A couple of years back, I ranked the original Halloween series (before the era of Rob Zombie and reboots). This year, it’s time to turn to a different and (blessedly) shorter horror franchise: The Exorcist. Keep in mind, I’m only talking about movies here. Those looking for an in-depth analysis of The Exorcist and Legion will have to wait for another day. Like last time, let’s start with the best and work down.
The horror genre has a plot cliché unlike any other. While every type of film suffers from its own potential to do predictable and over-tired forms of set up, very few are as catching as the “monster one-up.” What I mean by that is: the film overtly states the superiority of its monster by having it destroy another monster from a previous movie. Most of the time, this event occurs in horror films that are… less than stellar. That said, any technique can be done the right way. This article will examine two examples from horror films. Movies that do this sequence the right way… and movies that do it less so.
USING IT POORLY: JAWS vs. Orca: the Killer Whale vs. Jaws 2
First off, Jaws did nothing wrong. It is the classic being emulated in the two later films mentioned. Obviously, when Steven Spielberg‘s monster blockbuster hit, it spawned a plethora of copycats and clones. Piranha, Barracuda, Suckers, The Beast… the list goes on and on. Seems like Hollywood had no idea that the ocean could be such a dangerous or profitable place before Jaws came around. If there is anyone out there unfamiliar with this famous creature feature: the plot is essentially that a killer great white shark terrorizes Martha’s Vineyard. Obviously, the basic premise of Jaws is not what makes it the incredible piece of film-making that it is.
Fast-forward two years and along comes Orca: the Killer Whale. I doubt I have to say any more than the title for you to know exactly what kind of movie this is. Like so many others, Orca was attempting to succeed Jaws. The film contains quite a lot of hype about killer whales. There’s even a “scientist” who talks them up to the point of living aquatic godhood. Obviously whales are smart – but she would have the audience believe that killer whales were psychics of the animal kingdom. But anyway, apparently having a character who didn’t think Free Willy went far enough wasn’t all the movie wanted to do.
The film starts with a sequence where before-mentioned character is threatened by a great white shark, a twenty-five foot long great white shark to be precise. Sound familiar – huh? HUH? Anyway, then this happens:
Yes, Orca shows up to destroy the great white. It demolishes the shark and allows for the characters to continue to talk up how wonderfully kick-ass killer whales are. The only problem is that this sequence is long and has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Its main function is to be the monster one-up. Suck it, Jaws – our monster is better. Of course, a year later Jaws 2 responded:
And guess what? Jaws 2 used this to have a whole scene talking up how incredible their shark must be to kill a killer whale. Blatant use like this is essentially a Hollywood dick-measuring contest. It is stupid and does not serve much point other than to try and make the audience feel more intimidated.
“Look at how scary our monster is! It killed that other monster… are you scared yet?”
Let’s look at it done right.
USING IT WELL: JAWS vs. The Hills Have Eyes vs. The Evil Dead
What’s up with Jaws being involved in both of these? The key here is subtlety. Here is how The Hills Have Eyes one-upped Jaws:
If the audience isn’t looking for it – they likely will not notice it. Yes, that is a Jaws poster in the background. It is slashed in two after the cannibal attack on the trailer. There is no scene devoted to showing how cannibals are scarier than a shark (although that might have been wonderful to see), it just happens. By doing this, director Wes Craven did not have to deviate time from his script to explain why his horror is more frightening than Spielberg’s. He accomplished a lot with a simple background change.
Steven Spielberg never responded to this in a movie (so far as I know), but Sam Raimi did.
Yeah, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead rips The Hills Have Eyes poster to shreds in similar fashion. Again, this is not something the average audience member would have time to notice. It is a subtle gesture, just something to very quickly establish a one-up and move on.
By including a whole scene, scriptwriters are essentially telling the audience that they need some filler. The story is not good enough to stand on its own. Neither Hills Have Eyes or Evil Dead has time to do such things, because they are busy being effective with their own original material. Horror hopefuls take note – your terror should be so scary that it does not need to one-up anyone else’s.. not overtly at least. Show the audience that your movie is scarier, do not have a whole sequence telling them about it.
It’s October and that means horror, well at least for some people. Personally, I was grown on horror movies. Being the youngest sibling in the house, I would sometimes walk into things “I was not old enough for.” Let me tell you: with horror, I agree with the age limitations. I saw part of Evil Dead II when I was six years old – the scene where Henrietta bursts through the cellar floor. Needless to say, my basement and I became distant acquaintances for the next few years. Yet despite this (or maybe because of), I grew up loving horror films. The mark of any effective piece of art is its ability to leave an impression on the viewer. There is a real talent in being able to terrify someone with – essentially – nothing. Even the best horror movies have nothing on reality, yet they still leave audiences trembling. The problem is this: horror is a cheap genre to film. There is a plethora of horror cinema out there and most of it is not very enjoyable or scary. So what to watch? Thankfully, one man has taken it upon himself to answer that question.
James Rolfe, more famously known as the Angry Video Game Nerd, created Cinemassacre.com years ago. An amateur (now going professional) filmmaker, Rolfe clearly enjoys horror films more than the average theater goer. For the past seven years, Rolfe has been bringing a thorough and usually very insightful compendium to the horror film genre. He calls it: Cinemassacre’s Monster Madness. Every October, Rolfe creates a daily entry, which is usually confined to examining (in fair depth) one single horror movie. Most years have themes. In his first run, he outlined a history of horror. In this second run, there was the Godzillathon, and so on and so forth.
Many people have reviewed movies, just ask Youtube. More reviews than anyone can shake a stick at – some presented well, others not so much. What sets Monster Madness apart from the throng of other material is the sense of perspective that Rolfe brings to his work. Anyone can review a movie, but listening to Rolfe almost feels like a short lesson in film history. This is not simply some fanboy rattling off all the movies everyone HAS to see before they die. The writing instead contains a well thought-out approach, and does not overstay its welcome.
This ability to edit and show self-restraint sets Rolfe apart from a lot of other internet personalities. The viewer gets the sense that he is not doing this for himself, but rather from the simple love of a well put together creation of art. It is also refreshing to see him break from his Angry Video Game Nerd personality to actually provide more direct and reasoned critique.
Halloween puts people in a mood for scary, there’s no two ways about it. With Cinemassacre’s Monster Madness, audiences can at least know how to navigate the sludge of sub-par films they are bombarded with. Interested in checking out a new thrill? Ask James Rolfe. He’ll always give you something (spoiler-free) to think about. And that, is a job well done.