Wednesday, June 7, 2017

TWO NEW MOVIES MAKE THE NUMBER ONE MISTAKE THAT HORROR FILMS MAKE


In the five years that I was the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner, while that online newspaper was in existence, I saw a lot of scary films. Thus, watching anything labeling itself a frightener helped me identify what makes horror work on a macro level, as well as a micro one. Many horror movies could boast of quality budgets, high production values, and expert acting, yet if the script was problematic, none of that mattered. As the adage goes, "If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage." And in all my years as a fan of horror, long before being paid to critique such movies, I realized that the single most egregious mistake a horror piece could make was creating characters that acted too stupid to truly invest in. 

Unfortunately, two new frighteners that just opened make that critical error, repeatedly. There is much to recommend in both IT COMES AT NIGHT and AWAKENING THE ZODIAC, as they’re well done on several levels, but they have filled their stories with stupid characters that act inanely. Rather than covering my eyes in fear, I was rolling them in frustration.

IT COMES AT NIGHT is actually an exceptionally well-shot and acted one, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults in his feature debut. Unfortunately, his movie makes a lot of rookie mistakes and ultimately crumbles apart. In fact, for me, he makes an unforgivable error right off the bat in his very title. Qualifying something as "It", a pronoun, suggests that there will be some sort of monster or entity attacking from the darkness. It conjures up B-movie type horror, to be perfectly honest. This film isn't like that though, and even worse, there is no "it" that comes at night, but rather, just a person who gets the plot rolling. To suggest he's an "it" is misleading and rather egregious. Why play games with the title, especially when your horror movie aims to be a more serious work. It's trying to be a savvy dissertation on desperate people in a nihilistic apocalypse tale, but the title belies that. 

Indeed, Shults’ story introduces his audience to a lone family that has boarded up their woodland house to keep out some sort of scourge that has swept the nation. Thus, these survivors rarely go outside, and they don gas masks when they believe the society crippling contagion to be at its most threatening. That’s how we are introduced to dad Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). They are wearing masks to prevent being infected as they prepare to mercy kill Sarah's infected father. Grandpa (David Pendleton) is rolled outside in a wheelbarrow, laid in a shallow grave, and shot in the head. To ensure his disease doesn't becomes airborne or infest the land, they burn his corpse. So far, quite good. But almost immediately after that, these hitherto smart people start displaying incredible acts of utter stupidity.

Late one night, an intruder breaks into their home. He’s crafty, given that there’s only one entrance to this elaborate two-story cabin, and everything else is boarded up. But he smartly finds entry, but is stupidly loud in his entrance. The clanking and clomping about Will (Christopher Abbott) happens to be out searching for food and supplies, but would any thief enter an unknown house with such racket? I don't think so. It's dumb, and it's there just to create a scare. But it's overplayed. Then when he's caught by Paul et al., Will makes no effort to communicate with them in a proper way that would explain his need for supplies given the landscape and crisis. Instead, he says little which allows Paul, also acting rashly, to drag Will out to the woods, tie him to a tree, cover his mouth with duct tape, and cover his head with a bag. 

Now, wouldn’t Paul want to know what’s going on? Immediately? He could ask who Will is, or if maybe there's news of a cure or something else to stem the tide of death sweeping the land. Perhaps Paul could ask if Will was trying to warn him of worse marauders out there. But none of this seems to enter the patriarch's mind, a man whom we later find out, is a teacher. If he's an educator, then why not let Will educate him on his motives? Paul also has a rifle which definitely gives him him an upper hand, but he acts like a dumb rube lynching a man he knows precious little about. Worse yet, he essentially leaves him out in the wilderness to die. That is not rational behavior, it doesn't help Paul's family, and it turns audience sympathies against him. Ten minutes into the film and the filmmaker is already leaving too many questions for an audience.  

And why on earth does Paul cover Will's mouth with duct tape? His screams are still heard from all around, even though his words aren't legible. Indeed, his noisiness would invite other human marauders, let alone wild animals looking for food too. Such actions even agitate the family pooch, who barks loudly and creates even more unnecessary noise. Are these people really that unthinking?

The next morning, Paul does decide to interrogate his prisoner as he's survived the night, and finds out that Paul has a family nearby. He also has goats and chickens. Will offers to comingle his fare with Paul, and Paul accepts his offer. Soon, Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young boy Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) are moving onto the grounds, along with their animals. They’re now one big family, and in a rather corny montage, we seem them becoming friends, but the happy days don’t last long.  

From there, this brood of characters start to do dumb things that invite their ruin and lose audience empathy. These people are supposed to be cagey survivors who’ve lasted by being shrewd and careful, yet they drag the dog with them wherever they go. He makes noise constantly and shows a tendency to be uncontrollable, so why take him out? For protection? Good heavens, they already have rifles, so what the hell are they doing? The true reason he’s taken out is so Shults can have him escape and become an easy victim in lazy horror storytelling. It's one of the easiest things to do in a horror movie, and anyone with even a passing familiarity with Blake Snyder, or the genre of horror, should know better than to so blithely sacrifice the family pet.

It’s also silly that Shults' script has Travis wander around the house at night constantly, turning him into one creepy voyeur. In doing so, Travis develops a crush on Kim. He listens to her make love to Will  and that builds his lust more. Travis even flirts with Kim when he gets the chance to be alone with her, but to what purpose? It feels like manufactured conflict, not genuine character behavior, especially considering that they’re in the middle of an apocalypse, and that Kim also happens to be a happily married woman. Travis' youth shouldn’t be an excuse for such asinine behavior. He is written as the weak link, but Shults overplays the youth's stupidity at almost every turn. Travis is too weak, cowardly, and disrespectful to give a shit about. 

Travis' most absurd behavior comes in the third act. He stupidly wanders into the quarantined room where grandpa died and finds Andrew there. The boy appears to be in a trance, muttering to himself. The room was locked and covered in plastic, to keep any contagion cloistered, but Travis enters anyway. Then he takes Andrew by the hand and returns him to his room. Does any of that make sense? Lives are at stake and yet the film continues to have its characters act less like people and more like the next certain victim as the contrived plotting now demands.

Then, when the two families discover what happened with Travis and Andrew, they agree to quarantine the families to see if one or the other is now infected. But does that stop Travis from disobeying such instructions? Of course not. He hears an argument between Will and Kim, thusly choosing to investigate on his own without waking his folks. Why, oh why, wasn’t he the one who ran away and became infected instead of the dog two reels back?

At the climax, the numbskull behavior reaches its zenith, as tempers flare, cool heads fail, and the rifles come out. Now all the character perform inanely, most egregious being Sarah who has an opportunity to shoot Will as he pummels Paul's head with the butt of his rifle and doesn't until four or five blows are administered. How can one root for such imbeciles?

The fact is, we can't. Horror fans, at least the truly discerning ones, the smarter audiences, have grown too sophisticated for such pandering to violence and contrivances in stories. We have been laughing at idiots who enter a room they shouldn’t in horror movies for decades and decades now. Hell, Edgar Wright parodied it in GRINDHOUSE back in 2007 with his faux trailer for “Don’t!” Filmmakers should know better. 

Horror franchises like FRIDAY THE 13th and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET started to suffer when audiences started cheering for Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger to prevail because their victims acted too stupidly to care for. If they're too dumb they just become more fools to be slaughtered. If they're smart, then their fate means something. The best horror has characters that act exceptionally clever in combating whatever evil they’re up against, be it Ripley in the ALIEN franchise, Charley Brewster in FRIGHT NIGHT, or even the comical Ash in the EVIL DEAD trilogy. The quickest way for horror to go south is to fill it with one idiotic character after another. 

It’s a shame really, as Shults clearly has talent. He knows how to build dread, edit suspense, and direct his able cast. But his amateur script, full of plot holes a semi-truck could drive through, ruins the good things he’s got going here. Horror movies are always going to need victims, but the key is to have them act as smart as possible and not be too easy of prey. When the audience starts groaning over their asinine behavior, you’ve lost them. And in horror, when you lose your audience, you’re dead.


The other horror movie that shouldn’t have made so many rookie mistakes is AWAKENING THE ZODIAC. (It's in theaters in select cities and on VOD all over the nation right now.) Indeed, a premise that promises the return of the legendary Zodiac killer should play as a natural for the genre. During the late 60’s and early 70’s, the serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area with a series of murders and called himself the Zodiac, made him one of the most feared bogeyman in the annals of true crime. He was clever, changing his M.O. to throw off investigators, and he was cocky, taunting the public and press with letters boasting of his ‘achievements.’ Heck, the arrogant prick even called into a crime show once to banter with famed California attorney Melvin Belli. The fact that the Zodiac was never caught, and that there have been dozens of theories about just who he was, gives any filmmaker a lot of license to play in the sub-genre known as “historical faction.” And indeed, this horror movie mines from such to explore a serial killer being chased some 50 years after his heyday. 

Unfortunately, this one in less interested in truly examining the Zodiac and his crimes in a meaningful way. It mostly just scratches the surface of what he did, and what history is discussed is done mostly through heavy-handed expositional dialogue. Sure, the Zodiac's infamous ciphers show up and breaking their code becomes a key part of the plot here, but the film's real interest lies elsewhere, mostly in the shabby and shambling comedy of the two main characters playing detective as they hunt for the aged killer. 

The story purports that the Zodiac migrated east after his spree of death and violence on the west coast, and that somehow he laid roots in Virginia. Even more amazing here is that the plot hinges on the idea that the killer made home movies of his exploits. Still, most incredibly, the story would have us believe that the Zodiac would keep them sequestered in an old storage locker. Really? His greatest crimes, documented, but left to rot in a box somewhere?  Wouldn't such valuables be kept close, especially since their discovery turns the old killer back into a crafty menace hoping to keep them secret? 

The people that discover the dusty old films happen to be a local married couple who are down on their luck, and the crux of the film deals with their escapades as amateur sleuths. Mick (Shane West) and Zoe Branson (Leslie Bibb) are supposed to be low-income hicks, but of course they're ridiculously good-looking and fit, thus rendering the casting off right from the contract signing. The two characters live in a trailer park, and are looking for a big score to save their meager pocketbooks. Mick blows three months’ rent to buy the contents of that abandoned storage locker hoping to find jewelry or antiques that will deliver a big pay day. Instead, they find the Zodiac home movies and hopes for big bucks becomes a real possibility. 

They take their findings to crusty friend Harvey (Matt Craven), and together the three start investigating the locker's history, as well as that of the notoriously famous fiend who's in the films. From there, they start heading out to town, asking all sorts of questions about the Zodiac and in doing, create quite a spectacle. Rather than being subtle and clever, the three act like virtual bulls in a china shop, pissing off locals, drawing oodles of attention to themselves, and attracting the obvious interests of the hidden killer. 

And to make matters where, the whole time they're investigating their precious find, Mick and Zoe are constantly fighting. Clearly, what director Jonathan Archer was going for here, along with his fellow screenwriter colleagues Jennifer Archer and Mike Horrigan, was for banter a la that of the bickering detective couples at the heart of MOONLIGHTING or REMINGTON STEELE. But the quips and zingers that Mick and Zoe fling at each other barely pass for the cornball wit one would've found on an old episode of HEE-HAW. It's all rube comedy, with dropping g's and feisty folk galavanting about in cut-off shorts and shirts, but it betrays the needs of the horror plot. Granted, Mick and Zoe aren't meant to be Holmes and Watson, but did they have to be so much like Holmes and Yo-Yo? (If you get that reference, you know your 70's trivia!)

West and Bibb are capable actors, attractive in their chemistry as well, but they overplay the shtick. After a few reels, the film starts to feel less and less like a thriller and more like a straining romantic comedy. To make the film play even sillier, the script unwisely only introduces two possible suspects as the aged Zodiac. It's dumb to only have two characters in their late 70's, knowing that's how old the Zodiac would be today. The audience surely will figure out who's who at least 30 minutes before these two yokels do.  

Sadly, there are few genuine scares in the film as well, and those that are there feel feeble. They tend towards the cliched as well. Before Harvey can tell anyone that he’s figured out the cipher, he’s offed by the Zodiac, of course. And when Mick calls Zoe to tell her that he’s discovered that the man she’s chasing down the road is the genuine article, she can’t be bothered to listen and conveniently hangs up her cell. All the better to keep her clueless, of course, as the plot demands. Then, at the end, the filmmakers trot out one of the oldest and most mildew-infested tropes of the genre. They resurrect the Zodiac a couple of times even after he's been "killed." I guess they'd rather have him act like Jason Voorhees than an actual true crime human being, but still, why doesn't anyone shoot the bad guy twice in these things to ensure he's dead?  

AWAKENING THE ZODIAC doesn’t aim particularly high, that's true, and perhaps I'm being too hard on it. It aims to be merely a ‘feel good’ thriller, something you might enjoy at a drive-in theater during the dog days of summer, and not a worthy companion piece to David Fincher's ambitious classic from 2007. But can’t a drive-in movie be smarter than this? Can't the characters, even if they're country bumpkins, act smarter than a fourth grader?

A lot of horror fans may accept such shortcomings, satisfied with a few good bumps in the night and one or two chills down their spine, but horror should aim higher. Creating a sense of dread throughout, writing characters that are smart foils for the monsters, and placing all of them in a genuine battle of wits for their lives - these are the signs of elevated genre. Filmmakers should care enough to bring their A game, even if they're making a B movie. 

2 comments:

  1. I don't know why they don't make horror movies the way they used to... or may be its just me who grew up. But anyhow, im really looking forward to the remake of IT.

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  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Ivory Research. I'm looking forward to IT as well.

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