"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Are Today's Horror Films Hollywood's 'Canary in the Coal Mine?'

In the lackluster box-office summer season of 2014, Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations thought audiences might have been suffering from fright fatigue. “Once something hits big, it doesn’t take studios long to jump on the trend and start churning them out.”[1] Hence, Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo opined that the deluge of films in the “found-footage” subgenre may have already run the well dry by that summer. “Five years after (the first) paranormal Activity, this particular technique has finally wore out its welcome,” Ray concludes.

Faced with the herd mentality, the biggest challenge for a horror-movie screenwriter is “coming up with ideas that isolate the protagonist, and still giving audiences something new,” says Eduardo Sanchez, co-director of the original found-footage film, The Blair Witch Project (1999), which made $141 million. If this sounds cyclical to you—that the next “something new” will eventually become as overplayed as an Elton John album from the 1970s—you will appreciate Sanchez’s line of thought here. The horror genre itself may be cyclical, Sanchez continues. “Horror movies are like roller coasters: After the first ride, it’s not as thrilling. You have to build your coaster bigger and faster. That’s what movies are facing: finding that new surprise.” In other words, a sort of inflation may exist in the genre, such that not only innovative story-telling is needed, but also ever increasingly intense emotional punches intended for the audience. Of course, like a shot of pure sugar or caffeine, as in one of those energy drinks, an overly intense story quickly burns itself out, so the addicts demand more and more drinks of more and more of a kick. Meanwhile, deep, thoughtful story-telling is marginalized, and perhaps even forgotten.

Screenwriters who want to distinguish their work as riveting in terms of meaning and being thought-provoking can look to myths (living or dead), literature, and even dreams to gain depth and uniqueness. The narrative above is based on a dream I had in which I could fly (until I found somebody on my back). In the dream, I broke through the natural-looking canopy. Fortunately, I woke up just as I realized that a serial killer was up there, coming after me. Even in thinking about the dream the next morning, I did not make the connection to “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

The lesson here may be that drawing on even well-known fables or myths need not deprive us of crafting unique stories that audiences will not view as formulaic. Put another way, a screenwriter is perhaps most fecund when he or she draws both deep within and on stories that have stood through oceans of time and thus are etched into our collective unconscious. To illustrate this mixture, I provide a bit of narrative here that may seem rather different, yet somehow quite familiar.

Jack has discovered that he has a rather unique ability; the tall, thin adult can fly by fluttering his outstretched arms up and down rapidly. To be sure, the lift is gradual for all the effort he must put into the exercise, and to do it he must be running quite fast. On one occasion, he wanted to show off this ability in front of a couple other college students. One of them had the bright idea of jumping onto Jack’s back, holding on to the two upper straps of his back-pack. Naively, Jack thought he could get air-borne nonetheless—but, alas, he could not. Too much weight. Shedding his passenger, he was indeed able to show off. The others were absolutely astounded to see a human being in the air.

Jack got a little carried away in showing off his uniqueness—his specialness. He gradually made it up to the clouds (something I tried to do with a kite when I was ten or eleven) and kept pumping his arms to go even higher. The mist got thicker and thicker until he ran up against a dirty-cream-colored solidified gel ceiling that from Jack’s vantage point seemed to separate the top half of the cloud-bank from its lower half.

Getting up some slow upward momentum, Jack poked at the rubber-like half-inch of gel until his hand and then arm broke through. He used that hand to pull himself through. As about a quarter-inch of water was on the top of the ceiling/floor, Jack got himself pretty wet. Walking on the surface, he likened it to walking to a slushy iced-over lake in late winter. Like such ice, the mix of water and gel acted to reseal the hole that Jack had made.

As Jack stood in amazement, being careful not to get too close to the “new ice,” he glimpsed a figure running over to him. I can only describe the old man as looking like an international business professor I had as a MBA student. Professor Farmer had a wild theory about trading toilet paper and light bulbs with the Middle East. He had inserted his little theory into a short book of fiction he had written. The eccentric academic reminded me at the time of Hume Cronyn, a movie actor who was married to Jessica Tandy, when he was a short old man with only some hairs on his head. Similarly, the man whom Jack took note of was nearly bald, but obviously did not have a barber up there in the clouds.

As the figure got closer, Jack could make out a machete in one hand; the old man was waving the large knife around feverously as he shouted incoherently. This would not be a friendly visit, Jack quickly concluded. If you have tried to run on an ice rink with a layer of water on top of the ice, you know that running is neither fun nor easy. Yet Jack found himself suddenly running for his life. If there was a silver lining to those clouds, Jack would have to find it and quick, for the “floor” was not so easy to break through from above; it could, after all, support a man’s weight.

This glob of narrative may be recognizable; I picked “Jack” for the protagonist’s name, given the association with “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Rather than having to contend with a giant, my Jack has to deal with a serial killer loose on some cloud. The story may resonate given the fairy tale, even while being fairly unique. I am using the vignette to illustrate the value of, and, indeed, the need to think up new plots and characters especially in the horror genre of film. Put another way, screenwriters who wish to be excellent must avoid the herd-animal mentality, which has plagued the genre.

[1] This and all other quotes are from Scott Bowles, “Horror Films Falling Under a Frightful Spell,” USA Today, July 16, 2014.