Nope, no plotting here. With a sensory explosion of stunning shot composition, outstanding sound design, and unnerving score–combine those with a refreshingly original expression of the classic monster movie–and you should have a great horror film, right? That was almost the case here, had it not been for the meandering narrative and thoughtless plotting. Brilliant idea, but poorly mapped out. There is so much to like about NOPE, but the full potential of this beautifully looking film is ultimately held back by screenwriting mechanics. Peele’s NOPE feels like a combination of The Birds,Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Signs. Unfortunately, it lacks the structure and substance of any of those. Clearly, Peele had a wonderfully original idea for his latest feature film, but his idea fails to deliver narratively. The plotting is all over the place; there are scenes that simply do not pay off dramatically. Individually, each scene is meticulously crafted, but many are not connected methodically to the rest of the film. What we have here is a film, that clearly demonstrates a love for horror cinema and film history, that pushes experiential boundaries, but the plotting leaves much to be desired. Moreover, there is a disconnect between the performative element of the mise-en-scene and characterization. Fantastic performances; but the characters, as they are written, are not very well developed. The pretense of the film is one exuding cinematic gravitas, but the pretense is the equivalent of a beautiful house with a shaky foundation and infrastructure.
To go into why this film’s plotting does not work would be incredibly spoilerific, so I cannot go into many details. All throughout the film, I thought to myself “I can tell that this is supposed to mean something, perhaps subvert something, but those idea are not being communicated effectively.” What this film will likely become is one of those that a pretentious cinephile or armchair critic will respond to those that express difficulty in following the plot with “it’s not for everyone” or “you just don’t get it.” Whenever I hear those remarks in defense of films that objectively fail to deliver narratively (plot+story), it makes me want to vomit. They are copouts for explaining away why a film doesn’t have to follow established storytelling conventions; furthermore, the “you just didn’t get it” is a tool for the cinephile to establish intellectual superiority over the individual rightly questioning the screenwriting of a film.
Caretakers at a California horse ranch encounter a mysterious force that affects human and animal behavior.
Where the film excels is in the very concept of the film itself and the technical achievement! Upon watching it, I was reminded of great films such as The Birds, Signs, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Moreover, I was also reminded of the sci-fi/horror movies of the 1940s and 50s. Because I was reminded of those, that demonstrates Peele’s love for classic horror cinema! And I applaud him for attempting to craft something for modern audiences that feels familiar yet fresh. To the best of my knowledge, there has yet to be a film (classic or more contemporary) that expresses the alien plot in the manner that Peele does. Where the films to which he’s harkening surpass NOPE is in the plotting. Original ideas are very much needed in 21st century cinema, but these ideas need to be paired with coherent plots.
Peele’s eye for shot composition is exceptional. He knows precisely how to frame and shoot a scene dramatically, even when the shot is largely static. What makes his shot compositions work so well is that the shot is a direct extension of the emotion of the scene. The camera isn’t merely documenting the course of events, but is ostensibly an active participant in how the scene unfolds.
The brilliant sound design and unnerving score work in tandem to draw the audience into the film, especially when watching the film in Dolby Cinema (which is what I did). No sound effect or bar of score is wasted. Every sound, every note is intentionally selected as an extension of the action or emotion of a scene. Although a film should not rely upon a great score to carry the story, sound and music are two very important tools in a filmmakers tool belt to increase the sensory stimulation of the film.
Peele is such a gifted director, but I hope he chooses to work with other screenwriters in the future to take his original ideas and map them out methodically and chronologically (whether linear or nonlinear) more soundly. We need refreshing ideas such as his, but we also need them executed in more conventional ways. Have the thoughtful subplot and subtextual theming that will inspire discourses, but make the outside/action plot more accessible because it’s the vessel through which the subplot and theming is communicated.
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
I nearly suffocated from the lack of exposition. Underwater is the kind of horror movie that begins with a solid (albeit common) premise, attaches lots of talent to make it look good (including the cinematographer from A Cure for Wellness), but forgets that the movie needs a story that is more than a series of bullet points. It’s no surprise that it’s clearly an Alien knockoff with heavy influences from Deep Blue Sea and The Poseidon Adventure, but it’s only that in premise and look only. Even Deep Blue Sea has a better plot and characters than this movie. What Alien and Deep Blue Sea have in common that Underwater should have done, but didn’t, is establishing the world and characters in normal settings before the big event upsets everything. It’s not a spoiler when it happens within the first few minutes–the giant facility in which the characters work explodes. We no sooner meet our central character then the facility blows up. We have nearly zero frame of reference for anything that is going on. And the confusion won’t stop there. For most of the movie, you will be lost in the questions you have that should be answered by the film. For instance, why are there just a handful of people in a facility that is literally miles deep and wide? For what and why are they drilling? And what exactly are the areas of specialization of the cast (we only know one). Underwater is teetering between two genres: disaster and monster movies, but it should have committed to one or the other. This mishmash of tropes and plot devices just makes for a convoluted mess. A mess that some exposition could have helped clear up. Although the direction is fairly solid, it cannot make up for a poorly written story. I feel that everyone involved was doing their best to make something of the anemic script they were delivered. It’s my advice not to take the plunge into Underwater.
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!
Netflix’s Stranger Things Season Three represents a return to form! Much like Apocalypse did for American Horror Story, this season of Stranger Things took what worked in Season One and delivered an outstanding third season that has–what could possibly be–my favorite scene in the entire series. Even more than the previous two seasons, this one takes 80s culture and style to the max, complete with a nostalgic shopping mall and carnival. More so than any of the previous seasons, this one is the most roller coater yet. More monsters, more conflict, more horror. It’s also only eight episodes; and to that point, this season is tight, precise, and never leaves you in a lull. Whether you were a kid or teenager in the 80s or not, this season does what Stranger Things does best–connect you with your childhood. Whereas the series has been more science-fiction than horror in the previous two seasons, season three skews much closer to horror giving audiences some nightmarish imagery that echoes sci-fi horror staples such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob, and The Thing.
Instead of playing on the mystery or fear of the unknown, season three is aware that the spider-like mind flayer and demogorgon aren’t as scary as they were in the first two seasons. So it delivers a new character of opposition that is terrifying in both mind and body. This parallels the changes that the central characters are going through during this time of encroaching upon adolescence. The boys have deeper voices and the hormones are raging. In addition to navigating the horrors that are befalling Hawkins, our central characters are forced to navigate relationships, sexuality, growing up, and loss. And this exploration of relationships is not limited to the kids, but the adults of Hawkins find themselves forced to face true feelings as well. It’s the added intellectual dimension of the human condition that makes this such a strong season for me. In fact, the more I think about it, the more that this might just be my favorite season, with Season One being a close second. What makes some of the greatest horror films of all time stick with us is the social commentary and thematic depth. Stranger Things season three dives deep by consistently keeping the focus on the character conflict and not simply the other-worldly entities.
One of the most relatable avenues through which to connect with characters is the avenue of relationship dynamics. And there are a plethora of relationships on display in this season. Early on, we have the incessant making out of El and Mike, the sexually frustrated relationship between Joyce Byers and Hopper, the friendship of Steve and Robin, later on we have the breaking up of El and Mike, followed by the blooming friendship between Max and El. We witness the strained relationship between Will and his childhood guy friends as his friends begin dating and leave him to play D&D alone. Then there is the seemingly made-up girlfriend of Dustin’s that he cannot connect with via his powerful radio. Add a coming-out story to this mix, and we have many different personal and interpersonal relationship dynamics with which to connect. Relationships provide conflict, and that conflict directly impacts the drama. And we have lots of drama this season. Each of the aforementioned relationships provides the means for the characters to experience his or her own arc and grow positively or negatively. On a lighter note, there is an uplifting message of embracing your inner nerd that is evident in the drama that unfolds between Dustin, Robin, Steve, and Erica at the ice cream shop; and further evidence for this message is in my favorite scene in the entire series, The Neverending Story theme song singalong between Dustin and Suzzie. It doesn’t get much nerdier than that.
Skewing closer to horror than science-fiction, season three’s monster is right out of The Blob. There are also elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing. I absolutely love the idea of this monster because attacks its victims in two different ways (1) the blob will absorb the bodies of the victims and (2) the mindflayer takes control of the minds and bodies of those it deems are worthy vessels. There is a two-fold nature to this monster that makes it more terrifying than the previous iterations, because it attacks the mind and body. Much like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist took the home invasion horror concept to the next level by a demon invading the house and bodily home of an innocent little girl, the mindflayer, in a similar fashion, takes on many of the characteristics of the demon Pazuzu in Friedkin’s horror masterpiece. Characteristics of the alien entity in The Thing are also included in the actions of the mindflayer, specifically how it takes host of a body and can remain undetected. It’s this multidimensional component in the design of the monster that makes it the most terrifying creature we have encountered in Hawkins, IN.
So much fun! Season three of Stranger Things provides us with a fantastic character-driven plot that deviates from the action-driven plot in season two by returning to form. By the Duffer Brothers going back to what made the first season such a hit, this third season keeps the show going strong. Furthermore, the story is a lot tighter in this shortened season. Just goes to show that even when you have fewer episodes, the quality of the show doesn’t have to suffer. In this case, the quality went up from the previous season. Everything in this season works so very well, from the tight screenwriting to the nostalgic production design. After a mediocre second season, I was anticipating much the same for the tertiary season. Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed season three, and feel confident that you will too!
You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!
“You’ll never look at birds the same way again” (Jurassic Park). Although Dr. Grant was referring to velociraptors, you can say the very same thing about Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature length films, only two of which are horror (Psycho and The Birds). However, he is widely credited, and rightly so, as the director who ushered in the modern horror film, with Psycho being regarded as the first modern horror film. On the heels of the success of Psycho, a film that revolutionized so much about the movie-going experience from movie start times to “not spoiling the ending” (now where have we recently heard that???), Hitch set out to deliver another horror film at the height of his powers. But what would it be about? He turned to past collaborator Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, Hitch’s first American film. Her best-selling novella The Birds had previously been adapted for radio and stage (I’ve actually seen the stage adaptation, and incidentally I prefer the film), but Hitch decided to adapt it (loosely I might add) for the small screen. That’s right, small screen. He originally intended The Birds to be adapted for his wildly popular and successful series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But like Jordan Peele did with Us, which I am convinced started out as an idea for his Twilight Zone series, Hitch decided to take the idea from TV to the cinema! So with the decision to adapt du Maurier’s novella into a cinematic experience, Hitch made history. Not only is it one of the most famous films in cinematic history, it sowed the birdseed for all the “when nature attacks” movies to follow including Jaws and Jurassic Park. This film was also influential in John Carpenter’s The Fog and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With the question of why did the birds attack never being answered, it leaves the events of this movie lingering in our minds as a possible reality.
To hear a conversation with me on the CineMust podcast chatting about the must-see status of The Birds and Jaws, click HERE.
When wealthy well-known socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedron) finds herself to be the brunt of a practical joke played by lawyer Mitch Brenner (Taylor) at a bird shop while searching for a gift, she decides to return the favor by buying a couple of birds and dropping them off at his apartment. Upon finding that he spends the weekends with his younger sister and mother (Jessica Tandy) north of San Francisco in the small community of Bodega Bay, she drives to the remote town in order to deliver the birds. Soon after her unannounced arrival, the birds of the town begin to act incredibly strangely. Following a seagull attacking Melanie, and Mitch’s mother discovering her neighbor dead from an apparent bird attack, the town realizes that the birds are a real threat. Eventually birds, in the thousands are attacking anyone without reason or explanation as to why this is happening. Trapped in the Brenner household, survival becomes the number one priority for not only our central characters but everyone in the town.
At the heart of The Birds is relationships. Relationships ranging from romantic to familial and then between an outsider and the natives of a close knit town. Paranoia is a common theme in this film as well. The characters and their relationships between one another are so incredibly strong and well–developed that you can ostensibly remove the birds from the equation and the movie still works. Now, it doesn’t work as a horror film, but it works as a drama. The strength of this screenplay, written by Evan Hunter, lies in the complex characters and simple plot. Although the plot is largely changed from du Maurier’s novella, the setting, character dynamics, and the idea of the home invasion are extrapolated from the source material. Outside of the terrifying element of the attacking birds, the film’s subplot is about an outsider invading a close knit community and a de facto love quadrangle between Mitch, his mother, his sister, and his ex. Essentially, Melanie upsets the normal order of the town much in the same way that the birds upset the pecking order of humans vs nature. The screenplay also delivers some outstanding tonal shifts that are seamlessly woven together. Way before the first bird attacks, The Birds begins as a screwball comedy right out of the 1930s, then changes into a soap opera, then suspense, followed by horror. Lastly, the movie takes one final tonal shift from horror to apocalyptic, complete with dead bodies, foreboding birds, and a lack of resolution. This movie has legitimately inspired the real fear of birds (ornithophobia) in how the scenes were shot and the lingering possibility that this could happen in your own town.
There is a brilliant lack of explanation of why the birds are attacking not is there any real means of escape for the townsfolk of Bodega Bay, all while chaos reigns supreme in this otherwise innocent seaside landscape. Yet, this cinematic work is a permanent resident of our sociological zeitgeist. Even those who have not seen the film are aware of its existence. And it has gone from screen to live experience at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies. The reason why we don’t focus on the lack of an explanation for the birds bizarre and violent behavior is for the same reason that we don’t ask why Bruce (Jaws) is attacking people. We accept it because the film is more concerned with its theme than points of origin expositional dumps. We don’t care about why the birds are doing what they are doing–that’s part of the horror. It’s the same reason why it’s important that we don’t know too much about Michael Myers; if we knew too much about him, why he ticks, then he would cease to be the boogeyman. These birds would cease to be terrifying if there was some sort of natural or supernatural explanation. The unknown is frightening. There have been many hypotheses over the years as to what the birds represent. The most popular one is rooted in the red scare or communism. And perhaps that is true, but the real villain (character of opposition) is not the birds but the townsfolk of Bodega Bay. The birds are the personification of the mistreatment of and unwelcoming attitudes of the residents toward Melanie. In a similar fashion, the villain of Jaws is the mayor because he is the personification of the folly of man.
When the true oppositional character in a screenplay is an entity, force, or idea, that component has to be personified in a character(s) because film is a visual storytelling medium, so the outdated, nationalistic attitudes of the locals is personified in the birds. Moreover, the ornithologist in the diner stated that if birds of different species flocked together, then all hope would be lost for humanity as we couldn’t stand a chance against them. That foreboding prediction came to pass as both crows and seagulls (who do not mix together in real life) massed together and terrorized the town and its people. As the birds are the original inhabitants of Bodega Bay, the humans represent the outsiders. This symbolism is also witnessed in how the townsfolk banned together to force Melanie out of the town and in how Mitch’s mother urges him to send Melanie back to San Francisco. All through the movie, there are images and sequences of the way outsiders can be marginalized by the majority of the native inhabitants. Human civilization has long sense been guilty of stigmatizing or marginalizing outsiders. At the root of the symptoms of intolerance is fear. So, Hitchcock took that root cause of unwelcoming attitudes and mistreatment and adapted it into a timeless horror film. It holds up so well because fear is still evident in how certain groups of people treat another in our lives today. Hitchcock used a combination of blue screen and practical effect technologies to bring the terror to life. And of those two approaches, it’s mostly practical-effect driven, all the way down to the real birds that were used during the production (with proper bird trainers/wranglers).
Three scenes that I want to highlight are the birthday party, downtown attack scene, and the upstairs room at the showdown. Nowadays, these scenes would be full of CGI and other post-production work. The actors would be acting with no birds on set, or very few anyway. For authenticity, puppets, mechanical, and real birds were used for these scenes to increase the realness and give the actors something to truly be afraid of. In fact, so many real birds were used that there were multiple large bird enclosures on the set that used as the temporary home of the stars of the film. In addition to bird wranglers, the American Humane Society was on set every day to monitor the treatment of the birds. The birthday party scene was composed of rotoscoping birds, blue screen shots of birds, papier-mache birds, and birds that were tied to actors and even more birds that were freely flying within the enclosure built around the set. Although most of the birds remained in the aviary, a few got out. And to this day, there are decedents of those birds living in the rafters of that sound stage on the Universal lot. In much the same way, the students fleeing the schoolhouse and down the hill to the town center–that scene–was accomplished in very much the same way. However, with this one, the added pyrotechnics were incorporated. The iconic phonebooth was covered in birdseed and shrimp to get the birds to go completely crazy. The upstairs bedroom scene at the end of the movie was completely constructed inside a giant aviary with hundreds of birds. In addition to the birdseed and shrimp that was strewn about the room, real birds were thrown at Hedron. The terror in her eyes that you see in the scene is all too real. No amount of acting can replicate that authentic fear. Despite the very real attack of the birds, Hedron is eternally grateful to have been a part of cinematic history.
The single scene that find is the most fascinating and shows the power of Hitchcock’s innate ability to create suspense with a camera is the scene immediately preceding the schoolhouse evacuation–the scene with Melanie sitting on the park bench with the jungle gym int he background.
Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!
Absolutely enchanting! Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a beautiful modern fairy tale told through a classical means. From the provocative first scene to the endearing final moments, this film explores the human condition in an innovative way that highlights the spirits of kindness, generosity, and love. In a film that could have so easily played out like many other-worldly science-fiction love stories, this story demonstrates the power of cinematic storytelling full of brilliantly developed characters and excellent direction from Del Toro. Positively gripping. The Shape of Water provides audiences with a fresh perspective on the “monster movie” genre by taking you on a whimsical journey into the belly of a government research facility during the Cold War where you meet characters you love and love to hate along the way. As with many of his other films, Del Toro once again crafts an imaginative experience through the creation of memorable characters grounded by solid writing, direction, and cinematography. It seems like “genre films” are becoming a thing of the past, because so many want to exist in multiple planes; however, for all the elements at its heart, The Shape of Water is a classic monster genre film but breaks new ground.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mostly isolated mute young lady who works in housekeeping at a remote, underground government research facility near Baltimore. With only her starving artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) to keep her company at home and her close friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to watch over and speak for her at work, she leads a rather mundane life but longs for music, adventure, and romance. Taking place during the Cold War in 1962, Elisa’s encountered the strange and questionable over her time in and out of cleaning labs. Her nondescript life will be forever changed when she discovers the lab’s newest secret–a mysterious amphibian-like creature who lives in an aquarium tank. Over the days, Elisa feels compelled to visit the creature as the two of them develop a trusting bond. When the creature’s very life is at stake, Elisa must work quickly to construct a plan for his safe evacuation.
The Shape of Water has one of the most innovative openings to a film in that it juxtaposes a serene, calming yet mesmerizing sequence of underwater shots during the opening title sequence against a rather provocative first scene. Del Toro will successfully have your attention for the entirety of the film. It isn’t often that we get fairy-tale like narration at the beginning of a monster movie, and Del Toro’s choice for the beginning narration was absolutely perfect. It not only provided strategic exposition, but set the tone of the film. What we are about to watch may contain elements of monsters and mysteries, but it is a modern romantic fairy tale. Horror and science-fiction have often been used as conduits for filmmakers to explore the human condition and all its imperfections and growth; so by combining elements from both to create an innovative monster movie, Del Toro provides audiences with a fantastic opportunity to use the film’s diegesis as a mirror to our modern lives. Although the “beauty and the beast” style love story is central to the film, the film also comments on topics such as race, marriage, and class during the 1960s. There is also a side story that alludes to how members of the LGBTQ community were treated in the workplace and within the community. An incredibly comprehensive plot that never loses focus on the main story.
What an excellent cast! Sally Hawkins brings such endearing and powerful subtlety to her mute character. Her commitment to Elisa is so exquisite that you will swear that you can hear her voice through her sign language. Much in the same way we explored interspecies communication in last year’s Arrival, we witness just how the movement of hands and facial expressions know no bounds when establishing relationships with those with whom we cannot verbally communicate. In many ways, this movie is a combination of Beauty and the Beast, TV’s Swamp Thing, Arrival, and a little Creature from the Black Lagoon. Hawkins’ exceptional performance may very well land her an Oscar nomination, and quite possibly a win. Doug Jones’ creature is a brilliant combination of monster and lover. From the moment you encounter him, you will feel a human-like connection to his character. Like with Hawkins’ Elisa, Jones’ creature exhibits the power of subtlety. That seems to be a common element of this film: subtlety. So often the techniques of the pioneers of cinema are forgotten. Hitchcock proved over and over again that the camera itself can create suspense. Of course, he took many of his techniques from silent cinema where the camera was instrumental in visually communicating so much. Del Toro utilizes this power of the camera to not only visually create emotions but to work through actors to allow subtle powers of character to enhance the experience of this movie.
Beyond our central characters, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) have mini-movies of their own. And indirectly, their mini-movies have an impact on the larger story; however, these side stories never eclipse the central plot and only serve to bolster the overall experience. Spencer’s character enables audiences to explore marriage in the 1960s and Jenkins’s character provides a platform for discussion regarding how ostracized members of the LGBTQ community were before more modern times. There is also a scene where a classy looking black couple was denied seating at a diner. So many societal themes that can be used as a framework through which to understand the time in which this story takes place, and now the characters can be used to explore modern themes as well. Each and every chiefly supporting player has a significant impact upon the central diegesis of The Shape of Water. Del Toro took special care in integrating every element and making sure each aspect of the story was never just filler or for shock value. Each character, each scene, each camera angle moves the story forward.
The reality of love and relationships juxtaposed against an imaginative backdrop grounded in a literal view of life in the 1960s comprise this world created by Guillermo Del Toro. Whether you enjoy an excellent monster movie or old-fashioned romance, you will enjoy The Shape of Water. The brilliance of this film can be found in how this modern fairy tale is told through classical means. I also enjoyed the references to classic Hollywood movie musicals and dramas that can each be seen in the plot of this film. No image is ever wasted in Del Toro’s film. If there is one negative critique, the second act is a little drawn out and could have been trimmed a little, and some added suspense would have been appreciated in the second act as well.