Category Archives: Creative Writing – Lessons

The Strangers, Tension, and Dead Protagonists

The Strangers is an absolutely terrifying film for about an hour, but it also created an almost unbearable experience in the theater: people laughing during quiet and frightening scenes, audience members shouting comments.

It was annoying and rude, sure, but regardless of what any of these idiots would tell you about why they were laughing or shouting comments, the reason behind the stupid behavior is simple: tension relief. You crack a joke because you can’t handle the unbearable tension that the director has created. Someone shouts “Turn around!” when the protagonist doesn’t notice the killer creeping up…not because the protagonist is stupid, but because you want the tension to be relieved. You can’t handle the feeling of powerlessness. You need to do something.

This film is like the ascent in a roller-coaster. It sounded like a good idea before you got on. Then you were strapped in, and now there’s no getting out. So you scream to pretend that you’re not scared.

Of course, that’s just the first hour. Then (spoiler alert) the characters are killed. After a torturous experience, they die.

Um. All right?

This film was expertly crafted, and was amazingly scary…but when a horror movie kills off its main characters, it is essentially telling us that all is for naught. We just witnessed an hour and a half of mindless torture for no redemptive reason.

This, consequently, is the reason why Hostel, despite its flaws and its gratuitous violence, was so successful. The protagonist suffered, certainly, but lived to tell about it. If the protagonist does not live to tell about it, then all we’ve watched is a murder. It might have been terrifying twenty minutes prior to the murder, but now it’s just sad and pointless. Good stories show us characters who get the shit kicked out of them, but somehow come out of it all. Changed, yes, but still alive at least. When a horror movie kills its main character, it is taking the easy way out, and it is not as successful as it could have been. Think, for instance, if the characters in The Strangers had both survived, and the killers had escaped…we can picture the ongoing fear of the rest of their lives…always looking over their shoulders, always afraid to be alone. At least The Mist, despite a contrived ending, allowed its protagonist to survive so that he could confront his horrible personal choices after the terrible experiences were over.

When all of the characters are dead, we just sort of shrug. Pointless.

I understand there’s a question at the end of this film as to whether the characters actually survive. This is a frustrating question to ask for the following reason: if they don’t survive, the whole experience was pointless (as I’ve said). If they do survive, then the story isn’t over. Why keep us in the dark when there’s more story to tell?

The Strangers is definitely worth seeing, though, despite an unsatisfying ending. I haven’t seen cinema so frightening in many years, and it’s a case study in the creation of tension.

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The Dark Knight, and a Conflict: Realism vs. Escapism

You can’t have it both ways.

While I really fell into this movie as I was watching it, and I still appreciate Nolan’s amazing direction (and the effort and energy each actor brought to the film, from Bale’s goofy playboy, to Ledger’s darker and more twisted Joker) and the sharp cinematography and exciting action sequences, there’s a strange cinematic conflict at the heart of The Dark Knight. It wants to be a superhero movie, but it also wants to be a dark and realistic piece of art that critics and audiences take seriously.

But you can’t be both. If you make it a point to be a superhero movie, you can’t be realistic. You can be dark, sure, but not so dark that–as each character dies–we stop having fun. This is not a story intended to capture the dark spirit of our times. This is a movie based on a comic book. At its heart, there is a dude wearing a fucking costume.

In one scene, we’re expected to believe that Bruce Wayne has programmed every phone in a 20-million-person metro area to act as a sort of Bat sonar. We’re in the realm of the fantastic; we’re in a superhero movie, where anything is possible. In the next scene, though, cops are dying in bloody, gruesome, and overly realistic ways. In a movie where Batman can fly from a high-rise in Hong Kong, or can fall fifteen floors without so much as a scratch, we shouldn’t have such feelings of depression and despair. We can’t switch from escapism to realism and expect the viewer to take it all seriously.

Consider this: in a movie where the realism is sometimes so brutally tight, where characters are so very capable of dying, the entire city should not be exploding…the entire population should not be cowering indoors. Who, seriously, would ever live in Gotham City? Even the black tie galas, full of millionaires, are infiltrated by gun-toting thugs! Including the events from Batman Begins, there’s a 9/11-style terrorist act in this city every week! It’s just too much darkness, and the darkness is too realistic. And it’s unremitting, unbearable.

Like I said, I thought this was a well-made and exciting film. But it’s also deeply flawed. Call me crazy, but I found Iron Man and Spider-Man to be perfect superhero films…they realized that their subject material was anything but realistic, and they didn’t try to make it realistic. (In the process, also, I think both of those films even captured the spirit of the times much better, too!)

The Dark Knight, though, wants to enjoy the benefits of escapism and “suspended disbelief” that superhero films offer, while also enjoying the emotional benefits of dark, highly realistic crime and war movies. And sorry, you can’t do both. After it was all over, this movie just left me with a strange sort of hang-over: the realism is devalued by the escapism, and you just start to wonder what it was all hoping to accomplish.