed of Adam and Gordon in the bathroom. Adam, reading the message on the photo, suggests Gordon turn off the lights. In the dark, they find an X on the wall behind Gordon in glow-in-the-dark paint. He breaks through the wall and finds a locked box. Using the key from his pocket, Gordon opens the box to reveal a cell phone, cigarettes, lighter, and a note. The note tells Gordon the cigarettes are harmless, and that he doesn’t need a gun to kill Adam. The phone turns out to be useless – it’s rigged to only receive calls. Gordon remembers the night before, returning to his car and feeling he was being followed before being attacked by someone wearing a pig mask. Gordon questions how Adam knew to turn off the lights, and Adam shows him the picture, apologizing for hiding it. In view of the cameras, Gordon dips the cigarette into the poison blood, then shuts off the lights again and whispers something to Adam. Zep’s monitor goes dark and he can’t see what’s happening, and when the lights go back on, Gordon tosses Adam a clean cigarette and the lighter. Adam, unconvincingly, pretends to die after taking a few puffs, and Gordon demands Jigsaw release him, but a jolt of electricity in Adam’s chain quickly reveals him to be alive… and appears to have jogged his memory. Adam, a photographer, was abducted while in his darkroom developing pictures… of Dr. Lawrence Gordon.

The phone rings and Gordon hears the voices of his wife and daughter. Alison warns him to not believe Adam’s lies: he knew everything about Gordon before they were abducted. Gordon calls Adam a liar, but Adam reveals that he knows Gordon wasn’t with sick patients the night before, as he claimed. Adam was in the parking lot, taking pictures of him, and pulls out the bag his handsaws were in. It’s full of photos of Gordon, taken by Adam, who is hired to track rich men who cheat on their wives. Gordon denies the charge and asks Adam who paid him, and he describes Detective Tapp. Looking at Adam’s photos, he recognizes Zep in the window of his house just as the clock reaches six o’clock.

Back at Gordon’s, Alison frees herself just as Zep arrives. She pretends to still be bound and he makes her call Gordon to tell him he failed. As she says it, though, she attacks Zep. The gun goes off in the fight, and Tapp comes running from across the street. All Gordon can hear on the phone are gunshots and screams. His chain electrifies, shocking him unconscious, while Tapp chases Zep to a warehouse.

Gordon wakes and, screaming, uses his shirt to tie off his leg and begins to saw through his ankle. Tapp catches up to Zep, but Zep manages to shoot him. Gordon, now free from his chain, takes the bullet he was given and crawls to the gun in the dead body’s hand. He shoots Adam in the shoulder as Zep walks in. Adam, still alive, knocks down Zep and beats him with the toilet lid, killing him, and Gordon – weakened and delirious — promises to go for help. He crawls away and Adam searches Zep for a key. Instead, he finds another tape. Playing it reveals the truth: Zep was just another pawn in the game, forced by Jigsaw to terrorize Gordon’s family in exchange for the antidote to a poison he was given. As Adam listens, the body in the center of the room stands up. He is John Kramer, Gordon’s cancer patient… he is Jigsaw, and he’s been alive the whole time. He tells Adam the key to his chain is in the bathtub, but it drained away when Adam woke up in the very beginning. John explains why he plays his games… as he is dying, he wants to make others grateful to be alive. He turns off the lights, tells Adam the game is over, and closes the door.

Thoughts: This series is a magnificent example of what TVTropes.org calls “sequel decay.” After the original Saw was a hit for Lionsgate films, they decided to churn out a new installment every Halloween, and by 2010 they were on part seven. The law of diminishing returns set in, though, and seven was (so far at least) the last movie. Which is good, because the sequels spiraled out of control in efforts to add layers of complexity that really just made the entire franchise a garbled mess. And the real shame in that is that it makes people forget that the first film, the 2004 Saw, is actually really good.

The thing that made Saw great is that layer of complexity that future installments screwed up so badly. We begin with what is, in essence, a locked room mystery. We have two men who have to dig through the layers of their own past to discover their connection to each other and to their mad tormentor. Each clue they uncover makes the mystery that much more engaging, finally leading up to a truly memorable final scene. While later movies turned Jigsaw’s traps into a horrific haunted house/maze, forcing the victims to run a gauntlet, this first game basically takes place all in one room.

In fact, the movie really contains two separate mysteries. In the flashback sequences, we see Gordon and Tapp trying to solve the mystery of who Jigsaw is and why he’s placing his victims in these elaborate traps. As a pure mystery it works very well, with lots of different suspects, red herrings, and moments of misdirection to distract us from the real killer and his real motivation. The seeming revelation of Zep is an even better piece of misdirection — once you believe he’s Jigsaw, you stop trying to piece together the rest of the clues even as they’re being spooled out in front of you. The other mystery is more of a puzzle game, a room full of clues and tools that have to be used in exactly the right order to “win” Jigsaw’s challenge. This layer of the film almost feels like a video game, like Myst or one of its many imitators, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the filmmakers were familiar with that new kind of storytelling when they wrote the script. To me, this is the fun part of the movie. Every clue, every weapon, every hint about what’s happening are all right there in the room with Adam and Gordon from the very beginning – it’s just a matter of finding them and figuring them out. This is probably the longest plot synopsis I’ve written in this entire experiment, and that’s purely because it has to be – you need to get each little tidbit in place or the next thing doesn’t make any sense.

Those two layers combine to make Saw enormously different from other horror movies of the time. It’s smart, well-written, and well-structured as both a mystery and a puzzle, that meld together. Furthermore, there’s a great deal of terror inherent in the fact that Jigsaw (in an extremely twisted way) kinda has a point – most people do take their lives for granted. Of course, by placing his victims in ironic traps, often structured to have some sort of parallel to whatever their particular vice is, writers James Wan and Leigh Wannell have returned to the classic horror movie trope of the Killer-as-Morality Police. This takes it to the extreme, even more so than when Jason was chopping up teenagers for having sex and smoking pot, but the idea is similar.

On another level, there’s a fear that comes in when the viewer is forced to question what he or she would do in these circumstances. Jigsaw doesn’t even have the trace elements of the supernatural we got from the nigh-indestructible Michael Meyers – he’s very human, he’s in fact dying (and does die in the third film), and all of the assorted traps and games he plays feel like they have a very strong basis in reality. I’m no engineer, I’m not going to pretend I could rig up a trap like Jigsaw’s even if I wanted to, but do I believe that somebody could? Hell yes, I do. And if it’s possible, even if you’ve never pissed off anybody as much as Dr. Gordon pissed off John Kramer, you are forced to look at each trap and wonder what you would do in that situation, if you could mutilate yourself (or someone else) in order to stay alive, if you could rank who lives and dies in any way that would allow you to live with yourself afterwards. Horrible thoughts, terrible thoughts, which make for absolutely spine-curling horror.

Another thing that really makes Saw different from so many other horror films is the victim pool. Yes, most of them are people John feels have taken their lives for granted, but that’s really the only qualification. The likes of Jason, Freddy, and Michael aren’t above killing anybody, but their favored prey is teenagers, still in those early days of sin when the potential is endless. Jigsaw will take a young adult or an old man or anybody in-between… if they don’t value their lives (in his opinion) they’re ripe for one of his games. So you’ve never been to Crystal Lake or Elm Street, so you’re not a 16-year-old pothead, big deal. Jigsaw doesn’t care. If you’ve been wasting your life, the time has come to fight for it, and in the most horrific ways possible.

Finally, there was the surprise factor. Like I said, nobody was making movies like this at the time, where you’re left questioning so many things about your protagonists. Gordon, for example, denies that he was cheating on his wife, and Cary Elwes is a good enough actor that you believe him, but that does beg the question of what actually was going on. What was causing his marital troubles, and why he was in the hotel room in the first place? If it’s just a case of him contemplating infidelity, that’s kind of anticlimactic, but if it’s anything more than that, we’ll never really know what was going on. And the finale is simply masterful. I’ve watched hundreds of horror movies, a lot of them just since deciding to do this project, and there are very few moments that stand out as being as all together shocking to me as when the dead body in the middle of the room sits up and casually reveals himself to be the mastermind of the whole scheme. I don’t mind admitting I never saw it coming, and that’s what made it great.

As is so sadly, so often the case, however, the inevitable Saw imitators took the wrong lesson from the film. Instead of constructing a morality play combined with a murder mystery, they looked at how the film ticked up the gore level and ran with that. All of a sudden we were inundated with movies like Hostel and Turistas, which were less concerned with story than with turning out scenes of agony and mutilation as graphic and medically realistic as possible. You can pretty much draw a direct line between Saw and the infamous Human Centipede, a film with little redeeming value to it. This film (and if you’re at all squeamish I suggest you skip down to the next paragraph right now) is about a mad doctor who abducts people and connects them mouth-to-anus in an effort to create some sort of horrible mass organism. Any layer of mystery or social commentary is gone, left only with making things as horrible and disturbing as possible. And that’s the tragedy of a lot of modern horror, you’ve got filmmakers who mistake making the audience uncomfortable for actual fear. As much as I liked this first Saw, I’m really glad to see that the franchise tapered off, just out of the hopes that movies like the horrible, horrible imitators are reaching the end of their cycle, and that the annals of horror cinema are again ready – as they always have been in the past – for something new.

But what could that next thing be? There are few candidates at the moment, but that’s usually how it goes. This first phase of Story Structure is over (and thanks for playing along), but that doesn’t mean we’re done yet. Come back tomorrow and we’ll take a look at where horror movies are going, what I’m going to be doing next in this little project, and how you can help me to shape it.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

30
Oct
11

Story Structure Day 34: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Writer: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Cast: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams

Plot: The movie opens up with a title card informing the viewer that three film students disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994, and that what we’re about to watch is their footage, which was found a year later. Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard (using their real names) pack up their equipment and begin walking around town, asking locals questions about the mysterious legend of the Blair Witch. The locals of Burkittsville – formerly known as Blair — weave a story about a lunatic in the 1940s who kidnapped and murdered seven children, claiming to be compelled by the spirit of an 18th-century witch named Elly Kedward, who was hanged by the people of Blair. The three of them go into the woods to seek out Coffin Rock, supposedly a spot where five men were bound together and murdered over a century earlier. They make camp, and in the morning Josh reports waking up in the night and hearing some cackling sounds from the woods. Friction begins to grow between Mike and Heather – Mike insisting she keeps getting them lost – and Josh tries to play peacemaker. As they wander, they find stones and branches arranged in strange structures that seem to echo something told to them in town by a woman they dismissed as a lunatic. They hear more sounds in the night, and wake up to a rainfall and an angry Mike, who believes locals have followed them into the woods to toy with them. They try to walk back back to where they left their car, but are unable to find it before nightfall and finally make camp. That night, they hear more of the strange sounds outside the tent, and in the morning they find three piles of rocks that weren’t there before. Before they leave, Heather realizes she can’t find the map, and the three of them all begin suspecting each other of taking it. After some time, Mike laughs and confesses he threw the map into the creek, and Heather and Josh attack him in a rage.

Later, calmer, they find figures made from sticks dangling from the trees, and eventually, they decide to make camp and not light a fire, terrified that someone is tracking them through the woods. In the night, there are more strange sounds and the tent begins to quake, driving them out. When they return, their belongings have been rifled through, and Josh’s recording equipment has been damaged. The next day, despite keeping a southern course for 15 hours, the find themselves back at a log crossing a creek they’d already passed, and their frustration and desperation increases. The next morning, Heather and Mike cannot find Josh, and eventually are forced to go on without him. That night they think they hear him in the woods, and in the morning Heather finds a bundle of twigs wrapped in the bloody tatters of Josh’s shirt. She freaks out, but hides her discovery from Mike. That night, alone, she records herself apologizing to her parents and those of her crew, and takes the blame for everything that has happened, certain she and Mike will die in the woods. They hear Josh again and follow his cries to a house in the middle of the woods. As they search, Mike thinks he hears Josh downstairs and runs there with a camera, finding odd writing on the walls. As he walks, there’s a thumping sound and the camera falls. The footage begins again, Heather screaming, until we see Mike standing with his face against the wall. There is another scream. The camera falls to the floor. And the screen goes black.

Thoughts: The filming of The Blair Witch Project has become something of a moviemaking legend. With a mere $20,000, Myrick and Sanchez took three unknown actors into the woods and made a movie that was largely improvised, giving them notes about what to feel or how to behave rather than being strict about the lines they spoke, and often not even telling the actors what they were going to do to scare them, trying to capture a realistic feeling to their reactions. The resulting film made nearly $250 million, making it by far one of the most profitable movies of all time. The film is also notable for being one of the first – if not the first – movie marketed heavily on the Internet. A web page was established that went viral on the conceit that the film was real, with lots of articles, videos and photographs presented to support the film’s premise.

You can really track the legacy of this movie in two ways, neither of them having anything to do with the weak sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Although the film did not create the “found footage” genre – the idea that you’re watching a movie constructed of footage filmed by the characters themselves – it sure as hell made it popular. As is always the case, some of the movies that have used this concept in the years since have been critical successes, some have been commercial successes, and some have been outright flops. But unlike most other films that spawn a rash of imitators, only Blair Witch can lay claim to creating a subgenre that is immediately repulsive to anybody who gets seasick easily.

The second – and, to my way of thinking, more important – legacy of this movie the way it change how movies are marketed. In 1999, the Internet was still relatively new to most people, and nobody quite understood yet the power it would one day have. The Blair Witch website, combined with a few other tie-ins like a Sci-Fi Channel special and a comic book from Oni Press, turned a movie made on a microscopic budget into an international sensation. Now, it would be insane to make a movie that doesn’t have a website, it would be ludicrous to not create viral content that fans can find, enjoy, and share with other people in the hopes of generating new fans. If you were on Facebook earlier today, watching the trailers for The Muppets, try to wrap your brain around the fact that such a presentation has its origin in The Blair Witch Project.

In terms of what actually makes it scary, I don’t think it’s the supernatural elements that do the trick. Yeah, the piles of rocks, the little twig-construction stick figures and the other weird things they find in the woods all help contribute to a culture of fear that exists in the film. What makes it work, though, is the way the characters slowly break down. When the movie begins they’re lively and enthusiastic about making their movie. As the film progresses, they get antsy, they get belligerent, and they begin to turn on each other. The suspicion that infects them, the way their little society completely falls apart after a while is pretty scary by itself, because that could happen to anybody. Strip away the witch, take away the manufactured scares, and look at it just as a story about people crumbling just because they’re lost and scared. And it works. Heather’s breakdown near the end has joined the ranks of iconic horror movie scenes for very good reason.

The Blair Witch Project gets a lot of crap today. Like many things which reach enormous popularity very quickly, there was a backlash afterwards by those who feel like it’s uncool to like anything mainstream, and a bit more by those who didn’t care for the style of filmmaking. (Out of the two, the second is by far the more legitimate complaint.) People complain that they feel like they’re watching somebody’s home movies – which, of course, is part of the point. My favorite argument, though, is those who were angry that we never see the witch. My response to this is simple: what could they possibly have shown you that would be scary enough to match what you built up in your own mind?

And of course, there are also many people who react because the whole “found footage” thing has been overdone. Again, this is legitimate – the third Paranormal Activity movie using the same concept just hit theaters as I write this, and frankly I haven’t found them to be remotely frightening – but I think it’s unfair to put the blame for that on Blair Witch. It’s not the fault of this movie that others copied it badly, and as far as this one goes, I think it does what it does very well. I watch this today and get the creeps just as easily as I did back in college. And to me, that’s what makes a movie memorable.

Tomorrow the first stage of Story Structure (yes, first stage) reaches its conclusion with the most recent film to change the way horror movies are made… so far. We’re going to take a look at Saw.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

29
Oct
11

Story Structure Day 33: Ringu (1998)

Director: Hideo Nakata

Writer: Hiroshi Takahasi, based on the novel by Koji Suzuki

Cast: Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rikiya Otaka, Yoichi Numata, Hitomi Sato, Yuko Takeuchi

Plot: A pair of teenage girls (Hitomi Sato and Yuko Takeuchi) are telling scary stories to one another, about a video tape that warns its viewer they will die in seven days, followed by a creepy phone call. One of the girls claims to have viewed the video a week ago, but then laughs it off as a joke. Minutes later, as one of the girls is alone, the television turns itself on… and there’s a flash of light. The scene shifts quickly to a television news reporter, Reiko Asakowa (Nanako Matsushima) interviewing a series of teenage girls about the urban legend of the deadly video tape. Her niece Tomoko – one of the two girls in the opening scene — and three other friends recently died all on the same night, their faces warped into a horrible visage of fear. The girl who was with her, Masami, has been sent to a mental institution and is afraid of television sets. According to the police autopsy, Tomoko and the others who died did so because their hearts simply stopped. Reiko discovers that Tomoko and her friends had vacationed in a cabin the previous weekend, and finds photographs of them with their faces blurred out. She goes to the cabin and finds an unlabelled video tape. She watches the tape, filled with bizarre and unnerving imagery and ending with an image of a well. When it ends, she’s startled by a reflection in the television, and the phone rings. She answers it and says, horrified, “One week,” then takes the tape and flees.

Scared, she summons her ex-husband Ryuki (Hiroyuki Sanada) and tells him the story of what happened. She makes him take a picture of her, and her face comes out blurred, confirmation that she has been cursed like her niece and the others. Although Reiko objects, Ryuji watches the tape, but says there was no phone call. The next day, Reiko makes a copy of the tape for Ryuji to study and try to trace the origin. Together, they begin to study the tape frame-by-frame, beginning to notice oddities about it. A woman is brushing her hair in a mirror at an angle that should reveal the cameraman, and garbled sounds over an image of a man with his face covered, pointing by the water, turn out to contain a hidden message. Ryuji tracks the clues to a volcano connected to a great psychic named Shizuko Yamamura, who committed suicide when she was accused of being a fraud. Before they can investigate further, Reiko finds that their son, Yoichi (Rikia Otaka), has watched the tape.

Ryuji and Reiko check out an inn run by relatives of Yamamura, where they find the mirror from the tape. Ryuji confronts Yamamura’s relative and sees a psychic flash of her daughter, Sadako, telepahtically killing the man who accused Yamamura of faking her abilities. Ryuju deduces that the tape was made by Sadako’s vengeful spirit, and that she is the one who killed the teenagers. With one day left for Reiko, they return to the cabin where the tape was found. Below the floor, the find the well from the video, sealed up. A vision informs them that after her mother’s death, Sadako was murdered by her own father and thrown into the well. They open it up and discover Sadako’s body. When Reiko’s time passes and she lives, they believe the curse is broken. The next day, though, as Ryuji is home alone, his television turns on by itself, showing him the well. Sadako climbs out of the well, then out of the television, and Ryuji dies of a heart attack, just like the others. Reiko realizes that finding Sadako’s body isn’t what saved her – the curse was lifted from Reiko when she copied the tape and showed it to Ryuji. To save Yoichi, she plans to have him copy the tape and seek out a new viewer, realizing this cycle can never end.

Thoughts: I only became aware of this movie after seeing the American remake starring Naomi Watts. And while I thought The Ring was a decent enough horror movie, I didn’t really think of it deserving status as a classic. But since it came out, the influence of its parent movie, Ringu, on American horror culture has become undeniable, so I knew I’d have to include this original in my horror project.

The footprints this movie left on the horror landscape are pretty enormous. For the past ten years, two of the most popular subgenres of American horror movies have been those films light on gore but heavy on supernatural scares (in other words, PG-13 horror), and those that remake foreign horror movies. Very often, those two subgenres overlap. On a purely personal level, I have to admit that stuff like this creeps me out a lot more than most other horror. Blood and guts, torture porn, demons in your dreams… I can take it all. But there’s something much more fundamentally disturbing to me about the sort of slow, impending doom this film promises – and delivers on. It might be that idea of knowing, of waiting… Sure, Jason may kill you, but most of the time you’ll never see it coming. With this killer, you’ll have a whole week to brood about it before she makes you literally die of fright. For a professional worrywart like me, I think that would be the far worse death.

But I digress. Whatever the case, after this movie came out we got nailed with films like The Grudge (another Japanese import-slash-remake) and films from France, Germany, and elsewhere in the world that tried to capture lightning in a bottle again. In Japan, there were two sequels (one based on a sequel to the novel, the other not) and a prequel, and in the US there has been one sequel so far with another one announced, plus remakes in other countries around the world. And that’s not even counting the number of “original” ideas produced in the last few years that tried for PG-13 terror. Some of them worked. Many of them did not. Even the American The Ring tried to ratchet up the horror in the wrong way, burying the first victim under horror makeup that made the scene more grotesque, but in a way less actually frightening than showing a natural expression of terror.

The film, like many great horror movies, builds its terror slowly. After the opening scene there’s much discussion of the tape and a few deliciously creepy images of one of the dead girls, her face frozen forever in terror, but it’s still nearly a half-hour in before Reiko finds and watches the tape herself. Even after that, much of the film plays out more like a procedural instead of a horror movie, with Ryuji and Reiko playing detective and occasionally getting psychic images to remind us that this is, in fact, a ghost story at heart.

As I’ve been saying from the beginning, terror is cultural. What one society deems frightening may not hold true elsewhere, and cultural differences may derail attempts. The scene where Reiko finds the tape amongst a rental shelf at the cabin is accompanied by a creepy musical sting and a zoom in, but as I can’t read anything written on any of the tapes, the effect at that point was lost on me. Similarly, the tape itself uses a lot of words, which worked when I watched the American version, but have less of an impact when I needed to look down at the subtitles to see what creepy caption I was supposed to be scared of. (Incidentally, this may be the only place where the American version was inarguably more effective to me, but that wouldn’t be true of someone who understands Japanese.) It also should be pointed out that the expectations of a movie studio in the US are quite different from those in the rest of the world. The scene where the murder victim is found in the remake is a brilliant, special effects-laden scene clearly intended to make you believe that the characters have completed some noble quest and ended the evil of the spell, even though this turns out to not be true. Not so much in this version – the well scene is dark and creepy as anything else. We get Reiko  actually cradling the skeleton, hair sloughing off it, slime flowing from the sockets like tears… it’s downright gross. Yeah, there’s also a skeleton in the American version, but in this case, I’m going with the Japanese version. It may not work quite as well in terms of a fake-out, but it maintains the feel of the movie much better.

Perhaps the best trick the movie pulls, though, is the way Reiko saves herself. It’s a horrible idea, that a person’s salvation can only come at the expense of some other innocent person. How many people could do it – knowingly put someone else in mortal danger in order to save their own lives? Even more importantly, how many people would be strong enough to resist? It’s a chilling idea to end the movie on, and it survives the film in a way many of the other elements do not: in the Saw franchise. Jigsaw forces his victims to do terrible things to themselves or someone else to survive, and it isn’t a stretch at all to believe Ringu (or one of its remakes, sequels, or other successors) was weighing on the minds of the screenwriters when they came up with that concept.

Finally, I’ll chime in with the obvious question that one almost feels compelled to ask. Culture isn’t dependent only on place, but also on time period, and even though this film is a mere 13 years old, technology has advanced at a remarkable rate since then. You’ve got to wonder, in a world of DVR, DVDs, Blu-Ray, movie downloads and digital photography, if the basic premise of this film would work if they tried it today. It would, I think, there’s a simple enough undercurrent of fear here, but it would be fun to try to work out the mechanics of such a thing.

While Ringu was changing horror overseas, a tiny little production was about to hit the States in an enormous way. Tomorrow, we tackle The Blair Witch Project.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

28
Oct
11

Story Structure Day 32: Scream (1996)

Director: Wes Craven

Writer: Kevin Williamson

Cast: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Liev Schrieber, Henry Winkler, Roger L. Jackson, W. Earl Brown

Plot: At home alone, a girl named Casey (Drew Barrymore) gets phone calls from a mysterious stranger (voiced by Roger L. Jackson). Although friendly and flirtatious at first, the caller starts to get angry and violent, finally revealing that he’s outside her house and he’s got her boyfriend taped to a chair. He forces her to play a sadistic horror movie trivia game for her boyfriend’s life, but she gets a question wrong (it’s a question that you, dear reader, should be able to answer correctly if you’ve been paying attention to this little experiment) and Steve is slashed. Casey tries to run, but is caught by a cloaked figure in a Ghost-faced mask who stabs her and leaves her dangling in the trees for her parents to find.

The next day we encounter Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), one of Casey’s classmates, who is having trouble dealing with the upcoming one-year anniversary of her mother’s death at the hands of a man named Cotton Weary (Live Schrieber). At school the next day, Sidney’s friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) tells her about the murders, and the media descends upon the campus. Sidney and Tatum’s boyfriends, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) are overly enthused about the killings, while their film buff buddy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) mocks their cavalier attitude. That night, the killer calls Sidney, claiming to be outside her house. She is saved when Billy arrives, but when he drops a cell phone, she thinks he’s the killer (remember, kids, this was before every person on the planet had four phones in their pants). Tatum’s brother Dewey (David Arquette), a police deputy, arrives and arrests Billy. As Sidney leaves the police station, she is accosted by Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox), a TV reporter who built her career with a hurtful expose about the murder of Sidney’s mother. Sidney punches Gail and goes to Tatum’s house for the night, since her father is out of town. (What is it with horror movie parents who leave town when their kids are being stalked by murderers? Craven pulled this in Nightmare on Elm Street as well.) The next day, Gail and Sidney are confronted again, Gail espousing her theory that Cotton is innocent of Maureen Prescott’s murder, and further suggesting the new killer is related to her case. Billy, meanwhile, is released from jail when an examination of his phone records proves he didn’t call Sidney that night. As she broods, the killer attacks her at school. She escapes, but Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler) cancels all classes until further notice. Unfortunately, Ghostface doesn’t obey school hours – Himbry is his next victim.

Gleeful over the school cancellations, Stu throws a horror movie party at his house. Just about everybody is there, including Gail and Dewey, watching the place in the news van through a camera they hid in the living room. Tatum goes to the garage for more beer, and winds up encountering – and being killed by – Ghostface. Billy and Sid retreat to Stu’s parents room (again, where are the parents?) and she confesses she’s terrified of turning into a “bad seed” like her mother, who was having an affair with Cotton. As they “make up,” downstairs Randy schools the crowd (and the audience) on the rules of surviving a horror movie:

  1. Never have sex.
  2. Never drink or do drugs.
  3. Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances say, “I’ll be right back.”

Naturally, all the rules are being broken all over the place.

The party empties out as the kids discover Himbry’s death, and Randy is left alone. Upstairs, the killer strikes, stabbing Billy and coming after Sid. She tries to run, but he seems to be everywhere, and she winds up climbing onto the roof and falling to the ground. She flees to the news van, where she and Gail’s cameraman (W. Earl Brown) watch the killer creep up on Randy… then run when he hears Sid screaming 30 seconds earlier. The camera is on a delay – one that turns out deadly for the Kenny the Cameraman. Sidney returns to the house, where Dewey staggers out, a knife in his back. Randy and Stu appear, both accusing the other of being the killer, and Sid locks them out of the house, where Billy is staggering around, bloody but alive. He opens the door, lets Randy in, tosses out a Psycho quote and shoots the film geek. Stu comes in through the side entrance with a voice-changer, and Sid finally realizes the game: Billy and Stu have both been killing, taking turns slaughtering their friends. Billy admits it’s all been a revenge game – Sid’s mother had an affair with Billy’s father, which is why Billy murdered Maureen and framed Cotton, and why he’s targeting Sid now. Stu produces Sidney’s father, tied up, who they’re planning to frame for their crimes, leaving the two of them as the heroic survivors, but they’ve got to injure each other first to make it convincing. Billy stabs Stu too deep, though, and he begins dying of blood loss. Gail arrives with a gun, but she’s forgotten to turn the safety off, allowing Billy to disarm her and knock her out. While the killers are distracted, Sid vanishes. She leaps out wearing the mask, stabs Billy with an umbrella, and then battles Stu, finally smashing his head with a TV showing the finale of Halloween. Gail, Randy and Dewey turn out to be alive, but Billy pops up and attacks again. Gail takes him down, though. This time, she remembers to turn the safety off.

Thoughts: Believe it or not, this is the first film on this entire list that I saw when it was actually a new movie. Like I said waaaaaaaay back in the introduction, I never really watched scary movies when I was a kid. In college, my buddy Jason got me to give them a try, and this was one of the earliest. As such, I didn’t quite know all of the tropes and jokes this film is crammed with. But it shows you just how powerful these elements of storytelling have become that I still got enough of them to not only understand this movie, but really enjoy it.

Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven really did usher in a new era of movies here. After Scream, cinemas were deluged with a new wave of  teen horror films and slasher flicks that tried to imitate the rapid fire dialogue and self-referential nature of the movie while completely missing the heart. What they didn’t seem to get is that the filmmakers were doing the greatest kind of parody: the kind made by people who genuinely love that which they lampoon and, at the same time, create a masterful example. The film is full of references to other horror movies (including Wes Craven’s own back catalogue), and contains a now-legendary discussion about the “rules of horror movies” that we’ve been discussing in this project all along. Whether it was Craven or Williamson who’s responsible, the movie is packed with comments about Nightmare on Elm Street, including a Wes Craven cameo wearing a Freddy Krueger mask. Then of course, there’s the greatest Nightmare reference of all: Skeet Ulrich really looks like a young Johnny Depp in this flick.

Craven doesn’t flinch from acknowledging the works of other horror masters, though – the key question in the first scene is a Friday the 13th reference, and The Exorcist’s Linda Blair makes an uncredited cameo as a reporter. We also see numerous Halloween references, including the kids watching that movie on the night of the party, Ghostface giving Sidney a “head tilt” oddly reminiscent of that Michael Myers gives one of his victims in the original film, naming Billy Loomis after Dr. Sam Loomis (who, in turn, was named after a character in Psycho – it’s the circle of life, people) and the highly metatextual exchange when Randy (played, remember, by Jamie Kennedy) yells at Jamie Lee Curtis that the killer is behind her… while the killer is behind him.

Randy, by the way, is a fantastic character. He’s smart, terribly funny, and full of self-referential humor before lesser filmmakers overused it to the point where it’s gotten tedious. Jamie Kennedy was great in this part – what the hell happened to him?

Anyway, back to other horror movies. The problem was, too many of the imitators took Randy’s “rules” as some sort of iron clad set of commandments, and any creativity they may have displayed evaporated. Scream, instead, used those rules as a framework, then layered a particularly clever and rich mystery on top of them. It was a really long time since a horror film succeeded by causing the audience to question who the killer was or which characters they could trust. This film works as a horror movie that brings in a nice element of comedy as well, but I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves for bringing real mystery back to horror. The fear at the end of the film, during the four-way standoff with Sidney, Randy, Billy and Stu, comes from the fact that Sidney has no idea which of these three boys she can trust (and the totally innocent Randy almost pays for it with his life).

While the body count isn’t enormous in this movie, especially compared to other slashers and gorefests like the Saw films, the kills are really very memorable. Casey’s death was shocking, as the movie was heavily promoted as a Drew Barrymore film and nobody expected her to die in the opening scene, and Tatum’s murder via garage door opener is pretty darn clever. It really makes you want to be careful never to get Kevin Williamson or Wes Craven mad at you.

Ghostface, as a character, is a great addition to the pantheon of horror movie killers. Even though seven different characters have worn the mask in four different movies (as of this writing), it’s almost as if they’re wearing a single character’s entire persona. No matter who Ghostface is, his style of attack is the same, the way he can pop out of anywhere like a damn ninja, the way he takes legitimate damage when his victims fight back but he keeps coming anyway. And the way he never talks in person makes it all the creepier, because unlike Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, you know he can talk. Get him on a phone with a voice changer and he chatters away like a talk show host. But in person, he’s the strong, silent, stabby type.

This film really has one of the great horror movie finales. Lots of movies have a sort of battle of wits in the end between the murderer and the Survivor Girl, but Halloween and Friday the 13th eliminated the pool of potential victims far too early. The great thing about this finale is that once the killer shows up at the party, there are still plenty of people around, and any one of them could be a victim or a murderer. In fact, the only thing that exonerates some of them from being a suspect is getting killed themselves. This, of course, wasn’t the case for Billy Loomis. It’s also notable that the film has a lot more survivors than we’re used to in horror movies. Not only are there two killers, but Survivor Girl Sidney is joined by survivors Gail, Dewey, and Randy. In fact, except for Randy (killed off in memorable fashion in Scream 2, not in a cheap “get ‘em in the first reel” way like I’ve said so many times I hate so much) all of the survivors of this movie have made it four movies into the franchise. That’s got to be some kind of record.

As great a movie as it is, the fact that it was so cutting edge at the time leaves it looking a little dated now. The fact that Billy even had a cell phone was enough to make him a suspect at this point. And of course, the stacks of videotapes (and the fact that Randy works in a video store) both seem kind of quaint already. Plus, y’know… landlines. Phones with cords. Wow. How did we ever live?

Tomorrow we’re going to head overseas for one more trip this month. It was a Japanese film that not only launched an American remake, but a host of imitators and a host of American remakes of imitators. Let’s take a look at Ringu.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

27
Oct
11

Story Structure Day 31: Misery (1990)

Director: Rob Reiner

Writer: William Goldman, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Francis Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall

Plot: Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is a novelist feeling weighed down by the success of a series of bodice-rippers featuring the character Misery Chastain. Celebrating a new work, unrelated to Misery, Paul is driving down a remote mountain road in a snowstorm and winds up crashing his car. A woman named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) finds and rescues him, telling him the phone lines are down and she’s been unable to go for help. She also happens to be a big fan of Misery Chastain. Paul’s legs are severely damaged and he’s unable to walk, but Annie – a nurse – is slowly nursing him back to health. Annie asks if she can read the new book he had in the car with him, to which he graciously agrees. After beginning the book, Annie finds herself uncomfortable with the swearing, and almost spills scalding soup on Paul.

Paul’s agent (Lauren Bacall) has called the local authorities about his disappearance, and the Sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) and his wife (Francis Sternhagen) begin a search. Annie comes in from town with Sheldon’s newly-released Misery’s Child and tells him she spoke to a doctor and his agent, and that an ambulance will be sent for him as soon as the road to the hospital is dug out of the snow. When Annie realizes that Misery dies at the end of the new book, she goes berserk and nearly bashes Paul’s head with a table. Instead, she smashes it against the wall and reveals she lied about calling for help – nobody knows where Paul Sheldon is. She later forces him to burn the only copy of his new novel as a sort of sick penance, then returns with paper and a typewriter, insisting Paul write his “masterpiece”: Misery’s Return. When he requests a different kind of paper – a ruse to make her leave the house – she smashes the box of paper down on his injured legs, but leaves. Alone, Paul explores the house in his wheelchair, finding an unnerving shrine to his work and Annie’s stash of medication. He steals some pills to go along with pills he’s been hiding in his mattress, but is almost caught sneaking around when she returns.

The Sheriff finds Paul’s smashed car, which has been buried under the now-melting snow, and the state police assume he has died, but the Sheriff realizes from the dents on the car door that someone pried him out of the wreck. Back at Annie’s, she forces Paul to start over Misery’s Return, claiming the way he brings her back is a cheat (something she feels particularly angry about, going on a wild tangent about how an old movie serial once cheated her in a similar way). He goes back to work, turning out page after page of Misery’s Return… and getting his hands on a knife. The night before he plans to strike, Annie drugs him and straps him to the bed, revealing she knows he’s been wandering the house and has found his knife. As punishment, she hobbles him, breaking his legs with a sledgehammer. A chance encounter with Annie leads the Sheriff to suspect her, and he comes out to her house; she drugs Paul and dumps him in the cellar. He wakes up and calls for help, and Annie kills the Sheriff. Strangely unaffected, she tells Paul she plans to kill him, then herself, but he manages to delay her by tempting her with the end of Misery’s Return. At the final moment, just before she can read the end of the book, he sets the manuscript on fire and attacks her with the heavy typewriter. The two grapple and, in a bloody standoff, Paul manages to kill her. Eighteen months later, we see him back in New York, with a new novel about to hit. His agent suggests he try a book about his ordeal with Annie, and Paul tries to shrug it off… but he’ll never be rid of her entirely.

Thoughts: This is one of my favorite Stephen King novels and, in fact, is also one of my favorite film adaptations of his work. (To this day I’m not sure if I love the movie because I love the novel or in spite of the fact.) Admittedly, the story hits home for me as a writer. The scene where Annie makes Paul burn his new book (to his way of thinking, the best thing he’s ever written) is more terrifying to me than any legion of slashers, zombies, madmen or monsters you can create. I did find myself screaming at the screen on occasion – “It’s the 1980s, Paul! To hell with superstition! You have the technology to make a copy!”

This is, again, one of those rare instances where the Academy Awards really got it right. Kathy Bates got an Oscar for this movie – to date the only major Oscar a Stephen King adaptation has won, although they’ve been nominated for a few more – and you can tell why from the earliest scenes. She goes from creepy to dangerous slowly, gradually, eventually becoming terrifying in the process. By the time she’s casually sloshing lighter fluid around the bed and insisting Paul burns his book, you’re really starting to fear her. The transformation is remarkable and subtle and really the work of a master thespian, and it’s made even more effective by keeping the core of the character consistent. Even at the very beginning, where she’s gently taking care of him, something about the character just seems off. As that odd “off” feeling slowly takes over her persona, the sort of naïve quality she has at the beginning is never entirely eliminated – no matter how furious she gets, she still speaks in an almost childlike manner, refusing to use profanity and sticking to homespun colloquialisms that you’d expect coming from somebody’s grandmother.

James Caan, meanwhile, plays off Bates perfectly. He comes across as someone who’s a little self-involved, a little narcissistic, and to a degree he can even see his time with Annie as a sort of punishment for that. Even before Annie truly starts to scare him, there’s a level of discomfort he displays that really goes far beyond that of a humble writer who doesn’t know how to deal with a gushing fan. As Annie grows more dangerous, the relationship between the two of them transforms from that of a nurse and patient to a pair of adversaries in a truly lethal chess game. Annie grows to see Paul as hers, as something that belongs to her, and he has to find unexpected wells of ingenuity to get out alive. Perhaps the bravest move Stephen King made in crafting the story, though, is that he never particularly tries to make Paul into a hero. Even by the end, there’s no real undercurrent of nobility to him. Sure, he’s the victim and you sympathize with him (it would be impossible not to sympathize after you see the incredible, impossible angle his foot goes in when she smacks it with that sledgehammer), and you even root for him in those last blood-soaked moments of revenge, but he’s still kind of a jerk.

To a large degree, this is a two-person show (and in fact, in the live action stage version that was produced, only Paul and Annie’s characters are ever seen on-stage). The subplot about the Sheriff’s search for Paul, while included in the book as well as the novel, isn’t really that essential – in fact, the way the Sheriff dies without really affecting the plot reminds me very much of Dick Halloran in The Shining — and it would have been fairly easy to lift the whole thing right out had the screenwriter so desired. But William Goldman is a better writer than that. (If you recognize his name, he’s also responsible for the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, one of my personal favorites, The Princess Bride.) Goldman knew just how to balance the two to prevent Annie from ever going so far that the audience couldn’t take it. In fact, in the original novel, Annie chops Paul’s legs off instead of just breaking them. In his 1995 book Four Screenplays, Goldman explains that he changed that scene because it would have been too much for the audience to take, that they would never be able to forgive Kathy Bates the Actress as opposed to Annie Wilkes the Character. And y’know, I do believe he was right.

The relationship between Paul and Annie echoes Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in a few key ways. Although Paul isn’t related to Annie and has no allegiance to her, he’s stuck in a wheelchair and cut off from the outside world, leaving himself totally dependent on her for his survival for as long as she remains sane enough to not slice him open like a fish and leave his guts in a steaming pile on the floor. King even picks up a little 1,001 Arabian Nights, with Paul playing Scheherazade, using the finale of Misery’s story to extend his own life.

Annie is a great villain, perhaps the best, most fully-realized one Stephen King has created. Although it strikes me that, for all her lunacy, I don’t know that I think Annie was completely crazy. Those old movie serials did cheat an awful lot.

Tomorrow we move forward in the 90s, as the man who changed horror twice before changes it again. It’s 1996, and Wes Craven brings us Scream.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.




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