by Jay Stringer
Horror films are fun to write about. Some of the films I have written about on Bad Example have been films that are flawed from the start, others have been films that have been let down by bad execution. Either way, they are usually quite clearly bad examples.
Horror films can be more frustrating. With other genres we can sometimes be more forgiving. A good opening might occasionally make us lenient about a bad ending. A good ending might make us forget the hour of mediocrity that went before it. Generally we judge them on their opening and closing, and will accept it if the middle is below-par.
Horror films do not really get this leeway. They need to affect the viewer, mentally or physically, and any action that undermines this will ruin the film. An interesting premise and a good build up can be totally ruined if the final five minutes goes to pot. And if the film starts badly it can never fully regain the investment from the viewer that it needs. And the middle is key. The middle of a horror story is where you put in the hard work to earn your ending. It is where you need to decide whether to build tension, to throw in jumps, or to unnerve the audience with sudden and unexpected death.
For example, everyone remembers the ending of RINGU, with Sadaku making her belated appearance, but the real hard work of the film was done in the middle. The audience is prepared for the film’s one big frightening scene that continually works to unsettle the viewer. On the other hand, the non-linear story telling of JU-ON: THE GRUDGE works against it, because the film never gets a chance to put in the same hard work as RINGU. It has a number of interesting set pieces, and some unsettling images that can play on the mind, but none that achieve the same impact as when Sadaku decided to interrupt the scheduled broadcast.
What both of these films need to understand, which too many horror films forget, is that to really unsettle or horrify people, you need to have bad things happening to good people. And to really drive the chill bone in deep, these bad things should happen for no reason. If you give the audience an ‘out’ like morality, they can escape the affects of the horror. And why would you want to let your audience off the hook so easily? Sure, a counter argument could be made for RINGU, there is a simple rule; ‘don’t watch the video’. But compared to the kind of moralising we so often see in horror films –don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have sex- I do not think watching a video counts as a fair death sentence.
A film that typifies many of these problems is JEEPERS CREEPERS. Right off the bat I will say I still want to love the film. It has an interesting idea, and for about 40 minutes it runs with the idea to set up something that could have been great, but then it fell down a flight of stairs. What went wrong?
The opening is well done. It is easy enough –put two young siblings in a car on a long road and bicker- but that takes nothing away from how easily the opening can pull the viewer in. Many films have used a similar technique as short hand, but you still need two actors to sell you on the relationship. Justin Long and Gina Philips do what they need to do.
The threat is built up very well too: our attention is drawn to a camper van as Long overtakes them, so that the audience has one eye on the van in the background as our protagonists drive. We see the van turn off, and then a new one appear behind them. Without any use of dialogue or overt exposition, the director gave the audience a few seconds head start on the characters, and I have always liked the way that was done. It is a trick the director uses a few times throughout the film, and he shows a real visual flare for both horror and humour. Afterwards the actors sell their reactions very well. They are rattled, trying to act cool while still being shaken. Their response feels real, and again that helps to sell them to the audience. We can now go on the journey with them because we trust their reactions. And, as long as we are not pushed too far, we can now also trust them when their reactions get a little stranger.
Which is a good thing, because things start to get strange in a hurry.
It is also a film that accepts the era it is set in. How many times do we see crime or horror films that try and ignore the fact that the world has mobile phones and the internet? How often are characters shown to be doing things that could be done simpler and faster if they used google or made a call? Here the two protagonists first reactions on seeing the creeper dumping a dead body are to run away and to call someone on their phone. Which feel to me like two of the most natural reactions.
What does not make so much sense is that the creeper would drive away and leave them after their car is wrecked, and that sets in a logic problem that becomes bigger later on. There is another weakness that creeps in around this point. Ever since SCREAM it seems that characters in horror films have to be self-aware. Too often we will hear a line like, “if we were in a horror film,” or “this is the point in a film where somebody does something stupid.” Aside from pulling the viewer out of the film, they also have another problem –logic. Despite the fact that the characters know “this is the point where they would so something stupid,” they still go and do the stupid thing. What is the point of being self-aware if you are not going to use that awareness? Why draw attention to how dumb an idea is right before using that idea? Why not simply come up with a better idea?
Despite a weak few minutes the film finds its feet again. This is rare, as all to often once a horror film loses you it cannot pull you back. The discovery of the creeper’s victim in the church basement is creepy, and the tension while Long explores the church is gripping stuff. All of this is well balanced- it acts to unnerve us without ever flat out scaring us. By the time we see the reveal of all the dead bodies, the film has pretty skilfully crossed over from a road movie to a kind of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE style serial killer flick without too many bumps. Justin Long does a lot of the heavy lifting, convincing us of his fear and trauma, and the lack of any exposition up to this point really helps to sell us on the story. Not knowing what is happening or why is a really effective way to tell this kind of story. There is also a pleasing lack of moralising; these things are happening simply because two kids drove down the wrong road at the wrong time.
The film then throws in the trick of the psychic who predicts the characters fate. This is when the film starts to shift gears again, this time toward a supernatural horror and it slowly becomes less effective. The psychic’s predictions are used well at first, giving the audience a few things to watch out for, but they are also totally unnecessary. I cannot help but think that if a more natural way had been found to put this information across, then the film could have remained more grounded and might have then succeeded. For example, would it not have been much more effective to get the basic information needed through the form of some old urban legend? Or even in a dream or nightmare from one of the protagonists? Phillips says early in the film that she dreamed she would die on this highway, why not just flesh out that dream a little more with some of the details that the psychic gives us?
Although at first she poses more questions than answers, it is the introduction of this character that starts to ease the exposition machine into gear, and the minute explanations start to show up, the film starts to fade.
Its last chance to be a great film comes when the characters arrive at the old woman’s trailer. The scene is strange enough, and directed well enough, that it could have been the close of the film. Animals can be used effectively to signal danger, and having so many cats start to freak out is creepy in itself, even without the potential presence of a serial killing monster. By the time the old woman asks, “You kids got anyone else with you?” and looks toward the creeper, we are suitably on edge. The story is about ready at this point for the final showdown. The confrontation is tense and exciting, and ends with the creature revealed to be some bat-winged demon lying crushed on the highway. Philips floors the gas and they drive off into the night.
If the film had ended here, maybe with more story added into the middle to stretch out the running time, then it could have succeeded. A strange open-ended tale of an unknown creature that goes on a killing spree and the two kids who escape without ever understanding what happened. Or, with a few tweaks to character it could have been one of the better stand-alone X-FILES episodes. Something interesting and different.
But no. The film does not end there. We have a pointless third act to get through first. The kids make it to the police station, where the psychic turns up to tell them –and us- exactly what has been going on. She tells us what the creature is, what it does, and what it wants. All the things we did not need to know. By this point it is a full blown creature feature, but one that fails to follow the most important principle –it shows us way too much of the creature. When people remember the film, they tend to think of the last scene. The third act only exists to set up that scene, and so that is almost justification in itself. But it is just too much of a gimmicky ending for me. It ties in the films title with a 1930’s jazz song, and ties the lyrics of the song directly into the film. It all feels to self-aware, too much of a wink to the audience.
Maybe the film’s problem is that it is too ambitious about too corny of a joke. It puts in so much good work to begin with, effortlessly drifting across a number of different genres and showing plenty of flare, but then takes on too much when it drifts into a monster film.
Next up, another film that tackles the supernatural, THE EXORCIST 3.