Adaptation done Right: Jaws

For many people, the 1975 film Jaws from Steven Spielberg stands as one of the best “blockbusters” ever made. With such a large cultural influence, it is sometimes easy to forget that, one year before the shark took to the screen, Jaws was published as a novel from then struggling author, Peter Benchley. While the success of the novel came as a complete surprise, the success of film should not. Through a mix of fate and decision, Jaws is one of the smartest adaptations of book-to-film.

Continue reading Adaptation done Right: Jaws

Defining Slasher or Five Films You Did Not Know Were Slashers

Before getting into this article, one definition must be clarified. Specifically: what is a “slasher” movie? What are the criteria, what makes them different from regular horror films? There are variations on the definition. This is the Wikipedia definition:

“A slasher film is a subgenre of thriller and horror film, typically involving a psychopathic killer stalking and murdering a sequence of victims in a graphically violent manner, often with a bladed tool such as a knife, machete, axe, scythe, or chainsaw.”

It is not a terrible definition, but personally I do not feel it covers the entire genre. Here is another from Urban Dictionary:

“A horror movie usually with one central homicidal maniac who usually uses cutlery to systematically slaughter his victims.”

Closer but I am still not on board with it. I guess my complaints at “slasher” definition come from the fact that the poor movies seem to have defined the genre. Critic Roger Ebert used to refer to slasher films as simply “dead teenager movies.” However, I feel to let the low-quality define is to do a disservice to the genre. It would be akin to defining dramatic films as “movies featuring multiple emotional breakthroughs, often done in an over-the-top, cathartic manner.” Are there more bad slasher films than good: absolutely. The ratio is probably similar to the amount of Spartans vs. Persians at the battle of Thermopylae. Still, let’s expand this definition a little.

In my mind, I have never considered the choice of weapon relevant to the “slasher” definition. “Slashing” simply refers to the high body count these movies typically have. This does not mean that many people have to die, just that a high portion of the cast is no longer present by film’s end – due solely to the actions of that film’s “slasher.” Hmm, actually – all this use of the word slasher is getting confusing. Maybe there is a better way to explain my point. Below are five films I feel are slashers – which are left off using the standard definition.

5. Predator

There ain’t no teenagers in this movie. Released in 1987, Predator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and follows the struggle of a team of special forces against an alien with super-powered technology. This alien stalks the team one-by-one as they try to make their way through a savage and isolated jungle. There is no sex, no real drug use beyond tobacco, and no nudity to speak of. Yet, boiled down: Predator is a killer hunting people in the forest. It is not a stretch to label this film a slasher, even if it is in the realm of science fiction.

Oh look at that, he's even wearing a mask!
Oh look at that, he’s even wearing a mask!

4. The Terminator

More Schwarzenegger, only this time he is the unstoppable superhuman killer. Arnold plays the terminator – a robot sent back in time to kill a young woman. The Terminator is perhaps the best example of a slasher movie embracing the “indestructible” nature of the killer. In the more traditional slasher films, the police are always seen as a source of safety. Once they arrive, it is all over. Later slasher movies would shatter this illusion of strength but none so effectively as The Terminator.

This is the most famous example of a killer walking into a police station and just demolishing it.
This is the most famous example of a killer walking into a police station and just demolishing it.

He does not ever use a knife, yet that metallic arm that reaches for Linda Hamilton‘s character at the end can be seen as an equivalent weapon, at least in terms of its threatening presence.

3. Alien

Well, if Predator was a slasher…

I have actually already talked about this movie at length in an article I wrote some time ago. To recap: Alien uses the isolation of space to put a superhuman antagonist against a group of unsuspecting people. Notice that this ‘superhuman’ nature of the killer is a definite recurring theme in all of these movies, as is the setting’s feeling of isolation.

The scorpion-like tail can be seen as the alien's slasher weapon.
The scorpion-like tail can be seen as the alien’s slasher weapon.

2. JAWS

Made in 1975, Jaws predates Halloween by three years. The plot of Jaws is simple: a shark terrorizes an island and the local authorities have to respond. Yet it does appear to be a regular shark, made superhuman only by the fact that it is a great white in water. The true superhuman element comes from Spielberg’s directing. The shark is presented as both an animal and a thinking opponent. There is an intelligence to it that emerges in the second half of the film. The shark may not have a ton of actual screen time, but John Williams’ score makes it a presence throughout the movie. This is no simply shark, it is a slasher.

He's either very smart or very dumb.
He’s either very smart or very dumb.

1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

So odds are, this is the one you’ve been waiting to read about. How could Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory be a slasher? It’s a family film, with wonderful heart-warming sequences like:

Yeah, this movie is terrifying. Willy Wonka is a superhuman individual who picks children off in his chocolate factory. The kids vanish, never to be seen again. Sure, Wonka says they are all right (and they probably are) but it does not matter. For all intents and purposes, he is murdering those kids in really over-the-top style. Willy Wonka is never clearly described as a good guy and actually, plot-wise, he functions as an antagonist of the film. Charlie must survive his challenges and pass his test.

"I knew that from then on the audience wouldn't know if I was lying or telling the truth," - Gene Wilder on Willy Wonka's old and feeble introduction
I knew that from then on the audience wouldn’t know if I was lying or telling the truth,”
– Gene Wilder on Willy Wonka’s old and feeble introduction.

Made in 1971, this is the first slasher (that I know of).

So what is a slasher? Does it even have to be a horror film or is it just a set of guidelines?

Here, let me make right now the official Red Rings of Redemption definition of a slasher movie:

“A slasher film is any movie, usually set in an isolated area, that focuses on a superhuman antagonist who preys on a comparatively high number of victims.”

There we go. I might refine that as time goes on but for now – let it stand.

Horror Clichés: The Monster One-Up

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.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears a familiar looking hockey mask in his Halloween H2O cameo. I know what you're thinking: JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT was in that movie - why??????
Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears a familiar looking hockey mask in his Halloween H2O cameo. I know what you’re thinking: JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT was in that movie – why??????

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 Beastthe 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:

Apologies for the small pictures. Apparently no HD snapshots of Orca exist. What a shame, internet, what a shame.
Apologies for the small pictures. Apparently no HD snapshots of Orca exist. What a shame, internet, what a shame.

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:

Jaws 2 3
Got you!

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:

hillshaveeyesIf 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.

the-evil-dead-1981-the-hills-have-eyesYeah, 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.