Elements of Horror: Automata – Looking at Hush, Don’t Breathe, and Pontypool

I’ve watched a few horrors lately, namely Hush, Don’t Breathe and Pontypool.  I enjoyed all of them, to one extent or another and it gets me to wondering, what are the elements a writer needs to master in order to spook the reader.   I am going to drift about on this post, and it is not intended to be exhaustive, and is purely opinion based on observation.  The topic I am drifting towards is Automata.  In this context, the semblance or appearance of life, but with certain things removed with the ultimate effect of dehumanising the automaton.

Hush was a standard slasher film, where an assailant with a white mask that made them look like a mannequin terrorises a deaf girl in her forest home.

Don’t Breathe is about a bunch of thieves breaking into the isolated home of a blind war veteran, trying to rob him, and getting more than they bargained for when he locks them in his house and starts hunting them.  (I guess he was meant to be the villain, and for much of the film, all my sympathy was with him)

Pontypool is a zombie movie, where the zombie infection is spread through infected words.  The action takes place inside the local radio station, the place uniquely suited to get word out about the new plague, but also risk communicating it.

I also studied the Uncanny whilst at University, if only for a short time and already had a few suppositions about what makes things scary.  I am going to go through each film, one by one and try to bring it together with previous studies to draw some form of a conclusion.

Hush

Currently available on netflix UK, and worth a watch.  If you want a review of it, you can find a good one over on Raistlin0903 Blog HERE (He does frequent movie reviews that I particularly enjoy, and often agree with – his review encouraged me to watch Hush).

So, we have a girl who is deaf living alone and in isolation.  First fear factor, without hearing she is deprived awareness of her surroundings except what is in her field of vision.  This effectively renders the intruder invisible to her, until he wants to be seen.

We then add to this the fact that the intruder wears a paper mache style mask.  Concealment seems irrelevant, since his intent was always to murder her and anyone who gets in the way.  So, you have to assume the mask has a different function.  I will posit that the mask is rigid, and this was the point.  A flexible mask that moves when a person talks, or looks around still feels human up to a point.  A rigid mask looks more like a doll, or a mannequin.  Taken on its own, each aspect might slightly unnerve us but let us consider what putting them together means.  We have an intruder with a face that equates to a mannequin, and a girl who cannot hear.  In essence she is deprived of several stimuli that should scream human.  Humans have eyes, and faces and sounds.  But if something moves like a human, but doesn’t have a face and doesn’t make sound then we are getting into territory that Freud spoke about in The Uncanny.  We have something that resembles an automaton.  A being that mimics the form of human, and goes through the motions, but is absent defining characteristics.  I am going a bit deeper than the film perhaps intended (but maybe it did intend this discussion).  One thing I know.  Dolls are creepy.  The idea of a featureless, soundless being walking or moving in a similar fashion to a human is also creepy.  I think we can justify saying that Automota is one element that can be used in horror to unnerve, if not scare.

Don’t Breathe

Don’t Breathe actually takes one idea of horror/thriller, the Intruder, and flips it as the protagonists are the intruders and would not have been in danger had they not broken into the house of the rich, blind, war vet played by Stephen Lang.  He has no particularly special powers.  He isn’t Daredevil with radar senses.  He is just a guy, a trained guy, but a guy nonetheless defending his house.  (There was a plot macguffin inserted to make you lose sympathy for him.  It kinda worked, I wasn’t keen on it.  But my purpose isn’t review).

Lang was blind.  His eyes, milky white.  And I think this is the most unnerving thing about him.  You can read intent in eyes.  If not emotion, you can see where eyes are looking and extrapolate intent.  But if they are solid, blank and unmoving then you get a similarly uncanny effect as with the solid mask in Hush.  Again, we have something taken slightly away from what we expect, moved in a direction that makes it less human and the result is Uncanny.

On a side note, I used this once in a roleplaying game where I had created a Wizard named Felix.  Felix lost his sight due to out of control sorcery, however I asked the Games Master if my character could start the game with eyes forged from silver.  They didn’t do anything other than see, but I wanted my character to have strange eyes.  The Games Master approved, and fortunately we have only encountered undead so far, so it hasn’t been a problem.

Pontypool

As noted, Pontypool is a Zombie movie where the infection is spread through infected words.  The infected wander around, hunting, repeating the same phrases over and over. This isn’t necessarily automata or blank eyes as with the other two movies, (though a zombie movie by definition is about automata) however the taking of phrases and repeating them over and over and over makes the infected sound like a broken record player, a broken machine.  The fact that the infected are simply transmitting the same phrase over and over also makes their voices “Undead” or “Automata”.  In essence, the words emulate a voice but it is only an approximation of voice.

 

Automata

When seeing something resembling human, acting in ways that a human might but deprived of essential human elements, such as active eyes, facial expressions or a voice then we wonder what exactly we are seeing.  Is it a biomechanical engine?  Does it bleed?  Feel pain?  Feel Joy?

It unnerves us because we have no frame of reference.  How do you deal with a flesh construct?  A vicious animal, a deranged shooter, both are terrifying in their own right but we understand them somewhat.  They are familiar.  We know that they have emotions, and they have motives and in some respects we can try and evade or reason with them.  Don’t reason with a tiger.  They are notoriously hostile diplomats.

But we don’t understand the automaton.  Does it have will of its own?  Does it have a master.  How do we deal with it?

If it simply looks human but is a construct of other material, is it alive?  How does it work?

If it appears human, but outward signs of humanity are gone, in the eyes, the voice, the expression/emotion, then more terrifying is the question:  Can it happen to us?

I am not claiming expertise on this subject.  What are your thoughts on use of automata in your writing?

 

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Pontypool – How changing an old idea can work

There is a, perhaps less well known, horror movie out there known as Pontypool.  It is currently available free to Amazon Prime customers, and if you are fortunate enough to have a subscription, then I would recommend it as a movie.  As usual, this is not a review, but a basic overview and then applying it to your writing.

I am going to be referencing this movie in a couple of blogs, as it is surprising how many useful elements can be drawn from it.

Pontypool is essentially a Zombie movie, set in the rural Canadian town of Pontypool. It is heavily implied the locals are very much involved in everyone else’s business, and for news beyond gossip  the citizens turn to Grant Mazzy – Talk Radio DJ with aspirations beyond his (local) station.  It is implied he was once mainstream, and respected in the business.  Mazzy, played by Stephen McHattie, is desperately trying to matter in a situation where he doesn’t feel relevant.  And then, strange things start happening in the town.  People start acting in herds, chanting repetitive nonsensical phrases, attempting to kill and eat other townsfolk (none of this is shown on screen – I’ll talk about that in my Pontypool – A Short Story Movie Blog).

Like I said, it is a zombie movie.  However, and this is the part that had my attention, was the twist on the idea of zombie infection – the zombie virus/condition was not transmitted through fluids, bites, scratches or even airborne transmission.  It was transmitted through infected words.

Yep, I said infected words.  And despite IMDB only rating Pontypool 6.7*, I have to say, this was a brilliant idea.

Zombies, if you’ll forgive the pun, have been done to death since the 60s.  Anyone who has seen one Zombie movie knows that the contagion spreads through bites and scratches and, despite the virility of these, there are ways to defend against them.  Polearms, Armour, Guns, chopping off hands and teeth.  All are viable defences in fiction.

Pontypool has taken a genre that everyone is familiar with, everyone knows the tropes and introduced an X factor, changing mode of transmission.  And this makes the story fresh.  It brings about a new perspective on the Zombie genre.  I will talk more about its effectiveness in adding to the horror of the situation in a future blog.  For now, I just want to examine the process here.

Take a genre that everyone is familiar with, that has established rules and tropes.

Take something integral to that genre.  And then change it.

Now that I think about it, Pontypool is not the only story I have encountered that plays with genre stereotypes.

For part of my degree, when studying romance, I was required to read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.  We were taught that a standard trope of the romance formula was that the hero or heroine falls for someone (maybe not the right someone), pursues them, all the while obstacles appear in their path (in the form of the other man/woman, or the fact that the person is not the right person for them in the first place).  The romance is essentially a quest narrative with the reward being the protagonist getting together, happily, with the right person at the end of the novel.

Rebecca doesn’t do that.  The nameless protagonist marries her love by page 50.  But this isn’t happy ever after.  Now the protagonist has to come to terms with settling down, which is nowhere near s exciting as the brief romance on the Riviera, and she is constantly compared to her husband’s deceased first wife.  How do you find love when your opponent is a ghost?  (not literally, she is dead and only her memory remains).

Mitchell & Webb, the British comedy duo, did a fantastic sketch turning this on its head.

In this case, the effect is comedic – taking the idea of a husband holding his wife to the impossible standard of his other wife – in this case, his future wife rather than his first wife.

How can we use this?  Truthfully, I have been wracking my brain about this for a while now, trying to figure out other corruptions of tropes that might serve as a starting point – and let me tell you, it hasn’t been easy!

 

Have a think about your favoured genre.

What are the accepted practices of that genre?  Are any of them often repeated?  How do they come together?  What can you change about one element?  What effect does this have?

I cannot create a list of possibilities, but lets try at least one – fantasy.

Young/childlike hero.  Possibly with a powerful artifact.  (Works for The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Sword of Shannara, The Belgariad.  Sword of Truth)

There is a mentor, possibly an old man and maybe even a wizard.  (Works for all of the above)

The Mentor may die, to motivate the protagonist (Actually, only 2 of 6.  You can increase to 4 if you change it to removal of the mentor to force the protagonist to act on their own terms.  It has been a while since I read the Belgariad or the Sword of Shannara.  I cannot recall this happening in those books).

There is an evil power from times gone past.  They might have an army (More or less true for all, though Smaug doesn’t have an army but he is an evil from times long past).

The destruction of the evil power is linked to the protagonist or their artifact. (again, works for all)

There is usually a journey involved, both geographic and metaphoric. (not really the case for Harry Potter, at least not physically, but he does grow over time throughout the stories.  In every other listed story there is a long journey involved).

Let’s put that all together.

A youthful/naive protagonist, possibly with an artifact, is induced to go on  quest by a wizard/grandfather/mentor figure.  They must travel far to find the ancient evil that now threatens, as only they protagonist/artifact are capable of defeating the evil.

Lord of the Rings plays around with the artifact idea.  Frodo Baggins must carry the Ring of Power to Mount Doom to destroy it, but in doing so he must carry it into the realm of Sauron – potentially delivering it into his hands.  So, the thing of power that can destroy the enemy is also its greatest weapon.

Harry Potter does not go on a geographic journey, he goes to school and grows that way.  What other ways might a person grow knowledgeable without having to walk longer than the Proclaimers?

Why is it only the Protagonist that can carry the artifact?  In the Sword of Shannara, it is due to Royal Blood.  In the Belgariad, if I recall, it is the same.  In the Lord of the Rings, it is the innocence of Hobbits, acting as a shield against the malevolence of the Ring of Power.  In the sword of truth it is worthiness, as determined by the mentor character. What other characteristic might make the Protagonist appropriate?  Does that change them from youthful and idealistic or naive?

Why is the mentor often portrayed as a Grandfatherly wizard?  Because to a youth, the elderly know everything that has gone before.  They might even be perceived as a bridge to the time of the evil.  They are powerful, but lack something the hero has (youth, for instance).  Maybe something else portrays some of these characteristics?  Or maybe the mentor idea has no place in your story.  If so, who/what motivates an teaches the protagonist.

Does the grandfatherly wizard have to be the mentor?  Can their role be shifted in the story?  If so, to what?

Does there have to be an artifact to destroy, or that can destroy the evil?  Could there be something else instead?

Does the Evil have to be from times gone by?  If not, what does that do to the whole quest narrative/roadmap?

 

I hope that has left you something to think about.  If you have any ideas, feel free to share them, or link me to your bestseller when it hits amazon.  Happy writing!

Zombies have fallen – A low budget movie, and a discussion on language, narrative voice, genre and respecting your reader

I was recently contacted by a friend with regards to the film Zombies have Fallen.  It is a low budget movie, with zombies in it, that has recently been advertised to me on Amazon Prime.  And none of that would have had any interest for me were it not for the fact that the writer & director is a graduate of the University I attended.

Given my allegiance to my former institution, and given that Amazon did in fact advertise it to me, I felt I should make the effort and watch the movie.

This is not a movie review.  However, so you are aware of what you are getting into if you decide to watch for academic or other reasons, here are some impressions.

The scripting is poor, the acting is wooden, and the editing could have been significantly better.  All that being said, the first 45 minutes of the film had a certain tone to it.  The movie was trying to be a hide & seek thriller, with one bounty hunter trying to kill a psychic under the protection of another.  The story just about works, and there was one element that I thought was really clever, though not executed as well as it could have been.

Then at 45 minutes, Zombies appeared in Gretna (a town down the road from where I live).  Allegiances shifted very quickly, almost as quickly as the tone of the film changed to one so far beyond black comedy; I would almost call it a farce.  (The Zombie farce was quite entertaining, to give credit where it is due).

So, let’s get to the point.

For me, the major issue with the film was the fact that it didn’t know what it was trying to be.  (I am not saying the writer/director didn’t know, only that something happened that caused a radical shift in direction that breaks the narrative flow, making it look like there was no clear idea).  Perhaps obviously, this is applicable to written work. Stories exist and, whether or not they belong in a genre, their language sets the tone of their overall impact.  Where applicable, language choice helps define genre.  And genre guides reader expectations.  Language and Genre give a story identity, it gives it a voice.  As a writer, you have the freedom to choose whatever genre and/or voice you want.  You also have a responsibility to do it properly.

I once read a piece of work by a peer.  The piece was ok.  I expected it to be a supernatural horror as it was named for a Cannibal Spirit.  There were certainly parts of the piece which felt like they were in a horror.  Unfortunately, other parts read more like the movie “The Hangover”.  I never did find out what genre the author intended, or if he even realised he what he had done.  All I know, the piece had a mixed voice and it was hampered by this.

Zombies have fallen started as a thriller.  It tried quite hard in this.  It became a ludicrous comedy.  This was entertaining but wasted any tension built up in the first part.  The title bore no relation to the film, sounding very much like a recent Gerard Butler movie (the design work looked a bit like that too).  The end result was a movie with no identity, no personality (or more appropriately, multiple personalities).  As a movie, it didn’t stand.  As 30 minutes of sillyness tacked onto the end, it was ok.

I guess what I am saying is that you need to know what you are trying to communicate, and in what voice, in order to know what language to use.  I would suspect a reader would be less forgiving of a book littered with mistakes, dull characters just to get to the last three chapters worth of silly.  A book is an investment that a reader makes.  Don’t waste the reader’s time.

One Plot, Two Movies and why one of them failed at a crucial point: A study in plots

You may well have heard people say things like “There are no original stories anymore” or there are “…only seven basic plots” or something like that indicating that most literature (and I am sure there are academics out there that will challenge my use of the word in this context since I am using movies as an example – challenge away, and expect to lose) is limited as a result of what has gone before.  I write this in response to that, with a bit of theory and then apply it to a couple of mainstream movies.

The Theory Bit

To understand where I am coming from you will need to understand some terminology.  Some of it is what was taught to me by academics, and some is what I have appropriated to help with this example.  The terms are

Audience – The individual or individuals who are consuming/reading/viewing/whatevering the literature

Literature – Any form of storytelling that is recorded in some fashion, be it in a book, orally or visually

Narrative – All events in a specified sequence, in chronological order

Plot – How a storyteller chooses to assemble the events in the narrative, and present them to the audience

Story – The result of an assembled plot intersecting with any given audience.

 

So, Audience is fairly straightforward.  The readers, the viewers anyone that is going to experience the story at the end of the process.  Literature is also straightforward, however, I should note that I am hijacking the word and re-purposing it as its definition generally refers to written works, and considered of “Value”.  Value is completely subjective, so I have no problem appropriating that, and in the sense that written language is merely arbitrary symbolism given value by readers, I have no problem including any form of media.  (I will write a blog about language and symbolism, particularly referring to graphic narrative in future weeks).

Everyone has an idea about what a narrative is, and I am simply applying it to a specific viewpoint.  It is every event in a story in order, regardless of plot.  Which brings me to plot.  Plot is a construction of the producer of literature, and the producer/writer decides whether or not to keep things chronological or not, whether to omit things or not and what viewpoint they are seen from.  And finally, story happens when the audience intersects with the produced plot.  A story is a living breathing thing, it is the offspring of two parents: Either a one night stand or a lasting romance between the reader and the writer via the plot.  The Writer’s ideas feed the plot, and the audience’s experience shapes that plot into their child, their story.

In this respect you could have two identical plots, but entirely different stories.

 

One Plot, Two Movies, some spoilers

I cannot do the rest of this blog without spoilers.  If you don’t want to know anything about Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon or Avengers: Assemble, don’t read on.

I have seen both movies.  I like both movies.  They are both entertaining, though they are also not cinematic greats.  They both also have the same plot structure.

 

Prologue

The setup for the main story happens here.  In TF, it is an exciting space pursuit as an Autobot Starcruiser, the Ark, attempts to flee Cybertron and crashes on Earth’s Moon, only to be discovered by Neil Armstrong + Buzz Aldrin.  In Avengers, Loki invades a top security SHIELD base, mind controls several people (Including Hawkeye – effectively cutting his role in the film in half and more, which is why he is cut in half in the banner.  In tribute to the naff treatment of a cool character otherwise handled well), steals an item of incredible power and disappears.

Act 1

Establish the activities of the protagonists.  In TF, the Autobots have been working with the US to deal with human problems, whilst hunting down Decepticons.  And Spike is going through the horrors of job application.  In Avengers Assemble, we see what the various members of the Avengers have been doing since we saw them last, all of whom get the summons.

(I simplified)

But in essence, act 1 is about what people have been doing since we saw them last.

Act 2

Establish the Antagonist’s plot, and make the audience think, “What’s going on?”

In TF the Autobots have found the Ark and Sentinel Prime, found a few components of Sentinel Prime’s space bridge invention and realise there is some conspiracy regarding the Dark Side of the Moon.  Act 2 concludes with a dramatic highway chase, a standoff between Sideswipe/Ironhide and some unnamed Decepticon Troopers, culminating with the death of Ironhide and the revelation that Sentinel Prime had made an alliance with Megatron and had betrayed the Autobots (albeit to save Cybertron).

In Avengers, The team has assembled and Loki is in custody but we realise that his mindslaves have already vanished and are “Off the Grid” as it were.  There is a bit of a mystery as to why Loki would allow himself to be captured so easily, and more surrounding what his overall endgame is.  Act 2 ends with an assault on the SHIELD Helicarrier, Loki’s escape and the Death of Agent Coulson.

In Essence, Act 2 is the part of the plot that makes the audience think that there is more going on than is obvious, and it climaxes with an intense action scene and a fatality.

Act 3

In TF, the Autobots are banished from Earth as a result of an ultimatum made by Sentinel Prime.  They are apparently killed when their starship is destroyed attempting to leave Earth.  The Decepticons attack Chicago with an army of disposable bots, their HQ being (I kid you not) Trump Tower (where Human collaborators are Headquartered.  Make of that what you will).  Naturally, the Autobots didn’t die, and they invade Chicago and fight their way to the end of the movie.

In Avengers, the team is torn apart, literally and figuratively.  The Hulk is MIA, it is implied Thor cannot lift Mjolnir, Hawkeye has regained his memory but is sulking over the deaths caused by him whilst under Loki’s spell, and Iron Man butts heads with Captain America over their different coping mechanisms regarding the death of Coulson.  But they come together when an alien army invades New York with Loki leading.

Act 3 – weaken the protagonists, set up the antagonist in a location with seemingly unbeatable but completely unremarkable unnamed forces (I make this point to show that we aren’t suppose to care if the antagonist soldiers die or not), and then at the end destroy a big maguffin that has the knock on effect of neutralising most of the disposable baddies so that a named character can pound the villain.

 

So What?

Good question.  The answer is, everything.  The point is both films have the same plot but different stories.  And I said one of them failed at a crucial point.  That was Transformers and it was when Ironhide was killed.  In the scene he is shot by Sentinel Prime, and his body melts from the inside out.  The literary critic in me sees that as the destruction of his heart, symbolic of betrayal.  This should be a scene loaded with Pathos.

It isn’t.  It is barely referenced again in the film.  It is on par with the death of Jazz in the first movie, which is commented on in one line.

“We have lost old friends, but gained new ones.”

I heard, “Jazz is dead.  Meh.”

Ironhide, a classic Autobot dies as a result of betrayal and it isn’t worth mentioning again.  It has zero impact on the remainder of the film.  It also doesn’t help that Ironhide (and Ratchet, and Jazz, and Sideswipe) are largely ignored in the movies in favour of Prime, Bumblebee and the slackjawed-yokelbots of TF 2.  We have no opportunity to invest in the character, and when he dies it is barely a footnote in the film.

Whereas, in Avengers Assemble, when Phil Coulson dies it has a major impact on the remainder of the film.  The team can’t function until prodded by Nick Fury, using Phil Coulson’s Captain America trading cards.  We get the sorrow.  We get the pathos, and we get the resolve.  And when Iron Man challenges Loki, he intimates that he is doing it for Phil.  This is a major deal given his social inadequacy!  And lets not forget that Coulson has appeared in 3 movies by this point and at least on short on youtube.  He is given character, screentime and as a result we care about him.  I was shocked when he was impaled by Loki!

 

So, my final thoughts.

You can apply a plot to a new narrative and get a new story.  Even if the audience are the same.

Don’t underwrite/undersell secondary characters.  Readers might need to care about them someday, and that can have a profound impact.

They are both weak films in the sense that the huge unstoppable army is effectively defeated by a killswitch plot device.

Avengers Assemble is the stronger movie.  But I still like Transformers.

All the best.

The trusty notebook of the future?

Anyone who knows me knows two things.  I like notebooks, and have many.  And as a gamer, I tend to drift onto the Kickstarter website from time to time looking to see what developments are in the works.  (Incidentally, you can pop over to my other site to see updates about my hobby and Kickstarters I have started following HERE )

It was on one of my trips to Kickstarter that I found the Everlast Rocketbook campaign

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click on the image to view the campaign

Being an avid note taker for various things, you will see from the image above that I have half a shelf devoted to the things.  Then I found this campaign.

What we have is the idea of a reusable notebook.  You write your notes on the pages using one of their pens, and how you mark the page dictates where the contents are sent in your personal cloud, allowing you scribble your notes and then save them where you need them.  You can then wipe the page and use afresh.

Some folks might balk at the price, it isn’t cheap.  On the other hand, if it works it could save money in the long run.  Personally, I prefer taking notes in a notebook rather than on computer.  It feels much more natural, and it is faster.

I leave it to you to decide.  Campaign can be found HERE

I already ordered mine