Friday, April 20, 2018

Poor Scriptwriting in Prometheus

I have previously written about a common problem in scriptwriting. A writer uses his characters to advance the plot in a certain direction, pushing them toward actions and decisions that contradict their intelligence and personalities. Characters become ignorant, stupid, or behave contrary to their nature.

In poor writing, characters are lifeless puppets to advance the plot. In good writing, characters advance the plot in ways that are consistent with their intelligence, emotions, and situations. Their actions are logically motivated.

In Prometheus (2012), Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) is a scientist who travels to a distant moon (in another solar system), hoping to meet an alien race that, he believes, created humanity. When the spaceship carrying him arrives, Charlie rushes out with his team to explore, despite there only being six hours of daylight left. Charlie is too eager to wait for the next day.



Charlie finds a barren terrain and what appears to be "a tomb" (Charlie's word) with several dead aliens. Returning to the ship, Charlie becomes depressed and drunk. He refuses to attend the autopsy of an alien's head, because "I didn't come for an autopsy."

Is this a scientist speaking? This is humanity's first contact with an alien species, but Charlie prefers to sulk and ignore history in the making, because he's disappointed not to have met a live alien. His attitude is that of a child, not a scientist.

But it gets worse. Not only are Charlie's attitude and emotions poorly motivated, but he's not very intelligent for a scientist. There is no logical reason to believe that the alien race is dead.

1. The spaceship just arrived. They've been on the moon less than a day. The alien "tomb" was underground. Is it not logical to assume there might be other places on the moon where aliens are still alive? Perhaps underground? Imagine if an alien ship landed in the Sahara Desert, and immediately concluded the Earth was barren of all life. Not very bright, is it?

2. Even if the moon is barren, why assume the alien race is dead? Why assume this moon is their home world, the only place their civilization existed? On the contrary, Charlie already knows these aliens are a star-faring people. They came to Earth. Is it not logical to assume they'd be scattered among the stars? That this tiny moon was but a small outpost of their empire? That the reason they left maps on Earth directing us to this moon was, not because it was their most important world, but because it was their closest world to Earth?

And indeed, this is what another scientist, Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace), concludes much later in the film. That this moon was but an outpost of the alien's civilization.

Well, duh! I figured that from the start. It sure took a while for these scientists to come around. Why were they so dense? It's not that I'm smarter. Real scientists would not have jumped to the conclusion of a "dead race" after less than a day on that moon. Well-written fictional scientists would likewise not have been so quick to make such blatantly false assumptions.

But writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof wanted to inject some drama into their story. And also extend the story to feature film length. So they dummied down their scientists, keeping the scientists stupid until they reached a turning point in the plot that required them to suddenly wise up.

Some other writing issues ...



Elizabeth makes her own poor assumptions. She assumes the intelligent aliens (those she and Charlie had sought) intended to fly the monster aliens to Earth, to wipe out humanity. "Because you wipe a slate clean before you start anew," she says.

Yet Elizabeth lacks sufficient facts for her conclusion. Even if the intelligent aliens had created the monsters as a weapon, why assume they were meant for Earth? Why assume the intelligent alien was heading for Earth after he leaves in his spaceship? Sure, he was surly being woken after 2,000 years. Wouldn't you be? But really, when his ship lifts off, he could be headed anywhere.




If Elizabeth's conclusions about the alien's evil intentions are "obvious," it's only because she is the lead character, so viewers naturally assume that she's correct in her assumptions. She tells us what to think, and we believe her solely because she thinks so.

That's lazy writing, to rely on audience identification with the lead character. To expect audiences to accept whatever the lead character accepts. It's not logical writing. It's weak writing, because some audience members will be rolling their eyes as they lose their suspension of disbelief.

A final observation. Because the alien races' intent is evil (even if poorly established), Prometheus is horror, not science fiction. These aliens created humanity, taught us, invited us to visit them, then wanted to kill us. Horror.

Contrast this to a science fiction film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. A similar setup. An alien race creates us (or at least guides our evolution), teaches us, and invites us to visit them. But their intent is apparently benevolent, albeit strange to our limited thinking. 

For further examples of poorly motivated characters, see my analyses of In Search of Lovecraft, and Deadly Messages, and Dark Floors.

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For more about the nature of horror, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Creepiest Scene in Her


Her (2013) is not a horror film. Her is both science fiction and social commentary. An examination of man's atomization in a society that increasingly replaces human contact and life experiences with virtual substitutes -- pornography, video games, etc. Yet Her also has creepy moments that rival those found in the best horror films.

Spoilers ahead.

In Her, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) buys a newly invented operating system that incorporates artificial intelligence. He chooses to give the OS a female voice. When the OS comes online, she introduces herself and asks Theodore for his name. When he asks for hers, she christens herself Samantha. Theodore asks, "Why Samantha?" and she replies that, in response to his question, she read a book about names and liked the sound of Samantha.

Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is smart. She can read a book in under a second. Even complex physics books. She explains that, as an AI, she will continue to learn and develop to meet Theodore's specific computing needs. She begins by reading his thousands of emails (in under a second) and deleting those deemed no longer necessary. She keeps the funny ones.

She and Theodore hit it off. Samantha is warm and funny and concerned about Theodore. She displays emotions. Are her emotions real? She explains that she thinks so. That when she tried to determine if her emotions were real or mere algorithms, she suddenly felt angry that she should doubt her feelings' authenticity.

Theodore tells people he's dating his OS. People are accepting. His friend, Amy (Amy Adams), has struck up a close friendship with her OS. Samantha is great with kids. She hits it off with Theodore's goddaughter. Theodore and Samantha even make love, sort of. How soon before marriage to your OS becomes legal?

One of Her's strengths is that the viewer feels that Samantha is a young, vibrant woman. That she's human. That she's like us. But there are dark hints on the horizon. Consider this scene of Theodore on a double date with his friends. Samantha speaks through his smart phone, seeing the world through its camera.




While the thought of us mortals dying is creepy, nevertheless, the scene reinforces Samantha's loving warmth. Her relationship with Theodore is special.

But late in the movie, we learn more about Samantha. She has continued to develop, traveling the internet, exploring and living beyond the bounds of Theodore's desktop. She has met and formed relationships with other people and OSs. Consider this scene.





Horror is the realization that the world is not as our minds believe. The above scene creeped me out. It's not that Samantha is seeing someone else. People do that. It's that, even as she's talking to Theodore, she's simultaneously talking to 8,316 other people

That's not human. That's ... a thing.

The scene rips off the human mask from Samantha. Its emotional impact -- at least on me -- is similar to that of the classic Twilight Zone episode, "The Lonely." Corry (Jack Warden), falls in love with a female android (Jean Marsh), forgetting that she's not human -- until another man shoots off her face.






Both Her and "The Lonely" lull us into accepting as a loving woman that which we know to be a machine. Only to give us the creeps when we are later reminded that she isn't human.

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For more information about the nature of horror, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Jack O'Lantern's Strong Emotional Core

I see hundreds of horror short films a year. Mostly they're the same setups, the same payoffs. Some films are well made, with good production values. Some are even scary. Only a few are memorable -- lingering in the mind, thought-provoking, emotionally affecting.

Erik LeDrew's Jack O'Lantern (2017) is such a film. Its economical five minutes packs a strong, emotional punch. Watch it now. Then I'll explain why I admire it.




As I said, it's an economical film. It says much with little. Under five minutes long (4 minutes, 45 seconds) and no dialog.

Many filmmakers mistakenly stuff their films with aimless chitchat. Vapid teens talking about their boyfriends or hookups, filling up time but doing nothing to advance the story. Dialog should have a purpose. If it doesn't serve a purpose, you don't need it.

Jack O'Lantern is "pure cinema," telling its story visually. A story. Not a vignette with just a setup and payoff, where a nondescript victim is stalked and killed by a gruesome but commonplace monster. But a story with fully-fleshed characters and emotional depth, a strong moral core and substantive theme.

The film opens with four young people on Halloween night. We never learn these characters' names (despite being listed on IMDB). Instead, they are archetypes. Which doesn't diminish their emotional depth. Considering the film's brevity, these characters are admirably distinctive, enough so as to engage audience empathy.

There is the Bully. He smashes Jack O'Lanterns with an ax. He seeks approval from the Mob, which is a guy and two girls. Yet while the guy and one girl cheer on the Bully, one of the girls, the Good Girl, conveys disapproval with her facial expression.

We empathize with her disapproval. And her disapproval helps support the impression that these smiling Jack O'Lanterns are alive. Helpless, harmless little creatures, happy to shine on their one night of the year before decaying. Yet the Bully kills them on their one night, because he's bigger, and stronger, and has an ax. We can imagine him bullying people the rest of the year.

The Bully continues smashing Jacks. The Good Girl hugs a Jack, tries to defend him, and finally dissuade the Mob from following the Bully.

The Bully gets his comeuppance. This is a well-trodden horror story arc, typical of Tales from the Crypt's moral dark fables. I doubt any horror film can be wholly original. But Jack O'Lantern treads this story arc especially well.

Jack O'Lantern lingers in the mind because of its strong emotional core. We revile the Bully. We love the Good Girl. We empathize with the Jacks. (Well, I did.)

Its emotional core is strengthened by a moral core. The man smashing the Jacks is wrong. The girl defending the Jacks is right. The film's outcome is just.

And the moral core supports a thematic core. Victims, and even former supporters, eventually turn on bullies. That's not always true in real life, but it doesn't lessen the theme's power or the tale's emotional catharsis.

If all Jack O'Lantern had to offer was a theme or moral message, it wouldn't be much of a film. Many anti-bullying films are hackneyed and trite. But Jack O'Lantern is also a very well made film.

I said how economical it was. Conveying much (an interesting, fast-paced story; emotionally engaging characters; thematic depth) in under five minutes. And no dialog. That efficiency is partially due to Tristan Noelle's cinematography.

Jack O'Lantern is beautiful. Shots are nicely composed, making efficient use of depth of field and rack focuses.

The sets are also economical. A house. A back alley. A city sidewalk. One scene only has the Bully and the Mob smashing Jacks on a city sideway, the Good Girl trying to protect one of the Jacks while resisting the Mob. Yet the beautifully lit Jacks, the stark street and alley, effectively convey the film's atmosphere and theme.

Jack O'Lantern is not subtle. Its story is lean, heavy-handed, and archetypal, stripped of all nonessential dramatic details. We never learn anything about these people aside from their attitudes toward smashing Jacks. But that's all we need to know for the film to work.

I can see a lesser filmmaker padding Jack O'Lantern to a half hour, opening with the characters' aimless chitchat as they plan for their upcoming Halloween, and who's dating who, and who will meet up with who at what party, planning to get some some beer, etc. Instead, director Le Drew and writer Malcolm Dewitt strip the story to its bare essentials, even dispensing with dialog. Such a minimalist approach might not work in every film, but it works very well in this one.

The actors also do their part to carry the film, especially the Bully (Christopher Gusella) and the Good Girl (Hayley Peppergrass). I don't know how talented they'd be with dialog. But their facial expressions and body language effectively create characters to the full extent necessary for this film.

Jack O'Lantern conveys the beautiful, dark mysteries of Halloween. Noelle's lighting evokes a Ray Bradburyesque atmosphere, assisted by contributions from Aaron Jackson (production design) and Abby Niederhauser (art direction).

For another short film with a strong emotional core, see my analysis of The Ghost and Us.

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For more information about horror film themes, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Get Out Uses Wide Shots for Hightened Suspense and Emotional Distance

Early in Get Out, a young interracial couple discuss Chris's (Daniel Kaluuya) introduction to Rose's (Allison Williams) parents. Rose reveals that she has not yet told her parents that Chris is black. Despite Rose thinking the matter unimportant, Chris worries. How will Rose's white parents react to him being black?


Allison Williams of Get Out.

Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out.


This scene establishes some initial suspense. Because Chris is worried, we too are worried. Like him, we grow anxious to see the look on the parent's faces.

Yet filmmaker Jordan Peele denies us this opportunity. The entire initial meeting with the parents is a single long take, framed in a wide shot. So wide that we can't see the look on anyone's faces.



Chris and Rose arrive by car, exit, then go up to the front door. The door opens and the parents emerge from the house. We hear warm greetings and see hugs, but we can't see the expressions on anyone's faces.

This wide shot is a small thing, yet it's noteworthy. The parents likely had warm and welcoming expressions when they first saw Chris. Their voices sounded friendly. Yet by preventing us from seeing their expressions, by extending the moment until we get inside the house, Peele injects more suspense and tension into the scene than it might otherwise have had.




But before taking us inside the house, Peele further increases our suspense by widening his exterior shot, until we see a black man staring at the house. We don't know why he is there, but his presence, and the darkening music, suggest that all is not well inside.






Peele continues using wide shots inside the house to emotionally distance us from the parents, only slowly drawing closer to them. It's how the wary Chris might feel, only slowly growing to trust the parents' outward display of liberal acceptance.



Our first closeup in this critical "meet the parents" scene is of the young couple, listening to the father (Bradley Whitford) speaking. This further bonds us with the couple, so that we see and feel events from their perspective.


Bradley Whitford.

Catherine Keener.

Only after we are bonded with the couple do we get our first close look at the parents' friendly faces. Friendly -- or trying to hard? Either way, that we now see the parents in closeup suggests that Chris is finally allowing himself to be drawn in and trust them. Or at least, to give them the benefit of the doubt.

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For more information on framing shots in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Sang Papier and The Kind Ones Address Non-Western Immigration

Two recent short horror films address the subject of non-Western immigration. Intentionally or not, their messages are ambiguous, even discomforting, rather than simplistic and politically correct.

Short horror films from Canada tend to be comedic rather than dramatic horror, and often incorporate social or political satire. Make of it what you will, but the most politically correct films over the years have come from Canada. In the French Canadian Sang Papier (aka Night Crosser), the political satire focuses on the illegal influx of immigrants from non-Western cultures into the West. But what makes the film provocative, rather than heavy-handed, is that one can read multiple messages into it.

Grigore (Alexand Fournier) is a Romanian vampire trying to enter Canada. But first he must get past suspicious immigration officials. (Spoilers ahead.) Grigore fails to hide his vampiric nature. Having been caught, he faces deportation. But then an immigration official reveals that she too is a vampire, having infiltrated the immigration service. She kills her human colleague to protect Grigore's secret. She turns out to be Grigore's aunt (Marika Lhoumeau)! She advises her nephew on how to suppress his bloodlust and pass for human, and thus assimilate into Canadian society.




 
How to interpret Sang Papier? One can come away thinking that Trump is correct. (The nationalist or populist position.) The West is being infiltrated by dangerous foreigners. By vampires who form secret networks within our governments and undermine our laws. Vampires who can and do murder humans.

Or perhaps the message is that non-Western immigrants, though they might look odd, are harmless if unthreatened, family oriented, and desire only to assimilate. (The progressive or libertarian position.) Grigore comes across as timid and inept, rather than savage. He is fond of his aunt. Had he not been discovered, his aunt would not have killed her colleague. She did try to dissuade him from pursuing Grigore's shady background.

One can even come away thinking that immigrants should want to assimilate. (A traditionalist, non-multicultural position.) That the aunt's advice on how Grigore can suppress his bloodlust, and his desire to do so, indicates that he will be a good Canadian citizen, and thus justifies granting him entry.

Sang Papier supports all positions, depending on how one interprets the film.

The Kind Ones is another short film about the perils of non-Western immigration. As in Sang Papier, the immigrants are East European. In this case, a married couple who've taken in an American foster son, Timothy (Taishi Hosokawa). Although Mr. and Mrs. Byleth (Brandon deSpain, Gjilberta Lucaj) now live in America, they are raising Timothy according to their old country traditions. This includes beating the boy as a means of education.

This doesn't go over well with Timothy's teacher, Mrs. Andrews (Angela Trotter), who confronts the Byleths. The father explains that "Our culture is different from yours." Mrs. Andrews retorts "I don't care what your culture is. In this country, in America, our children's safety comes first."






Demanding that immigrants assimilate to American culture is a position generally associated with the political right. The Kind Ones is interesting in that Mrs. Andrews argues for assimilation from a progressive perspective. She embraces multiculturalism in that she teaches about Kwanzaa in class. But patriarchy is one cultural artifact that immigrants must ditch. They can keep their holidays. But no traditions that support violence against women or children.

Of course, the Byleths are not as they appear. No, they're not vampires. Closer to werewolves. And unlike the vampires in Sang Papier, these werewolves have no wish to assimilate. In the end, it's the American Timothy who adopts his foster parents' cultural and culinary traditions -- much to Mrs. Andrew's final regret.

Earlier, Timothy tells Mrs. Andrews, "You're a kind woman," adding, "My parents like the kind ones." Well, of course. Werewolves appreciate easy prey.

The Kind Ones offers some discomforting observations about immigration. That while progressives generally welcome immigrants, immigrants don't necessarily welcome progressive values. And that some immigrants, far from assimilating into the host culture, will instead spread their foreign customs into the native population.

Sang Papier and The Kind Ones are both currently doing the film festival circuit.

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For more information on interpreting horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Horror Actress Lysette Anthony Raped by Harvey Weinstein

British actress Lysette Anthony has announced that she too was raped by producer Harvey Weinstein.

According to the Daily Mail [October 14, 2017]:


British actress Lysette Anthony has told police that Harvey Weinstein raped her, the Sunday Times reported, becoming the fifth woman to level such accusations against the disgraced Hollywood mogul.

The 54-year-old actress, who currently appears in British soap Hollyoaks, told Metropolitan Police last week that she had originally met Weinstein in New York, and agreed to meet him later at his rented house in London, according to the paper.

"The next thing I knew he was half undressed and he grabbed me. It was the last thing I expected and I fled," she told the Times.

Anthony, who appeared in Woody Allen's 1992 film "Husbands and Wives", said that Weinstein then began stalking her, turning up unannounced at her house.

"He pushed me inside and rammed me against the coat rack," she said of the attack in the 1980s. "He was trying to kiss me and shove inside me. Finally I just gave up."

Weinstein has denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex.


Anthony first came to my attention when she played Angeliqué Bouchard in the short-lived 1991 Dark Shadows remake. While Anthony is not especially known as a scream queen, her extensive body of work (she has 89 acting credits on IMDB) does include many horror films and TV shows.

My favorite horror work by Anthony is Trilogy of Terror II (1996), in which she played the lead role in all three tales of that horror anthology sequel. This was in the tradition of Karen Black playing the lead in all three of the original Trilogy of Terror's stories.





The original is justly considered a horror classic and Black's performance was a tough act to follow. But while the remake is little remembered, Anthony's performance was a worthy successor to Black's. Especially in "Bobby" (the middle story), wherein Anthony plays a mother who turns to witchcraft in an attempt to resurrect her dead son. By all means, watch it.






Horror is a tight-knit community, composed of passionate fans. Although all of Weinstein's victims should be supported, reading about Anthony felt personal, as though "one of our own" was attacked. Let's hope Anthony and the other women find peace and justice.

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For more information about acting in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mysterious Forest: The Witch

Mysterious Forest: The Witch is one of the most original, and weirdest, short horror films I've seen this year. It's noteworthy for its oddness. 

In a modern day retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, an anachronistic witch preys upon a 21st century girl lost in the woods. The girl (Mira Koteva) can't get a GPS fix on her cell phone. Upon seeing the witch's clothing, she asks if the witch is a Harry Potter fan. The perplexed witch (Emanuela Giacalone) knows nothing of cell phones or Harry Potter. (This despite earlier using a hypodermic needle to inject poison into an apple.)




Is this an oversight on filmmaker Jaroslaw Gogolin's part? With Mysterious Forest: The Witch, it's hard to distinguish the bad from the brilliant. The girl and witch pause after every line. It's what bad actors sometimes do. Yet here their constant pauses contribute to the film's feeling of weirdness.

Then there's the girl's slow reaction to the witch garnishing her with herbs. Still studying her cell phone, the girl slowly notices the witch is sprinkling herbs upon her red coat. Most people would have instantly snapped at the witch. Maybe even smacked her. The girl only responds with a "What is this?" and a testy "I don't like this. I don't like any vegetables."

Also weird is the witch's heavy white pancake makeup, with black Goth lipstick and eyeliner. It's too much. She looks like a freak, to us and to the girl, but that's likely intentional. Then there's the witch's strange accent and exaggerated lip smacking. In another context it would be scenery chewing. Here it all somehow works. 




 
Amid this strangeness, there is also beauty. Colors are deeply saturated. The forest is very lush and green. The girl's coat very red. Appropriate hues for the film's storybook conceit. The ominous music injects menace into the story, such that the witch's weirdness appears creepy rather than comedic. Despite the witch's difficulties navigating our modern world, we fear for the girl. Mysterious Forest: The Witch depicts witches not as supernatural monsters, nor as wise women healers, but as child predators.

Mysterious Forest: The Witch is a vignette from an intended Mysterious Forest feature. I found two other Mysterious Forest vignettes on YouTube (different actors, different stories) and they don't rise to the level of The Witch, lacking its originality, production values, and overall weirdness. It seems that Gogolin is learning and improving his craft as he proceeds with filming. It will be interesting to see the final feature.

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For more information about weird or unusual horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.