All the Horror: Women in Horror Month 2020

All the Horror Presents Women in Horror Month!

Jump to the article of your choice below.

During the month of February, a group of podcasters and writers, including yours truly, are highlighting many leading women and final girls of horror films! Be sure to follow @AllTheHorror18 on Twitter for the links to all the podcasts and written articles from the participants in this limited time engagement. Each week starting on February 3rd, I will provide you with a character analysis of some of my favorite women in horror, and hopefully some of yours too! For the sake of simplicity, I will add each article to this blog entry. Be sure to visit last year’s Women in Horror article for character analyses of Nancy Thompson, Ellen Ripley, Annie Wilkes, and Clarice Starling. The horror genre, from its inception, has consistently been the most candid, progressive, and powerful of all the genres. Furthermore, it possesses an innate ability to be more truthful than a typical drama because we give it permission to challenge us in intimate ways. While there are many reasons for the timelessness and thought-provoking nature of horror, we are here to specifically focus on the women of horror. You don’t want to miss any of the great content coming your way during the month of February. Enjoy!

Click Below to Jump to the Article of Your Choice:

  1. Elvira (Feb 3rd)
  2. Sidney Prescott (Feb 10th)
  3. Lin Shaye (Feb 17th)
  4. Annie Graham (Feb 24th)

Elvira

In terms of horror movie hosts, there is probably no one more famous than Elvira the Mistress of the Dark (brilliantly played by horror legend Cassandra Peterson). While the character of Elvira only starred in two movies, she left two huge impressions on the horror community of fans. And it’s for her contribution to the community that I want to highlight her in my Women in Horror series. Many, if not most, horror fans love bad horror movies. There is something to be said about a schlocky horror (or science-fiction) movie that unites us in laughter. Perhaps it’s the infectious energy of the room to which we are drawn. These are the kinds of movies that we enjoy because they are usually made by fans of the genre, not unlike ourselves. Part of the experience of these movies is laughing at or along with it because it’s just so over-the-top or highly campy. Elvira knew this, and she found a way to package these movies in such a way that inspired a generation of filmmakers and lovers of the genre. From hosting late-night horror movies to starring in them, she is the perfect way to start out Women in Horror Month 2020.

Before the cult classic Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Elvira began hosting Elvira’s Movie Macabre where she would host B-grade (and even lower) horror and sci-fi movies. This is where she took essentially what Vampira did, and improved upon it, in the opinion of this critic anyway. Vampira certainly has her dedicated fans too. While many in Hollywood and around the world would so quickly dismiss these movies as television or cinema fodder, she breathed new life into them! In a manner of speaking, she is chiefly responsible for teaching us to appreciate these bad movies then and now! Podcasts like School of Schlock specialize in highlighting these terrible movies that we cannot help but love. Aside from her trademark provocative look, Elvira resonated with audiences because she would say the very things that we were already thinking. B-horror movies aren’t ones that you sit silently soaking in–you and your friends form the peanut gallery and lampoon everything from the actors to the script to the costuming, set design, and more! Elvira took what was happening in your living room and movie theatre, and channeled that, put her sultry, satirical valley girl spin on it, and championed it! And of course, she loved her double entendres and jokes about her two biggest assets.

After several years of hosting her TV show, Peterson co-wrote Elvira’s cinematic breakout role as the title character in 1988’s Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Without getting into the plot specifics, Elvira’s big screen debut was crafted in such a manner that it embodied what we loved about her TV series–her poking fun at bad horror movies–all the while the story is incredibly clever in its subversion of horror conventions and even includes a heartwarming subplot and theme of diversity and acceptance. Elvira is truly the medicine that the uptight, puritanical small town needed in order to grow as a community. Specifically, Elvira is the source of character-driven conflict that upsets the sense of normalcy in the town. As personable as Elvira is with everyone, although she does throw shade when needed, most of the townsfolk refuse to accept her. While town leader Chastity Pariah (yup, that’s her name) calls her “slimy, slithering succubus, a concubine, a streetwalker, a tramp, a slut, a cheap whore” because of her different style of dress and loud personality, the film shows us that it’s the town that has a problem.

True to her character in this movie and her hostess self, she was always so much more than her sultry, overly sexed appearance, she shows audiences that you can be courageous, vulnerable, strong, crafty and still wear low-cut dresses all at the same time. These are the qualities we love about our final girls, and she embodies all of them. Despite the constant barrage of sex and tits jokes, she is a great example of the feminist heroine. Elvira also inspires us to strive for a positive body and self image through how she takes complete pleasure in (1) who she is (2) what she has to offer to the world and (3) the refusal to conform to antiquated societal norms or expectations. Elvira teaches and learns from the community but never loses herself or forgets who she is. After Elvira saves the town, she inherits the money she needs to open her Vegas show! So at the end of the movie, she experiences her dream  and performs in Las Vegas! This highly entertaining moment is a brilliant reminder that success is often only achieved when you believe in yourself, even when nobody else around you does.

Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira also inspired a long-running theme park show at Knott’s Berry Farm as part of its Halloween event Knott’s Scary Farm with her headlining. She is also a fan favorite for her high level of interaction with fans through her former Knott’s show as well as making regular convention rounds. Her trademark big hair, big boobs, cleavage-showing black dress, and high contrast makeup paired with her witty sense of humor and twisted optimism transformed her form one-time obscure horror movie hostess to a global brand! But she is so much more! Her influence reached beyond movies, TV, and theme parks. She became a cultural phenomena and icon in the gay community. And not just for drag queens; although, many drag queens–still to this day– love to impersonate her trademark physique as an homage to her positive impact on their lives. The gay male community (and the same can be said for the queer community at large) is often attracted to characters (or actors) that have to overcome societal prejudices, withstand ridicule, being thought of as less, and encouraged to simply conform for the sake of the larger community of people. Both in her debut movie (less so Haunted Hills) and TV series, she championed the ideas of positive self-worth, expression, inclusivity, acceptance, and sticking by one’s personal convictions. Her shows and movies aren’t about these ideas per se, but the subtext is consistently alive and well.

Before I close out the article, here is what some of Elvira’s fans love and respect about her:

Shawn of the Brunch With the Halliwells and Movie Geek and Proud podcasts states “I grew up watching Elvira’s movie and I have been to her Knott’s show countless times. I love Elvira for being a sexy and sex positive role model who is proud of her body. I love seeing a strong woman who dresses how she wants, and is strong willed and confident.”

Kahlib of the Macabre Media Podcast states, “Always love having diverse voices in the discourse and entertainment. Having a woman in mainstream horror convo breaks away from the male centric perspective.”

And Ph.D. in Criminology candidate Cassandra at the University of South Florida states, “to be perfectly honest, I’ve never seen her TV show or movies, BUT as a member of this society, I even know that Elvira has transcended past the niche market to which she technically belongs. Yes, she is campy, but she is highly respected for her being a touchstone of pop culture. She may not the traditional symbol of sexy; but her punk rock, gothic, busty self exudes confidence that we can all appreciate.”

As you can see, Elvira is loved by her fans for not only how much fun she showed we can have with “bad” horror and sci-fi movies, but she was and is an icon of positive body image and confidence. Furthermore, she paved the way for the subculture of horror fans to let their freak flag fly, so to speak, in mainstream culture. One could say that she is the intersection of mainstream pop and geek subculture. Because Elvira loves her fans, you can often find her at Comic and Horror Conventions such as Spooky Empire, at which I had the privilege of being a guest panelist last year. For the longest time, Elvira never revealed to fans what HER favorite horror/sci-fi movie of all time was, and in a 2016 interview with People Magazine she revealed that her favorite horror movie is the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, a movie that I saw for the first time over Christmas break with my family. Can’t say that it is a favorite of mine, but I can see why she is proud of it! Elvira used B and even C horror and sci-fi movies to inspire us to be proud of our guilty pleasure movies and the uniqueness that makes us who we are.

Sidney Prescott

Ghostface “Do you like scary movies?”

Sidney “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.”

That opening question and brilliant rebuttal is synonymous with Wes Craven’s masterpiece Scream. It also sets the groundwork for the meta horror movie that we are about to watch in that it is fully aware of the traditional rules of the horror game. Not only was Scream a pivotal horror film that redefined the versatility of the genre, but Sidney stepped into the shoes of all the legendary final girls before her, and took the role in a new direction that cemented her in with the likes of Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, and others. Unlike other Craven final girls, she stands as the only one to survive a Wes Craven franchise. Yes, Nancy is brought back in New Nightmare but she is killed off in Dream Warriors. While the final girl conventions had been well-defined up to this point, Wes Craven used the character of Sidney as a conduit for the audience since the rules of slasher horror were all too cliche at this stage in the evolution of the American horror film.

Much like with past final girls, Sidney is resilient, resourceful, sensible, and has an uncanny survivor’s reflex that is so incredibly well developed that she can simultaneously manage life’s complications and death with demonstrable hyper-focus. Furthermore, Neve Campbell’s Sidney was a powerful character for women because she demonstrated strength amidst adversity and responsibility when faced with difficult decisions. However, Sidney is not always the “good girl.” One of the longtime tropes of a final girl is one whom is chaste, but Sidney has had sex with her boyfriend prior to her mother’s brutal murder; however, she chooses when and only when she is good and ready, and when she isn’t dealing with the demons of her past or the serial killer of the present. Much like in the vein of Nancy Thompson, Sidney’s ability to outwit and survive Ghostface is based upon her cunning, not how “good” she is. She is ready and willing it fight for her life, and will stop at nothing until she rescues herself. 

We witness the emotional turmoil inside Sidney early on in the first Scream film when she decks Gale Weathers for asking her about the testimony that ostensibly put a man in prison for Sidney’s mother’s murder. When Ghostface threatens to take control of Sidney’s life, she responds by taking command of the stalking—to become the stalker instead of the one whom is stalked. Throughout the movie, we observe how Sidney displays strength of agency in her relationships with her boyfriend, friends, family, and others in Woodsboro. Although she turned down Billy when he wanted to have sex, early in the film, she finally determines that he has earned that privilege, and questions her decision not. This isn’t her first time with Billy, but the first time since her mother’s murder. Sidney isn’t the typical good girl or a superhero-like character in that she has complex emotions, many flaws, makes mistakes, and doesn’t always instantly know the best course of action to take. Even when she is at a loss of what to do, and feel overwhelmed, she never allows herself to become a victim of circumstance. Further evidence of her strength is shows by Sidney’s ability to laugh in the face of danger and love in the face of heartbreak and death. All of her qualities point to the desire to survive.

Prior to Scream, slashers rarely targeted a single victim. For example, Laurie Strode happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Halloween, the same can be said for Alice in Friday the 13th. Less so with Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street where Freddy eventually targets Nancy because she discovers his vulnerability. Even different from how Nancy was eventually targeted, Sidney was the sole focus of Ghostface from the very beginning. This target on Sidney means that killing her is the singular focus of Ghostface; and like Sidney’s internal need to survive, Ghostface will stop at nothing until Sidney is dead. But because Ghostface (Billy and Stu) has a flare for the theatrical, he torments, manipulates, and singles her out until Sidney finally fights back in that climactic third act where she turns the tables on Ghostface by using his own tools and knowledge against him. From using his own voice modulator on strategically creepy phone calls to using his own costume to frighten him, Sidney makes intentional decisions that greatly effect the balance of power. While Ghostface holds significant power in the beginning, Sidney erodes that power and takes it for herself.  She proves that she has an even greater understanding of horror movies than Ghostface himself, or perhaps the versatility of the rules. Eventually audiences witness Last House on the Left levels of revenge. Interesting because Last House on the Left is Wes Craven’s breakout writing-directing project and redefined the genre with its sexploitation revenge plot.

More so than any other Wes Craven (or horror movie in general) final girl, Sidney feels. She feels deeply. As mentioned earlier, even before the movie begins, she is dealing with the loss of her mother and the effects it has had on her other relationships, including her boyfriend Billy. From the moment we meet her to the last moment on screen, she is going though her own personal hell. Pressures are mounting all around her, but she never caves under them. Even when her friends and classmates are getting killed by a deranged masked killer, she rises to the occasion to face off with Ghostface. And not because she is endowed with superhuman strength, agility, resilience, or other uncanny ability, quite simply she knows that she has no other choice but to fight. Without seeing the film, if someone was to read my description of her actions, one may be inclined into believing that she is so strong and courageous that she is unrelatable or unbelievable. Not true. Upon watching the iconic film (or its sequels, of which Scre4m is the best IMO), it becomes clear just how believable and relatable she is. Never once does any of her actions come across as easy or convenient. Sidney earns every moment of survival through smart work and determination.

While a lot of the attention paid to Sidney involves her relationship and confrontation with Ghostface, she is the conduit through which we explore the power dynamic in romantic relationships as well. And the fact that her boyfriend is also her tormenter, offers bountiful material to explore. In many ways, the relationship between Billy/Sidney and Ghostface/Sidney parallels one another. Ghostface wants to penetrate Sidney with his knife, but she refuses to give up on resisting; likewise, Billy desires to penetrate Sidney with his own weapon but she withholds until she has worked through her personal demons. Billy attempts to make Sidney feel guilty for not engaging in her “girlfriendly” duties, as a misogynist such as Billy would put it; likewise, Ghostface tries his best to make Sidney feel guilty for the death of her mother. These parallels are why Sidney defeating Billy/Ghostface is so important and meaningful. Not only does she kill the demons that are presently haunting her, this defeat also allows Sidney to finally close the book on the demons of her past trauma.

I asked #FilmTwitter what it thinks of Sidney, and here are some of the responses I got!

Ian states, “Sidney Prescott is the final girl who breaks the rules and gets away with it. She’s tough, vulnerable, and will take things into her own hands. A great entry into the canon.”

The Boy, Booze, and Blood podcast states a rather contrarian opinion, but I appreciate it nevertheless, “I can’t stand Sidney in the first two movies…she’s so pompous…like, she’s too good for this to be happening to her. I love when she overhears the cheerleader in the bathroom that knocks her off her [high] horse…I’m team Gale all the way.”

Lydia states, “I think she was the 90s attempt at a Jamie Leigh Curtis type heroine. Tough, no nonsense, with the character development to show the impact the events have on her life and mental health. Much like you see with Laurie Strode.”

Charles shares these thoughts, “I thought it was very telling that Sidney wasn’t the most popular girl. She road the bus home, seemed very studious…but a very beautiful young lady obviously loyal but her spirit wounded. Maybe she actually KNEW about her mother’s affairs…that’s why she didn’t wanna have sex with anyone, not Billy, no one. Her convictions, smarts, and strength carried her through the murders.”

I love the variety of opinions on Sidney! One thing’s for certain, she will never be killed off in a Scream movie because Wes Craven stated explicitly in his will that no more Scream movies were to be made after 4 (however, MTV got around that with the TV series). Even though there was the short-lived TV series, the character of Sidney cannot be included and killed off. She will live eternally! Perhaps she isn’t among the most talked about final girls, but she definitely left an indelible mark upon the slasher genre.

Lin Shaye

Do you love Lin Shaye? If not, I urge you to reevaluate your priorities because she is incredible! There’s no arguing that Lin Shaye isn’t the matriarch of horror–our Horror Queen! From A Nightmare on Elm Street to 2001 Maniacs to Insidious to Room for Rent and even the remake of The Grudge. she has been delighting audiences with her memorable characters and creepy performances that keep us wanting more. Differing from a scream queen, a horror queen is a female actor whom has played numerous prominent, scene-stealing roles in horror, whether or not she is a “final girl”! Very early in her acting career, she began with A Nightmare on Elm Street as Nancy’s teacher–I mean, come on–it doesn’t get any more iconic than that! Not only did Shaye appear in one of the greatest horror movies of all time, but Freddy Krueger quite literally runs through her veins because she is the sister of New Line Cinema founder Robert “Bob” Shaye who took a chance on a Wes Craven screenplay, and literally made history! Lin was supportive of her brother back then, and continues to honor his legacy of horror in her own outstanding career that has spanned four decades. Her career is also a testament to all those who think they are too old to begin something. She didn’t begin acting until she was in her 30s, and the best years of her career didn’t truly happen for another 30 years. Sure she was working regularly, even appeared in films such as There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, but she wouldn’t become the household name she is today until Insidious. Although she has appeared in films outside of horror, most of her performances have been in horror and horror-adjacent pictures. And she wasn’t just in them; every scene she is in, she instantly takes command of the screen and your attention. She has a way of instantly drawing you into her characters through her unapologetic authenticity and genuine emotion.

Placing horror queen Lin Shaye in a movie is essentially a guaranteed box office success for audiences and investors. In a manner of speaking, what we are dealing with here is a legitimate movie star. Truth be told, 21st-century cinema does not see movie stars in the same way that the early and mid 20th century did. In early days of cinema, films were built on the back of the studio system stars. It was a Betty Hutton film, a Humphrey Bogart movie, a William Holden picture, a Bette Davis film, etc. I’d argue that Tom Cruise is the closest to a contemporary era movie star in the traditional sense that we have. But by extension, you can apply the same attributes to Lin Shaye by the cache that she brings to her films–she IS the box office draw for the films in which she is featured. Her name alone, attached to a horror movie, is enough to excite audiences and drive ticket sales. She is so much fun to watch in all of her horror movies. She is often portrayed as a kind-hearted grandma-type, but beneath that facade is often a sadistic executioner, wicked witch, or tortured soul. Tho, sometimes she is the hero as well, as we have seen in the Insidious movies. Perhaps she isn’t the lead in most of the movies that she is in (Room for Rent being an exception), but she steals the screen every moment she gets. No matter what kind of role she plays, she consistently looks as if she is having the time of her life playing all her serious and ridiculous characters.

Like Robert Englund, Lin Shaye’s characters have always been quirky (There’s Something about Mary), delightfully odd (Insidious), and even sinister (The Grudge), or a combination of all the above, which is the case with her character in 2001 Maniacs. She also kicks other franchise installments up a notch with movies such as Ouija: Origin of Evil and The Grudge. If nothing else, what we can learn from her legacy is how much fun she is having! Whether it is a schlocky horror flick or the next contender for an award, she gives her characters 100%. Never phoning in a performance. Go big or go home. And it doesn’t look like she has plans on taking it easy anytime soon, Lin Shaye laughs as she remarks, “now that I’m 146 years old, I’m in demand. I love the fact that in a way, I’m defying people’s expectations. It’s great to be my age. I love that I’m 76 years old and I’m proud of it, but that isn’t my focus” (The Hollywood Reporter). She isn’t solely focussed on defying expectations, she isn’t fixated on being a leading lady, she doesn’t get caught up in her celebrity or making appearances on TV to stay in the eye of the public, she is focused on supporting horror and having the time of her life while doing it. She truly cares about her audience and fans more than simply working for a paycheck or earning credits.

If you remove/replace Lin Shaye in the Insidious series, for example, the movies would likely not play out nearly half as well as they presently do. Lin and her characters are such a staple in the horror genre; she has regularly breathed life into numerous B-movies and indie films from campy to downright nightmare-inducing. You have to look no further than Critters, Dead End, or Midnight Man to witness her powerful screen presence. While she has appeared in far more B-movies and indie films than commercial blockbusters, it is clear that the producers of the Insidious movies recognized her pull with audiences because in each and every movie after the first, her character of Elise continues to rise in prominence. That really says something, ya know? It says something about her fanbase–it’s very much youthful! The target audiences for many horror movies is, I’d say 20 and 30-somethings. Of course, horror transcends the generations to continue to be a crowd favorite period. But the bulk of her fanbase isn’t our parents or grandparents, it’s us (speaking as a 30-something)! Perhaps that’s because of when she began to regularly pop up in commercial and indie films. Shaye attributes some of her success to her very youthful fanbase. She often remarks she is deeply touched that so many young people love to watch her films. How can we not?!? She continues to penetrate our emotions and thoughts with every character, with every film, with every horror convention.

Not only is Shaye a prolific actor, but she is not satisfied in abiding by all the rules that came before her. She seeks to redefine what it means to be a “scream queen.” Prior to David Gordon Greene’s Halloween and Blumhouse’s Insidious, the term scream queen was largely used to describe a teenage or young adult female actor who was most often the “good girl” or final girl in a horror movie. While the term has some under increased scrutiny because some see it as something that a young female actor shouldn’t want to aspire to, I argue that it is an honor to be considered a scream queen! These are the characters that we love to remember and talk about. For the longest time, it did not seem that an older female actor could become a queen later in life, as there weren’t many movies or significant roles for older female actors. As progressive as the horror genre has always been–and yes, that means more progressive than straight dramas–there was an absence of defining roles for older female actors. Even older men had prominent roles in the genre. Think Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger–and you know what, that’s great! But, where were the roles for older women?

Enter 2010’s Insidious and 2018’s Halloween. In addition to being crowd favorites, and not just great horror films, but great films period, both of these films intentionally made the lead/chief supporting characters older women. And with that, Lin Shaye and Jamie Lee Curtis redefined what it meant to be a queen in the horror genre! I would be remiss to not mention Toni Collette’s Annie Graham in Hereditary and her Sarah Engel in Krampus and Vera Fermiga’s Lorraine Warren in the Conjuring or Norma Bates in Bates Motel as being more evidence that older women can capture our imaginations and give us nightmares! I love how the horror genre, more than any other, is giving these women a platform to exhibit such outstanding talent! Whether they are screaming or making us scream, all of these outstanding actors are pushing the boundaries, and redefining what being a scream queen (or horror queen) is all about. And these women are not playing some different iteration of the same character, each of these characters is unique! What they share in common is a fierce independent spirit and a strong refusal to become a victim.

I asked #FilmTwitter what it thought of Lin Shaye, and here are some of the comments!

Andrew from FriGay the 13th podcast states, “We [Andrew and Matty] met Lin Shaye at HorrorHound and she was the nicest, kindest, funniest person…her lineup of films throughout her career is unimaginable! A class act! And even in bad films, she is the standout.”

Take Too podcast exclaims, “a true horror movie icon!”

Drinking and Screaming podcast states, “Lin Shaye is a delight to watch on screen. Her career spans over [four] decades, making multiple iconic horror films along the way, making her a true Scream Queen. The Insidious series would NOT be the successful saga that it is without her.

And the Final Boys said, “Ohhhhh boyyyy 🙂 Lin Shaye is a legend! She truly embraces and embodies the horror genre.”

Lin comments on the secret to her success, “I love finding my character, no matter what. I never really made a distinction between bit player and a big role. I’ve always just been obsessed with storytelling and feeling like I had an ability and talent to step into other people’s lives and live as that character. And that for me, that was always the fun. I become that other person and Lin sort of disappears in the background” (LA Times). Shaye is an incredibly talented character actor! Her level of talent, entertainment, and thrill is consistent. You are never disappointed by any of her performances. No matter how big or small the role, Shaye takes the fantastic and mediocre horror films to new levels to transform them into cinematic experiences that are incredibly enjoyable.

Annie Graham

“I am your mother!”

And the Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role…ironically did not include the BEST performance of 2018, Toni Collette’s Annie Graham in Hereditary. And not just best performance in a horror film, but best performance period. The Academy mostly, but also the big award shows in general, continue to ignore horror genre when it comes to nominating motion pictures. While I could write an entire article on the greatness and relevance of the American horror film (as that is my area of expertise), I want to focus on the character of Annie Graham (and Collette’s performance) specifically. Her performance and character was a watershed moment, of sorts, for the American horror film. It had been quite a while since horror delivered such a complex character brought to life in a command performance. Not that this was the first outstanding lead performance in a horror film, but it was the first in a long time. The character of Annie is a true-to-life relatable character because she is going through grief, not unlike the grief that we experience when we lose a loved one. Because this is a film, it was necessary for Ari Aster to externalize all of her emotions. Motion pictures are a visually driven story medium after all.

Collette’s captivating, terrifying performance as Annie Graham is one that certainly screamed Oscar contender. We are hard-pressed to find and encounter another more compelling and gritty performance.  Annie is both a tortured daughter and reluctant mother, and provides us with so much material to analyze. Whether talking horror or other genres, the role of Annie Graham will go down in the record books as one of the most gut-wrenching characters of contemporary cinema. Collette’s performance is spellbinding as you get forcibly sucked into this twisted world of a family-heirloom evil. From the crazy outbursts to the intense brooding, lingering moments, Annie is our conduit for facing greatest fears of the far-reaching effects of loss in this unapologetic exploration of how hard it can be to cope with major losses while managing a marriage and motherhood. Being a mother is tough, sometimes on the best of days; and when great loss and a disconnect to that which was familiar happens, it tests the mind and heart’s ability to cope.

We cannot truly discuss the complexities of Annie without addressing that which isn’t even explicitly shown on screen. In order to fully understand Annie, we must first take time to acknowledge the context clues that point to the trauma of her past, a trauma that already existed even before the loss of her mother and daughter within a short time of one another. Part of Annie is stuck in this tortured past that is hinted at through the miniaturized, dollhouse-like pieces of art she crafts with meticulous precision. This is Annie’s method for coping with the ghosts of her past. We do not know precisely what happened to Annie as a girl, but she most likely grew up under the watchful eye of an overbearing, controlling mother. Only this depiction is one that she can control. But when events happen that are out of Annie’s control, she loses that sense of control and all hell breaks loose. We can relate to her on this level because we also go a little mad–“we all go a little mad sometimes”–when we cannot control the conflicts, struggles, and obstacles around us. I doubt many, if any of us, could keep composed when losing our mother and a child (or sibling) at nearly the same time. Annie is real, gritty, and transparent. While she may be collapsing under pressure, she refuses to give in to ending her own life, which she expresses a desire to do after she discovers the headless body of her daughter in her car.

Loss, guilt, isolation, and grief are three of life’s experiences that we can all connect on because we all encounter them on out own journeys. And when we are suddenly hit with one (or more) of them, we grasp at straws trying to figure out how to cope. It’s a disruption in the patterns and rhythms by which we live our lives. What I love about the character of Annie is her determination to (1) deal with the trauma of her past (2) navigate the ocean of emotions associated with the two losses suffered and (3) maintain her marriage and motherhood of her son. She is unrelenting in her refusal to become a victim. This struggle to not fully give into the uncontrollable anger is not without its consequences or outbursts of a loss of momentary control. She is human. And she wanders the murky, windy path of grief, looking for answers to why. Of course, it’s this quest for answers that leads her down a dark road that Annie cannot possibly control. We cannot control how we manage grief, we have to allow the coping to take a natural course. Just like Annie, we too look for ways of overcoming the psychological and emotional pressures that come part and parcel with the effects of the loss of a loved one.

Even when Annie tries to get her family to believe that she is a medium and can contact the dead, they either do not believe or choose not to believe. There are plenty of times in the movie that Annie simply wants someone to listen to her, hence why she makes the connection with Joan. When you listen to someone (not just passively hear them), but actively listen, you form a connection. It’s a means it heal the broken connections caused by loss and grief. And that is tangible evidence that Annie is searching for. Visible connections to begin to re-establish her life and role as a mother. Like Annie, we too desire to form meaningful connections. Without human connection, we can so easily lost our way or retreat into isolation. Annie’s fights these feelings of being isolated by her family, but she has an incredibly difficult time. We can relate with her struggle, as we too have experienced similar feelings. Annie is truly us in so many ways, and that is the power of the character. Genuine pain and anguish is depicted in the film and Annie responds to it in ways not unlike our own.

Perhaps the character of Annie will not be as memorable as other leading ladies of horror, but the performance by Toni Collette will certainly be talked about for a long time. Annie teaches us that navigating the complicated paths of loss, grief, guilt, and isolation can be difficult and take an immense toll on the human mind and body. I appreciate how she externalizes so much of what goes on inside the human mind.

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!

 

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“IT: Chapter 2” Horror Movie Review

The larger, less terrifying chapter. Return to Derry, Maine with the Losers Club as they once again face the nightmarish clown Pennywise. With expectations set incredibly high from the critical and box office success of the first chapter, chapter 2 had some major clown shoes to fill. And was it successful? That is mostly up to the individual audience members; however, from a critical perspective, the second chapter falls short of the first one in both character and plot. While there are some scary moments (mostly driven by jump-scares) and some good character-driven moments, as a whole, the movie feels bloated for time, poorly paced, unintentionally campy, and not nearly as creepy as the first one. Even though I did not question the run time when it was announced, there is not enough plot to effectively justify the nearly 3-hour length of the movie. For example, you spend about a third of the movie in flashbacks that do little to advance the plot but thankfully provide some additional context for the characters. Although the movie chronologically takes place 27 years after the first one, it has only been two years for us, but the second chapter plays out as a sequel that is many years separated from the original. Whereas I am not impressed by the plot, I am incredibly impressed with the outstanding casting. The resemblance that the adult characters have to the teenage characters is uncanny. Solid performances all the way around, although none stick out to me as outstanding. Had this movie been in the neighborhood of 2-2.25hrs, then I believe that there would have been enough plot; but as it is, it was stretched too thin. I appreciated the original for expertly crafting the atmosphere of dread and delivering terrifyingly creepy moments not primarily reliant upon jump-scares; but this second chapter seems to fall victim to sequelitis and revert to using jump-scares more than the art of crafting suspense with the camera. At the end of the day, this is a fun way to kick off your Halloween season, but perhaps this isn’t THE movie that defines the Halloween horror season. Still, if you’re planning to attend Halloween Horror Nights Orlando or Hollywood, then this will still suffice as a solid way to kick off the season.

It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club thought they defeated IT. But Pennywise has returned to the sleepy town of Derry. Following the occurrences several mysterious missing children and teenagers and a Pennywise sighting, Mikey calls all his old friends back to Derry, with little explanation as to why, other than IT has returned. The group of old friends must band together and face their respective fears, past traumas, and deepest darkest secrets that have been eating away at them all these years.

If Derry was supposed to be characterized as a backwards town, then this movie does its job. I don’t think that anyone is going to desire to visit the quaint town steeped in death and bigotry. The opening of the movie is shocking, hooking you into the twisted world that is Derry, Maine. Unfortunately, the provocative opening feels largely disconnected from the rest of the  movie, except it serves to forcibly position Mikey in a place from where he sees Pennywise has returned to his hometown. The next sequence of scenes shows us the present lives of the members of the Losers Club and the reactions to the news that IT may not have been dead after all. Every one of the members of the Losers Club except for Mikey left the small town and built successful winning careers for themselves. Once the Losers Club is back together again, all hell breaks loose in the sleepy hamlet throws its worst at them. One of the disadvantages of one chapter having child actors and another chapter adult actors (portraying the same characters) is the increased risk of there being a disconnect between the audience and the characters. Moreover, that disconnect can affect the audience in such a way that the degree of empathy felt for a character mitigates. That is the case with IT Chapter 2. Since much of the character development was in Chapter One with the child actors, we are thrown back into this world with different actors and simply do not ultimately care deeply what happens to the characters. We care, but not as much as if we followed the same actors or we were provided with sufficient character development in this chapter. We simply don’t care enough about these characters (played by these incredible actors).

One of the cardinal rules of screenwriting that I feel IT Chapter 2 broke was allowing the flashback to encroach upon, if not become more interesting than the main story. Until a writer knows how to effectively use flashbacks, it is important to stay away from them because flashback abuse is all too easy. Few movies that make significant use of the flashback have done so in such a way the the stories are just as interesting as each other or make the main story even more intriguing. My go-to example of a film that makes brilliant use of flashbacks is the Americana classic Fried Green Tomatoes. The reason why flashbacks work in that movie is because both the stories from the past and present are just as interesting as one another; furthermore, the characters in the past help us to develop the characters in the present. Character development is strong all the way around, and the characters mirror one another in many respects. In short, the main plot is always moving forward, even the flashbacks provide direction for the main story. Unfortunately, the prolific use of flashbacks in IT: Chapter 2, come off as a lazy plot device that serves to drag down the pacing of the main story. In fact, there are so many flashbacks that are misused that it adds a signifiant amount of run time to the movie that could have been cut out to streamline the plot. Had there not been such a large sum of flashbacks, then the story may have exhibited better pacing and not felt so bloated just to be a nearly 3hr movie.

Seems like everyone wants to be a 3hr movie nowadays. The problem therein is that, in all likelihood, there lacks sufficient plot to cover three hours. It’s important for a writer to not only show scenes of characters facing conflict, but the writer needs to show the character’s reaction to the conflict. Much like with a screenplay as a whole, a well-written scene has a setup–conflict–resolution. This movie is often missing the resolution in the individual scenes. I still don’t know why we have the date gone wrong at the beginning of the movie other than to make the statement that this movie seeks to normalize that which should be seen as normal or that this is a progressive movie. Furthermore, we make the assumption from Chapter 1 that Richie is gay and even see some evidence to suggest it further in Chapter 2 as this is the deep dark secret that has been eating away at him for most of his life. Richie’s character-driven subplot and the opening scene could have been helped by including the scene from the book in which Bowers explores his sexuality with a friend because that would setup the inner conflict and denial that manifests itself in his treatment of Richie and violent behavior towards others. However, we never revisit this–what could’ve been an excellent–character moment. I think it’s great to have a diverse, inclusive cast of characters, but don’t start a subplot or setup character development that will go nowhere or is merely a plot device to explain something.

While horror movies are no strangers to camp, both literally and figuratively, this movie is unintentionally campy. A campy movie is one that intentionally contains extreme or perverse imagery that boasts an amusing quality that uses exaggerated genre or thematic tropes that over-emphasize an element of the movie. Camp is intentional. When camp is accidental, there is the chance that the director can capture lightning in a bottle, but that is not usually the cade. IT: Chapter 2 is not campy in the costuming, production design, or dialogue, but in the oversized monsters throughout the movie. From the giant old naked lady with her saggy boobs to the random Paul Bunyan statue coming to life, there are giant monsters seemingly everywhere. And it’s not simply the presence of the monsters, although I thought it reached ridiculous proportions, but the movement and purpose of them is what I call into question. The small creatures were great, but the large ones were not terrifying at all–more like laughable. Other than the initial jump scare, the monsters don’t help the level of terror at all.

Now, there is one scene in particular that is probably the scariest of all, and it’s the scene that takes place under the bleachers. I won’t go into spoilers. With all these monstrous creatures and jump-scares, the movie lacks in the same atmosphere of dread that made the first one work so incredibly well. It’s the little things that were scariest in the original. Speaking of the little things, Pennywise definitely stepped up his game in this one. There are so many nuances to his character and the performance that are terrifying–especially for those with a phobia of clowns. If any element is just as good, if not improved over chapter one, it is Pennywise, expertly portrayed by Bill Skarsgard.

Even though you may have to set your expectation bar a little lower, compared to the original, in order to best experience this horror movie, a true horror fan will still enjoy the movie. Perhaps not as much as the original, but it’s still a solid way to start the Halloween horror season. Speaking of which, Halloween Horror Nights Orlando and Hollywood open up this weekend! Consider starting with or pairing your theme park haunts with this movie.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and teaches high school TV/Film production. 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!

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Sinister Summer: Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare”

Before “meta horror” became commonplace, to the point that the once innovative concept has become all too cliche, Wes Craven wrote and directed his triumphant return to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (although, he did co-write Dream Warriors). Made, not only for horror fans but also for general horror audiences, New Nightmare is a horror film within a horror film that successfully dances the line between reality and fantasy. One can easily liken that to the very character of Freddy Krueger who exists in our dreams but can inflect real pain. A fascinating parallel! Craven’s revolutionary approach to one of the most iconic franchises in horror history begs the question asked of horror filmmakers whether the effects of the diegesis on screen cross over into the real world, affecting the actions and thoughts of people who love to watch horror films. Beyond the meta nature of the plot of New Nightmare, there is also a self-reflexive element to the plot because the story, lore, and movies of Freddy loops back on itself by confronting the creators of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes, Robert “Bob” Shaye, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, and even future horror star Lin Shaye (Robert Shaye’s sister) are all playing themselves, and even referencing the Nightmare movies in the same way we do. Heather even references all the movies in the franchise, not just the one’s she’s in.

While other franchises force a reboot or revival in order to bring back an iconic horror icon–by way of just chalking the return up to being a superhuman, resurrected, or supernatural with little to no reasoning–New Nightmare provides evidence (albeit supernatural) for why more Freddy films need to be made. Therefore, Freddy will appear in one more movie (two more, if you count this one). One more, because we do not count the 2010 remake (it does not exist). While few will dispute that the original A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best, it is quite possible that this self-reflexive entry is the second best. During graduate school, when studying horror films, I used Carol Clover’s pleasurable unpleasure and Freud’s uncanny often when exploring the subtext and themes of horror. Both of these theoretical approaches to reading and understanding horror films are clearly visible in this brilliant story. We get pleasure out of and attracted to that which should repulse us. Therefore, we do not want Freddy to be dead. In many ways, we need Freddy to live, and New Nightmare brings Freddy back for an encore in the present story and Freddy vs Jason. Of course, we’ve had the first appearance of Robert Englund as Freddy in last year’s Halloween episode of The Goldbergs and there is massive social media support for Englund to play Freddy one last time.

It had been ten years since Freddy made his debut in cinemas worldwide! The once near-bankrupt New Line Cinema rose up from the ashes to become a powerhouse of films and distribution. While the first three Nightmare on Elm Street movies are solidly horror, the franchise took a different route than Halloween or Friday the 13th by relying upon comedy to the point that the franchise became a parody of itself. The worst offender being Freddy’s Dead. We watch them because we love Englund as the iconic horror villain, but the movie’s plot and other characters were complete garbage. Fun garbage, but garbage nevertheless. With the downward trajectory of the franchise heading to “direct to TV or DVD” territory, why make another Freddy movie? Simply stated, Bob Shaye said “because the public wants it.” This line is from a Shaye cameo in New Nightmare, referencing the Nightmare movie that is being produced within the film we are watching, but is also very much why New Nightmare was made. Although I have no empirical data to back up this statement, I imagine that Freddy has more fans than Jason or Michael. From his self-deprecating humor, memorable one-liners, and creative kills (despite a low body count), he has found his way into our cinemas, homes, and dreams.

New Nightmare represents a return to true horror for the franchise. Not that Freddy doesn’t have some funny lines, but the focus of the film is on the horror of Freddy manifesting in the real world. Under the direction and writing of the brilliant Wes Craven, the Nightmare franchise was about to get a heaping helping of genuine horror infused back into the series. The strength of this movie is in the script and direction that was about to take horror to new frontiers by pioneering the largely untapped sub-genre of meta-horror. Whereas Craven’s Scream is the definitive meta-horror, he used New Nightmare as the training ground. Therefore, we can consider New Nightmare as the proto-meta-horror film. Upon a close reading of New Nightmare, the groundwork can be witnessed that would support what would become Scream. In addition to exploring a new sub-genre, this film delivers the horrifying, murderous, Freddy that we were first introduced to in 1984 instead of the sinister clown that he became in Freddy’s Dead. Once again, he becomes the centerpiece, only this time his claws are sharper and he’s been given a more sinister makeover. None of this could come together if Englund wasn’t reprising his iconic role. But instead of more blood, Freddy and Craven deliver quality scares, kills, and drama versus shallow kill after kill gore fests.

The central question in this film is: where does the line between fantasy and reality lie? Moreover, is it a dark, bold line or it is one that is blurred or delineated? The first movie was inspired by the series of real articles in the Los Angeles Times that chronicled people who claimed to have been nearly scared to death in their nightmares, but then they actually died. This film takes the idea of a dream-like killer to the next level by using the past Freddy movies as a springboard, as a source of energy for the idea of Freddy to cross over into our reality. What’s crazy is that we have witnessed this IN real life. Here’s a great example: in Se7en, the film never actually shows Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in the famous box; however, countless people report to have seen her head in the box. It is an idea that is so largely collectively shared that it becomes part of our reality. So, Craven is taking that same idea and applying it to A Nightmare on Elm Street. The fascination I have with this particular installment in the franchise is just how brilliantly Craven dances that line between fantasy and reality; he does it in such a way that it comments on our fascination with horror movies. Much like Craven’s line I referenced earlier is both about the movie within the movie and about us (the audience), Heather Langenkamp questions “don’t you people ever think about the effect your movies have on the people who watch them? A question for (1) Craven and (2) Shaye in the film and (3) by extension, a question to us (the audience). Deep, right?

The concept of Freddy crossing over from the screen to our world is a fascinating approach to take in this film that laid the groundwork for Craven to forever change the landscape of the American horror film just two years later in Scream. Craven’s masterful grasp of horror storytelling is highlighted in his speeches within the film. Furthermore, his years as a humanities professor certainly provided a critical lens through which he analyzed what makes horror special. There are few other writers/directors who understand the genre as well as Craven did. I absolutely love the idea Craven posits in the film that when a horror story dies that an evil force is released upon the world because it needs to live somewhere. And if not in its story, in our world. A terrifying prospect. Furthermore, once can extrapolate from Craven’s monologues in the film that we need horror films to contain as much of the evil in the world as possible. These films keep nightmares from consuming us in real life. He urges us to keep these stories alive because they are how we work through so many of life’s perils, traumas, and conflicts that tap into our most primal fears.

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!

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“Annabelle Comes Home” horror movie review

“Miss me?” Adventures in Babysitting meets The Conjuring Universe. Well it’s not bad, but not as strong as Creation. Still, it’s better than the first one. Annabelle Comes Home hit theatres Tuesday, June 25th with a new story to further develop the WarrenVerse. Inspired by the documented paranormal investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the third installment in the Annabelle franchise follows on the heels of the first Annabelle. From the very first shot to the last, this installment delivers a highly atmospheric horror movie that is not built upon jump-scare after jump-scare, but instead focusses on suspenseful windups. Unfortunately, therein lacks a substantive delivery following the engaging windup. Central to the movie is a small cast of three leading characters, so there was such a fantastic opportunity to develop these characters; regrettably, even within this intimate setting with a small group, the characters mostly fall flat. The movie has a strong first act, and transitions into the second act very well; however, we spend most of our time in that second act going in circles until the anticlimactic showdown. Because of the terrifying atmosphere created in the film, there is an excellent haunted house feel to it that I liked a lot. I generally prefer atmosphere to jump scares, although both are important and should be included in the right amounts. Ultimately, the movie fails to provide a compelling story but makes for a mostly fun horror movie.

Following the bizarre events and exorcism at the nursing students’ apartment, Ed and Lorraine Warren place Annabelle in the backseat of their car to take to their cursed artifact room at their house. To protect the world from the evil conduit Annabelle, they place her on a chair in a glass case made from glass from Trinity Church. On the eve of the Warren’s daughter Judy’s birthday, Ed and Lorraine leave for an overnight trip and leave their daughter under the care of a babysitter. While Judy and her babysitter are baking a cake, the babysitter’s friend shows up and offers to watch the cake and house while Judy uses her new rollerskates. When in the house alone, she breaks the house rule and enters the Warren’s occult museum. In this room, she unleashes an evil that will stop at nothing until it claims a soul.

Although this installment in the Annabelle franchise is better than the first one, the story is weak compared to the second one, which met with both highly positive audience and critic reviews. Like with so many horror movies, this one also suffers from an underdeveloped plot and flat characters. The plot is so underdeveloped that there is ostensibly no plot at all. It’s as if the screenwriters (James Wan and Gary Dauberman) took the premise and wrote five principle characters for it, but then forgot that the screenplay should (1) follow the three-act structure (2) include characters with well-defined external goals and internal needs and (3) start each scene as close to the end of the scene as possible. While most of the characters lack any kind of real emotional development, the character of Daniella is the only one that goes on any kind of emotional journey that allows her to grow as a result of the conflict with Annabelle. Leading and chief supporting characters in a screenplay need to have an external/measurable goal motivated by an internal need. The external goal is aligned with the action plot and the internal need is aligned with the subplot. But when your story seems to be plotting along aimlessly, therein lies a problem because it’s difficult to support character goals when there is no real end in sight. Once we are in the second act, the story just moves in circles until the anticlimactic, forced showdown lacking in any true realization.

What this movie lacks in story, it makes up for in atmosphere, production design, and non-repetitive scares. There is a sense of foreboding from the moment that the movie begins, and continues throughout. Essentially, it becomes a haunted house movie complete with all the lighting, music, and entrapment. Even before I thought much about the story and characters, when the credits began to roll, my first thought was “this would make for a great HHN house.” The atmosphere of terror is achieves though lowkey lighting, harsh shadows, the cinematography, and haunting score. The movie is not overstuffed with scares, and when there are jump scares, they are never repeated. It also helps that we only have three main characters that are all trapped in this haunted house and act as our conduit through which we also experience the evil entity in the house. If you wanna feel transported to a haunted house, then this movie does an excellent job of making you feel like you are right there with the characters. In the past, we have spent some time in the Warren’s house, but this is the first time that we spend nearly the entire movie in their literal house of horrors. The manner in which the camera movies and the music rises and falls assists in the creation of suspense, and the movie will hold you in suspense nearly the whole time. Unfortunately, the problem is that the payoff after the windup is lackluster at best. Great suspense, pool payoff. When crafting suspense in plot or with the camera, remember that the payoff should equal the windup.

If you are a horror fan, then I definitely recommend watching it in the cinema; but for general audiences, it’s one that can be enjoyed just as well at home when it hits Amazon Prime or other streaming services.

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!

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“Dark City” (1998) Throwback Thursday Film Review

The “thinking man’s Matrix.” That is how fellow critic and senior producer of One Movie Punch Joseph Dobzynski describes this underrated neo-noir science-fiction film that predates The Matrix. For the weekly film screening with my cinephile friend Leon in Germany, he selected Dark City. Truly visionary and incredibly rewatchable! I don’t know about you, but I had never even heard of it before. Perhaps that’s because I was so young when it came out. But I am glad that we watched it. It’s now among my favorite neo-noir films.  Never before have I seen a film take the stylistic techniques of film noir and extended them into the realm of fantasy, delivering a motion picture that is highly artistic and cerebral. Perhaps the film was ahead of its time, and that’s why it does not receive the fanfare that The Matrix gets. Between the two, objectively this one is more thought-provoking and artistic. Directed by Alex Proyas, this Fincher meets Scott neo-noir successfully fuses a classical film noir/detective mystery approach with futuristic fantastical allegory. One of the elements of early horror and film-noir that I feel gets lost today is the extension of the plot into the setting itself to the degree that the setting becomes a defacto character. Just as a human is more than the sum of his or her parts, so a setting can be more than the sum of its physical dimensions and time. I would have loved to have experienced watching this one on the big screen to get the full surrealist effect of being completely immersed in this volatile world. Hey Fathom Events, put this one on your list!

John Murdoch wakes up in a bathtub in an unfamiliar hotel just to find out that he is wanted for a bizarre string of murders in a cult or serial killer fashion. One problem, he has no memory of committing the murders, nor much of a memory of anything save a place called Shell Beach. Thinking that he may have completely lost his mind, Murdoch begins to connect the pieces together in order to solve the twisted riddle of his identity. After a bizarre run-in with someone claiming to be his wife and a persistent detective, Murdoch continues to unravel the mystery surrounding the entire unnamed city. Never could he have imagined that his investigation would lead him to uncovering the presence of ominous group of aliens that have taken over the city. The truth that he uncovers will blow your mind.

Next to horror, film-noir is my favorite genre. And yes, we could all too easily debate film-noir‘s status as a genre as it only existed for a moment in cinematic history; and anything more modern is considered neo-noir, but for the sake of argument, let’s accept film-noir as a genre. There is a beauty to this film that does not exist in The Matrix. And that beauty runs incredibly fluidly from page to screen as is made evident from the brilliantly crafted setting, characters and conflict. There is a Metropolis-like quality to the setting and characters in Dark City. Even before Inception blew our minds with its ability to completely immerse us in the world of reality manipulated by the boundless imagination, Dark City transformed the landscape of this city in perpetual darkness. Some of the cinematic characteristics of film noir are found in the lowkey lighting, architecture inspired from German expressionism, and often a character playing the role of a detective. Whereas detective/mystery is a separate genre, there are several films with overlap between noir and detective. If you pay close attention to the production design, you will notice that the buildings grow more elongated and twisted the closer Murdoch gets to solving the mystery; furthermore, the buildings grow more slanted as Murdoch reaches the edges of the city. On a meta level, the setting is an extension of the mind of Murdoch and reflects his memories or lack thereof, more precisely the unreliability of memories. Just as his [Murodoch’s] memory is unreliable, so is the cityscape in which he resides. Characters and settings change and display broken collective memories, even when remembering how to get to Shell Beach. The design of the setting demonstrates Proyas’ attention to the stylized visual components of building this hybrid noir/sci-fi.

Whereas the neo-noir characters and world, in which they live, are very much a product of a reimagination of the film-noir genre, the conflict and plot (after the very much noir first act) are a deconstruction of the noir genre through a science-fiction plot. One of the dangers the many science-fiction screenwriters encounter is that he or she spends way too much time on constructing the science-fiction world and technology and quickly writes characters for the world. The error: starting with the world instead of with the characters or plot. Proyas demonstrates a strong commitment to his characters and plot, followed by the world. He was able to masterfully craft both because he used the world from one and the plot from another. Think of this combination of noir and sci-fi elements as Walt Disney’s patented multi-plane camera (last used on The Black Cauldron). Instead of elements mixed together, they were layered on top of one another in order to increase the depth of story. The plot remains simple; but the conflict, characters and world built on top of it gives the illusion of a complex plot. The screenplay stays true to a simple plot and complex characters. Through this visionary approach of fusing a film-noir setting to a science-fiction plot, Proyas provides the characters (and by extension, audience) a thought-provoking means of exploring reality in a most cinematic fashion.

There are considerable similarities between Blade Runner and Dark City in terms of the setting, score, and cinematography. And this is to be expected from a director who has demonstrated an admiration of Ridley Scott’s brilliant film. In retrospect, there are prominent earmarks of Muholland Drive by David Lynch as well. The meta nature of this film can be observed in the city itself. As the plot unfolds, we learn that the city is glorified set–not so different from a film set which changes throughout production in order to capture each and every scene. Just as a mood ring supposedly visualizes the emotion of the wearer, the set serves as an extension of the paranoia of its inhabitants. Capturing the madness experienced by the characters, specifically Murdoch, in the setting and cinematography adds to the experience of watching this film by creating an immersive environment as much for us as it is the characters. As this film is a means to deconstruct a film-noir through a science-fiction plot, we have the trademark characters such as a love interest and private eye; but instead of a central character who is experiencing a type of psychosis, the central character of Murdoch is the only character who has complete control of his mind and thus sees the cracks in the world created for him by The Strangers. This inverse of the central character injects this story with innovative ingenuity.

I would be remiss to not analyze the characters of opposition led by Mr. Book (Ian Richardson), with a notable chief of his version of the KGB, Mr. Hand played by the legendary Richard O’Brien (the writer/director of Rocky Horror Picture Show). While Mr. Book is the leader of The Strangers, the alien species whom have kidnapped these citizens of earth to place them in this futuristic experiment to analyze what constitutes the human soul, we spend most of our time with Mr. Hand. To borrow from Game of Thrones, Mr. Hand is the hand of the king. While these aliens resemble humanoid lifeforms, they are in actuality a jellyfish like species that uses human bodies as hosts in order to interact with humans. For all the power that their telekinetic abilities give them, water and sun is their greatest enemy, hence why Shell Beach is nowhere to be found and the city is perpetually in darkness. Just like Murdoch is an inverted noir central character, The Strangers are inverted humans as they have a great fear of water and sunlight, whereas humans require water and sunlight to remain healthy. I cannot help but wonder that Star Trek TNG and Voyager’s The Borg was influential in the development of The Strangers, as they both share the hive-like mind and pale skin. Of course, a chief difference is The Strangers’ ability to adopt some unique traits to blend in with the humans.

In retrospect, this is a much stronger film than The Matrix. Both share a similar premise, but the original expression of the shared premise in Dark City is far more timeless than the more famous of the two. And I am not merely talking about the visual effects, of which they hold up better in Dark City than The Matrix; I am talking about the comprehensive execution of the two films. Had James Cameron’s Titanic not dwarfed Dark City, then it may have been seen as the superior film to The Matrix by wider audiences than the strong cult following it currently has. But why do I feel that Dark City is superior to The Matrix? Simply stated, it comes down to the writing and direction. There are so many more layers to the writing and direction that makes it a cerebral film. I would not characterize The Matrix as a thinking man’s film, but I would Dark City. You can liken the two to Star Wars vs Star Trek (TV series). Star Wars is action-driven whereas Star Trek is largely character-driven. One may even go so far as to call The Matrix high concept and Dark City low concept. On the topic of visual effects, virtually all the effects in The Matrix are CGI; conversely, Dark City contains a beautiful fusion of practical effects (including miniatures) supplemented with digital effects. Dark City feels so much more real, tangible. It’s that authenticity that makes it the stronger of the two and warrants far more rewatches.

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!

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