What We Can Learn from The Resident Evil Film Series: Part 1

It’s October once again, and our annual celebration of all things spooky: Vampires, skeletons, ghosts, witches, political lobbyists, and everything else that lurks in the shadows under the midnight moon. But there’s nothing to celebrate about the troubled times we live in: democracy is under siege worldwide, the climate is changing for the worse, and a virus is running rampant that causes some people to go mad and attack others for the most trivial of reasons. In light of all these troubles, I thought, in spirit of the season, why not take some time to unwind by watching a movie series about a virus running rampant that causes people to go mad and attack others, eventually destroying civilization and bringing humanity to its knees? The series of which I speak is the long-running, seemingly undead saga of ‘Resident Evil.’

Ever since the introduction of the original Resident Evil on the Playstation in 1995, the series has gone on to encompass 28 games (!), several novels, action figures, and even a freaking restaurant. It’s not surprising that a movie adaptation would eventually come along, and we got such an adaptation with the Paul W.S. Anderson series that ran from 2002 to 2016. While a critical failure, the series was a financial success (they remain the highest-grossing zombie movie series in history), which means that they must have been doing something well. That’s why we’re going to dive into all six films and see if we can discover just what those things are.

Much like my previous analysis of Friday the 13th, the Matrix fight scenes, and the Jaws series, we’ll be taking a look at each movie and seeing what they do well, and what could have used some improvement. And once we reach the end, we’ll see what the series accomplished and what lessons it can offer writers. So without further ado, let’s dive into the world of movies about video game zombies. We’ll start at the beginning, with the simply-named, ‘Resident Evil.’

Released in 2002, the movie follows a group of heavily armed Umbrella soldiers and a lady in skimpy clothes as they infiltrate the Hive, an underground research facility where a killer virus has broken loose and turned the people inside into bloodthirsty zombies, hideous monsters, and other icky horrors that our heroes must fight in order to escape.

What does the film do well?

It has an effective horror location

Any self-respecting horror story has its characters eventually stuck in an isolated, out-of-the-way location where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get help, forcing the characters to rely on their wits and each other. ‘Resident Evil’ is an interesting variation of this: the film takes place almost entirely within the Hive, an underground research facility located beneath a major metropolitan area. This serves a dual purpose: It makes it so that the characters are so close to help, but are still cut off, and since the facility is deep underground, they can’t just jump out of a window, run out through the main door, or otherwise easily escape. Worse still, if the virus breaks free, everyone the surface will suffer the same fate as the poor souls who have been transformed into undead ghouls.

It has an effective ticking clock

One of the best ways to keep a story moving is to have a ticking clock, something bad that will occur if the protagonists don’t accomplish their goals in time. ‘Resident Evil’ features a particularly effective one: Alice and the other security forces heading into the Hive have to get back out or they’ll be trapped inside when the Hive is permanently sealed. That’s a good incentive to keep moving and ensure that the story does, too.

It has a great psychological death scene

‘Resident Evil’ gets off to a good start by having a bunch of innocent workers die during the initial virus outbreak, most by being gassed, some by being dropped to their death in an elevator, and one poor lady getting her head smashed into goo. It’s all suitably unnerving, but I think the most effective part takes place in a sealed lab.

(the scene in question starts at 4:55)

There, three workers realize that, because the lab is sealed, the water pouring in has nowhere to go. If they don’t find a way out, they’ll drown. Later, when Alice and the soldiers pass through the lab area, we learn that the workers did indeed drown.

The other deaths in the opening may be more graphic, visceral, and direct, but for my money this is the most unnerving death scene of the film. It taps into the fear of facing a horrible, painful death and not being able to do anything about it. Worse still, it’s not a quick death: you would have plenty of time to watch the water slowly rise, covering your knees, then your waist, then your chest, and shoulders, until there’s only a few inches of space left for you to breathe… and then there would be nothing. And all the while you’re trying to cut your way out with an axe, only to realize that there’s no way out. You’re going to drown, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. It’s a terrifying thought, and a perfect example of how horror is more than just decapitations and buckets of blood being thrown all over the screen: It’s about suffering and being helpless to stop it.

It has an awesome deathtrap

If the James Bond and SAW series have proven anything over the years, it’s that people get a kick out of elaborate deathtraps, and ‘Resident Evil’ features a particularly infamous one: the laser hallway.

This scene is a doozy because it’s so simple, yet devastatingly effective: our operatives are trapped inside a tight, confined space with nowhere to hide, and their only hope to survive is to dodge the lasers until the system is shut down. But the lasers’ path is unpredictable and constantly changing, culminating with an inescapable grid that chops One into bite-sized pieces.

Yet, like all great traps, it is possible to survive. The people facing it have a chance if they’re fast, flexible, and have taken plenty of Zumba classes, but messing up just once means losing body parts if you’re lucky, or death if you’re not. It’s simple, effective, and memorable, so much so that even the Resident Evil video games featured a homage to it.

It has a villain doing the wrong thing for very justifiable reasons

While Alice and the Umbrella soldiers have to deal with zombies, zombie dogs, a licker, and the man who is ultimately responsible for starting the outbreak in the first place (for money, of course), their main adversary is the Red Queen, the AI in charge of running the Hive. But while it is responsible for killing a few hundred workers and researchers, it was not done out of malice: The Red Queen, in order to prevent the highly contagious T-Virus from escaping the Hive and reaching the surface, decided that killing everyone to keep them from escaping was the best course of action in prevent a planetary pandemic. And considering what happens in the later films, the Queen’s logic is dark, but understandable: Kill a few hundred to prevent humanity being brought to the edge of extinction.

The very best villains are the ones that make audiences ponder what they would do in their place, making them more memorable than the routine, ‘kill ‘em all for money/power/the evulz/etc.’ villains we see so often. It’s hard to beat a villain who relies on logic instead of malice and does horrific things for the right reasons (and is even willing to let Alice and the others escape if they kill the one infected member of their group).

It features a great cliffhanger ending

As is so often the case in action-horror movies, only a few people make it out alive at the end (Alice and Matt) before the Hive is finally sealed. But the movie doesn’t end there: the true ending finds Alice waking up in a hospital and emerging into an abandoned Raccoon City. There’s no help coming, no rescue party, and all Alice has is a single shotgun to face off against the unseen armies of the undead. Even worse is the knowledge that Matt is being put into the Nemesis program, a great tease for fans of the game as to who will appear in the next film. And while it’s always risky to end a movie on a cliffhanger (there’s no guarantee you’re going to get that sequel), this one is terrific, leaving viewers imagining what’s going to happen next in a world that’s on the brink of the apocalypse.

What could the story have done better?

It could have been much more faithful to the games

The biggest flaw with ‘Resident Evil’ is that it has almost nothing to do with the game it’s based off of. While the main elements are here (a team of trained operatives, a mansion, zombies, a licker, and the Umbrella Corporation), none of the characters from the game appear, and we have a plot that bears little resemblance to the source material, a massive disappointment for anyone who hoped to see Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, and Barry Burton’s Jill Sandwich jokes.

When a book, a video game, or other property gets adapted into a film, fans of those properties expect to see the story and characters brought to life on the big screen, and ‘Resident Evil’s lack of faithfulness to the source material leaves it feeling like a In-Name-Only adaptation designed to deprive fans of their cash without giving them what they were expecting.

There are too many side characters

‘Resident Evil’ features the undead horse-trope of ‘large group of individuals go through a horror movie where 80% of them exist to die horribly.’ While there are plenty of deaths to satisfy horror fans, those deaths would have much more impact if we got time to know more of the soldiers, giving their deaths more emotional weight. As with so many other films of this type, it might have been better to have only a handful of characters instead of a lot.

It has a cliffhanger ending

The biggest risk of having a cliffhanger ending is that, unless you’re doing an installment of a major, pre-established franchise or already filming the sequel, a sequel is not guaranteed. People may just not go see the movie, the hoped-for profits never come, and a followup is never made, leaving a cliffhanger eternally unresolved. While ‘Resident Evil’s gamble paid off, it could have also left fans angry at never seeing the coming zombie apocalypse or Nemesis stomping about while yelling about stars.

Cliffhangers, while effective, should be used carefully, both in case a project never gets a followup, or if the followup itself is… well, we’ll get to that later. But we’ve still got five movies to go through, so tune in next time where we’ll see Alice jump out of the frying pan and into the zombie-infected fire in ‘Resident Evil: Apocalypse.’

The Best Background Characters: Floppy Hat Guy

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

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The Movie:

‘Jaws’

The Character:

A guy in a white hat who’s way too happy during a shark attack.

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears at 2:15 at the bottom of the screen, and at 2:18 on the far left)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

Humans are weird creatures. When faced with catastrophe, disaster, or the wrath of a man-eating shark, you’d expect people to be frozen in fear, frozen in shock, or being one of the few brave souls who charges in to save others.

What you don’t expect is for someone to be having the time of their lives, as one beachgoer does in 1975’s classic, ‘Jaws’.

The fellow in question, a mustached man with a white floppy hat, charges into the water with other adults when the shark attacks poor Alex. But unlike the adults who are trying to get the kids out of the water, Floppy Hat Guy just frolics about with the biggest, dopiest grin, nonplussed at the terrors of the deep turning him into Purina shark chow.

Naturally, one wonders what this man’s story is. Is he high on drugs? Mentally challenged? Secretly in love with the idea of flaunting danger? Getting a thrill out of seeing kids get eaten? Of course, the real answer is that he’s played by an extra who was probably just really happy to be in a movie, but that’s nowhere near as much fun as watching a guy having fun when surrounded by death and sharks.

What We Can Learn From ‘The Enemy Below’

Last time here on Imperfect Glass, we took a look at ship-to-ship combat in ‘Sink the Bismark!’ Now, let’s take a dive under the waves for the 1957 classic, ‘The Enemy Below,’ which follows a US destroyer and a German U-boat as they both seek to take each other out in a battle of wits.

What does the story do well?

It humanizes both the protagonist and the antagonist

Whereas a WW2 propaganda movie would work hard to establish the protagonist as a squeaky-clean all-around good guy, and the antagonist a Nazi who kicks puppy dogs for fun and eats babies for breakfast, ‘Below’ smartly shows that its two main characters – Commander Murrell of the USS Haynes, and Kapitän zur See von Stolberg of the unnamed U-boat – are not walking avatars of patriotism or the embodiments of vengeance and revenge. Both have lost loved ones to war, are tired of the conflict, and are good men who could get along if there wasn’t a war going on. Even better, the film portrays them both as professionals doing their job. Neither holds any animosity towards the other; they both just want to go home, but can’t until their current conflict is resolved.

It has both parties destroy each other

While it would be tempting to have either the sub or the Haynes overpower the other at the film’s climax, ‘Below’ has both ultimately destroy one another: the submarine gets a fatal blow on the destroyer, and the Haynes inflicts a mortal wound on the sub by ramming it, and then having both be blown up.

Though the Americans ultimately win in the long term (they’re rescued and the German sailors become prisoners of war), having both parties inflict a fatal wound on each other makes the climax more exciting, as the audience is left unsure who will ultimately emerge triumphant.

It has an unexpectedly wholesome ending

So often we have war movies that end with either one combatant being destroyed, or where nobody wins, and everyone suffers. Very rare is war movie – especially a non-comedic one set in World War Two – that features both sides not only surviving, but an honest-to-goodness happy ending that doesn’t feel contrived or out of place. ‘Below’ is one of those rare films, ending with only one person dying (Stolberg’s executive officer), and the rest of both the submarine and destroyer’s crews surviving to see another day with no hard feelings between any of them. Heck, we even get to see both crews work together to get their captains off the Haynes before it’s destroyed.

While such wholesome, happy endings won’t always work, especially in a war movie, ‘Below’ proves that it can be done.

What would have helped improve the story?

Having Stolberg be more aggressive

Thought I may be more realistic to have Captain Stolberg hide his submarine for most of the running time, it does create an imbalance of power. He’s supposed be smart, clever, and cunning, but aside from a torpedo strike early on, it feels like he’s always on the defensive until the climax, never getting a chance to strike or damage the Haynes (though his means of escaping detection by sailing under it is very clever).

Following up on the crew’s boredom

Early on the film, it’s established that the Haynes hasn’t seen much action during the war, and her crew are getting bored. It’s a good set up for a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario later on, but with the film’s focus being mainly on Stolberg and Murrell, we don’t get any moments where the crew regret hoping for some action while their ship is sinking or they watch as their shipmates are injured and wounded.

Conclusion

Much like ‘Sink the Bismark!’ ‘The Enemy Below’ goes to great lengths to humanize its antagonist and protagonist, and it pays off in spades. While it would have been nice to see both captains get an equal shot to show off their combat intelligence and abilities, the exciting climax, wholesome happy ending, and the lack of a revenge subplot makes ‘The Enemy Below’ a wholesome war movie that the whole family can enjoy.

Huh… there’s a sentence you don’t see everyday.

The Best Background Characters: Middle-Aged Karate Dude

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

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The Video:

‘Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins’

The Character:

A middle-aged man in a karate outfit

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears at 3:42)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

In case you haven’t stepped into an arcade, or read video game news since 1992, ‘Mortal Kombat’ has been rightfully called one of the most controversial video game franchises of all time due to its unprecedented violence, blood, and gore, which meant that it would inevitably have cartoon spinoffs marketed to kids (If Rambo and Robocop could do it, why not Mortal Kombat?). Perhaps the most infamous one, ‘Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins’  acts as a prequel to the 1995 movie, ‘Mortal Kombat,’ and is fondly remembered for its so-bad-its-good animation and fight scenes.

However, one moment stands out among the endless loops of recycled animation and atrocious CGI: When our heroes meet the other aspiring contestants for the tournament to determine the fate of the universe, one of them is a middle-aged guy practicing karate moves. He’s only on screen for two seconds, but what makes Karate Dude so memorable is how he’s hilariously outmatched: Mortal Kombat is a series about people, ninjas, gods, and mutants with superhuman strength literally ripping each other apart in the bloodiest ways imaginable. In a fight against any one of them, Karate Dude is like a chihuahua fighting a wood chipper: he’d be dead in seconds (can you imagine him fighting this guy and winning? Didn’t think so).

Yet, that underdog feel is what makes Karate Dude so endearing: He willingly went to this tournament to try and protect Earth despite having an average physique, being older than every other human present by at least two decades, and not having any chance of winning. But, like the best underdogs, he’s still willing to try, and proves that what he lacks in physical power, he more than makes up in courage, and for that he deserves our respect and admiration.

Or, alternatively, he could also not have any idea of what he’s about to face, and dies shrieking like a little girl while facing a ninja who shoots fire from his mouth. That’d be funny, too.

Favorite Moments: A Balrog Talks

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Video

Why it’s great

One of the biggest advantages licensed video games, books, and comics have is the ability to expand upon a fictional universe, to fill in gaps, holes, or just explore unseen parts of a mythology. Sometimes, though, they can also clarify and add onto that mythology in small, but meaningful ways. With no new books in JRR. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth set to come anytime soon, video games based upon both the films and books have stepped up to allow fans of Tolkien’s universe to continue exploring Arda and uncover its secrets (though how these secrets fit into the established cannon varies considerably).

‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ follows Talion, a Gondorian warrior who, after becoming best buddies with a long-dead Elf king out for revenge against Sauron, becomes an half-dead zombie lich thingy after sharing his… oh, whatever. It’s an excuse to run around in Mordor and troll Sauron by killing as many of his orcs as possible. Because this particular game (and it’s predecessor, ‘Shadow of Mordor’) take a loose interpretation of Middle-earth lore (and that’s putting it lightly!), it lets the player fight a balrog. While such moments happen in other Tolkien-licensed games, what sets this encounter apart  is that, for the first time in any piece of Tolkien media – licensed or original – we hear a balrog talk.

For those who are unaware, balrogs are ancient demons who existed before the creation of the physical world in Tolkien’s mythology. But these aren’t mindless brutes: They’re intelligent spirits who joined with Melkor (Tolkien’s Satan) in an attempt to corrupt and destroy everything for the lulz (presumably). However, while they can make noises, such as roars, screams, and yells, the only intelligent speech they give is described in vague terms, such as them giving commands or mocking enemies. ‘Shadow of War’ is the first time where we actually hear one of these demons talking, and while we get subtitles, they’re not translated, leading us to wonder what on earth it’s saying, as best embodied at 8:42 in the video above:

Balrog: Onguk nakhân

Talion: What did he say?!

Celebrimbor: Does it matter?

It’s moments like these that make me appreciate how much expanded universe material can add to a franchise: Here, we get a moment that humanizes (for lack of a better word) a demonic being; in the books and movies, balrogs are incredibly dangerous demons who excell at killing things. Here, one is given a voice, showing that they’re sentient beings who can think, plan, tell knock-knock jokes (unconfirmed), and, presumably, have personalities. That allows us to see balrogs in Tolkien’s works in a new light by letting us imagine what their personalities might be like, adding more depth and layers to Tolkien’s world, as all great expanded universe material does: It doesn’t replace or supersede what’s come before, but adds to it, and makes it more enjoyable than before.

And all of this from a demonic spirit talking. Not bad!

By the way, if you’re curious as to what the balrog is actually saying, one of the game’s developers posted all of its translated speech here. If you’d like to read some debates about Balrogs and their vocal traits, click here.

Favorite Moments: IT Recut as a Family Film

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Video

Why it’s great

In honor of “It: Chapter Two’ being released tomorrow, I thought I’d share one of my favorite trailer recuts, which changes the 1990 miniseries ‘IT’ into a heartwarming tale of a concerned citizen dressing up as a clown to bring hope and joy to a town on the verge of bankruptcy and failure.

There are many trailer recuts out there, but ‘IT’ remains one of my favorites for its stellar use of uplifting music, corny taglines (Do you believe in magic?), and turning one of the most memorable monsters of the early 90’s into a being who only wants to save his community and bring happiness and hope to others.

Three Fridays: A Comparison of ‘Friday the 13th’ – Part 3

Four months ago, I had no interest in the Friday the 13th series. Yes, I had seen ‘Freddy vs Jason’ on a whim, and I knew that Jason was a near-invincible zombie killer who had slaughtered hundreds of horny teenagers over the years, but that was the extent of my knowledge and interest in his movies. But as I mentioned in my overview of the 1980 movie, I came across a fan-made adaptation of said film. Out of curiosity, I gave it a try, and was hooked, making me curious to see how it compared to the film and the 2009 remake. Today, we’re going to take a look a this adaptation: A fan comic re-imagening the events of ‘Friday the 13th’:

F13Cover

Click here to read the comic

This comic, created by artist David Hopkins – a furry artist best known for his long running web comic, ‘Jack’ – immediately stands out because the cast are no longer human, but anthropomorphic animals. But don’t let the sight of cute cartoon animals in people clothes fool you: This is easily the bloodiest take on the original ‘Friday’ story. Much like the 1980 movie, the comic tells the origin story of Jason Voorhees and his mother. And, like the best remakes, it takes the original story and reinterprets it in interesting ways. Here, there’s no twenty-year gap between Jason’s death and his mother’s rampage, and unlike the 1980 and 2009 films, where Jason only pops up after Pamela is killed, both of them work together throughout the story to kill counselors, acting like a ghoulish version of Bonnie and Clyde. The other, most significant addition to this take on the story is it’s religious tone: While Jason’s survival was unexplained in the original film, his resurrection here is due to Pamela making a deal with the devil to bring him back to life (in a smart move, the devil is never heard or seen, making him an unseen menace).

The compressed timeline and supernatural elements gives this version of ‘Friday’ refreshingly different from the original, but what elevates it above being a simple slasher story is how most of its focus is on Pamela Voorhees. While she infamously only appeared in the final act of the original film without any foreshadowing, the comic makes her the main character instead of the counselors, letting us learn much more about her: In this interpretation, Pamela is a former member of a group of devil worshippers who eventually left and became a Christian, who then suffers from a horrific crisis of faith when Jason dies, and then backsliding when her pleas to God to bring Jason back aren’t answered.

This expanded focus on Pamela turns her from an already compelling and relatable character into a complex, fascinating individual who is bloodthirsty and ruthless, deeply loving, misguided, and even regretful about what she’s done. It’s easy to understand and related to her pain and goals for vengeance, even as she kills innocent counselors in truly horrific ways.

F13080clr150

Yet, despite all the horror and the gore here, there’s a strong undercurrent of innocence and tragedy here: there are no true villains in the story, only victims. Yes, Pamela stabs, burns, impales, and disembowels teenagers, but only to bring her son back, and ensure that no other children will die from the counselor’s stupidity. The counselors, while having severe lapses in judgement, aren’t evil and care about the kids under their care. Jason becomes a killer, but only at his mother’s urging. And in the end, Pamela has a moment of clarity about what she’s done, but dies and is damned. Jason loses his mother, and Alice is left shell-shocked and a nervous wreck. No one wins, and everyone suffers, turning ‘Friday’ into a tragedy of poor choices, suffering, and loss… but, you know, with cartoon animals!

While I prefer this comic over the 1980 and 2009 films, it does have a few missteps: At one point, Pamela tells Jason that they can kill everyone in the world, which doesn’t make much sense for a woman who initially only wanted to leave Crystal Lake with Jason, and then wanted to get revenge on a specific group of individuals for letting Jason die. Pamela’s famous scene, where she seems to channel Jason while trying to kill Alice doesn’t make any sense here: the film implied that Pamela was losing her mind, but in the comic Jason is right outside the building, making the line and Pamela’s seeming possession unnecessary and confusing.

Still, despite these missteps, this adaptation of ‘Friday’ elevates itself above standard slasher fare by focusing on Pamela and giving her a depth and richness that the films haven’t. Coupled with the grotesque, bloody kills, tight focus, and good pacing, this re-imagining of Jason’s origins is, in my opinion, the best of the three ‘Friday’ origin stories. If you’re looking for a slasher story with an uncommon depth, or a great ‘Friday’ tale, this will easily satisfy that need.

F13024clr150.jpg

Now that we’ve taken a look at all three of Jason’s origin stories, all that remains is to done final summary of them all and see what lessons they offer for the writer, a task we’ll dive into next week.

If you’d like to see more of David Hopkins’ work, you can visit his Furaffinity page here. If you’d like to read his JACK webcomic, you can do so here.

(All art on this page is posted with permission from Mr. Hopkins)

Favorite Moments: The saga of Dervorin, the… ringbearer?

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The game

‘War in Middle Earth’

The video

(Skip to 27:35 to reach the relevant part of the video)

Why it’s great

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: In the land of Middle-Earth, the Dark Lord Sauron seeks to reclaim his Ring, which will give him the power to enslave the world. After the Ring is found by Frodo and his friends, they head for Rivendell, only for Frodo, Sam, and Merry to be cut down by Ringwraiths, leaving Pippin to be the Ringbearer.

Wait, what?

Afterwords, Pippin eventually makes his way to the city of Minas Tirith, where he personally commands the defense of the city, but during one of the seemingly endless assaults, Pippin falls in battle, leaving only heroic Dervorin to take up the ring, at which point he bravely sets out to reach Mt. Doom with 881 of Gondor’s finest infantry. But the quest runs into disaster when all of Dervorin’s troops are mowed down by 500 trolls; now alone, Dervorin continues on, sneaking through the mountains of Mordor before finally reaching Mt. Doom and chucking the Ring in, defeating Sauron and saving Middle-Earth!

Okay, so that’s not how The Lord of the Rings played out. But thanks to the computer game, ‘War in Middle Earth’, we have this curiously compelling tale of what might had happened in the tale to save Arda. Aside from the obvious deviation of having all the hobbits die – save Pippin – we get a story where it isn’t some legendary or heroic figure who takes the Ring to Mt. Doom, but some random guy most Tolkien readers have never heard of. I don’t blame any of them either; Dervorin appears only briefly in ‘The Return of the King,’ where he leads 300 men to the defense of Minas Tirith… and that’s all he contributes to the story. We don’t even know if he dies or not, which makes him an odd choice to entrust the fate of all Middle Earth to.

So why do I like this video so much? There’s the novelty factor of seeing a beloved tale being changed so drastically that it’s almost entirely new, of seeing favorite characters take on new roles and getting into interesting situations (like Gimli somehow evading 492 trolls by himself in the wilderness), but what captivates me the most is Dervorin himself. In a film, he would be an unnamed extra, someone in the background who doesn’t draw attention to himself. In battle, he would be one of the countless mooks who’s only purpose is to provide cannon fodder for the enemies, and to die to emphasize how dangerous the battle is. In every aspect, Dervorin is a nobody, an unimportant character who doesn’t have the luxury of plot armor to keep him alive.

Now, imagine what it must be like to be one of this unnamed, unimportant background characters, and suddenly be entrusted with the fate of the world.

When he gets the ring, Dervorin goes from being a nobody to being the most important person alive in Middle Earth. If he fails, Middle Earth is doomed. He’s the ultimate underdog, and we suddenly become invested in his survival, eager to see if he triumphs. And aside from the aforementioned skirmish with all those trolls, Dervorin somehow manages to pull it off, making his way to Mt. Doom all by himself, and managing to throw the ring in, all while apparently being immune to its corruption. That makes him awesome, and a fantastic example of an underdog rising to the occasion and saving the day.

Favorite Moments: ‘Then we must do without hope!’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘The Lord of the Rings’ (1978 Bakshi film)

The Moment

Why it’s great

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, an imperfect but ambitious attempt to bring Tolkien’s world to life on the big screen. While there is undeniably much to the film that didn’t turn out well, there are equally many things to do work, chief among them being the portrayal of Aragorn. While Viggo Mortensen is unquestionably more well known to the public, the late (and great) John Hurt’s performance of the ranger-turned-king is one of the film’s highlights.

Hurt’s interpretation of Aragorn embodies the spirit of what a perfect, Arthur-like king should be: Focused and knowing what’s at stake, but not using that that as an excuse to treat others unfairly. He may raise his voice, but only to get someone’s attention or get them back on track, but he also shows care to those under his guidance.

While there are other great examples of those traits throughout the film (including a fun moment where he gets into a play fight with Frodo), I like this clip the most because it portrays all three of those traits in only twenty seconds. It even has Aragorn turning grief into a motivator to keep Frodo and the others going, showing how determined he is to continue, even when all seems lost. Though he may be ridiculed for being a pantless Native American, this version of Aragon embodies what I’d like to see in a king, and I’d be happy to fight alongside him… and maybe offer some trousers.

What we can learn from ‘The Ritual’ (the film)

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Last week, we took a look at the book version of ‘The Ritual.’ Today, let’s take a look at the film adaptation and see what writers can learn from the big (small?) screen version of the novel:

Consider starting your story with a lighthearted touch, then immediately shifting to horror

‘The Ritual’ begins with Luke and the others (and newcomer Rob) having a typical guy’s night out with drinks, joking, and taking in a city’s nightlife. I first thought it was going to be a predictable scene of the group wanting to get away from their boring lives, but was quickly proven wrong when Luke and Rob stumble into a robbery, and Rob is killed. Only then does the film cut to the outskirts of Sweden’s Forest of Death six months later.

The brilliance of this sequence is how it plays with our expectations: We expect it to be another buddy-movie opening, but by then shifting into horror, it grabs our attention like a slap to the face. Consider doing the same subversion in your story: while the first part risks having the viewer say, ‘Oh great, not another cliched opening,’ the unexpected always gets their attention, letting them know that this isn’t going to turn out the way they think.

Consider having your characters learn to overcome fear

It’s standard advice for writers to have characters change and grow throughout their stories, giving readers the sense that their heroes are capable of learning and growing from both triumph and failure. But what kind of arc should they have? Here, Luke’s arc takes him from being a coward (not helping Rob when he’s being beaten by thugs), to learning to face fear (in this instance, a forest god who will turn you into a flayed flesh-flag if you don’t worship her).

One advantage of having your character learning to stand up for themselves is that everyone can relate to it. Who among us hasn’t felt small and afraid when faced with bullies, angry parents, or enraged employers? And who hasn’t felt the elation of finally standing your ground and fighting back? Having your characters do the same is almost guaranteed to be a fist-pumping, ‘hell yeah!’ moment because we know the struggle it takes to get to that point.

(In all fairness, though, you can’t blame Luke for not stepping in to help in the market; a glass bottle wouldn’t do much against two thugs who aren’t afraid to kill to get what they want.)

Consider having the victim make everything worse for everyone else

After injuring his knee early in the hike, Dom wants nothing more than to get out of the forest. But while his pig-headed stubbornness to get out as quickly as possible is understandable and relatable, it has the side effect of leading almost everyone else to their doom. Had the group just turned back, they probably would have gotten out of the forest alive. Such a contrast creates mixed emotions for your audience: they can sympathize with the victim who just wants to live, but also be angry at him/her for making things worse for everyone else by refusing to listen to reason.

Consider having a small mystery that’s never solved

About halfway through ‘The Ritual,’ Luke and the others find an abandoned tent that belonged to Anna Erikson, a woman who went missing in 1984. While this mystery is never solved, it does engage our imagination: What happened to Anna? Did she escape the forest? Did Moder kill her? Or did she join the cult and worship Moder? It may be possible that the villager who explains to Luke who Moder is Anna. Either way, the ambiguity behind the mystery helps reinforce the fact that Moder has been active for a very long time.

It’s important to note that this mystery is a small one, and not important to the plot. Had it been the main focus of the story, where Luke and the others heading to the forest to find this woman, then it would need to be solved.

Consider hearing something horrible instead of seeing it

It’s common to hear a monster in a creature feature long before it’s seen, and for good reason: Hearing an unearthly beast allows the reader’s/viewer’s imaginations to run wild, and making them lean close the screen or the page in hopes of catching even the smallest glimpse of the monster. However, using sound instead of visuals can also be effective in many other situations. In ‘The Ritual,’ it’s used to chilling effect when Phil is dragged upstairs where we hear him shrieking. We don’t see what’s going on, which makes us wonder what’s terrifying him so much. Torture devices? Other captives who fought back and were mutilated? A big, fat, naked man trying to seduce him?

By leaving something unseen, even if it’s not a monster, you can turbocharge your audience’s imagination… and make their skin crawl as they debate whether they want to see the unseen horror or not.

Consider having your characters sacrifice something for their freedom

In many stories where a character has to escape a location (a cell, a locked room, etc.) they manage to get out of their restraints without any pain. But if you want to turn up the tension, and make your audience squirm, consider having your characters sacrifice something to achieve that freedom. Here, Luke has to sacrifice his thumb by breaking it in order to free himself from his bindings.

Part of fiction’s appeal is imagining ourselves in the place of our heroes and imagining us accomplishing what they do, escaping from impossible situations included. Why not make them squirm by having them wonder if they’d be able to sacrifice a body part to escape. Would they be willing to break their arm? Lose an ear? How about an eye?

Consider having your final confrontation be a battle of wills, not physical strength

In my opinion, the most interesting thing ‘The Ritual’ changes from the book is the final showdown between Luke and Moder. In the book’s climax, the two collide in a van, and Luke drives her off with a pocketknife. Here, however, Moder tries to force Luke to worship her, presumably so she can continue to live from the strength of his prayers. In a physical fight, Luke is no match for Moder, but she’s in a difficult situation: if she kills Luke, she loses her last chance of getting a follower. Thus, Luke finally gains his resolve and refuses to kneel. And thanks to an axe-to-the-face moment, he manages to defeat Moder: not by killing her, but by leaving her powerless, alone, and trapped in a prison she cannot leave.

It’s a fascinating twist on the standard climax of having hero and monster fight in a duel to the death. Here, both parties survive, but Luke is still the winner. ‘The Ritual’ is proof that not every confrontation needs to involve weapons, fists, and pitting strength against strength. Sometimes the most amazing duels are fought with words and wills, where even the weakest in body can stand up to the biggest of bullies.

The takeaway

When writing a story about monsters, a good way to quickly suck viewers in is to start off with a familiar plot, only to quickly swerve into horror territory, setting up a story where the main character has to learn to stand up for himself and face his fears while dealing with injured companions who make things worse for everyone due to their stubbornness, creepy mysteries that they’ll never solve, unseen horrors that he doesn’t want to face, enduring great pain to gain freedom from captivity, and facing the beast and defeating it with courage and their will instead of weapons and strength.

BONUS: When all else fails, punch the evil old woman