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?

 

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.

Was Marvel’s Iron Fist Netflix Series Bad? A look at criticism and feedback

I am a Marvel fan, and a Netflix Subscriber.  So, when they announced Daredevil as a TV series a few years back, I was excited.  Watching the series was no let down.  It was fast paced, well cast and had a great story.  Riding this success came Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and now, Iron Fist.  Three reasonably well known heroes in the comic world, (possibly four – I never really heard of Jessica Jones early story, so if I am misrepresenting her, I apologise) brought together to form the Defenders series given the popularity of the Avengers.  Iron Fist came out on Friday, so for me, Friday was Iron Fist day.

 

I enjoyed the series, and according to Meta-Critic User reviews, and Rotten Tomato Audience reviews, so did the general viewing audience.

Critics slammed it, citing problems with the acting (Hammy), Lack of originality, pacing, and a few just said they didn’t like it.  I am not going to attack them.

You can make your own decision by watching the series and reading the criticism on the Iron Fist Metacritic Page.

I am going to examine some of it, and there is a purpose to this – bear with it.

Critics said it was unoriginal.

I suspect the rich kid, presumed dead and taken in by monks/learning a deadly skill and having an obligation sounded quite familiar.  It is the basic plot of Batman, Green Arrow and Iron Fist.  All orphaned.  All declared/presumed dead.  All super-rich.  All returning with deadly skills.  The statement that Iron Fist is unoriginal is factual.  But it ignores context.  Iron Fist, and all of the others are Comic Book characters created in a time when stealing elements of your rival’s work was common place.

For instance, take the Nova Corps and Quasar from Marvel.  Put them together and you get something resembling the Green Lantern Corps.

Take Black Panther and Moon Knight from Marvel, put them together and you get something resembling Batman.  I could probably find other examples.

Next criticism – it is hammy.  Truthfully, I didn’t notice that.  But perhaps if your normal fiction doesn’t involve a living weapon, then perhaps it is factual.  However, again, it lacks context.  It is a comic book character.  Hammy is expected, and I personally enjoyed the journey from socially awkward tramp, to socially awkward billionaire to social justice ninja, to the Immortal Iron Fist.

Pacing – The pacing was a bit slow in the early episodes.  I have to grant that.  They were necessary, to set up the main character’s attitude towards inequity.  Having read some critics, who reviewed the show over a week before general release, I learn that they didn’t see the whole thing – just the first six episodes.  I thought the first three were slow, but worth it.  Maybe critics would be kinder if they saw the whole thing?

Some critics said it managed to stand on its own merit.  Some said it didn’t.  I will now arrive at my point.

For any writer, feedback and criticism is part of the deal.  And if you are supplying feedback you can have as profound an impact on the writer as if they were hit by the Iron Fist at full power (you’re losing more than teeth to that punch…).

As a person feeding back your enjoyment is irrelevant.  (I have said before, I will say again).  You are feeding back for purpose.  You are not reading for pleasure.  So, push your bias out the window.

Then, ask yourself (and if needs be, ask the writer), what is this piece trying to accomplish?

I once was asked to feedback on a piece of writing whose title was that of a flesh eating spirit.  I read the title and thought, “Supernatural Horror.”  When I read the piece, it read like black comedy.  I had to ask, “Did you intend that?”

Once you know what the writer’s intent is, you can feedback impartially.

You don’t like sci-fi?  That is fine.  Your writer is trying to communicate a sense of civilisation falling to dystopia.  Are they achieving that?

You don’t like romance?  No problem.  The writer is trying to communicate that the protagonist is in an abusive relationship, but doesn’t realise it.  Are they achieving that?

If start thinking about the purpose of/context of the writing, you can give significantly better feedback than simply writing, “I enjoyed this,”, “You should rewrite this sentence,” or “Word repetition.”

Iron Fist – Purpose to tell the origin story of a Marvel Comic book Character with fidelity to its history, whilst tying it into the extend Marvel Netflix Universe, setting up the Defenders.  Didn’t like it?  No problem.  Did it achieve that?

Yes.

Everything else is technical, and you can judge on its own merits.

all the best.

Can’t wait for the Defenders.

More to proofreading than just a sharp eye…

So, as mentioned, I joined the society for editors and proofreaders in order to do a better job at proofreading things for clients.  As such I signed up for the first course a little while ago, and have been gradually working my way through it, honing my skills as it were.  All of which will no doubt come in handy when I have my own novel to edit.  Until then, I work for you.

Little did I realise, that there was a lot more to proofreading than just care and attention.  There are a whole mess of symbols used by professionals to mark documents, BSI standard.

It was actually quite therapeutic.  However, the practice text is also guilt tripping me into going for a walk.

I guess there are worse things it could be persuading me to do…

The Glamorous life of a Freelancer

Today I slept in.  This annoys me as there was no good reason for it, but it is what it is. Today was always destined to be a study day, improving my craft at proofreading and beginning work on creative writing workshops and maybe if I could squeeze it in, some novel plan.

My body betrayed me and kept me asleep until much later than intended.

This image really sums up what today is about, and probably many other days yet to come.

Cooking a fry up when I should be on cereal, whilst reading and learning. Or, from another point of view, trying not to burn my kitchen down whilst balancing.  A study guide during cooking.

No kitchens were harmed in the production of this post.