“Stranger Things” Season Three TV Review

StrangerThings3_tallNetflix’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 SnatchersThe 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!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

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Jordan Peele’s “The Twilight Zone” Season 1 Review

You’re about to enter a dimension, not only of sight and sound, but of mind. That’s the signpost up ahead. Next stop, Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone. Debuting on April 1st, the revival of the classic anthology series The Twilight Zone, created by Rod Sterling, hit CBS All Access. For many resisters to paying for a “broadcast” channel’s streaming app (whereas most apps are free or included with a cable/satellite subscription), CBS finally figured out how to force wallets. Between TZ and the new Star Trek featuring the highly anticipated return of Patrick Stewart as his most famous character of all time Captain Picard, CBS knows precisely how to get you to subscribe to its service. I’d love to see difference in subscribers before Peele’s Twilight Zone and after. Have you seen the new series?

Although TZ has been revived before, it never quite took off the way the original did, and still commands an audience. Regularly ranked as one of the best written shows of all time by the WGA, IMDb, and other respected organizations and sites, this show left an indelible mark on television. Furthermore, it has even influenced recent cinema and television as evident in shows/movies such as Black MirrorUsAre You Afraid of the DarkEx Machina, and more. Rod Sterling’s groundbreaking show creatively tackled complex issues such as conformity, the uncanny, human frailty, fear of the unknown, self-destruction, faith and lack thereof, paranormal/supernatural, and more. Specifically, it was a welcoming place for all kinds of people to explore these topics. No matter how the central character’s tragic flaw affected him/her, whether for the positive or negative, you could always count on the episode’s moral compass pointing north and a closing monologue from Sterling to tie everything up.

Right out the gate, I feel that the series premiere was on the weak side, but it made up for the sluggish start in episode 1 with episode 2 (released with E1), an adaptation of one of the most popular episodes in the original series Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. I thought it would be fun to analyze and review each episode in the seasons of this show. The challenge of this new series is to deliver the same powerful, memorable stories as the original. Since this is an anthology series, and therefore each episode is a complete story in and of itself, it is not fair, at this early stage, to generalize a review of the show–not yet anyway. So, you’ll find reviews of each episode in this blog. For the sake of readability, I’ve limited each episode to one paragraph. Simply click an episode to jump to that part of this running review.

Season One Evaluation

In short, this premiere season fell flat until Episode 10. It’s thanks to that single episode that we have hope that Peele’s series can perhaps overcome the plethora of struggles it has demonstrated it has in the future seasons. Pacing is a big issue, not to mention largely missing that Twilight Zone magic in most of the episodes. With the exception of Episode 10, the rest of the episodes do not justify their “hour long” runtimes. The plots that we have witnessed are better suited for a half-hour runtime. Striving to not be so on-the-nose or polarizing is something else that I would like to see moving forward. Some of the episodes this season depict unfair representations of groups of people that do not help facilitate progressive and beneficial discussions. Instead of being concerned with perpetuating ill-informed or prejudicial representations of types of characters, this episodes need to place focus on the root cause not the symptoms. Moreover, the future episodes should place more value in allowing the audience to make up their minds on how they view a conflict, allegory, or situation more than the episode telling you how to think, feel, or behave. Episode 10 gives us reason to look forward to season 2.

Episodes

  1. The Comedian
  2. Nightmare at 30,000 Feet
  3. Replay
  4. A Traveler
  5. The Wunderkind
  6. Six Degrees of Freedom
  7. Not All Men
  8. Point of Origin
  9. The Blue Scorpion
  10. Blurryman

The Comedian

If you haven’t watched either E1 or E2 yet, I recommend starting with E2 because this first episode drags as it searches for its dimension. At its core, this episode is about the perils of fame, treating people as disposable commodities, and be careful what you wish for. Solid themes around which to build a show. Despite Peele having a shared writing credit on this first episode, the Sterling-esque monologue/narration and plot do not appear to have a singular unifying voice. Much like his recent Us struggles to tell a singular, coherent story. It’s an ambitious interpretation of Faust, but the episode isn’t capable of following up the ambition with effective delivery. If you recall, the majority of the original TZ episodes were half-hour shows. The original series wasn’t produced simply to entertain, but was written to tackle socio-political, religious, and psycho-social topics. This was accomplished through thought-provoking stories with am emphasis on the writing more so than the visual design. Now that I have the negative out of the way, I would be remiss to not highlight what it did well. The performances by lead Kumail Nanjiani and supporting cast Diarra Kilpatrick, and Tracy Morgan were fantastic! Additionally, the cinematography and editing were on point. One of the key differences between the original series and Peele’s new one is the production quality. Even though I have no issues with the production value and design of the OG, I do greatly appreciate this new one for the cinematic quality to the story. Had The Comedian been a 30min episode, I think that it would have been better executed.

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Nightmare at 30,000 Feet

Parks and Rec‘s Adam Scott figuratively steps into the shoes and sits in the airline seat of William Shatner in an adaptation of one of the most popular, recognizable and oft parodied episodes of the original Twilight Zone. Completely grounded in the premise of the original, but writers find a way to provide us with a new interpretation that brings the iconic plot into the 21st century. If you’re wondering if it’s an unnecessary, pretentious remake in the vein of Psycho (1998) or The Lion King (2019), then you can exercise relief as this episode will have you on the edge of your airline seat. Without going into spoilers, you’ll likely not think of podcasts or aircrafts in the same way next time you travel. Unlike the previous episode, this one is much stronger. I wish the series had launched with this as the premiere instead of The Comedian. When you think of the bizarre, uncanny nature of many of the original series episodes, you think of that intersection of shadow and substance a which these stories occur. And this reimagination of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet holds moderately strong to the pacing, tone, and structure of the original. Although the writing of episode 2 is tighter than episode 1, it still falls a little shy of the exemplary writing of the source material. For example, the original at 22mins delivers a more powerful punch with all the character and plot development therein than this new one does in nearly 1hr. That’s not to say that episode 2 is not effective and enjoyable–it is. But just not AS effective or memorable as the original. At the core, this story is about the worldview of having people think you’re crazy is almost worse than actually being crazy; furthermore, it also touches on the fear of terrorism. The windup is a little slow, but then as soon as he sits in his seat, you are in for the flight of your life. That is, until the final scene and closing words from Peele confuse instead of clarify (much like Us).

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Replay

After the fantastic second episode in Jordan Peele’s revival of The Twilight Zone, the third episode gets bogged down in politics instead of focussing on the moral or thought-provoking message. The science-fiction element of the now-retro camcorder that rewinds time gets overshadowed by the message of remembering one’s roots, but that theme gets lost when the plot chooses to divert attention to the relationship between white law enforcement and the black community. Taking its inspiration from another classic original episode, this one perpetuates and reinforces a real division that exists in some areas of the country between two groups of people. Although this episode could have been used as an allegory that could be applied to many different issues of prejudice and unfair treatment, it chooses to focus on one particular socio-political issue that runs the risk of further alienating audiences than unifying them. At its core, it is not about any particular theme but instead highlights the issue of white law enforcement brutality against black individuals. Replay could have been a powerful episode that inspires productive, positive change; but in lieu of a call-to-action, it reinforces the idea that most white law enforcement officers treat black individuals grossly unfairly. Statistically speaking, that is simply not true. But due to media attention and high profile cases that do show mistreatment that needs to be condemned, there is a growing idea that this is the state of affairs in general. Yes, this is a real issue that has been highlighted in the news for years now, but I am afraid an episode like this seeks to divide instead of mend or evoke constructive change. In terms of the plot, the episode executes its setup quite well, but feels stretched to fill the “hour” much like the previous two episodes. Our lead characters are developed effectively and we even get a backstory that is strategically revealed as we work our way through the story. Like with the first two episodes, we also witness excellent performances by the three lead characters in this episode. I appreciate Peele’s desire and ambition to approach this series like Sterling did; but it needs to deliver episodes that can be applied more generally to present-day audiences that can stand the test of time instead of focussing on message delivery that makes it a time capsule.

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A Traveler

It’s Christmastime in the Twilight Zone. More so than any of the previous three episodes of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone, this episode sets up its characters and plot more effectively than any other. The beginning truly feels like a Sterling-inspired episode. Whereas the previous stories in this new anthology series struggle to find their respective places within the library of Twilight Zone episodes, this one starts out as close to the pacing, tone, and feel of the original series as we have seen so far. The setup is so effective, that we don’t even need the opening commentary by Peele in his brilliant Sterling-fashion. Although this episode, like all previous ones, feels stretched for time, it attempts to follow the “joke” structure of the original series closely. I don’t mean joke as in funny-haha, I mean joke in that the OG episodes quite regularly setup the plot/characters in Act I, reinforced the plot/characters in Act II, then disrupts that pattern with a twist in Act III. If this were a typical joke, then that twist would be the punchline (“I’ll have 3 chili dogs, salt & vinegar french fries, and a diet soda”). In the case of A Traveler, Acts I and II are outstanding, but then the twist in Act III is a let down. The payoff does not equal the windup. Instead of adapting or reimagining any single classic episode for the new series, this episode channels several classic episodes in order to repackage into a new story. Like with the previous three episodes, this one takes a classic approach and attempts to comment on ethnocentrism, appropriation of property, and forcing a native people out of its land if it doesn’t conform to the “superior” group, but this analogy never quite solidifies. Without spoiling the twist, it is a twist that would have worked very well during the run of the original series, but doesn’t work as well in 2019. I appreciate the reason for the mysterious traveler’s sudden appearance, but just doesn’t do it for me. One of the best parts of the original series is that the end often prompts the audience to vicariously interact with the story by deciding what they would do. But that power is withheld by the audience by allowing a character to voice what should come from the audience. Moving forward, I hope to see future episodes that stick close to the pacing and tone of the original, but still provide the audience with the ability to interact with the story.

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The Wunderkind

Aside from episode two which was a direct adaptation from the OG, this is the episode that feels more like Sterling’s Twilight Zone than any of the others in terms of tone and substance. Parts of the plot of this episode feel like they are inspired by the famous It’s a Good Life episode about the boy whom wishes you out into the cornfield or kills you in front of him if you disagree with anything he says or feels. It’s his way or the highway. Clearly, this episode is a commentary on a child-like spoiled president, so it doesn’t take a political analyst to pinpoint the inspiration for the character of Oliver. Although many, if not most, of the most memorable TZ episodes contain a strong science-fiction or supernatural element, this one is a political satire. Unfortunately, that means that it may not sit as well with many TZ fans; however, I am a lifelong fan of the OG (the jury is still out on this one) and I enjoyed it. Albeit foreshadowed, the twist at the end is still very Twilight Zoney. Where this episode shows weakness is in the writing (again). I know that I mention the writing often, but it does seem to be this iteration’s Achilles heal. Like with previous episodes in Peele’s TZ, this one is also stretched to fill the nearly hour run time. Had this been a half-hour episode, then I feel that it would have exhibited better pacing. It starts out quite well, but get’s incredibly sluggish in the middle, then finishes strong enough. What I find particularly interesting about this episode is the commentary, not only on the president, but on the American public that despite knowing presidential politicians are manipulative, still readily believe whomever the newest or perhaps most unique candidate is. The takeaway from this episode is to be ever vigilant of the nature of those whom seek your vote or approval because it is likely that there is a significant self-serving angle to serving the public.

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Six Degrees of Freedom

Heavily inspired by classic Twilight Zone stories, this episode never truly leaves the launchpad. Six Degrees of Freedom features a six-man spacecraft crew on a mission to lay the groundwork for a colonization of Mars since Earth is nearly destroyed. After a reported impending nuclear attack, the crew decides to launch instead of a more conventional evacuation. With Mars nearly 300 days away and a presumed destroyed Earth behind them, they embark on the mission. The crew has a lot of time to ponder the tragic events they narrowly escaped and the overwhelming responsibility of what to do on Mars. The setup in this episode is classic Sterling, and works incredibly well. In fact, I was excited that this episode was going to feel like a 21st century interpretation of previous plot–the soul of the plot remaining in tact, but with an updated setting and more diverse characters. Abort. This episode does not deliver what it promises in the opening. We may have a more diverse cast, but all of the characters are flat, lacking in any substantive dimension. Unlike the crew of the Nostromo, this crew comes off as lacking in training and preparation for this mission. I get that the pressure of a doomed mission, lengthy periods in space, and the trauma of the alleged destroyed Earth are brilliant plot tools to wear down the rational, disciplined mindsets of the crew; and the breakdown, manifest itself in an undesirable human trait that contributes to the psycho-social breakdown of the crew, but these crew don’t seem like they are qualified for their respective jobs to begin with. Perhaps the goal of the teleplay was to showcase this crew of six (interestingly, six is the Biblical number of man) as a microcosm for out present society, but that analogy is lost in the vapid dialogue and lack of context for the interpersonal conflict. This launch never truly reaches the orbit of Sterling’s Twilight Zone.

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Not All Men

Loosely based on the classic Twilight Zone episode A Good Man is Hard to Find, this episode of Peele’s show is built around the idea of personal choice. Unfortunately, it lacks the power it could have had by only focussing on the idea of toxic masculinity. Whereas the show could have packed a more powerful punch by showing both men and women grappling with a refusal to give in to primal behaviors and violence, it just shows one group effected by the meteor. I know why; toxic masculinity is constantly in the news and on social media; but the truth is that both men and women can exhibit toxic behaviors that have a negative impact upon society. The twist of the meteor acting as a kind of placebo was a nice TZ touch that I appreciated immensely, but wish the episode truly drove home the point that we ALL have toxic behaviors and thoughts that could significantly impact our outward actions unless we make the intentional choice not to act upon them. Case and point: revenge. Revenge can become an all-consuming monster unless it’s checked. We have to weigh our selfish or self-centered tendencies against the greater good of society and more personal relationships. I love the idea of the plot of this episode, but wish the execution had been more effective. As has been the pattern established so far, this episode boasts excellent acting, cinematography, and direction.

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Point of Origin

An apt title for an episode that truly feels grounded in the original Sterling series. Instead of feeling like a sermon, the original series often depicted a story that didn’t answer some posited philosophical or sociological question but ended just before a directed action was requested of the audience. The main idea of most of the episodes (much in the same way Black Mirror does) was to confront the audience with a thought-provoking question and leave it at that. Allow the audience to decide what they are going to do with the story and commentary therein. Although this episode is clearly on immigration, it moves the conversation from the familiar to the unfamiliar–to another dimension altogether. Although the character of eve is completely unlikable (problematic in my mind), she is the vessel though which we experience what it would be like if you were accused of being an illegal immigrant, brought here as a child with no memory of life before. While we are never given a full explanation WHY the interdimensional beings fled their home to make a new life in ours, it is ultimately unimportant. The stark contrast from the life Eve built for herself to the soul crushing surroundings she finds herself in, works well to depict what it must feel like to be forcibly extracted from all you’ve ever truly known and thrown into a frightening situation. Elements of this episode are incredibly terrifying.

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The Blue Scorpion

Probably the least enjoyable of all the Season 1 episodes. The Blue Scorpion wants so much to comment on gun control–and not in a subtextual way. It is way too obvious. When providing social commentary, Rod Sterling’s original Twilight Zone was seldom on the nose. From the opening scene, this episode is up front and center with its topic. All that’s missing is a Powerpoint presentation to accompany this episode. Not to mention it struggles with the same pacing problems that all the episodes have–taking what might work well in 30mins, and stretching it to fill the “hour long” runtime. Had the episode taken a more creative approach to the obsession with and lack of legislation regarding firearm access and use in the United States, then perhaps this episode would have played out much stronger. As it is, the sledgehammer approach is not only polarizing but shows a lack of understanding of why the original series worked so well. While it is common knowledge–also demonstrably evident in this series itself–that Peele displays a great admiration for the legendary show, he seems to have missed the whole point of why it worked and still works so well. Thankfully there are comedic elements in the episode in order for it not to be entirely depressing.

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Blurryman

While most of the season has been lackluster and continues to provide evidence that Netflix’ Black Mirror is the more thoughtful “new” Twilight Zone, episode 10 of Peele’s series is the most Twilight Zone of the first season; furthermore, this single episode provides hope for the otherwise forgettable series. Until Ep10, if I was to attribute an over all title to Season 1, I would have called it “Twilight Zone: Failure to Launch,” but thanks to this single episode, the series leaves us with a glimmer of hope for the subsequent seasons. If you select just one episode of this series to watch, make sure it is this one. Not only does it provide excellent technical elements and a fantastic cast, the writing is exemplary. Even though from an editing perspective the final scene is wonky, a bit clunky if you will, this teleplay is the best of the season. It nearly overcomes the pacing problem as well. More than any other episode, this one almost justifies its “hour long” runtime. Of all the twists that we have encountered this season, Blurryman has the best one. With meta horror and meta science-fiction being popular storytelling methods nowadays, I was waiting for this season to deliver a meta episode. And sure enough, this is it! All the way down to Jordan Peele playing himself and the writer of some of the episodes visiting the sets of her episodes (i.e. the bar from The Comedian). Zazie Beetz plays a teleplay writer for The Twilight Zone and she begins to see and get stalked by a blurryman on the set of the show. The episode follows her on her descent into madness as the entity, primarily visible to her except at the very beginning, pushes her to question her reality. Unlike the previous episodes, wherein there is no need to worry about talking about spoiler content, this is one that needs to be experienced without any knowledge of the twists and turns after the first act. The only negative critique I really have of the episode is failing to achieve what the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios was able to accomplish when the iconic attraction opened in 1994. Once you watch this episode, you will know precisely what I am talking about.

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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!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

“Captive State” brief movie review

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts; or in the case of this movie, the director gifts us a movie that looks fantastic on the outside, but is a disaster on screen. There is a good science-fiction movie in there somewhere. But because of the poor direction, the movies plays off as completely disjointed, lacking any emotional connection to the characters. The concept for the film is quite brilliant. It takes the alien invasion premise and provides audiences with an original interpretation of this sub-genre of science-fiction. Often science-fiction suffers at the hands of the screenwriter(s) who becomes so pre-occupied with the world and technology of the story that they forget about developing the characters and plot. However, this film suffers more significantly at the hands of the director, but the screenwriting does play a hand in the confusing nature of this film. Incidentally, director Rupert Wyatt also co-wrote the screenplay, so it appears that he should have stuck to writing with co-writer Erica Beeney rather than directing.

Clearly, there is a solid science-fiction story in Captive State, but the story suffered as it was being written down, and even more damage was done while on set. The idea is original and good! The execution is bad. There is too much exposition in some places, like the beginning text-heavy scene and then too little exposition in other parts of the movie. Characters get introduced then forgotten, and John Goodman and Vera Farmiga are completely wasted. Literally any actor could have played these roles, and even other characters could have had their lines, and it would still play out the same way. I can tell that this movie is trying to provide me a post-modern thought-provoking story, but I am still not entirely sure what I watched. Upon watching it, I found myself grasping for whatever details I could find, and it was not enough to make heads or tails of what was going on sometimes. What we have here is a case of complex plot and simple characters. The antithesis of what makes a good screenplay. The idea for this film is certainly admirable, but the idea was lost in the translation from mind to page, and then from page to screen.

You can join Ryan at the cinema most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa.

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!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

“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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All the Horror: Women in Horror Month

All the Horror Presents Women in Horror Month! During the month of February, a group of mostly podcasters plus yours truly are highlighting many leading women and final girls of horror films! Visit the Promote Horror website for all the podcasts and written articles from the participants in this limited time engagement. Each week starting on February 4th, I will provide you with a character analysis of some of my favorite women in horror films, and hopefully some of yours too! For the sake of simplicity, I will add each article to this blog entry. Enjoy!

  1. Clarice Starling (Feb 4)
  2. Ellen Ripley (Feb 11)
  3. Nancy Thompson (Feb 18)
  4. Annie Wilkes (Feb 25)

Clarice Starling

When I think of strong female characters in horror, one name instantly jumps to the front of my mind, Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs. Not only is she, in my opinion, the single most important female character in all horror, she is one of the most influential and important female characters in all of cinema! Perhaps there is no greater example of a dynamic, unassailable female central character in a horror film. Not only is the character one to be revered and admired, but Foster won the Academy Award for Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Clarice. Incidentally, The Silence of the Lambs is only one of three films to win the Big 5 Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). But we are here to analyze the character of Clarice.

Even before we learn anything about Clarice’s wit and intellectual prowess, we witness her hard-working nature on the obstacle course in Quantico, VA, well-known for being the home of the FBI training academy; her status as an FBI academy student is solidified by her shirt. Furthermore, we observe her holding her own in a field dominated by men. This opening sequence of shots is important to visually convey Clarice’s raw determination to achieve what she wants. We don’t have to know the particular area of the FBI in which she wants to specialize, all we need to know is that she will stop at nothing to realize her aspirations. Even when she dies in a simulation, she does not excuse her lack of response, but she states why she died in a purely objective way. We learn later on in the film, that Clarice is haunted by a childhood trauma of a combination of her father dying during a burglary and the slaughter of lambs at her uncle’s ranch. She is driven by her desire to protect and free the innocent from dangerous humans in the world. Hence why she pursues a career as a special agent in the FBI. Her career aspirations are a means for her to overcome the emotional chaos of her childhood by stopping at nothing to land her position in the Behavioral Sciences division of the FBI under Jack Crawford.

One clear motif throughout these opening scenes is this idea of a woman in a man’s world; moreover, it’s the depiction of female agency. Although not one of the most memorable quotes from the film, Clarice’s line “If he [Buffalo Bill] sees her as a person and not just an object, it’s harder to tear her up” this is the line that highlights this often overlooked theme central to the plot of the film. Moreover, there is recurring imagery of the male gaze and the defiance thereof from colleagues, superiors, officer counterparts, and Dr. Lecter. Entire articles have been written on cinema and the male gaze, and I don’t have time to go into all the details in this character analysis of Clarice; but for the majority of its existence, cinema has reflected heterosexual male dominance–objectifying women–whether its overt through action or subtle through subtext. However, The Silence of the Lambs combats this practice by subverting the voyeuristic male gaze by forcing the audience to see Clarice (and all women in the film, by extension) as unique individuals and not objects.

One of the most admirable aspects of Clarice is her well-rounded nature as a character. She shows signs of strength, vulnerability, innocence, determination, independence, and a willingness to learn. By way of the manner in which Director Jonathan Demme chose to have the male characters, friend or foe, look directly into the camera lens when addressing Clarice and Clarice looking just off camera when responding predisposed us to identifying with Clarice’s character–we place ourself in her shoes. As the male characters look into the camera addressing Clarice, we feel that they are gazing at and addressing us. But my Clarice looking away from the camera lens, she visually subverts the male gaze as she becomes the one with the power in the scene. Great way to visually communicate this theme to the audience. But it’s more than just communicating a theme, this action gives Clarice power often attributed to male characters therefore increasing her level of dominance.

Clarice is everything that we want in a horror or thriller protagonist. And the beauty of this film is that it is both a horror and suspense thriller. And she works as an admirable, brave, and authentically human for both. More than a strong protagonist, she is a feminine icon who needs no qualifiers. Simply stated, she broke the mold of what was expected of female protagonists in general, and specifically horror. All the while she is working diligently at tracking down Buffalo Bill and learning how to best work with Dr. Lecter, she faces both overt and subtle discrimination but does not flinch a muscle. It’s her sheer chutzpah, authenticity, and respect for Dr. Lecter that endears her to him. Has she shown weakness, a facade, or patronized Dr. Lecter, it’s entirely possible that he may not have taken a liking to her. He realized that she was truly a match for his wits, a worthy opponent. Continually, she displays strength of character and impressive intellectual prowess. Well written central and opposition characters often have a symbiotic relationship (that was partially highlighted in David Gordon Green’s Halloween), one cannot truly exist without the other, or at least one is not as interesting without the other. The more interesting Clarice is, the more interesting Hannibal is. They both display traits that complement one another. It’s this complementary nature that Dr. Lecter finds intriguing and worthy of his admiration. And in the same way, Clarice is attracted to certain qualities of Dr. Lecter that prompt her to respect him as an individual despite his heinous crimes.

A couple of examples from the film in which men feel threatened by or undervalue the level of excellence that is found in the person and career of Clarice can be found in Dr. Chilton and the sheriff’s deputies in the funeral home after the body of Buffalo Bill’s first victim was discovered at which she is sidelined by Crawford and gawked at by the deputies. When Dr. Chilton learns that Clarice was able to connect with Dr. Lecter in her brief when he’s been selfishly attempting to for years, he seeks to subvert Clarice’s efforts, to no avail thankfully. His masculinity was threatened by a female, and Chilton was not about to have that. Good thing he got his comeuppance. When in the funeral home/morgue of Frederica Bimmel, Crawford intentionally sidelines Clarice because he felt the details were too disturbing for her; she shows him by taking control of the room by forcing the sheriff’s deputies out of the room because she has it under control and gets up close and personal with the victim. This is also the scene where she finds the telltale death’s head moth that has become synonymous with this film. In that scene we witness Clarice recognizing her unequal treatment, and rises to the occasion to show that she would not stand for it because she was objectively qualified to continue in her work without hand-holding or patronization.

Outside of the two etymologists, the only male character to not show any signs of misogyny nor gender discrimination is Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself. As highlighted earlier, he recognized her as a formidable opponent in his mind games. Although he certainly tries to get in her head, make her feel uncomfortable, and face her past demons to silence the lambs, nothing he does is motivated out of sexual desire or gender discrimination. Nothing in her role is truly defined by her gender. In fact, much like the character of Ripley in Alien was originally slated for a male character, the character of Clarice Starling could also be a male. I am glad it wasn’t because the narrative would lose some power. But the point is, that she is in no way defined by her gender, instead is defined by her integrity, character, and intelligence.

Even when taking on “masculine” traits and existing within a male dominated field of work, she never ceases to remain a feminine character. She and Alien‘s Ripley share this in common.  Jodie Foster states in reference to her iconic character, “Clarice is very competent and she is very human. She combats the villain with her emotionality, intuition, her frailty, and vulnerability. I don’t think there has ever been a female hero like that.” The character of Clarice Starling is one that should serve as a model for other female central characters. She contributed significantly to the world of cinema, but specifically the American horror film.

Ellen Ripley

This. Is. Alien. You are with. Sigourney Weaver. Aboard–the starship–Nostromo. Caution. The area you are en-ter-ing is extremely dan-ger-ous. Something has gone wrong… If you get why I punctuated that the way I did, then you remember the Alien scene on the former Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (oh how I miss that attraction). We cannot talk Women in Horror without analyzing the boundary busting, glass ceiling breaking Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver). Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece that convinced us that “in space, no one can hear you scream” is still the definitive science-fiction/space horror film. Sitting between Halloween and Friday the 13th, this film came as a surprise for the horror genre because it countered the direction that the horror genre was going by reimagining the emerging slasher genre in a setting that is more terrifying and limiting than a house or town in which a serial killer is slaughtering teenagers. The strength of this movie is not in the Xenomorph, the effects (albeit great), or even the first characters you spend time with in the film, the strength of this film is in the ineffaceable character of Ripley.

Although she is, for all intents and purposes, not even on our radar for nearly 45mins into the film, following a tragedy, she is thrust into the forefront of this mission. Scott’s Alien dared to challenge the status quo in order to deliver the first female action hero, and place her in center stage. The long and short of it is that Ripley subverts the typical science-fiction hero trope to embody both the feminine and masculine to redefine what a hero is within the sci-fi/horror genre. Breaking gender norms for the time, she was neither arm candy, simply a side kick nor required rescuing by a male character. Her character and actions were not defined by gender. She is our final girl, and so much more. Not only did the character of Ripley contribute significantly to horror, she also broke ground for female heroines in the world of cinema at large.

Your central character need not always be the first or second character we encounter in a screenplay. This is true with Ripley as she emerges as the central character midway through the film. However, we are given hints at her destiny throughout the first act in subtle ways. It was important to the plot to establish her as a woman in order to make her actions later on in the film so kickass and assumption shattering. Had she been seen as “masculine” or strong from the onset, then we would not be as impressed with her actions–we would expect them. Part of her power as a strong female character in horror is taking what we assumed about her (or a female character in general) and subvert our predisposition. Whereas Ripley is not the first female heroic character in a horror film, she is one that never becomes subjected to the male gaze or becomes some fantasy version of a woman. Even though female heroic characters who wear sexy clothes, wield phallic guns, or use their bodies as femme fatals can be strong characters, they are still some heteronormative fantasy for a male screenwriter or director.

Essentially, the aforementioned female characters lack an authentic humanity. Ripley is strong, vulnerable, independent, scared, mortal; these elements that make her believably human. There is so little suspension of disbelief in her character that she could nearly exist in real life. Furthermore, her character is incredibly complex; she exhibits strong intuition and intelligence, chutzpah, is brash, talks about PTSD, outspoken, rigidly wants to go by the book instead of saving a man’s life, has a natural beauty but doesn’t spend much time on hair or makeup. All these traits portray someone who has incredible depth and dimension. She is a survivor. No matter how grizzly, messy, constricting, or frightening her soundings become, she remains steadfast, collected, and brave. As the 1970s saw many changes in censorship, ratings, guidelines, etc., the ability to show gorier, more visceral body horror special effects, and on screen violence allowed Scott to confront the character of Ripley with cinematically innovative ways to test her resilience and survivorship.

The character of Ellen Ripley is also a strong pillar of the American horror film by virtue of her representation of gender politics. Even before it became popular, in more recent times, to use both male and female characters in motion pictures as a conduit to comment on the state of affairs for a particular group within our society, Ridley Scott crafted a visual masterpiece that did just that. Highly innovative, forward thinking, and progressive. The subtext of the film confronts us with a woman trying her best to fit into a man’s world. In addition to that subtext, research into the screenplay for this film shows that all the characters were written as gender neutral. Interesting stuff, right?!? Another gender-related observation in the character of Ripley, is her both metaphorically and physiologically clothing herself in masculinity all while remaining a women. In one scene, Ripley steps into a space suit. And this space suit can be read as Ripley playing the role of a man while remaining a women at her core in order to challenge the patriarchal system to prove that she is capable of anything that a masculine hero is.

Ripley is a highly intelligent character, realizes that about herself, and does not allow herself to be patronized or undermined. She does her job aboard the Nostromo like a legit boss. She knows procedure and protocol, and will follow it in order to protect her crew. Figuratively, she is protecting the ship from being willfully penetrated by a foreign object. This could be read as a commentary on rape. She is forcefully overruled, and we all know what happens next. Further commentary depicts male characters “forgetting” that Ripley is the senior officer. But because she is female, they feel they know better. I bet they wish they had followed her orders. Although much of what I’ve written deals with the masculine qualities of Ripley, her character would not have been as powerful a character if it wasn’t for her feminine side as well. When all hell is breaking loose, she soothes the nerves of the crew and offers comfort. Exemplary motherly qualities. Had a man been in her role, then he would most likely have not exhibited such love for the crew. Her success as a hero has as much to do with the touch of a women as it does the chutzpah of a man. Another motherly quality found in Ripley is her persistent urge for the crew to function as a group. Through the brilliant cinematography, we are consistently shown a group that is fractures and continually fails to band together until it is too late. Interestingly, each character meets his or her demise because of a tragic flaw and failure to group together to function as ONE crew instead of self-centered individuals. Had the group functioned as one, then more may have survived. This hypothesis is witnessed in the Ripley in Act 3 because she essentially embodies all the good qualities found in the other characters (think Captain Planet). She combines what everyone did well into one character. That is why she is the final girl. Only by combining all the qualities of the crew was she able to go toe-to-toe with the Xenomorph killing machine.

There are actually three prominent female characters in Alien. Ripley, the Xenomorph, and The Nostromo. Although Ripley is our central character, I would be remiss to not mention the other two that could be analyzed individually themselves. Much like Ripley exhibits both masculine and feminine characteristics, so does the Xenomorph with a mouth that oscillates between vaginal and phallic in nature. And finally, The Nostromo ostensibly gives birth to all the astronauts at the beginning of the film; and therefore could be referred to as the mother ship. Playing around with gender does not stop there. The facegrabber impregnates a male character and he gives birth to the Xenomorph. Underscoring so many elements and conflicts in this film is this idea of subverting gender identity with the intent to horrify by tapping into primal heteronormative fears. And let’s face it, child birth is terrifying. Unfortunately, all the sequels failed to live up to the substantive nature of the original and devolve into a generic futuristic action-adventure series; but the original Alien delivered a nightmare-inducing “haunted house” movie set in the far reaches of space where “no one can hear you scream,” and provided us with the breakthrough character of Ellen Ripley.

Nancy Thompson

“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.” More than a final girl, Nancy is a live girl. While Halloween‘s Laurie Strode often gets credit for being the original final girl, and with good reason, a solid argument could be made that A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp) is the OG final girl. For my third character analysis for Women in Horror Month, I want to explore the character of Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Unlike the previous two analyses, Nancy is not yet an adult, pursuing her career in law enforcement or the far reaches of space. She is an every-man with whom we can identify, because we were all, or maybe still are, teenagers facing everyday struggles with our relationship with our parents, love interests, and our friends. With death surrounding her on all sides, she powers through the grave conflict, to face her nightmares, and defeat the Dream Master himself Freddy Krueger. Well, set him back anyway. Haha.

Unlike Laurie Strode, Nancy is not the final girl by default; she completely Home Alones Freddy and continually fights back without ever backing down. She takes an active role in ensuring her survival. Furthermore, no one comes in to aid in her rescue or the defeat of Freddy; Nancy is alone in her endeavors. Despite her strength of character and resilience, she is largely overlooked by fans. Her co-star Freddy Krueger (played by the incomparable Robert Englund) steals the spotlight. Although Freddy is my favorite horror slasher villain, I often wonder why Nancy doesn’t get the same treatment that Laurie gets in Halloween. Making her debut in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy appears again in Dream Warriors, and New Nightmare (as Heather, but she is still very much Nancy). Grab your coffee, and stay up with me as we explore Nancy Thompson!

We aren’t given much insight into the degree to which Nancy excels in school, but she is undoubtedly quite the scholar! Not that whether or not she is a member of the honor society makes a difference, but it does aid in showing us that she possesses superior critical thinking skills. If not for her brilliant combination of street and book smarts, she may not have survived this very real nightmare. Unlike many final girls who are often on the defensive, she spends much of the movie on the offense–she goes looking for Freddy. Who does that??? Nancy, that’s who! We witness Nancy read books to learn more about dreams and newspapers to learn more about Fred Krueger; furthermore, she experiments with booby traps and methods to remain awake or force sleep. Resilient, resourceful, and ready. A great alliteration to describe Nancy. Her survival does not happen by default or through a deus ex machina, she survives through grit, determination, and a willingness to learn and place herself in harm’s way. It’s this notion that she transcends what we think of as a final girl to even go so far as to subvert our predispositions. Whereas typical final girls merely survive, Nancy takes control of the Freddy conflict in a revenge fashion to win. “I’m into survival,” as Nancy so brilliantly puts it.

Nancy is not concerned with innocence or following the rules to maintain the status quo. While she still may be a “good girl,” she is not concerned with playing the good girl card in order to somehow survive Freddy. On display in this film is the cinematic and literary construct of the maiden turned warrior. We witness a psychological growth arc paralleling a physiological transformation, in the character of Nancy, that takes her from everyday teenager, complete with the angst, to heroine. And her inner-personal journey is not without its own obstacles and conflict. At every step of the way, Nancy encounters loved ones in her life (be they family or friends) who consistently do not believe in her–until it is too late. All of Elm Street doesn’t believe her, but she knows that Freddy is killing the Elm Street kids in their nightmares, and she is going to prove it and stop him.

One of the messages that I preach to my screenwriting class is the importance of communicating character thoughts and feelings visually (only write what you can see), and Wes Craven does precisely that to communicate how everyone feels about Nancy’s claim that Freddy is back. For example, Nancy’s mother violates her body by subjecting her to sleep tests and even making her a prisoner of her own home with the bars on the windows. A close reading of the imagery associated with the trauma Nancy experiences can be read as a metaphor of adolescence, transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Whether experiencing direct or implied trauma from Freddy, her family, or friends, she endures gaslighting, imprisonment, mental rape, and attempted murder all within the confines of the home–and more specifically–the intimacy of the mind. Not only does Nancy prove that she may in fact be the definitive final girl, though overshadowed by Laurie, by her active role in ensuring her survival against Freddy, she also survives psychological and physiological trauma enacted upon her by loved ones. Her voice was silenced, her path to escape was barred, and her claims that Freddy returned from the dead into the dream world were completely dismissed. This parallels what many women face every day–they are not taken seriously or they are patronized. Her character is a metaphor for what many women face daily.

One may conclude that Nancy lacks the vulnerability and (heteronormatively speaking) feminine nature that is required, traditionally speaking, of a final girl. Certainly the preceding paragraphs skew toward ultimate horror badass, but the beauty of Nancy’s character is that she grows from a vulnerable female teenager into the final girl that we know today. Her all-too-human feminine vulnerability is shown through her white pajamas with pink roses, her teenage angst, crying when she is upset or feels dismissed, and she experiences the emotional rollercoaster that we all, but especially teenagers, ride. After rewatching A Nightmare on Elm Street in the cinema for a 35th anniversary special one night only screening, I was reminded of just how much of a girl she is throughout the whole movie. Not only does she get scared and cry and even take cover behind Glen early on in the film, but she also wears clothes that reinforce the idea that she doesn’t need to take on masculine traits in order to defeat evil. Her character transformation occurs in the mind and she proves that a girl can do anything that a guy can do. She does not allow the constant barrage of dismissal or people telling her that she’s crazy to detour her from what she knows to the nightmarish truth.

Further distinguishing Nancy from other final girls is the manner in which she does defeat Freddy Krueger. Whereas we assume she hasn’t had sex with her boyfriend Glen and does not appear to use illicit drugs or undermines authority for her own selfish pleasure, she does not defeat Freddy because she is a “good girl.” Nancy relies upon resilience, wit, and confidence; ultimately, she defeats Freddy by refusing to give him anymore of her emotional energy (a feminine trait) instead of wielding some phallic weapon like a knife, machete, or bludgeoning tool. Unlike other final girls whom become a de facto male character during the showdown, she remains committed to her femininity. Unlike the gender politics of Alien, the character of Nancy doesn’t oscillate between feminine and masculine. Instead, she transforms from normal, innocent teenager with many of the same familiar and friendship conflicts we face to the brave, determined, proactive smart heroine that defeated Freddy (temporarily anyway), all while never shifting from her typical female behaviors and identity.

After Freddy’s Revenge (and you can hear my review of this installment on Cocktail Party Massacre), Nancy returns in Dream Warriors as a graduate student working and studying at a psychiatric hospital. She may have exchanged her pink rose pajamas for 80s power suits, but she is still the same Nancy. The Freddy experience has certainly had an effect upon her, but she has taken that traumatic experienced, harnessed the power of it and channeled it in a positive direction to help others who are experiencing psychological trauma that has real world physical traits. Specifically, she researches the mental and physical effects of nightmares. Without diverting into a plot analysis of this tertiary installment in the franchise, she is able to successfully transfer her strengths to the Elm Street children. Completely unrelated to the character of Nancy, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite Freddy quote of all time that appears in this movie, “welcome to prime time, bitch!”

Even before meta horror became popular, and Wes Craven himself would write and direct the definitive meta horror Scream two years later, he returned with full creative control to the Nightmare franchise to write the final chapter (until Freddy vs Jason and the awful 2010 remake) in the reign of Freddy, he gave us New Nightmare. Despite her death in Dream Warriors, “Nancy” stars once again in the Nightmare on Elm Street third chapter New Nightmare. Nancy is in quotes because it is the actress Heather Langenkamp as a character in this meta Nightmare film. She is Heather but very much Nancy all at the same time. In addition to Heather playing herself playing Nancy, Robert Englund plays himself playing Freddy. Other actors/characters from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street have appearances as well. In this film, Heather faces her reality fracturing as a nightmarish specter from her past comes to haunt her. It looks like Freddy, but it is much more sinister. What I love about Heather/Nancy is the fact that she channels her Nancy from the original and Dream Warriors. But she doesn’t phone in her performance or give us the same character. Her “Nancy” has grown. One of the biggest differences between Nancy and Heather is that Heather is now challenged with protecting her son at all costs. Through her passion, wit, confidence, and unyielding ability to face the darkness head on, she confronts Freddy to once again, become the final girl.

Annie Wilkes

Do your ankles hurt just at the thought of Annie Wilkes? Well, they should because she is one of the most terrifying Women in Horror ever. Perhaps you do not remember her by name, but you most likely know the film Misery. Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King, Misery is widely regarded as one of the most terrifying psychological horror films ever. Directed by Rob Reiner, it stars then-newcomer Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes. Playing opposite Kathy is James Caan as celebrity author Paul Sheldon. Just a quick note, the sultry Lauren Bacall also makes an appearance in this horror film as Sheldon’s agent. While my other character analyses for Women in Horror Month focussed on final girls, for this final entry, I desired to explore a truly sinister female character whom captivated us with her outstanding performance. In a quintessential Hitchcockian fashion, Rob Reiner crafts a phenomenal adaptation of the King novel that mostly takes place in one location. But this one location houses two indelible characters, one of which is a wildly disturbed and frightening fangirl. Annie convinced us that anyone who claims to be your No.1 fan may actually be your No.1 worst nightmare. Next time a nondescript motherly figure invites you to her picturesque cabin in Colorado, you may want to consider staying at the local Holiday Inn instead.

Talk about a character with incredible depth! Annie Wilkes is one of those exemplary characters in horror that provides ample opportunity to apply critical lenses to analyze her psychology and sociology. Clearly she displays signs of psychopathy, but there is so much more to her character. And those layers are what makes her one of the most terrifying characters in horror film history. On the surface, she is a monster-like human; but beneath that sociopathic behavior, she is clearly suffering from severe mental disorders brought on by past trauma. Collectively, we can surmise that Annie’s past traumas left her feeling that everyone and everything is out to get her. Therefore, she runs a countryside farm in mountainous Colorado away from everyone. Her only interaction with outsiders is when she has to run to town to pickup food and supplies. In addition to her mental disorders, she also displays signs of agoraphobia. Although some of her mental disorders have direct impact on her violent nature, other disorders are largely indirectly responsible, such as her likely obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Evidence supporting this can be seen in her immaculately clean and organized house. Her OCD contributes significantly to her obsession with Paul Sheldon. The only joy in her life comes from the romance novels that she reads–a vicarious way to experience a full life–namely the Misery series by Paul Sheldon. Essentially, she is the perfect storm of psychological and emotional disorders all wrapped up in a an unassuming citizen of a small Colorado town. She could very well be your neighbor or one of your social media followers. Perhaps she is YOUR No.1 fan.

Although screenwriter William Goldman adds in a subplot of the town’s sheriff investigating the disappearance of Paul Sheldon, which works very well for the film even though it was not in the novel, the story is about two characters (representing two sides of the same coin) trapped in a room together, locked in a psycho-social battle of wills. Ostensibly, this story features two characters whom represent the creative mind of Stephen King during his real addiction to alcohol. I mention this real-life time of darkness in King’s life not to glorify it because it helped inspire one of his greatest novels turned film (need I mention Velvet Buzzsaw), but it helps us understand the depth and power of the character of Annie Wilkes. Both Sheldon and Wilkes work so well because they represent real life villains in the life of King. King’s real battle between his healthy mind and drug-induced state parallels Paul Sheldon’s battle for freedom with Annie Wilkes standing in his way. In a most brilliant fashion, the sadistic former nurse Annie is the manifestation of how controlling a drug addiction can be–how it makes the user a prisoner of one’s own mind and body. This subplot is strategically woven into the main action plot then delivered through the character development and character-driven scenes in the story.

Annie is not completely evil. Early on, she shows us that she cares about victims as she could not have known that it was Paul Sheldon that she was rescuing from the car crash. Being his No.1 fan, as soon as she saw him, she knew precisely who he was and therefore her obsessive nature takes over. There is a moment that encapsulates one of the film’s themes that is often overlooked. Prior to caring for Paul, Annie takes his attache full of manuscripts and tucks it under her arm thus symbolizing that Paul’s work is more important than Paul’s life. But that doesn’t confirm her psychopathic nature. Even upon the more formal introduction of Annie, she shows us that she cares about Paul’s recovery as she crudely splints his broken legs. Why not take him to the hospital? Well, because she is his No.1 fan and no one can take care of him the way she can. She goes on to shower Paul with accolades. Claims to have read his Misery novels several times, even committing them to memory. Furthermore, she closely identifies with Misery Chastain (the series’ central character), so cares deeply what happens to her. Albeit being hospitalized in a stranger’s private residence is a little disconcerting, Paul grows to trust and even like Annie. He trusts her so much that he allows her to read the unpublished manuscript for the final Misery novel. And this is where things take a turn for the worse, Paul’s hospital is about to turn into a prison ran by the sinister warden from hell.

During Annie’s rage over the offensive swearing in the unpublished manuscript, she spills the hot soup on Paul and we begin to see the signs of her mania, twisted morals, paranoia, and negative effects of OCD. Obviously, we learn more about her psychopathy as the scenes unfold, but in retrospect, we witness the signs in big bold letters from this moment on. But she doesn’t continually behave in such a neurotic manner. She oscillates back and forth. This oscillation is an important aspect to her character because it drives up the tension and suspense because we don’t know when or where to expect her dangerous behavior. There are moments that we anticipate a violent outburst, but then she fools us by not delivering. By the same token, there are moments that we don’t expect it, and she terrifies us. The character trait of Annie’s that makes her one of the most terrifying in the Blockbuster of horror is her lack of feeling. Everything she does, she rationalizes without regard for quality of life or humankind. The very definition of sociopath.

The psycho-social disorders affecting the behavior and psychology of Annie are never confirmed, and don’t need to be. We don’t need to know precisely why or what causes Annie to behave the way she does. Because if we fully understood her, she would cease to be as nightmare-inducing as she is. It’s important that Annie Wilkes remain a type of Boogeyman. However, we can gather from the film that she suffers from a form schizotypal personality disorder, OCD (which I’ve mentioned), and meets most of the criteria of borderline personality disorder. A trifecta of disorders that creates the monster that we encounter in the film. She copes with these disorders by executing numerous defensive mechanisms including denial, projection, rationalization, regression, fantasy, and more. Whereas we often talk about her psychopathy and sociopathy, we often neglect to recognize her highly intelligent mind. Too bad her intelligence isn’t matched by empathy and and human kindness. Her intellect is observed through how she anticipates Paul’s movements and knowing when he’s been out of his room. And an intelligent villain is the most dangerous and unpredictable of all.

Aside from her disorders, unpredictable behavior, and lack of empathy, attributes that can be found in other horror villains, she stands out because she is a women. It’s her feminism that enables her to stand out against similar villains such as Norman Bates, Jack Torrance, Buffalo Bill and others. When we typically think of female characters or women in general (and I realize I am over-generalizing), we think of someone whom is kind, hospitable, nurturing, passive, and empathetic. Annie subverts those notions in so many ways, many of which have been outlined in this analysis. She makes Joan Crawford from Mommy Dearest look like Mrs. Brady. As out of control as Annie behaves, she is very much in control. She IS the one holding all the cards and calling the shots in this prison. While other characters (male or female) with similar disorders or backgrounds that parallel Annie’s have lost their minds, Annie knows precisely what she is doing, and is supremely strategic when she does it. We may be cheering when Paul finally kills her with the typewriter, in brilliant ironic fashion, but she is an incredibly strong female character who can hold her own, backs down to no one.

Not only is Misery one of the top psychological horror films ever made, but Annie is a noteworthy female character in the horror genre. While the final girls get most of the attention when we talk Women in Horror, it’s important to not forget that horror has given us terrifying women as well. Whereas so often the most interesting villains (or characters of opposition) get to be played by men, this film would not be as powerful is the roles were gender swapped. The fact that this psychopath is a women makes her all the more disturbing. She crafts such overwhelming sense of dread that is more frightening because we aren’t used to female characters as the main villains. Kathy Bates was a perfect choice for this role, and she has gone on to play all kinds of roles but the horror community gets extra excited when she plays a horror role. While horror doesn’t often win awards at the Oscars, Kathy Bates won the Academy Award for an actress in a leading role for her work in Misery.

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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