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Genre Or Die, pt 1: Horror

SPOILERS! So genre movies are what’s-what at the moment: it’s apparently what audiences want, so it’s what prodcos want. Yet so many specs out there have no genre to speak of; yes they have generic elements but they’re not a GENRE FILM in the classic sense. They pay little attention to convention or classic characterisation; they have no set pieces to speak of, nor do they give us something that’s the same….But different.

Speaking to writers, it would appear the notion of the genre film gets the thumbs down, big style: some writers seem to think of them as formulaic, ticking the boxes, even stupid. Writers have insisted to me that dramas have more heart, that the genre film sells out; they’ve said that the genre film has nothing to say, is unchallenging, [insert another negative here]. I think I’ve heard every possible argument AGAINST the genre film and why spec writers should not bother writing them for artistic reasons.

But the genre film sells. Whilst I would never advocate writing the genre film that simply recycles what has gone before it, I WOULD argue that taking note of trends does help your writing and thus your own saleability. ‘Cos let’s face it: none of us are doing this *just* for fun. We want recognition. We want an option. We want our specs sold, made and in the top ten movies of the year. Not one of us is writing simply to leave the fruits of our labour on the desktop for no one to see.

Well, if that’s what you want, then a drama is not going to cut it. Not because dramas aren’t good, but because drama does not sell like the genre film. It’s just a fact of (screenwriting) life. And who says the genre film cannot have something to say? Who says the genre film has to be stupid? Granted, lots of genre films have nothing to say and are stupid, but that’s not the point. Tarring all films with the same brush is not a great idea if you want to get ahead.

Everyone has a natural bias and as everyone knows, mine is horror. I love horror. I want to write horror. Blood and guts do it for me in a way that love and romance don’t. I like to be scared and I like to be grossed out. It’s just the way that it goes. Later in the series I will examine what I believe goes into a successful rom-com, supernatural thrillers, comedy and so on (get your requests in now people), but for now, somewhat inevitably, I’m going to start with my beloved horror.

First off, it might be an idea to start with defining those categories of horror – there will always be crossover, but I think I’ve narrowed it down to five “main” types:

Supernatural # 1 : including vampires, some ghost activity (ie. soothsayers, non-homicidal), werewolves, special powers ie. telekinesis as in Carrie)

Supernatural # 2: Devils and other religious motifs, arthouse elements (like in Dust Devil, Angel Heart), Asian Tartan Extreme, Adult Anime etc

Serial Killer: Some Asian Tartan Extreme and low budget indie European film; including torture and slasher

Creature: Space and some supernatural “out of the ordinary” creatures that set their own rules, ie. homicidal ghosts with their own backstory (like in Thirteen Ghosts) and demon-style figures like Pinhead

Revenge: including uber-horror like I Spit On Your Grave through to supernatural revenge like The Crow

I racked my brains for more, yet couldn’t come up with any. Genre should be such broad strokes though I think; it’s up to the writer to join the dots. This is why the genre film needn’t be stupid nor have nothing to say. You, the writer, can utilise genre as the vehicle that gives your voice volume, if you like. The genre-megaphone! I’m going off at a tangent… Moving on.

Next: because we’re using genre, there are certain elements your audience (and thus your reader) expects. This doesn’t mean you just roll these elements out at certain intervals. That would be dull. A good genre film involves its audience, makes them INVEST in the story, takes them on a journey. This is ultimately why 30 Days of Night did not work for me in the same way the first Resident Evil did. I couldn’t invest in Eben’s journey in the same way I could Alice’s as she remembered her involvement with the evil Umbrella corp. Yes there were Zombies, but there was also betrayal, ooooooooh, nice. In 30 Days however it seemed to be more along the lines of: the lights go out – vampires! Argh! (I am aware the photo below is of Alice in Resident Evil: Extinction btw).

So what of those elements? Let’s take a look:

Women are strong, men are weak: but supernatural men are always hardcore. Alice is the strong one in Resident Evil thanks to what I call the Ripley legacy: ever since we saw her duffing up first Ash, then Burke, then 85 in the original trilogy, women in horror are usually not only excellent fighters, they’re on the moral high ground too. It’s usually a man who is in league with the beast or ensuring everyone dies so he can keep all the money or whatnot: Resident Evil borrowed this notion with Alice’s husband being responsible for releasing the T-Virus in the first place. Boooooo! Men suck! Women are the best! Yay! ; ) Compare this then to the likes of Riddick – a man who can see in the dark, supernatural for sure – or Eric Draven, who is dead. In comparison to their *more human* counterparts and suddenly we can see a massive division, lending the belief that if a man is to be COOL in horror, he needs to have some kind of interesting talent or attribute to still be standing at the end.

You always have another problem besides the monster. As above and it’s usually the man’s fault these days. A boring genre film pits the group against JUST the monster. A good genre film ties the group up in knots WHILST fighting the monster. This might just be most of the group against one or two people (as in Alien) or it might be the entire group turning itself inside out (as in Pitch Black).

Monsters might be out to get you but they can’t hate you as much as you hate yourself. Ever noticed that protagonists in horror films nearly always seem to have self esteem issues? This is usually down to some kind of traumatic event in their childhood (like Celine’s witnessing of her family’s death in Underworld), the loss of a loved one they couldn’t save or moment they have to repent for, such as Fry’s wish to sacrifice the rest of the crew to save her own life.

Death is not always the end and sometimes the solution. Sometimes characters in horrors are reborn, like Eric Draven in The Crow: unable to save himself or his girlfriend in life, he exacts bloody revenge in death. The detective in Angel Heart decides to never die so he might never have to surrender his soul to the devil – but in doing so, must kill the young soldier and switch bodies and ultimately memories by accident. In monster movies, sometimes people will sacrifice themselves – or at least suggest it, like in Alien Vs. Predator – so as to ensure the monster does not take over the world.

It can always get worse. One of the main gripes I have in the horror I read is the fact that there is no build up: it all comes at once (oo er). I think the reason for this is because “they” say you need a strong hook or ninciting incident – but you can hit the ground running without giving it to us ALL AT ONCE. Build up the suspense, build up to the horror, give it impact. And remember to throw those obstacles at us, one after another: your characters think they’ve hit rock bottom? Not yet they haven’t! Be the worse kind of sadist, but do it on drip feed.

Comedy quips make life worth living – even when you’re about to die horribly. Horror and comedy mix incredibly well, Brits are known for it: think Shaun of the Dead here or Severance. And a spec doesn’t have to be laugh-out-loud funny to include this element (though it helps if you’re brilliant at this). A well positioned quip can bring in the laughs, even if it’s a cheesy one-liner, as a kind of “antidote” to the horror that came before or after it. Don’t be afraid of using this element. What may not work as true comedy can work in horror on the basis of contrast alone: I mean, Arnie’s line “stick around” to the guy he stabs in Predator? Puh-lease, positively stilton! Yet I did laugh when I first saw it y’honour, guilty as charged…

There’s a thin line between bad taste… And REALLY bad taste. there are always lines to cross with horror, no matter what you think about the whole “everything’s been done” idea. There are reasons we don’t see certain elements (like in-depth rape scenes!) and it’s because no one wants to see that bar a sicko minority. Pushing boundaries is great, indulging yourself is not. Also, it’s worth remembering that whilst sensationalism is popular for a few moments (ie. so-called “torture porn”), classic terror can last decades, even become timeless. Which would you prefer?

There’s always a new way to do it…But what? And this is the hard bit. Horror can get a bad press when we see the same movie over and over again, but believe it or not, new horror can be conceived of; it’s just waiting, in someone’s mind – a new, gross way of seeing the creature, the serial killer, the supernatural. The problem is, it can’t be SO new no one understands it. If you’re going to present us with a new way of seeing vampires, or a new way of seeing the monstrous other like Michael Myers, then we need to have something *similar* about it for that comparison, else you will mystify readers about what you’re going on about.

Any other thoughts?

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: Just for contrast, The Romantic Comedy

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17 thoughts on “Genre Or Die, pt 1: Horror”

  1. Yes. I’m not into gore in anyway shape or form but the scariest movie I ever saw was simply that: scary. I was jumping at almost everything and thinking the worst was going to happen every moment.

    And there was not one bit of gore in the whole thing. (Long time ago, I forget what it was, but the experience lives on.)

    When it comes to humour: Tremors. I just love it, which is weird because I dislike horror. I know it’s a spoof but it’s a serious spoof. I will actually go out of my way to watch Tremors again.

    I also had an awful lot to say about your comments about saleability but to avoid blogging on other people’s blogs I started my own and the thing I wrote bout this is here. (I hope it works.)

  2. another thing to remember with horror is that there’s a difference between true horror and B Movie Horror.

    You taught me that, Lucy. Aren’t you proud? 😀

  3. I absolutely adore Tremors Steve – yes it’s a spoof, but it’s done so well. Hard to believe it’s nearly 20 years old. Quality lasts.

    Yes Anya I am very proud! The thing to remember with the B Movie is that it’s not a true genre though (I think anyway). It was more a “style”, especially since the term B Movie didn’t cover JUST horror (though we might associate it more with it these days). Read more about The B Movie

  4. Good post, Lucy. While I agree with most of your points, I’m going to pick up on the first one. I don’t think that this is an element that people expect at all – it’s probably an even-stevens when it comes to featuring (normal, non-supernatural) male protagonists. Yes there are plenty of female leads but it’s not exclusive: Severance? Night/Dawn/Day of the Dead? Evil Dead? The Exorcist? The Changeling? The Wicker Man? Most vampire films seem to feature male protagonists with women traditionally being the victims: John Carpenter’s Vampires (which was on TV last night), Near Dark, Lost Boys, Dracula – obviously, From Dusk Till Dawn. You may not like The Thing but plenty here do and there are no female characters in that at all – in fact, creature features also seem to be quite male dominated: Jaws, Predator, Tremors, Deep Blue Sea.

  5. I think Steve in Severance is pretty much rescued by Maggie most of the time, the photo I found says it all I reckon: she’s the one blasting with the shotgun, he’s standing there going WTF??

    I can see what you’re saying and perhaps I phrased it badly: to me horror is the one genre where people want women to be strongER – they’re less bothered about superficial things and more leader-type or problem-solver characters. Whilst Kevin Bacon and whatsisface were the leads in Tremors for example, it was Rhonda who came up with the whole vibrations thing and figured out what NOT to do so as to survive that bit longer for them to figure out they needed that big bulldozer thing to get out of town. If it hadn’t been for her, they’d have never got that far. Same went for the Saffron Burrows character in Deep Blue Sea handily electrifying one of the sharks thus improving the group’s chances. Juliette Stevens is another Maggie character in that she’s left standing at the end of Dusk Til Dawn too when the males in her family (and Seth’s) are dead. As for the others, perhaps I’m not keen on them because I think they lack (good) female characters!

  6. Required reading, Lucy. Very interesting. I think that sometimes the problem lies with a kind of reductive attitude on the part of distributors in that we are ‘supposed’ to like genre films or not. Actually as audience, we like all sorts of films for all different reasons. I love a genre movie that subverts my expectations and I know I’m not alone in this.

  7. Defo, Elinor. I love creature features as you know, but I’m not going to like a film *just* because there’s a creature. So much more must go into a genre film and in horror I insist on strong female characters that might kick ass but aren’t actual men with boobs. That’s difficult to pull off: Alice is pretty good though the whole martial arts thing is pretty tired and certainly after the first movie she was a caricature as they concentrated more on the kicking of ass and less on the actual character, especially Apocalypse.

    The genre film is not the easy option by a long shot. If it were, all the genre films that come through my doors would automatically need less coverage and less drafts by that logic I should wager.

  8. I think I’m perhaps alone in my love for 30 days of night. In this case, I think the idea was strong and clear enough not to be overly complicated.

    Also, in your ‘women in horror kick ass’ thesis, aren’t you ignoring all the women who are just there to get naked and get killed? Aside from the Final Girl, that’s usually the role of women in horror. Yes, this is endemic to B-horror rather than ‘proper-film’ horror, but there it is, nonetheless.

  9. I really wanted to like 30 Days of Night: it was a great idea.
    It was the characters that didn’t do it for me – I found them dull. Also 30 Days was just too long in the scheme of things I reckoned. I found myself yawning.

    And isn’t “Final Girl” every bit as out of fashion as “black guy there to get killed” and “virgin is saved, dirty sluts die” these days? If it isn’t it should be; when I’m reading a horror spec I like to wonder who’s next and feel like it could be anyone. Same goes for actual watching, too.

    This is what I mean when we need something different – the same role functions recycled over and over kills off stories since we are able to predict who will be killed in what order.

  10. I’m with Oli in one sense – Final Girl is very much part of the horror genre.

    On the other hand I’m with Lucy because I can’t think of a girl who doesn’t kick ass in recent years – apart from 30 days and the girl from Home & Away, though there was a bunch of people in the b.g as well as Eben??? Seems to me like the whole sole-survivor thing is out of fashion at the moment, probably thanks to Pitch Black maybe? And Jack the boy was actually a girl so was technically Final Girl???

    I’m so confused.

  11. Severance, 30 Days of Night, Reeker, Dead End… Final Girl is still alive and kicking, appropriately. She just tends to have some hangers on now… and I still wouldn’t want to be a slutty black girl in a horror movie. Those streets aren’t safe yet.

    The only (non-Romero) horror movie I can think of where the black guy survives is the remake of House on Haunted Hill, and he dies off-screen before the sequel starts.


    I haven’t seen Reeker or Dead End I don’t think, but Maggie’s not the only girl to survive in Severance, the escort girls do too. And we see them have various problems throughout that they have to overcome including being in a big fuck-off hole, so if Maggie is a Final Girl they are too as far as I’m concerned, which kinda diminishes the whole “there can be only one!” issue for me. And why is it that the very fact Final Girl is female defines them and thus their place in the narrative anyway? Maggie is more than just a girl. I think this is why women in particular *can* get pissed off with horror characterisation, so when we see a character like Maggie or Alice or Ripley we’re cheering our heads off. Or at least I am.

    And Fry in Pitch Black doesn’t kick ass, not really – she’s pretty dependant on both Riddick and Johns actually throughout the first two thirds of the movie with her casting aside her responsibility throughout (“I’m not your fucking captain”) and the whole Alpha Male thing going on, with Riddick of course winning in that great green scene.

    But that’s why I liked this film – yes, it’s quite obviously got its roots in Alien and Aliens but the actual characterisation is not a direct replay of the characterisation in the previous films: they actually worked AGAINST it. When Fry was killed then, I did not see that coming. At all.

  13. Oh – and as for whatserface in 30 Days of Night, I remember very little about her at all. But I think there was another couple of girls left with her wasn’t there if you want to split hairs, which again means she can’t be the final-final one. I thought I’d seen her before though, cheers Evil – she played Angel in Home and Away!

  14. She married Shane! Who died! Young love is always doomed in aussie soap, oh boo hoo, etc. Lol.

    Seems to me like all the usual roles in horror have to be mixed up a bit more now otherwise people get bored. And actually in any movie. Trying to apply labels won’t work because the movie plot then is obvious.

  15. Fair points, but you don’t have to be the last girl alive to constitute ‘Final Girl’ status.

    Maggie was indeed a full character – indeed, Severance shtick was taking characters who shouldn’t have been in a horror film and putting them there anyway. Her, Ripley, and hell, even Lauri Strode are all proper characters in a way that that mopey one from Friday the 13th isn’t.

    However, they do all (at least in the first Alien movie, Aliens is an action movie and dependent on separate genre rules) fulfil the Final Girl criteria of a)most of their mates dying b)spending the last 10 minutes of the film running away from the killer.

    If we’re talking genre rules, Final Girl should also have a hand in the downfall of big bad, be it blasting it out of an airlock, or chopping their head off with a spade.

    Severance did the twist on this by having one of the escort girls deliver the killer blow, and whilst that was funny because it went against genre tradition, I did also find it slightly frustrating, like someone deliberately fumbling the punchline to a gag.

    I like Final Girls. Wolf Creek, which has a lot going for it but more going against it, ultimately didn’t work me because it had a Final Boy. That’s not an archetype, I can’t cheer that.

    Oh, and I may have been pushing it with 30 Days of Night as an example, so I’ll replace it with Switchblade Romance instead.

  16. I think we’re on opposite sides of the fence here Oli – and I haven’t seen Switchbvlade Romance, though this is the second time a person has praised it in as many weeks, so I must watch it this weekend.

    But anyway, I liked Severance BECAUSE of that going-against expectation with the escort girl delivering the final blow, in the same way I liked Fry dying when we expected her to survive.

    And you know my thoughts on Wolf Creek ; )

  17. Switchblade Romance is very good, just on the right side of old-school nasty (a line that Hostel et al have merrily crossed) and does some very interesting things with genre traditions that work perfectly. See it spoiler free.

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