In the last feature we looked at why atmosphere is so important in horror films, yet is sadly lacking in many modern horrors. This time I'm going to focus on another area that I feel is essential in any great genre film:
In Robert McKee's screenwriting book, 'Story', he argues that characters don't need to be likeable but as an audience we have to be able to empathise with them. I'd go with that in many genres but with horror films, I think the characters have to be likeable. It makes it so much more distressing when they are put in horrific situations.
Let's for a moment consider The Beyond. The plot is fairly non-existent and the script doesn't give any of the actors a lot to work with. But in the casting of Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck, Fulci manages to bring that much needed likeability factor into the film. Both of them bring such warmth to their characters that the ending is pretty hard to bear. (It has been known to bring a tear to my eye. Or maybe that's just my over-tight Jockey y-fronts.) Without them the film wouldn't be anywhere near as good. It's a similar story with Fulci's other classic zombie films too.
Another film that benefits from great characters is The Mist. The final act is really harsh and bleak (just what I like) because the characters have been developed throughout to be realistic and likeable. The script and the casting gel to create a situation where the viewer really feels for the characters. Drayton's pain is palpable. The final twist puts the top hat on it. (It always makes me chuckle.)
Martyrs is a film where the main character didn't strike me as particularly likeable. Not that she's unlikeable but she hasn't got the warm quality of the two actors above, a little nondescript to might say. Nevertheless I could empathise with her and so what she has to go through is hard to watch indeed. Imagine the impact the film would have had if she had been really likeable. Painful in the extreme. And a better experience for it. (In horror terms anyway.)
Now let's have a look at a recent horror film that was supposedly a game changer: You're Next. All of the characters were irritating in their own way and as a consequence I couldn't care less what happened to them. The lead was a strong female character (commendable), who was strong at the start and strong at the end. Mmm, not much character development there. The film has a very beige look and my feelings about the lead are the same: she's beige. Ripley is a way more interesting heroine and hence Alien is in a completely different class in terms of its characters, and this is from a film where the characters are not exactly fleshed out. Many modern horror films seem to be going down the route of having really irritating characters and for me, this makes me lose interest instantly.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil plays with this common horror failing and has a group of really irritating teens driving into mountain man territory moaning about their lack of alcohol. But in this case, the hillbillies are the characters that we grow to love. I won't say any more but the script has a lot of fun with the familiar horror cliches. This ploy can only work once though before it also becomes dull. Great characters are still needed in new horror films.
There has to be an exception and here it is: The Wicker Man. Let's face facts, if you wanted someone to have a pint and a laugh with, then Lord Summerisle's your man. Sgt. Howie is more of a 'tea and cake at a local church fair' kind of guy. The apple eating scene where they discuss the islanders' way of life is brilliant because I always have a good laugh at Howie with Lord Summerisle. He's so pompous and uptight that his reaction to the sight of the naked girls is priceless. The whole film for me is spent like this, taking the proverbial out of Howie. And then the ending comes... It's so horrific that it doesn't matter what kind of bloke Howie is. The viewer is right there with him feeling his pain and feeling slightly guilty at laughing at him throughout the film. It is a rare film that manages this feat and The Wicker Man is certainly one of a kind.
It's all well and good watching a slasher film solely to see the death scenes, the characters are of virtually no importance (apart from their ability to bleed copiously). But these experiences are the popcorn of the horror world: switch off brain, watch murders, laugh a bit, forget it. Great horror films, that stay with us, need great characters that we care about. If not we veer into the slasher film mentality at best. At worst we turn off, knowing that there's no point spending our precious time with lots of gormless irritants. A bit like Big Brother really.
So come on filmmakers, give us some horror films with characters that we truly care about, who we want to do well in life, and maybe retire to a little caravan on a beach in Malibu like Rockford. That way, when your baddie is threatening their middles with a chainsaw we might actually care.
Review - The Beyond
Review - The Mist
Review - Martyrs (Doccortex review)
Review - Martyrs ( My review)
Feature - You're Next vs. The Innkeepers
Review - Tucker & Dale vs. Evil