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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

I've recently seen two well-made films that are sort of in the horror genre. I say "sort of," because one is essentially a science fiction drama with some emotionally horrific scenes, and a big creep factor; the other attempted to tell a story that could be interpreted as a horror fantasy, or as a metaphor for a descent into despair.

Both had opaque heroes. In both, for a good deal of the movie, we don't know what the hero wants. In one case, the hero has a monstrous secret that he keeps from everyone, including us, until the very end. In the other, the hero may or may not have done something awful to someone he loves; he has only flashes of a horrific memory that may have happened or not, and the viewer is at a loss to figure out what Actually Happened.

I hate to say categorically that This Doesn't Work. I think both films are getting buzz at genre festivals. But the genre festival crowds are seriously hardcore. They love having their expectations tweaked, because they have seen every horror movie ever made. I think the regular genre audience wants films to deliver the emotional goods.

It is very hard to deliver the emotional goods when the hero is opaque. A hero does not have to be likable; but he has to be relatable. How can you relate to someone when you don't know what he wants? How can you relate to a character when you don't know what his story actually is -- what he's done and why he thinks he did it.

In the science fiction movie, we found out the secret only at the end -- too late to do anything with it. In the horror fantasy, I was not clear exactly what happened, and we definitely never knew why.

In both movies, I found myself latching onto the female love interests. In the science fiction drama, she is in love with the hero, but she doesn't know his terrible secret. I found myself wondering if the movie wouldn't have been more effective if it had been shown from her point of view. In the horror fantasy, I did know what the girl wanted, and her story was a relatively clear case of searching too hard for enlightenment, to the point where you destroy yourself.

Oddly, I am currently rewriting a script where the main character has a Big Secret that she keeps from the audience until halfway through. However, we learn very quickly that she is Not Who She Says She Is; so the audience knows right away that it is going to be that sort of movie. More importantly, we are very clear on what she wants in her current situation. And we know what sort of a human being she is. We can like her as a person and root for her to escape her current predicament; her secret is only how she got in the scrape she's in.

If you want to keep a secret from the audience, I think you have to be very up front with them that you are keeping a secret from them, so it doesn't feel like a cheat. You have to make clear they know that they will find out the secret; otherwise they won't dare invest in it. And the secret better be a good one. If you do that, I think the audience can still leave the movie satisfied at the story you told.

Of course, some great movies violate these rules. I would venture to say they are not actually about the secret. The classic is L'AVVENTURA, a very strange New Wave film from Antonioni. Halfway through, a main character disappears. She's never found and there is never an explanation for what happened to her.

But the movie isn't really about her disappearance. It's about the anomie of the main character. By the end of the movie, you know how he has turned out. And that makes for an effective ending.

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4 Comments:

So you're NOT going to tell us what these movies are? That's just mean.

By Blogger Tim W., at 11:21 PM  

For a movie that pulls off something-did-or-didn't-happen, I recommend La mujer sin cabeza (2008) by Argentinian writer-director Lucrecia Martel.

By Blogger mitsugomi, at 6:15 PM  

I second Tim's comment. Give up the titles.

Speaking of "a science fiction drama with some emotionally horrific scenes," I'm curious to hear your thoughts on Prometheus, since you're a serious Alien fan. It looks like its script was widely panned.

And as I read your rule about the audience's knowing there's a secret, I couldn't help but think Alien was a film in which Ash blind-sided the audience with a secret that worked quite well.

By Blogger David, at 7:49 AM  

I prefer not to give up the titles because these are films that don't have distribution yet, I don't think, and the producers are friends. But if you email me, I'll tell ya.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:16 AM  

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