Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Abandoned: A concise history of horror movie cliches

So I keep seeing this poster for a new movie, The Abandoned, and I can't help thinking of... well... every horror movie made in the last ten years. I'm not saying it's bad. I'm not even into horror movies enough to make that call. But I've never seen a better example of a use of design encapsulating all the cliches of a cinema subculture. Let me list them for you, just for fun.

Note: this is a matter of breaking the poster down into codes, through which method I shall demonstrate that it's a beautiful permanent record of recent horror movie cliches... even ones you may not have noticed before.

1 - Representative content code #1: Doll

This cliche has been around for quite a while, and it's thoroughly representative of the trend in horror film in the last twenty years or so. We all remember Chucky the possessed toy in Childs' Play (I, II, III, IV, V?), and we've also seen posters for The Puppet Master and The Leprechaun. Somebody help me out... what exactly is it about dolls that makes them such an enigma, and so easily turned into an icon for disturbed psychology? Is it the artificiality, and thus the objectification and/or machination of the human body? Is it the soullessness implied by the unfocusing, unreactive eyes? Whatever it is, it's a hell of a theme.

2 - Representative content code #2: Bloody tears

This one is less common than the "deranged dolly" cliche, but it's still everywhere. Let's see... recent examples... it figured into a haunting nightmare scene in One Hour Photo, it was a core image in Madonna's Like a Prayer video, and apparently it happened in Stay Alive and Stigmata. Obviously part of the appeal is the emotional weight of injury and trauma, and part of it is the power of its Christian implications. In case you were wondering, there actually is a condition that causes you to cry blood. It's called Haemolacria.

3 - Stylistic device: cracked photo treatment

This is in reference to the fact that the image on this poster is riddled with cracks and decay, looking like something somebody pulled out of a pile of crap in a dusty attic. This is an classic horror movie thing, too, but especially recently: all the posters for Saw, Hostel, Nightwatch, Jeepers Creepers, The Hills Have Eyes, and even as far back as Rosemary's Baby had this kind of stylization, which sets you, as the audience, at a distance from the object of fear. After all, if you give it too much of a face and too much of an identity, especially in the movie poster, you're ruining the punchline of seeing the monster in his full glory for the first time.

4 - Title Convention: The BLAHBLAH

I keep seeing horror movies with one-word titles, preceeded by the article "The". Now, the absolute paradigm case is a plural group of people identified under an ambiguous title, such as "The Messengers," "The Innocents," "The Others," "The Ugly," "The Unborn," "The Brood," or "The Uninvited." The Abandoned falls right into that core group... a non-specific description of a faceless, soulless mass that waits outside your door, living dead style. Of course, if you expand your horizons a little, you get a TON of other movies with "The..." titles: The Ring, The Grudge, The Birds, The Thing, The Exorcist, The Antichrist, The Beast, The Believers, The Beyond, The Burning, The Cave, The Cell, The Changeling...

God. There are so many. I shouldn't have started with the horror movie list.

Anyway, that's my observation for the day. I think we should commend the marketing geniuses behind The Abandoned for giving us such a concise record of horror culture, without a whole lot of extra "creative" stuff to water it down.

A question, perhaps for my readers ("The Nonexistent")... how much of this stuff goes back to literary horror? Obviously bloody tears go back to the bible, more or less. How about the other codes? It strikes me that "creepy dolly" themes are fairly recent, but they could potentially be traced as far back as The Golem from Jewish folklore. The "cracked photo" themes? Probably pretty recent, especially since they seem to depend on reproduction and alteration of illustrations. How about "The BLAHBLAH"? Were there a lot of horror stories with such titles, back before horror was truly a cinema phenomenon?

As someone who's outside the horror culture, these are questions I'm not qualified to answer. Does anyone have anything for me?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Marine versus The Rundown: It pays to recycle

Okay, remember this post, way back in the day? Well, I finally saw the second of the two movies to which it referred, John Cena's The Marine. At least, I think I saw two movies.

Okay, I'm going to start by saying this: it's not my intention to make fun of these movies for being similar, or to make snarky comments about how they were, like, TOTALLY the same movie, or Cena couldn't do better than The Rock so he did the same damn thing, or anything like that. My point is to look at my experience as a movie-watcher, and to ask myself: why can't I see The Marine as anything but a watered-down version of The Rundown? Will I ever be able to get over that?

Bottom line, though: there are dozens of minor cosmetic similarities. Let me list them.
  1. The obvious similarity: both are action movies whose lead roles are beefy, violent, exiled mavericks, played by dirty WWE champions in tight shirts.
  2. Both shot in jungle-like tropical settings, involving a lot of traipsing through the woods.
  3. Both include a fight scene where somebody gets smashed in the head with a plank that's burning at the end.
  4. Both include a vehicle flying off a cliff and landing in a pool of water while its passengers plummet down same cliff, miraculously escaping said vehicle and surviving.
  5. Both include dialouge where two options ("Option A... Option B") are explicitly outlined.
  6. Both use a specific close-up, slow-motion graphical technique: in The Marine, this only happens once, at the beginning, when the shell from the shotgun flies through the air. In The Rundown, it happens all throughout the final firefight scene.
  7. Both climax with a slow-motion shot of the hero moving slowly away from a huge explosion.
  8. Both include the line "Why so angry?!?" yelled by a nerd to the beefy main character who's subduing him.
Am I noticing these because I was looking for them? Maybe; after all, The Rundown was one of my favorite action movies ever, and it was hard not to make some comparisons. Still, it's hard for that psychological excuse to explain the almost identical lines of dialogue. Was it the same writers? No! Check the IMDB names, and nobody is repeated who's in charge of anything substantial... unless you count Vince McMahon, who's mainly listed because he manages the wrestlers.

Was it a pure case of a rip-off, intentional or unintentional? I'll wager that a lot of people in charge of The Marine had already seen The Rundown, maybe even recently... did they decide to recycle the same techniques in another ridiculous, even less successful action movie? Did they write "Cena hits henchman with burning plank," and think, WOW! THAT'S THE BEST IDEA EVER, not realizing that it surfaced from their subconscious mind?

Or was it what Umberto Eco calls "riding the same cultural wave"? Maybe the cultural influence doesn't just affect our general ideas about style and entertainment... maybe, somewhere in the collective unconscious, there's a voice saying, "WHY SO ANGRY?" to all of us, and maybe these WWE-based writers are just especially attuned to it. Maybe our media culture feeds us EVERYTHING, right down to the dialogue we write, and ends up sneaking the same lines and visual effects into unrelated movies, just because they both sprang up in the same cinematic/narrative era.

That's the coolest conclusion I could come up with. Here's my ultimate advice: if you see The Marine, make sure you also see The Rundown. The Marine is a good action movie, worth a weekend evening, but it couldn't compete with The Rundown, and I hope it wasn't trying.