April 1, 2010

Until crime shoots up again, hold off on making movies about monsters or cops

Another terrible horror movie is on the way -- a sequel to the original Predator movie, whose protagonist will be the imposing natural-born leader Adrien Brody. Hey, they've screwed up with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas, Freddy vs. Jason, and Aliens vs. Predator, so why not? I mean, they ruined the Alien franchise with Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, so it's only logical to move on to ruining the Predator franchise. (Predator 2 wasn't terrible, even if mediocre.)

What distinguishes good from bad scary movies is whether or not they were created during wild times or tame times, i.e. when the crime rate was steadily rising (from 1959 through 1991) or steadily falling (from 1992 to today). When the world becomes safer, people recognize that and aren't so afraid anymore. That makes it impossible for the creators of a movie -- from the director down to the actors themselves -- to get into the authentic mindset of people who are scared out of their minds about serial killers, monsters under the stairs, and criminals lurking in alleyways.

The result is sheltered people's best guess of what fear feels like and looks like, inevitably overly stylized for the same reason that an ugly woman puts on way too much make-up. Even movies that strive to be raw and action-packed like Sin City aren't as convincing as Beverly Hills Cop, which is in large part a comedy. Just watch the strip club scenes in each one and tell me which one feels more real, gritty and whose tension makes your heart race, and which is more ornamental, fantastic, and allows you to remain calm while watching it.

You'd think that the success during tame times of movies set in the world of the imagination -- Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, Gladiator, etc. -- would favor monster movies. But what makes monster movies truly scary is that we believe they could happen to us, not that it's just some cute and makes-you-wonder diversion. So even on the consumer's side, they can't get as into a really scary movie as they could when they perceived the world as more dangerous.

To end, what will make the Predator sequel so bad, aside from all these forces working against it? The plot is that the predator race abducts criminal humans and tosses them onto an island where they'll be slowly hunted for sport by the predators. So it's like The Running Man. Why don't people value The Running Man as much as Predator or the first two Alien movies? Because in those movies, the characters get into trouble as a result of their own choices to wander too far into dangerous territory. The same goes for Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now. The characters have to be at least somewhat responsible for the mess they get themselves into, or else it doesn't provide a lesson to the audience. And that's a big part of why people like scary entertainment -- it partly teaches them how to avoid killers and monsters.

If they just get abducted by aliens when they're going about their normal lives, that doesn't tell us what to do, other than perhaps be a lot more cautious in general. It doesn't matter if the abductees have done something wrong in the past, so that they're not saints. They have to stumble into the unintended consequences of wandering too far into unknown territory. If something not directly related to their past bad deeds is the one that punishes them -- like the predators in the sequel, or the villain behind the Saw movies -- it's too much of a deus ex machina. Well, they didn't face any direct harmful consequences of what they did, but far into the future some all-seeing being will take them away from real life and place them in hell. C'mon, no one believes that, at least not as readily as they believe that wandering too far is likely to blow up in their face right then and there.

There has to be some direct negative feedback to the characters that they made a bad gamble because that awareness then weighs on their minds for the rest of the movie. Think of Bill Paxton's "game over" rants in Aliens, or similar complaints from David Caruso in First Blood once they learn that Rambo is a Special Forces veteran, as well as the leaders' attempts to calm them down, even though they recognize the truth behind their worries. It's that sting of regret -- "I knew I should've fucking stayed home today..." -- that makes the audience sympathize with their situation. We've all felt regret about going too far, but hardly ever about being the victim of a random natural disaster like being abducted by aliens or a twisted TV show. And without some degree of responsibility and choice, you cannot feel regret.

Expect to see a bunch of actors running around like 10 year-old boys when they pretend to play war. Only when the world becomes more dangerous will we see those genuine looks of dread like we saw in the wild-era Predator, Alien, or Terminator movies.


  1. I Kno What You Did Last Summer.

    It's about as good as horror will get till we have high crimes again.

    But Soft! What if we have a movie about a torture victim coming back after a vet? Cape Fear with A vet instead of an attorney?


  2. Good anti-sensationalism at the NYT:

    The Myth of Mean Girls

    "We have examined every major index of crime on which the authorities rely. None show a recent increase in girls’ violence; in fact, every reliable measure shows that violence by girls has been plummeting for years. Major offenses like murder and robbery by girls are at their lowest levels in four decades."

  3. Predator is meant to be a satire of militarism. The moral of the story is that it's wrong to kill someone for personal satisfaction, not that walking too far into the jungle is dangerous because of cloaked predator-aliens. You're taking the story way too literally.

    Sin City is, in a sense, a work of science fiction and fantasy. It draws us into an idealized world of total material conflict between pimps and prostitutes, senators and citizens, and rapists and the innocent. It distills the core conflicts that exist in reality to create a fantastic world of romanticized heros and absolute villains.

    It is not supposed to be "realistic".

  4. I agree with what you saying that in movies, seeing people get into danger of their own doing is more appealing to seeing shit happen to people randomly.

    Wouldn't agree with the first being called realism, though. If anything, random dumb luck is the realism, and "bad things happen to those that deserve it" is the Deus ex machina. Think about the "just world" hypothesis and the idea that we feel we need to say "they were mugged/struck by a hurricane/tsunami/car accident etc. because they deserved it".

    I'd think it's the other way round. In crime-filled times, people want to believe in an unrealistically "just world". This agrees with what you mentioned about vigilantes in film too.

  5. "The moral of the story is that it's wrong to kill someone for personal satisfaction, not that walking too far into the jungle is dangerous because of cloaked predator-aliens."

    No it's not; it's like I said. The very first line of the DVD commentary by the director says it's supposed to be like King Kong, where a bunch of hunters wander too far into an island and get themselves in too deep, and ultimately the monster they aimed to hunt starts to hunt them.

    "If anything, random dumb luck is the realism, and "bad things happen to those that deserve it" is the Deus ex machina."

    Well all movies are unrealistic to some degree. But which is more far-fetched -- a criminal getting nailed by Dirty Harry or Martin Riggs vs. getting abducted and punished by a being like God or Santa Claus that knows who's been naughty or nice?


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