Tag Archives: Horror

“It Follows” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

I called “It Follows” the best American horror film in decades. I stand by that. I also said it’s what Franz Kafka would write if he were into sex horror.

The set-up’s simple: Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with her boyfriend. She wakes up tied to a wheelchair. He has something and now it’s passed onto her. Instead of a disease, we’re talking about a slowly stalking, horror-movie monster that will one day catch up with her. The only way to get rid of it is to pass it on by sleeping with someone else. The monster always stalks the most recent victim, and works its way down the line, from most recent to originator.

It’s a horror villain passed along as an STD, and a metaphor for…what, exactly? On the broadest level, it’s an STD public service announcement, but it also speaks to how we deal with sexual assault as a society. It addresses the roles of women within the horror genre. It confronts the voyeurism with which society often responds to incidents of sexual violence.

In fact, in the way it goes about this last detail, I slightly prefer it to a film I’ll write about tomorrow – “Ex Machina.” Both films deal with sexual violence, trauma, and seek to confront male viewers in ways we usually aren’t, but where “Ex Machina” recreates a version of total possession in excruciating detail, “It Follows” manages to speak to this while giving its characters a little more power to fight back against these concepts.

(In fact, the films came out within a month of each other and will forever be fused in my mind because of how they invert and confront a genre that’s often used sexual assault as a set piece. They make challenging yet complementary companion pieces, though together that’s some harrowing viewing.)

“It Follows” can be tough to pin down because the details in its world intentionally disagree. While the plot’s tight, the world around the characters doesn’t seem to belong to any particular time. The movies they watch are from the 1950s, the cars they drive are from the 70s, and technology veers from the 80s to current. Different characters feel plucked from different eras, and even dress and subtly act like it. Jay is the heroine from 70s horror films, while her sister Kelly arrives from the 90s and their friend Yara would feel perfectly at home in today’s movies. Meanwhile, the musical score recalls the soundtracks Goblin once wrote for Dario Argento in the 70s.

This intentional confusion of details means that everything begins to feel fuzzy, as in trying to recall a dream. In fact, in my review, I said the film is like “watching a dream with all the fingerprints that make it yours removed. You don’t feel like you belong in it, and so you become a voyeur of all that happens.”

I still can’t think of a better way to describe “It Follows,” except to say that as a horror film, it delivers. Rather than the trend of being scary in outright ways, of making you jump or recoil, “It Follows” relies on anticipation. It’s a film about dread, not about jumping out of your seat, and it builds its tension to an incredible degree. It’s a throwback of a horror film fused with modern intentions, and it’s the best of both worlds.

It Follows poster

Images are from It Follows and Da Font.

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Without a Scare in the World — “The Gallows”

The Gallows Reese looks up at noose
A metaphor for the film.

Minions is completely critic-proof – you know exactly what you’re going to get going in, so we’ll counter-program with a new horror movie this week: The Gallows. Found footage horror (or point-of-view horror) sometimes hides gems like The Last Exorcism, As Above, So Below or this year’s Unfriended. Unfortunately, The Gallows is not one of these.

The Gallows follows four Nebraskan high-school students the night before putting on a play. The play is infamous because it resulted in a student named Charlie getting hanged 22 years before. The Gallows is interesting for a little while because of its weakest element – the character holding the camera most of the time, Ryan, is a complete sociopath. Ryan’s best friend is Reese, who’s only slightly sociopathic. Ryan convinces Reese to break into the school and destroy the play the night before it opens so that the the lead actress, Pfeifer, will be so sad that she’ll turn to Reese for consolation. Yes, that really is the plot.

When they break into the school with Ryan’s even more sociopathic girlfriend Cassidy, it turns out the place is haunted by the ghost of Charlie. Big shock, I know. Unlike the drip-feed of information present in other horror movies, only one detail of consequence is discovered as the characters run from one side of the high school to the other and back again. It’s as if they’re caught in an endless Breakfast Club montage. The school itself is filled with hidden basements, towering rafters, and some sort of nonsensical back alley. Nobody ever questions these things, they just trip into them, realize it’s the wrong completely inexplicable back alley, film a wall for 20 seconds, and then turn around.

What’s most frustrating about The Gallows isn’t its plot or setting, though. Nearly everyone with access to a good camera makes some version of this movie in high school. There’s something appealing about kids running around a high school at night, facing down their fears. The plot doesn’t get old. We just came to see models in their 20s pretending to be high schoolers who meet with bad ends – it’s really not a high bar to pass.

The Gallows kids watch TV
Hey, this looks like a good program!

The frustration is all in the shoddy filmmaking. You want 30-second shots of a wooden floor while people argue in a much more interesting shot the audience doesn’t get to see? You got it. You want 30 seconds of staring at a dark screen with a red streak of light reflecting down a hallway while nothing at all happens? You’ve got that, too. In fact, if you love shaky shots of nothing while characters argue some place the camera isn’t pointing, this is your Citizen Kane. Walls, floors, walls that meet floors – The Gallows truly has it all.

It’s not helped by the editing. The four high schoolers seem to have special powers of growing more cameras at will. They start with two, but expand that number to four or five halfway through the film. There’s even a moment where the cell phone a character’s fixing is in the shot that’s being recorded by the cell phone that he’s supposed to be fixing. Figure that one out.

If you look at a successful POV horror film like As Above, So Below, what makes found footage effective is the staging and choreography that’s hidden within each scene. When characters themselves are holding the cameras, a single character taking a few steps can change the relation of every potential shot in the room. In a horror movie where everyone’s running around the whole time, the characters and their cameras change relation every second. When we switch between cameras, especially in darkly lit movies, we need to understand whose camera we’ve switched to and where everyone is in relation to her.

The audience can’t be struggling with whose perspective we’re witnessing. The editing needs to clearly imply whose view we’ve switched to and which characters are still in the scene. Without these two foundations, an audience is left shrugging at how certain characters come to be in certain sequences. “Wasn’t she just over there with her friend? Why’s she all alone now?” If you’re constantly asking these questions, something’s gone pretty wrong. As Above, So Below managed this expertly with eight characters in a crumbling ruin. The Gallows can’t manage it with only four in a pretty stationary high school.

Why chase and strangle them with a noose when you can magically throw them across a room when you're not even there-- oh, forget it!
Why chase and strangle them with a noose when you can magically throw them across a room when you’re not even there– oh, forget it!

What you’re left with as a viewer is the experience of shrugging your shoulders for 81 minutes. The characters run to and fro without a destination or a goal in mind. They’re never rewarded by the story for surviving long enough to discover something new. They’re never punished in a way that seems appropriate or deliciously ironic. There are long hallway shots that don’t even take advantage of having such a deep background for something to catch our eye. You can break any rule in horror you want, but you’ve got to understand the rules you’re breaking first. The Gallows has zero grasp on those rules. Even its supernatural beastie doesn’t seem to follow any particular logic outside of “Hey, I saw this in a scary movie once.”

The Gallows is a treasure trove of missed opportunities. The overall concept is decent. The ending is even smart, but it’s atrociously handled – no foreshadowing, no clues to excite or lead us to a moment, nothing to make the twist seem like it’s been earned. You can’t appreciate what little intelligence is in the film because it feels tacked on at the last second from some other movie, and then it’s filmed so badly that you start to miss those 30-second shots of floors.

My hope for a very long time was that the sociopaths in the group would stop screaming and start being sociopaths again. That would make an interesting movie: sociopaths trying to out-evil a supernatural horror that just isn’t prepared for how truly sociopathic these awful, awful kids are.

The Gallows also uses a prank war in its opening 20 minutes to pad out its brief, 81-minute length. It’s a useless B-plot, but for a long time, I also hoped that everything would be a giant prank – walls would pull back and reveal the entire cast, who were really teaching Ryan and Reese a lesson about the dangers of pranking. Everyone would freeze frame in a smile at the end as if they were in a Saved by the Bell episode.

Seriously, if it had all turned out to be a prank war, this would be the most glowing review you've ever read.
Seriously, if it had all turned out to be a prank war, this would be the most glowing review you’ve ever read.

Heck, I even hoped at the end that they’d just hire Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles to pop into the school with shotguns blazing. They could all pretend this was a subpar episode of Supernatural the whole time. I kept hoping for something, anything beyond what I was actually watching because the horror movie I saw felt like it was pulling my leg. Something in it had to be a joke. The punch line never came.

I’ll say two things in its favor. The whole movie was made for $100,000, and it’s hard to make anything that hits theater screens for that little. A $10 million opening may not seem like much, but it’s already made 100 times its budget.

The second thing? The actors do a job. They’re not great, but they’re not bad. The roles are thankless and the filmmakers aren’t giving them much to work with. Pfeifer Brown, who plays Pfeifer, is particularly solid and helps carry the film during stretches when it’s otherwise collapsing in on itself.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

1. Does The Gallows have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Pfeifer Brown plays Pfeifer. Cassidy Gifford plays Cassidy.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Mostly, Pfeifer and Cassidy scream about how sociopathic the other one is, but that’s OK. That’s mostly what the men scream at each other, too. When men and women scream between the sexes, it’s equal opportunity sociopathy all around.

In fact, the ghost strangling people doesn’t get much mention. Mostly, these sociopaths really just want the other sociopaths to know how sociopathic they are before they get strangled.

It’s like watching four teenage Daniel Plainviews each drinking the others’ milkshakes and shouting, “I drink your milkshake!” For an hour and a half. Except half the time we’re staring at the floor.

Right, Bechdel Test. The Gallows does fine along these lines. Women are represented as well as the men here. No particular gender issues are reinforced, and none are undermined.

Please never make me watch this again.

Over on AC: “It Follows” Is the Most Important Horror Film in Decades

Originally, that was supposed to read: the most important “American horror film,” but the more I think about It Follows, the more I’m convinced it stands up to anything in the past two decades. It’s a movie you feel to the bone for days on end. It’s a deep cut or black bruise of a horror movie. Read my review here:

“It Follows Is the Most Important Horror Film in Decades”

– Gabe

Science, Religion, and Horror — “The Lazarus Effect”

Lazarus Effect 1

by Gabriel Valdez

Horror movies are a little weird. We don’t always watch horror looking for good cinema, we watch it for effective scares. Some truly bad movies still have the ability to scare us.

The Lazarus Effect is very effective some of the time, but it’s interrupted by ferocious bouts of quirkiness. And not the good kind. Scientists are playing god by attempting to bring dead animals back to life. Inevitably, there’s an accidental death that forces our heroes to bring a human (Olivia Wilde) back to life instead. The only problem is that a few minutes of death here equals years and years in Hell. Also, Hell lends you superpowers for reasons nobody ever figures out.

There are some major issues in the shot choices and editing, which are both crucial in creating mood and rhythm for your scares to inhabit. Lazarus relies almost entirely on jump scares, where something jumps at a character from off-screen accompanied by a loud noise.

This means we can’t anticipate the scares, but we can predict them. Anticipation means we know they’re coming, we just can’t be sure of when. There’s a nervousness to anticipation. Often it happens when the audience sees something the characters can’t. Lazarus has no anticipation.

Prediction means we could time every scare’s arrival on a stopwatch. Predictable scares can still be frightening, but they don’t hold the same power in our psyche. They can make us jump, but they can’t lurk in the back of our minds and send chills up our spines. Lazarus can scare you, sure, but it won’t get inside your head.

Lazarus Effect 2

Wilde does make up for a lot of this. She is extraordinarily good in a role that requires her to play across the board – she can recite the technical babble behind her experiment like she’s on another episode of House, but there’s a later sequence in which she changes personalities depending on who’s in the room with her. She shines in these moments and gives us the only character who really feels like she belongs in that lab.

Unfortunately, and I hate to drag an actor out like this, Mark Duplass is awful. He plays the experiment’s co-leader and Wilde’s boyfriend. He’s been good in a lot of indie comedies, especially Safety Not Guaranteed, but he makes some very bad choices here. The interplay between Wilde and Duplass should create the dynamic of two scientists jousting over ideas (she believes in an afterlife, he doesn’t) and uncomfortably struggling to fit their philosophical disagreements into their more intimate relationship. Instead, it comes across as two actors hauling the quality of the movie in two very different directions. The rest of the cast – including comedian/rap artist Donald Glover – is charming, but isn’t the best fit for this film.

Lazarus is PG-13, rare for horror. There’s a hint of body horror and some trickles of blood but Lazarus uses some visual shortcuts to imply what you’ve seen in gorier horror movies. Honestly, I hardly noticed the absence – the best horror is built on psychology, not blood. It means that Lazarus relies more on its ideas, and these do become more frightening as we grasp the broader religious and scientific ideas at play.

Lazarus Effect glide

This creates a vicious cycle: a great horror idea gets you excited, but you’re disappointed by its failed execution. Wilde saves the moment through sheer acting willpower, and Duplass sabotages it by making all the wrong choices. This is saved by another great horror idea, but it’s executed badly and so on and so on.

It’s like a football game where whoever gets the ball last wins. Thankfully, we see Wilde more than Duplass, and the movie’s final twist adds a terrific motive to violence that earlier seemed a bit senseless. Home team wins.

Lazarus is a combination of great ideas, predictable yet effective jump scares, and a very out-of-place cast relying on Wilde as the only glue that holds it all together. We invented an award here recently called Most Thankless Role – it’s for actors who do great work in B-movies. I have a feeling Wilde’s going to contend this year.

The Lazarus Effect might only be a pond in the desert that is horror filmmaking right now, but that still makes it feel like an oasis worth visiting. It didn’t scare me as much as I would have liked, but its story felt rewarding.

If you’re looking for a better version of Lazarus, consider Flatliners, an often forgotten horror gem from 1990 that brought together Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, and Kiefer Sutherland.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does The Lazarus Effect have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Olivia Wilde plays the lead researcher Zoe and Sarah Bolger plays videographer Eva. There’s also a university president played by Amy Aquino and a little girl played by Emily Kelavos.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a woman?

Yes. Horror is one of the only genres to regularly pass the Bechdel Test with ease. Zoe and Eva talk to each other as often as any of the men do, and it’s always about science, religion, or the crazy horror shenanigans going on around them. They’re also the two most proactive characters in the whole movie.

There’s actually not a whole lot to say about it beyond this. Lazarus is cut to the bone as a movie – it’s only 83 minutes long – so there’s not a whole lot to analyze here. In terms of capability and agency, it presents a positive portrayal of women.

The Best Original Score of 2014

by Gabriel Valdez

Like industrial machinery puncturing the dead of night, like the oddity of hearing a baby cry in the house where you have none, like being sure of the rats in the walls, Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin evokes our most primal reactions. That the film itself seems to trap those reactions under glass only to run tests on them makes the effect all the more disturbing.

Call it industrial, call it art house or avant garde, call it horror, I don’t much care.

I also know that no climax turns on a musical cue quite like that of Under the Skin, throwing the entire meaning of the film for a loop, inverting the roles of victimizer and victim by suddenly assigning the musical theme of our alien sexual predator to another: the more familiar sexual predator of our own world. And when our alien’s true identity is finally revealed, it changes motivations, but does it change any outcomes?

No musical cue on film has sparked so much discussion in my filmgoing life…well, ever.

Yet even without that twist, Levi would win this. Her score is one of the most challenging, surreal, otherworldly, and creepy I’ve ever heard. It marries methodical pulses and bump-in-the-night knocks to teeming infestations of strings and background noise, yet manages to find beautiful soundscapes hidden in these combinations. As a reflection of the film’s hideous, largely unfeeling yet very natural beauty, it does as much for Under the Skin as any design or technical element does for any film this year.

(Read the review)

(Read my interview with author Michel Faber)

“The Strain” — The Full Autopsy

Strain hi would you like to buy some encyclopedias

Congratulations, Eph Goodweather, you’ve just beaten to death the creature that will prove to the CDC all your claims about outbreak and contagious, little wormy things. What will you do now?

“Well, you see, I’d like to perform a secret autopsy in the basement before destroying all the evidence that will prove what I staked my career on in the first three episodes. Furthermore, as these little wormy things have proven highly contagious, I’d like to use no real protective gear while – instead of cutting the body apart – I just kind of tear at it with my bare hands. My hope is that possibly contagious bodily fluids fly EVERYWHERE. I’m kind of into that. Then I’ll burn the evidence that supports my theory of outbreak afterward, and we can toss a little bleach around. Above all, don’t tell anyone we just coated the storage basement (of this hospital full of sick people) in outbreak fluids. Trust me, I’m a doctor.”

Look, I don’t want to keep on kicking a dead horse’s bridges while they’re down, but…who wrote this crap? As I continue to watch and review The Strain, FX’s expensive new vampire series created by horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro and Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse, I find myself repeatedly asking a single question:

What the hell went wrong?

The blame lies in a few different places:

1. AIMLESSNESS
Too Many B-Plots

The show’s not wanting for good characters, it’s just that the good characters don’t get much screen time when they have to share with so many bad ones. Even when they do get screen time, they find themselves in a sort of Sisyphean acting hell, in which they have to repeat the same scenes opposite the same foils over and over again.

Let’s take these one-by-one. The badass vampire hunter Abraham (David Bradley) has only had a handful of scenes thus far. Across four episodes, all but two of these scenes have involved our protagonists from the CDC telling him to shove off. Sometimes they even go out of their way to seek him out, ostensibly to hear his advice, but really because it’s just a more creative way of telling him to shove off.

How does this happen, by the way? Do CDC doctors really hop on the Red Line to Jamaica Station to catch the Orange Line that gets them the C-train on the Blue Line at Penn in order to have a 2-minute conversation, the only purpose of which is to inform the person they just traveled two hours to see how much they don’t want to talk to him? Did they lose a bet with another doctor?

We need one scene in which our protagonists inform Abraham they don’t believe him. We don’t need one per episode.

Or take Puerto Rican ex-con Felix (Pedro Miguel Arce), who transports the ubervampire across the city in the first episode. It pays so much, it’s the last job he’ll ever do, which is why he’s inexplicably so hard up for cash by episode 4 that he’s stealing SUVs. I get recidivism, but he’s two days off beating up his brother for stealing a clock. There’s no consistency or sense of motivation offered to us. Furthermore, the SUV theft takes up a big chunk of episode 4, along with such critical scenes as insisting the building’s super be nicer to his mom, and arguing over who’ll take out the recyclables. That’s a total of three scenes in one episode. They’re not relevant to anything else. You know how many the main plot gets? Two.

I have news for you: I don’t care who takes out the recyclables. Jesus, I’ll take out the recyclables, just cut to the next scene.

Strain Vasiliy

There’s even a city health inspector/exterminator named Vasiliy (Kevin Durand). He’s passed through the same restaurant as another character, and he’s noticed rats are being chased out of the sewers by something sinister. Aside from these fairly circumstantial connections, however, there’s no reason yet given why we’re watching anything he does. Don’t get me wrong – Durand’s portrayal is the definition of charming and I’d gladly (rather) watch a show about him catching rats for a living, but while Vasiliy is completely unconnected to the larger story, he gets more scenes in episodes 2 and 3 than anyone but the main character. Then he doesn’t appear at all in episode 4. Good job, whoever made that call.

The biggest problem with The Strain is that there are so many B-plots, and we’re so focused on them, that the main plot is often only addressed in the opening and closing scenes. Furthermore, the B-plots have to be put on hold for episodes at a time so other B-plots can be introduced or continued.

HOW TO FIX IT?

Lost made a lot of mistakes as a TV show, but it handled the biggest ensemble on TV with a deft hand. Sometimes that meant being forgiving – Matthew Fox’s Jack was meant to die at the end of the first episode, a victim to the mysterious smoke monster, but producers liked him too much to kill him off. He became the beating heart and moral compass of the show for 7 seasons.

And sometimes that meant Lost had to be unforgiving – killing off characters whose actors broke the law outside the show, for instance; diminishing the screentime of actors whose characters proved unpopular; and even cutting ties with Dominic Monaghan, whose name helped launch the show but who wanted to be more of a central figure in it (and who runs his own awesome, globetrotting, nature show on BBC now).

With a cast this big, you’ve got to choose your champions early. Forgive them, be heartless with anyone and everything else. The choices of how to spend screen time in The Strain are the worst I have ever seen made in narrative TV. There have been worse shows, sure – The Strain‘s budget, cast, and production polish are enough to let it get away with a handful of mistakes – but there have been few shows so aimless and easily distracted.

Strain Abraham

2. DISTRACTIONS
10-Minute Castrations

Yes, you have unfortunately read that right. The third episode focuses half its time on the survivors of the airplane outbreak as they turn vampire. We get slow, languorous shots of one drinking blood from a steak. We spent several minutes with the rock star survivor washing his face, taking out his contacts and wig, even peeing (yes, peeing) just before his genitalia fall off.

These are scenes that have been covered in countless vampire, werewolf, and zombie movies. They’re staple, we know them by heart, and unless you’re really introducing something new into the mix, it makes no sense to spend half of each episode on these rote mutations, certainly not at the expense of your two dozen other main cast.

It’s not difficult to realize that watching a man flushing his blackened, detachable genitalia down the toilet doesn’t justify 10 minutes of watching him scrub his face beforehand. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t justify much of anything.

That rocker with the detachable…you know…we follow so closely in episode 3? Not to be seen in episode 4. In fact, three of the four survivors of the initial outbreak are heavily featured in the third episode. We have no clue what the fourth survivor, presented as the most consequential one starting out, has been up to since credits rolled in episode 2.

Unless the mutations are that special, or the make-up is that revolutionary, handle them in 30 seconds. This is a place where genre shorthand is immensely valuable. The craziest details of the mutation are already handled in the autopsy. This may shock the show’s producers, but watching a man’s hair fall out for 30 minutes? Not nearly as compelling as the giant, bloodsucking leech that grows in his chest cavity and shoots out his throat. Prioritize, people!

But don’t worry, a new character’s just been introduced – a hacker who can singlehandedly shut down New York’s internet without touching anyone else’s. Never mind that this isn’t even how the internet works, or that you’d need a coordinated effort from multiple sources attacking multiple providers to accomplish anything resembling this (this is 80th on the list of things this show didn’t bother to research), but the hacker serves no storytelling purpose. If that’s all she does, don’t waste the scene where we meet her and learn her life details and the vampire goes, “Oh, I’m such an a-hole, I didn’t even expect you to be a woman.”

I already know the vampires are a-holes. You know how? They’re vampires. Just have one vampire turn to the next and say, “Hey, shutting down New York’s internet? Totally nailed it, bro.” Then move on.

HOW TO FIX IT?

Ask yourself a few questions:

Is this necessary to the main plot?

Is this notably different from what other TV shows have done?

If the answer to both is “No,” then either cut it entirely, or edit it down so that it’s handled quickly. When you can’t get to the main plot because you’re drowning in B-plots, and you can’t even get to the B-plots because you’re distracted by moments that don’t even belong to a plot, you’re in grave trouble. It’s like watching characters twiddle their thumbs for an hour. It’s a disaster. Cut, cut, cut – be heartless. Which brings us to our next problem:

Strain Have I Told You About My Divorce Today

3. SELF-POSSESSION
Adapting Your Own Work

I suspect the weaknesses of The Strain are in large part due to Guillermo Del Toro’s involvement in adapting his own series of novels. Yes, Del Toro is one of the most important filmmakers working today; he has reshaped the face of modern horror. Yet while he’s successfully written original and adapted material for the big screen before, he’s never before been asked to either adapt his own work or write for TV.

When you’re adapting your own work from one medium into another, you have to treat it with a certain dispassion – scenes you loved writing might not work on TV. They might need to be stripped down and rewritten, combined with other scenes, or even excised entirely. You need to recognize where 30 pages can be condensed into a single shot and where a lone paragraph can evolve into the basis for an entire episode.

I haven’t read the novels, but The Strain shows a great many of the hallmarks of too forgiving an adaptation – too many scenes double and triple each other or play too long, communicating information we already have or can readily infer. Still other scenes occur too late, bending the logic of the real world in order to justify their placement. Characters make decisions based not on any logical, internal consistency, but rather on where they need to be for the next scene.

HOW TO FIX IT?

Again, be heartless. You need someone to be able to supersede Del Toro and tell him what will or won’t work. That should be Cuse’s job – he’s got far more experience in TV storytelling than Del Toro. You need a showrunner with enough creative control to reinterpret and rewrite the story, to eliminate entire characters and plot lines, and who can do so free from the worry that it will upset Del Toro.

When you lack that oversight…well, the extreme example is George Lucas, pod races, and Jar Jar Binks. I wouldn’t say The Strain is that far afield, but it’s certainly doing its best to get there.

4: GENRE
Do Your Research

I’m not talking about horror. The Strain sits in that groove comfortably enough. Although I haven’t found a moment that’s really scared me, it has a morose tone that certainly makes those moments possible…one day.

Most commonly used in cop shows, which are all about following a series of steps through to expose the solution to a mystery, The Strain follows what’s called a procedural format.

The issue is that procedurals require at least a passing knowledge of the procedures being followed. Look to the naval codifying and informational hierarchy in The Last Ship or the elimination-based investigations and bureaucratic politics of The Closer and Major Crimes to see what I mean. As a writer, you need to do your research.

Even if what you’re researching doesn’t exist in reality, as in the newer Battlestar Galactica, then you need to make it up and then research the hell out of what you just made up to make sure it’s leak-proof. Even CSI, which completely invents how police actually investigate a crime, at least does its research when it comes to the forensics at the core of the show.

Strain 2 goop

The Strain‘s CDC methodology is a joke. Doctors argue patients should be quarantined while standing unprotected, shoulder-to-shoulder with them. They put research on hold for most of a day while skipping in and out of a hot zone to take care of personal matters. Sean Astin’s Jim is a CDC videographer who has no medical or security expertise, yet he’s left in charge of deciding what passes in and out of an airport-wide quarantine. New York City’s ME’s office goes dark for a day before anybody notices. A patient infested with vampire worms is being treated as if for a disease and is “going in for surgery” that’s never specified, when all research would in reality center around what the worms themselves are sensitive to so they could be poisoned without harming the host. Surgery wouldn’t do crap.

If this is how the CDC operates in the real world, then please go have a nice conversation with your loved ones, because we’re all going to drop dead of Ebola tomorrow.

More damning than not researching the procedures on which it hangs its hat, The Strain doesn’t seem to have researched the elements it’s invented. Everything feels off the cuff, like a campfire story being made up on the spot. That’s fine for 15 minutes at a campfire, but not through four-plus hours of television. I brought up Battlestar Galactica earlier. Yes, everything’s invented in that show – none of it exists in the real world – but the religions, political structures, and technology that were invented were clearly vetted extensively by the creators. They had their own logic.

Even the villains’ logic in The Strain makes little sense: The four surviving passengers are at the core of the second and third episodes – will they be released into an unsuspecting populace or should they be quarantined? It’s posed as the core element to the vampire plan, and yet there seems to be no difference between these four survivors and the 206 dead people the vampires already have hold of. They all feed on blood, and kill, and pass on their little, wormy brethren to make more vamps. In fact, the dead ones seem far more efficient – they’ve already infested others while the survivors are still going all emo about their mutations.

Media snap in and out of existence to harrass CDC officials, veritably stalking one meaningless survivor while paying no attention to the surviving pilot on whom the entire disaster is blamed.

As a viewer, that lack of reliability makes you distrust the story. If the narrator can just change whatever he wants whenever he feels like it and break his own narrative rules when they’re too inconvenient, then where’s the tension? Moreover, if the narrator doesn’t even seem like he’s paying attention, why should you?

HOW TO FIX IT?

The Strain can’t function as a procedural if there are no procedures to follow. Period. It may’ve worked better in any number of other narrative formats. Lost‘s philosophy of focusing on one character’s emotional state per episode while folding them into the group’s overall narrative could’ve worked well, but you have to start combining the characters into larger groups to make this function. Doing so boils down the number of plots you have to follow at once.

If you’re going to maintain such a large ensemble without grouping any of them together early, the smartest way around that is to hold off on introducing the new characters of the second, third, and fourth episodes until later, when they can link with the core ensemble and tell their story at a pace of more than one appearance every other episode.

Above all, don’t make episode 2 about the ratcatcher and episode 3 about the videographer and episode 4 about the ex-con to the exclusion of scenes that actually have something to do with your main plot – you know, the one about that whole vampire outbreak you’re supposed to be having.

Strain 2 where is the coroner

We were swamped with protagonist Eph Goodweather’s divorce and custody battle in the first two episodes. Not that I’d like to see anything else having to do with that subplot, but its complete disappearance is scarier than any vampire that lurks in the shadows. Like so many other pointless B-plots in The Strain, it’s just waiting out there somewhere, and when you least suspect it, that’s when it’ll pounce on episode 6, or episode 10, sinking its nasty teeth into the fleshy bits of the main plot. All that will be left of that episode will be the skeletal remains, a fleeting reference to the vampire outbreak in the opening and closing scenes, while the monstrous, bloated B-plot itself takes over the 40 minutes in between and hypnotizes you with its twin powers of utter meaninglessness and pure boredom.

That, my friends…that is evil in its purest form.

Look, if you’re making a series about the experiences of the average person who brushes past this complex, secret plot but knows nothing of it, then make that show, lend us their perspectives, and make that secret plot an actual mystery to us. Give us the viewpoint of the hapless citizens on the ground, coping as best they can with the hellish unknown. If characters must argue about the recyclables, make the argument about trying to keep their grasp on a semblance of normalcy, not about – you know – the actual, damn recyclables.

If you’re making a series about a disease, the procedural investigation of it, and the strategies vampires use to foster an outbreak, then do some medical research and make that show. Give us doctors, and those CDC suits we haven’t seen since the first 10 minutes of the first episode, and people panicking, and arguments about who screwed up which procedure, and long gazes as doctors grimly utter, “You just cost this patient his only chance,” and bureaucratic blame games, and vampires going all President Bartlett on some familiar when he insists he didn’t think the CDC could possibly identify the isomorphic biopolymer streptomashugana so quickly.

And if you’re making a series about the vampire hunter who can’t hunt vampires because all of his scenes are being wasted contemplating restraining orders against CDC employees who track him halfway across the city so they can tell him why he’s stupid and they don’t believe him, then make that show, but please go watch some Night Court and Boston Legal first.

The Strain may have worked best in an epistolary format – in literature, this means stories told entirely through letters, diaries, and newspaper articles (as in Stephen King’s novel Carrie). On TV, I think this could be extended into the visual equivalent – personal narratives, survivor recountings, recollections, found footage, and in-person reports by CDC personnel.

But the procedural? As much as it gets knocked, perhaps no other TV format requires a greater degree of initial research to get a story off the ground. Combine it with sci-fi horror, which requires its own invented consistent logic, and if you’re not willing to do the work in research, in adapting, and in managing your narrative delivery properly, you’ve annihilated your story from the word go.

Strain Airplane

It may be too late to fix, but figure out quickly what the hell this show is about. It can still include elements and characters from the other strands of plot, but they’ve got to be supporting aspects to something core.

Make it about the vampire hunter assembling some of this crew to hunt down vamps while the CDC races to solve the issue medically, or make it about the political contest to control how the outbreak occurs. Make it about the people on the ground stuck in the middle, or make it about those who are tooth-and-nail against the vamps. Make it about how families are coping with those who are mutating into vampires, or make it about the regret of those who’ve made the outbreak possible in the first place.

But don’t make it about all those things at once. That’s what later seasons are for. Don’t tackle 10 things when you can only realistically address one or two per episode. Make it about one central concept. There’s nothing stopping the other concepts from dropping by and sharing a beer now and then, but the house they’re visiting – the show itself – needs to belong to a single, driving force. You can’t have 10 things living under one roof – that’s how you end up with drama about who takes out the recyclables.

‘Genre’ is Not a Naughty Word

Pans Labyrinth 2

Yesterday, a friend of mine commented that she disliked my describing Rose Byrne as a “genre darling” in my Neighbors review because it confines her within a narrow field of film and the word ‘genre’ is generally derogatory. I can absolutely see where she’s coming from, but I’d like to explain why I used the description and why ‘genre’ is not a naughty word.

There’s a difference between a judgment and a descriptor. My reviews go to paper, too, so they don’t get to be as free-form as some of my other articles – I’m limited to about 700 words. Sometimes, I have to describe personalities very quickly. Rose Byrne is most often associated with ‘genre’ films; that’s how the most readers will know who I’m talking about in the fewest words. In my judgment, I hardly think Seth Rogen ought to be a “comedy mainstay,” as I described him in the review, but that’s how readers know him because that’s how he’s used. Any time I can effectively describe an actor in two words rather than list off movies, it frees up an incredible amount of space I can use to talk about the film itself. And Neighbors has an issue that demanded the space: one of the least responsible inclusions of rape I’ve ever seen on film.

My goal was to concisely describe Rogen and Byrne and Zac Efron so that an audience would immediately recognize who I was talking about. Maybe I succeeded and maybe I didn’t, but when we call Rose Byrne a ‘genre darling’ or William H. Macy and Tilda Swinton ‘indie darlings’ or John McCain and Barack Obama ‘media darlings,’ it doesn’t define them as being capable of nothing else but those specialties. It defines them as being so particularly excellent at those specialties that they stand head and shoulders above incredibly crowded fields. It is not mutually exclusive to being good at anything else and it is not meant to cage them within a particular genre.

The Martian Chronicles lead

When I say Byrne carries Rogen and the comedy, that’s a judgment. When I say she shouldn’t have played a scene in which she gets a girl drunk so she can peer pressure her into sex and physically force her into sexual contact, that’s a judgment. But saying Byrne has a history in ‘genre’ film is no different than describing Efron as a “former Disney wonderkid.” They aren’t meant to be complete definitions, but rather to get a reader on the same page as quickly as possible.

Insofar as ‘genre’ goes as a derogatory term, I grew up watching and reading almost nothing but genre. I love genre. To me, ‘genre’ is a far more appealing word than ‘drama’ or ‘literary’. Genre can do things neither of those can. Robert Heinlein is genre. Ursula K. Le Guin is genre. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Gibson and Margaret Atwood are genre. The Thing and Star Trek and Gravity are genre. In 1992, Star Trek: The Next Generation had consecutive episodes that argued for gay marriage rights and for the humane qualities of euthanasia. Show me one other U.S. TV show that’s willing to risk that much every week even today, let alone 22 years ago under 12 straight years of Reagan/Bush.

‘Genre’ isn’t something to be ashamed of. ‘Genre’ is what everything else secretly wants to be, cause ‘genre’ has enjoyed golden ages ‘drama’ and ‘literary’ could only dream of, and takes social stands ‘drama’ and ‘literary’ take their cues from a decade later, after ‘genre’ takes the initial risk to show that it can work.

Yojimbo cap

Samurai films and monster movies are genre. They’re how Japan chose to confront, on a nationwide scale, the guilt and shame of blindly following leaders into decades of genocide and war. Superhero movies are genre. They’re fast becoming our best venue for culture-wide dissections of privacy and military-industrial concerns in our own government. Martial arts films are genre. They’re what allowed China to stake their claim to cultural relevancy alongside Hollywood: first among their own people and, later, to the West itself. Westerns opened up Spain’s film industry the way horror movies opened up Italy’s. Magical realism brought Latin American writers to the fore. Mexican horror (through the Spanish film industry Westerns created) has become the premier translation for Mexican Catholicism’s uniquely evolved fusion of modern doctrinal religion, old-fashioned spiritual animism, and ancestor worship.

‘Genre’ can help heal countries, can call out governments, can help introduce cultures to each other, can kickstart national film industries, can translate the incredible complexities of entire religions and cultures. ‘Literary’ and ‘drama’ don’t often get to be so outspoken. In my opinion, they far too often play it safe.

So screw ‘genre’ being a derogatory term. I don’t get on board with that. ‘Genre’ is what people want to go see. ‘Genre’ is what takes risks before more accepted forms do. ‘Genre’ changes minds and elicits ideas and time and again has to make smarter, sharper arguments than more ordinary forms. So if I bother to call something ‘genre,’ what I’m really saying is, “This shit’s brave.” And if I bother to call an actor a ‘genre darling,’ what I’m really saying is, “This actor takes risks and, because of that, they do things 99% of their contemporaries can’t.”

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Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Mary Shelley, Ray Bradbury, Georgie O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas and all of Impressionism were ‘genre’ before they became so overpowering and immediate as artists and movements that they became accepted as somehow ‘dramatic’ or ‘literary’ and therefore ‘classic,’ suddenly off-limits to ‘genre.’ But the truth is none of them ever left being genre. ‘Accepted’ just caught the hell up.

‘Genre’ drags everything else forward. Everything. I will never use that word in a derogatory way, but I will absolutely keep using that word, because ‘genre’ is what I was raised on and I can’t think of any piece of art I like more than a science-fiction movie like Moon or a horror movie like Let the Right One In, a Western like Once Upon a Time in the West or a martial arts film like Police Story, a crime movie like Stray Dog or a mystery like North by Northwest. Not calling something ‘genre,’ that’s derogatory. But ‘genre’ is the future. It always was and it always will be, and there’s absolutely nothing ‘literary’ or ‘dramatic’ can ever do about it. They’ll continually play catch up to ‘genre’ for the remainder of human existence. And if that’s not a ‘genre’ ending, I don’t know what is.