Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Inconsistent Dialog in The Dark

Bad writers often have a character spout clichés and catchphrases that are inconsistent with their personalities or previous statements, or pointless within the context of the story. Writers do this because clichés and catchphrases are an easy, thoughtless way to fill up a page. Such writers are too lazy or sloppy to write appropriate dialog, or to keep their story and characters in mind while writing. 

Even good writers can make this mistake, because clichés and catchphrases come naturally to people, writers included. But, while inappropriate clichés and catchphrases might infect a first draft screenplay, writers should be careful to delete them in subsequent rewrites.

The Dark (1979) is great fun, as I explain in my review. But for all its merits, it also provides an example of a character who contradicts herself with clichés and catchphrases. 

Zoe (Cathy Lee Crosby) is a TV reporter who covers fluff, but is eager to do hard news. She sees her potential big break when a serial killer (actually, a space alien) starts terrorizing Los Angeles.


In one scene, Zoe accuses Detective Mooney (Richard Jaeckel) of not doing enough to stop the killer. But moments later, when Mooney responds by talking tough, Zoe switches and accuses him of being too tough. "Thirty-two caliber justice?" she accuses.

So, is Zoe a tough-on-crime crusader? Or a bleeding heart liberal? She takes both sides in less than a minute. Why? Perhaps the writer wanted Zoe to sound strong and spunky, and thus was mindlessly filling Zoe's mouth with zingers, however inconsistent.

Of course, it's possible that Zoe is spouting inconsistent zingers because she's a disingenuous, yellow journalist who'll say anything to make a splash. In which case, that's her character. She is motivated not by any philosophy, but by her ambition. She'll say anything to embarrass Mooney, consistency be damned. In that case, the character is consistent (even if her lines are not) and the script is fine.

But that is not the case. Zoe is clearly a heroine we are meant to admire, so the scene is poorly written.

Zoe is supposed to be smart, but she's not very. She pontificates on TV that it's "ironic" that the daughter of horror novelist Roy Warner (William Devane), who writes gore, was killed in a gory fashion. Warner later accuses Zoe of implying that it was "poetic justice." Zoe insists that she meant ironic, but that's because she's illiterate. Irony requires incongruity, so it would have been ironic if Warner's books had promoted peace.

Zoe is supposed to be smart and idealistic, yet as written, she sounds illiterate and ego-driven.

I won't blame screenwriter Stanford Whitmore. After I wrote my initial review of The Dark, Whitmore emailed me [on August 13, 2004]:


"I wrote [The Dark] on spec as a piece that my friend, DP Bill Butler, would use to get his foot in the directing door. My script was an experiment meant to take advantage of Bill's camera, which would render the repeatedly gathering dark remindful of the score for Jaws. An initial deal was made with Dick Clark's company, and when that fell out, some thief stepped up to single-handedly take over the script, fire Tobe Hooper, and invent a monster shooting death rays. The upshot was the WGA bringing suit on my behalf for monies owed, whereupon said producer skipped town, putting a cherry on top."


For more examples of poorly motivated characters and inconsistent dialog, see my posts on Lake Fear 3, Dark Floors, In Search of Lovecraft, Prometheus, and The Haunting of Marsten Manor.


For more information on writing 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.

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