By Keri O’Shea
It probably goes with out saying (but then, so do a lot of things and it doesn’t seem to stop anyone) – we watch a hell of a lot of horror here at the site. A hell of a lot. Screeners, shorts, trailers, festival releases, mainstream releases, Netflix et al…the list goes on. As such, it becomes easier and easier to get annoyed by the persistent characterisation failures we see in them and those lazy, silly trends which seem to sweep through filmmaking like a series of memes, year upon year. Each further dilution of an already-forced idea piles insult upon injury. Sure, there are nearly always other factors at work in the making of any film, but from my perspective, this doesn’t distract me from the fact that the same stock characters appearing again and again is tedious. It’s mysterious too. Why are some characters so seemingly irresistible? Emperor’s New Clothes? Horror writers feel like their product won’t be well-received unless they select from a very short list of possibilities? Perhaps there’s a positive aspect to this – namely, that when you’re a fan writer finally faced with something decent and well-handled, you dissolve with gratitude – but, all in all, seeing the same shit being unveiled in a succession of films makes me bitey.
To get some of these grievances off my chest, I’d like to share with you my current shitlist. This is by no means an exhaustive shitlist. These may not be your choices for a shitlist – but I bet if you think about it, you have a shitlist. More may follow from me, then – but for now, may I introduce you to…
1) The Eight Stone Titans
As ordeal horror and its love of inflicting physical agony has spread like wildfire through horror movies in recent years, it’s become more important to have characters in those movies who can withstand it for…well, around forty minutes of screen time, preferably, so that the wronged party can unstrap themselves from the chair/kick their way out of the barn/practice some sort of escapology and then right those wrongs, often returning to find the antagonists and tearing them a new one with some ever-handy DIY implements. This begins to become more problematic when you also consider horror’s monomania for pretty, petite twentysomethings, and how all of the above so often gets crowbarred into the same damn movie. Whilst this isn’t a new thing, routinely matching these Megs fighting against the sorts of physical endurance missions which would fell a Marine means that the already-flimsy believability begins to fray to a ridiculous degree.
Oh, sure. The human body can withstand some ridiculous shit. People get lost in the wilderness, people get imprisoned, people survive horrendous injuries and yet somehow live to tell the tale; horror readily buys into this kind of outlandish possibility and extends it into its own fantasy, I get it – but when it seems to be happening again and again and again, it not only feels lazy, it seems as if the filmmakers have lost all grasp of basic physics. This all becomes more problematic when rape is casually hurled into a low to mid-budget horror film – as it is often enough, with the appearance of a new I Spit On Your Grave prequel/sequel/reimagining now seemingly as frequent as a Hallmark holiday. The girls in these films are always petite, even frail. They undergo vile, protracted attacks. And then what happens is – they rally. They seethe and they plot. They survive. And then they overcome physics to go sardonically deliver some of the rapists’ lines back to them, as if that balances things out in a plausible way.
In many ways these girls are the descendents of the old ‘final girls’, only a few other things are happening here. The first is that they’ve revved up to suit the context of modern, OTT tastes – tedious in itself – and the second is that these characters are being assembled by their writers purposely to quell the cries of ‘misogyny!’ which often emanate from critics. This way, filmmakers can keep the torture and feel contented that they’ve also done enough to restore that Philosopher’s Stone of gender equality to their own particular fictional world. If you have your would-be final girl going through hell, surely you can offset all of that by having this size zero model throwing grown men around like they’re shop mannequins? You can keep your shit lazy plot so long as you throw a bit of unlikely ass-kicking in there? I mean, forget the fact that even fantasy films ultimately need to have some sense of internal logic and plausibility in order to engage an audience. That’ll do, right?
Erm, no. This is a massively irritating fantasy, and I bury my head in my hands when I see some woman who’s just almost bled to death going towards the people who almost killed her to engage in some stupid, unbelievable, trite ‘vengeance’. It doesn’t make me feel vindicated, it makes me feel patronised. I forget which comedian it was who said ‘half of women’s self-defence classes should be about running away’, but do you know what? It’s true. Do you know what happens when you get punched in the head by someone a lot bigger than you? I do. You fold up like a concertina and you don’t bounce back up to brandish an axe at anyone. You certainly don’t feel like delivering smart-arse jibes at anyone. This nonsense on-screen? It’s supernatural horror, quite simply, which doesn’t even have the good grace to give us any ghosts. Funnily enough, though, nothing scares me quite as much as the people who think this shite is in some way progressive.
Worst offender: Jennifer (Sarah Hills) in I Spit on Your Grave (2010). A woman who would have died of exposure is presented to us as a superhuman. Thanks, that’s dandy.
2) The Expendable Clerics/Occultists
Now, perhaps it seems an odd choice to lump in the men of the cloth with the heathens here, what with them backing different teams and all, but they often serve exactly the same purpose in horror films, even if the latter is usually wearing a more colourful outfit. Essentially, they’re mostly there in an advisory capacity: no sooner have they got talking to the principle characters, and no sooner have the principle characters found themselves in the sort of situation which can’t be fixed with ordinary means (usually within about fifteen minutes of screen time) than our friendly keeper of the Occult Knowledge is at hand to condense a swathe of plot points into a helpful monologue which both contextualises, and ups the ante for our heroes. Living in the old Ford residence? Waking to find strange symbols carved into your walls? Seemingly being nixed by a multitude of demons who could disguise themselves as anything, but always seem to favour the growly voice and the mad eyes, so they’re easily recognised? Excellent. What could be an array of potentially confusing phenomena can be explained to the audience, possible via flashback, or otherwise just through the amiable gravitas of the character – saving the afflicted party the heinous task of trying to find anything out for themselves. Then everyone can get on with being terrified and knowing what they’re terrified of. A bit later, things can get out of hand and then we can have an exorcism or something and all will be well again. Our main characters can reflect on the Journey they’ve taken. Gentle music rolls…
But there’s a snag. What sort of malignant supernatural presence is content to just rock up, slam a few doors and then piss off back to Hell, without so much as one casualty to brag about? None worth mentioning, to be honest. Some filmmakers are pretty stupid, but they’re not that stupid – they know that if they’re plumping for one tried-and-tested plot development, then they owe another. And, come to think of it, that non-twentysomething with the arcane knowledge is a bit weird, all told. Couldn’t they be the ones to die, so that the real protagonists are there to look wistfully off-screen as the film grinds to a close? The answer would be yes – always bloody yes – often enough that a dog collar essentially = death. Ditto the woman in the fringed headscarf with the suspicious amount of books; let’s fling these people against the side of a tree and have done with it. Having illustrated the altruistic and perchance even Christ-like acceptance of self-sacrifice, there’s only one way they can really go.
I’m not religious whatsoever, and in my experience those people wearing hemp and headscarves are usually terrified of ‘big pharma’ in ways which could rival the terror medieval folk felt about hell, but it comes to something when anyone you see in the role of ‘wise elder’ is apparently doomed to die on-screen. Not only is the idea itself lazy, but the expected expendability of these characters also seems to curtail their characterisation altogether. After all, what’s the point in caring too much about these founts of knowledge? Establishing the back story; establishing the strength of the baddie and then dying that others may live – that’s deemed quite enough.
Worst offender: Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) from Annabelle (2014) A dreadful film which gives us both a priest and a ‘knowing woman’, here a load of toss about sacrifice and demons essentially does away with ‘book store owner’ Evelyn, in a gallingly stupid and predictable outing.
Read on for part 2 of Keri’s editorial here…