Wednesday, November 14, 2007

In The Old Dark Doghouse

Say… it’s been a month already with no posts. Mea culpa, or in frat boy: my bad.

Time’s fun when you’re having flies and I was off on my periodic quest to spin words together to form another screenplay.

A tribute to the Old Dark House genre, naturally. Albeit with supernatural trappings, so the Scooby Doo purist will sneer. Twist the lip away, cartoon boy… it’s my damned screenplay and I’ll do what I want with it.

Oddly enough, as I typed FADE OUT and read back what I had written, an unexpected subtext slowly emerged… it was one quiet screenplay. People gasped instead of screaming, and the deaths were deliberately off screen. I was writing with the no-budget spec market in mind, but I also realized that my sudden coyness was deliberate…

… seems that in my middle age, I’m losing my taste for over-the-top carnage.

In a way it makes sense. The rise and decline of torture porn was part of it, serving up two hours of simulated torture with no nutritional value. But also, anyone who has watched a horror film made in the last few years might agree that the offerings are generally noisy, disjointed and stocked to the brim with tired clichés and hamfistedly applied tropes.

I was reminded of the old bumper sticker sentiment, "If It's Too Loud, You're Too Fucking Old." And admittedly, as a cranky middle-aged dude who has seen too many horror films in the last 40-odd years, I'm obviously not part of the target demographic.

But even back in the day as a young Headbanger, or Punk, or Goth, or whatever phase I was going through at the time, I also knew on some fundamental level that being too loud was (generally speaking) the musicians' attempt to drown out the fact that they just plain didn't know what the hell they were doing.

And it would seem that the same applies to your stock Hollywood horror film cranked out for the cud-chewing mall rats these days. Here I'm putting aside the whole remake debate, because personally I can see the point: As someone who suffered the ‘80s as they unfolded, why should the younger generation have to sit through a film made in that period? You can only take the Sins of the Fathers aspect so far.

Part One of the problem is that Hollywood operates on the assumption that fans of the genre are unsophisticated, if not just plain outright stupid. I'm talking the long-abiding (and long-suffering) faithful, not the cellphone-wielding rabble that -- not being old enough to gain legal entry to nightclubs -- use the cinema as a social gathering, the movie unreeling as background noise.

So here is where they fall back on the tropes. The rule of thumb seems to be that if you throw a cat through the window with an accompanying musical sting (provided by the ubiquitous Graeme Revell) your audience is happy, especially if you spend half the budget on a former cast member or two from Dawson's Creek or The O.C. and throw in plenty of gore effects (or shoot for the PG-13, ‘cause the teenyboppers will pay to see anything that's supposed to be scary).

Hey! Get off of my yard!

Problem Part Two is that the fans of the genre aren't as stupid and callow as Hollywood thinks they are. Um... to a large degree.

So, what to do? If a filmmaker acknowledges that and works with that in mind, the project is already on its way to being an acceptable addition to the genre. The fans know the tropes and clichés, so find ways to subvert expectations.

The horror template is stale (isolate the pretty kill bait and pick them off one by one), so invert or reinvent the template. The tropes are a good reference point, because just by the nature of being tropes, that means that they were effective at one point, and with a little tweaking, can be effective again.

Sit down and actually think about the psychology of the human animal, and figure out what would make an audience jump out of their seats (without resorting to Mr. Revell slamming his fists down on the keyboard at regular intervals).

Empathy is built by reaction of the characters to the situation, not by some clumsy backstory. Every character is a human, not a gear to move the story forward. Eliminate empathy from the equation and all you are left with is faux-snuff vignettes... although gauging by the continued popularity of the SAW franchise, maybe I'm just being too old again.

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