Favorite Moments: ‘Captain… Help…’

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

‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (1996)

The Scene

(skip to 1:35 for the moment in question)

Why It’s Great

As a child of the 90’s, I was privileged to see a lot of great TV shows growing up: ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘M*A*S*H’ reruns, ‘Dinosaurs!’ and almost every Nickelodeon cartoon and game show constantly played on the family television, but it’s ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ that’s stayed with me well into adulthood. Picard, Riker, Data, Worf, and all the Enterprise crewmembers others were as much a part of my childhood as Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Indiana Jones. I watched as the Enterprise and her crew as they explored the cosmos, negotiated peace with hostiles species, got into firstfights and phaser shootouts… and also turned into children.

Throughout it all, though, Picard was the character who left the greatest impression with me. He was the champion of reason and diplomacy, yet not afraid to get into a fight if he needed to. He was firm, but fair, and to my young eyes he was the leader who always did what was right.

Then came 1996’s ‘First Contact,’ and in a film filled with action, horror, shootouts, and scary Borg monsters, the thing that stuck with me the most was the shock of seeing Picard shot an infected Enterprise crewmember begging for help. As a young kid, that blew my mind: Picard was the good guy! He wouldn’t kill his own crew! And yet, he had just killed one!

To a pre-teen like me, this was the moment where I realized that the right thing to do isn’t always the nicest. In the cartoons and kids shows I watched, the heroes always saved innocent people from the bad guys. To see one of those heroes kill an innocent person – even if it was an act of mercy – made me realize that sometimes the good guys must do things that are morally questionable, even if there’s no malicious intent. It was a big step forward in realizing that things aren’t always black and white, and a big step in realizing that writing stories where things aren’t clear cut are a great tool for creating moral delimas that stay with audiences long after the story is over.

What we can learn from ‘The Northern Incident’

 

Is there such a thing as a perfect horror story? A few months ago, I took a look at one of the best written examples, and today I want a look at one of the best animated examples: A 2011 animation titled, ‘The Northern Incident’ that freaked me out the first time I saw it, and has remained with me ever since as one of the scariest horror shorts I’ve ever seen… up until the last minute. But before we get to that minute, let’s take a look at what this short does so well.

In a horror story, the more remote and more isolated your setting, the better

In the grand tradition of horror stories being set in remote, hard-to-reach locations, ‘The Northern Incident’ takes place at a cabin in the remote, snow-covered forest far from civilization. In a nice twist, though, the cabin’s just close enough that the man has access to a television and a phone so he can call for help… but when the phone line is cut, he might as well be on a different planet. He has a way back to civilization, but no way to get there without freezing to death. There’s nothing worse, after all, than being in sight of safety, but being unable to get to it.

Consider making your audience hear your monster more than they see it

It might be a cliche, but keeping the monster/threat in a horror story out of sight is one of the best things writers can do. Without knowing what the threat looks like, audiences are forced to use their imagination to create the threat, coming up with horrors more terrifying than anything any writer or concept artist could create. Before they’re fully revealed, all we know about the monsters in ‘The Northern Incident’ is that they’re roughly human-sized, intelligent, and can move with astonishing speed.

While ‘The Northern Incident’ follows this trope perfectly, it masterfully uses another aspect to enhance it: Using sound to show where the creatures are. We hear them knocking at the cabin’s door, walls, ceiling, and even driving a car. It’s one thing to see a terrifying monster, but it’s even more terrifying to know that it’s close by, but only being able to hear it.

Consider making your monster smart and sadistic

While the unseen and the unknown is terrifying, it becomes even more frightening when your audience realizes that the monster isn’t some mindless beast, but something that’s smart. The creatures in ‘The Northern Incident’ are smart enough to know how to hotwire and drive a car, as well as knowing how to disable a phone, but there’s a more subtle horror that’s not easily noticeable at first: The creatures toy with the man. They want to make him afraid, and are holding back on killing him (or whatever they plan to do) to try and drive him mad. They’re sadists, and there are few things as frightening as having your characters deal with something that’s human, smart, and loves inflicting misery on others.

Be very careful revealing that your monster is a joke character

Years ago, my father made an observation that’s stuck with me ever since: ‘The closer you get to perfection, the more obvious a flaw becomes.’ ‘The Northern Incident,’ regrettably, becomes a perfect example of this saying. The first 90% of the story is a masterpiece of pacing, animation, sound design, and horror. Then, in the final minute, we finally see what has been stalking the man and his dog… Furries.

The first time I saw ‘The Northern Incident’, I was shocked at the ending, and not in a good way. All the horror, the tension, and the scares were forgotten as I realized that all of it had been the setup for a joke, retroactively ruining everything that had come before.

For years, I’ve thought about why I find the ending to ‘The Northern Incident’ to be such a disappointment; other films effectively blend horror and comedy, so why does this one fail? I think it’s because the tone isn’t consistent with what comes before. By the end of the short, we – the audience – have been conditioned to expect a serious horror story, and the revelation that the man was attacked by furries retroactively makes us realize that everything that came before was a lie to throw us off guard. Had there been more comedic elements earlier, or hints about the creature’s true identity, the ending would have been easier to accept. As it is, it’s proof that while out-of-nowhere endings are memorable, they should at least fit with the tone of what came before.

The Takeaway

When doing a horror story, set it in a location far away from help (or have it so that characters can see help, but can’t get to it) and consider keeping the intelligent and sadistic monster hidden, with the audience hearing it instead of seeing it. When it comes time to do the ending, it’s okay to try something different, but keep the tone of it consistent with what came before.

What we can learn from ‘Sarah Conner vs. Jason Vorhees’

Ever since his first appearance as a masked killer in the 1981 film ‘Friday the 13th Part 2,’ Jason Vorhees has become the poster child for slashers who take out horny teenagers as brutally (and creatively) as possible. Being such a staple of pop culture, it was inevitable that he’d eventually face off against other pop icons, the most famous being a fight against Freddy Kruger in 2003’s ‘Freddy vs Jason.’ But many of these fights have taken place in fan videos, featuring Michael Myers, Pennywise the Clown, Leatherface, and even Barney the Dinosaur. Today, we’re taking a look at what would happen if Jason Vorhees took on one of the toughest women in cinema: Sarah Conner from ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day,’ courtesy of Youtube creators WTFLOL

Having a plausible explanation as to why two characters are fighting makes it easier to accept such a fight

When most pop culture characters fight, plot usually comes second to seeing them duking it out. But having a strong reason why two different characters from two different universes are fighting each other makes said fights easier to accept. ‘Conner vs. Jason’ has a particularly good one: Sarah, while en-route to foil Cyberdyne yet again, has car trouble and breaks down near Camp Crystal Lake. While searching for help, she comes across helpless campers being slaughtered by Jason, and rushes in to help. Not only is this a plausible way for the two to meet up, but it also helps us root for Sarah by showing how she doesn’t hesitate to help others in trouble, even if she doesn’t know them.

In our own stories, it’s a good idea to set up the fight in a way that feels logical. While it’s tempting to throw your two (or more) duelists together as quickly as possible, setting up why they’re fighting will make your story more believable, and tell your audience that you’ve thought this out beyond the standard, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome if ______ and ______ fought each other!?”

Consider limiting how much of your intercontinuity fight doesn’t revolve around the title characters fighting

Perhaps more than any other type of story, your audience knows exactly what they want when they see a duel film (watching the title characters fighting each other). They won’t be interested in anything else that doesn’t lead up or add to those moments. Thankfully, ‘Conner vs. Jason’ smartly limits those scenes to Sarah going to Crystal Lake, and the camp’s campers being killed off by Jason in quick order, knowing that audiences don’t have any interest in the campers being developed when they’re only going to be killed off.

In our own stories, while some buildup and setting the scene is always necessary, cutting out everything that isn’t necessary to set things up, or that doesn’t relate directly to two famous characters fighting is a good idea; our audience will thank us for getting to what they came to see in a quick and timely manner.

Consider having the nerd help save the day

Pity the poor nerd: this unfortunate character continues to be relentlessly mocked in pop culture, portrayed as being wimps, cowards, and having zero social skills. Yet, don’t underestimate them: while the nerd in ‘Conner vs. Jason’ first comes off as the stereotypical game-obsessed dweeb, he quickly comes through by using his smarts to tell Sarah about Jason’s only weakness, and risks his own life to lure Jason towards said weakness at great risk to himself (and saving Sarah in the process).

While it’s easy to use the nerd as an easy source of humor and comic relief, it’s much better to have them have hidden depths: Nerds may have a love of all things video games, movies, anime, and cartoons, but they’re still people with weaknesses and strengths, and showing those, whether it’s bravery, strength, or resourcefulness will help make them memorable.

Consider poking fun at a character’s mythology in your crossover fight

Little moments of humor can often be the most memorable parts of any story, and in a crossover fight – where drama and strict adherence to the rules of either universe are put aside for the sake of awesomeness – poking fun at both story’s mythologies can make funny moments even funnier: my favorite here comes when the nerd loudly yells about smoking and having lots of premarital sex with naked women, causing Jason to immediately ignore Sarah and head after the nerd. Another has the Terminator, after blowing Jason to pieces, saying his classic trademark about how he’ll be back. Is it cheesy? Yes, but it’s funny, and a good reminder on that we watch these crossovers to see how awesome they are; having some humor – even if it’s slightly out of character – only makes a fun experience even more enjoyable.

Avoid having someone come in and steal a victory at the end of a crossover fight

While having the Terminator suddenly show up to save the day at the end of the video is undeniably awesome (The Terminator vs Jason? Heck yeah!), it does have the unfortunate effect of making the whole ‘Sarah vs. Jason’ fight somewhat pointless, as neither of them determine the outcome. While it’s common for crossover fights to end in a draw (so as to not offend fans of either character by having them be defeated), having neither side winning, or having both off each other, having a third party arrive and end the fight by themselves feels like a cop out. Even Freddy vs Jason made this error by having one of the teens decapitate Freddy at the climax of the big fight, instead of Jason.

When writing our own crossover fights, having them end because of the results of the fighter’s efforts – instead of an outside force – will avoid the feeling of the fighters and the audience being cheated out of a fair match. If you must bring in a third party, foreshadow it before the fight, or at the very beginning (such as how Sarah Conner helps Pops during the Terminator vs Terminator duel in ‘Terminator: Genysis’), but still avoid it if you can.

An Alternate Universe version of ‘Sarah Conner vs. Jason Vorhees’ that learned from its mistakes

While en-route to take out a subdivision of Cyberdyne, Sarah Conner’s car breaks down outside Camp Crystal Lake. Setting out to search for help, she hears helpless campers being slaughtered and runs to help. While she’s too late to save everyone, she does save one nerd from Jason. The two quickly hatch a plan to lure Jason to the camp’s lake, eventually managing to get them there, thanks to the nerd’s smarts, and Sarah’s combat skills.

However, when trying to knock Jason into the water, Sarah – injured from her fight – runs out of ammo for her weapons. Using herself as a battering ram, she tackles Jason, managing to shove him into the water.

The nerd anxiously tries to decide whether he should jump in after Sarah to save her. Then she appears: Injured and bleeding badly, but alive. With Jason defeated and trapped at the bottom of the lake, the nerd helps her back to the camp’s main building to patch her up and call for help. Along the way, he asks if she’s interested in a date, to which she replies that he’d better not hold his breath.

Favorite Moments: Pancakes!

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

‘Cabin Fever’ (2002)

The Scene

Why it’s great

It’s a scene of a kid who wants pancakes, does karate moves, and then bites a guy while making wolf sounds, while his dad yells his name in slow motion. It’s so random, so out of place in a movie about a flesh-eating virus, and so bizarre that it breaks the time-space continuum and transcends the comprehension of mere mortals.

What? I need to write more? Well, it’s an example of how having a random scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the story can become the most memorable moment of that story, AKA, The Big Lipped Alligator Moment.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go satisfy a sudden hankering for pancakes.

What we can learn from: ‘Killer Fish’

NOTE: My apologies for posting this two days late: Christmas and all it’s related fiascos has been taking up more of my time than I expected.

Forget Jaws. Forget ‘Deep Blue Sea’, ‘47 Meters down’ or ‘The Shallows’. If you’re looking for man vs killer aquatic animal action, look no further than the 1979 Italian caper, ‘Killer Fish’, a gripping, heart-pounding tale of criminals vs some of the most ferocious fish ever known to mankind!

Okay, it’s not that exciting. Or quick-paced. Or even on league with the aforementioned films. ‘Killer Fish’ won’t win any awards or be remembered out of bad film circles, but with its beautiful scenery, silly effects, and groovy 70’s soundtrack, it’s good for a laugh or two. Let’s dig in and see what writers can learn from this tale of diamond thieves vs fish.

When doing a killer monster movie, give a tease of your monster at the beginning

It may be a cliché, but giving your audience a tease of the monster at the beginning of the story (without fully revealing it, of course) gives them a delicious tease of the carnage to come after the inevitable first-act setup. In ‘Killer Fish’, however, the piranha are nowhere to be seen for the first half hour, as the film instead focuses on people blowing up a refinery, stealing diamonds, and then sneaking through a jungle and starting to argue with each other at a resort, leaving the audience wondering if they came to the wrong movie by accident; they came to see piranha wreaking havoc, not a criminal heist movie.

As a writer, keep the characters, plot, and action tied to the killer monster, even in the first scene: Imagine ‘Jaws’ without the opening attack; the film would have a much slower, less interesting start, and a bored audience will quickly become an audience that walks away.

Consider having the antagonist’s plan to use the monster backfire

Unlike most monster stories, where the beasts are either discovered or accidentally released to wreak havoc, ‘Killer Fish’ is unique in that the leader of the thieves release the piranha into the lake to guard ‘his’ diamonds, a refreshing change from the usual ‘monsters are accidentally released or are discovered’ storyline we frequently get. What’s great about this subversion (beyond giving the main antagonist an admittingly clever idea for guarding the treasure) is that it also sets up the inevitable moment where the antagonist is done in by their own plan, which is always a crowd pleaser.

Unless you’re going for a jumpscare, foreshadow big events in your story

When the piranha finally claim their first victim, the moment we’ve been waiting a half hour to see, it happens so quickly that – aside from seeing some terrifying bubbles – there’s no foreshadowing of the piranha’s attack. We, the audience, expect that the diver will go down, there’ll be a minute or two before something happens, and… oh, wait. He’s already being attacked. Nevermind.

There’s something to be said about giving audiences what they want in a monster film, but it’s important to remember that building up to the carnage makes the payoff even sweeter. Knowing that they’re finally on the verge of seeing the juicy bits lets creators ratchet up the tension and suspense before a monster attacks. This also applies to non-monster attacks; “Killer Fish’ features a tornado that destroys a dam, unleashing a tidal wave. The problem is, there’s no foreshadowing, or even hints about the tornado’s appearance, making it feel like something the script threw in to keep the plot moving, instead of a well-thought out event that feels logical and not a Diabolus ex Machina.

Consider having your character’s place of refuge slowly fall apart around them

Much like ‘Deep Blue Sea’ 19 years later, ‘Killer Fish’ smartly has the characters trapped in a location that’s slowly sinking, meaning that if they don’t find a way to escape to shore, they’re doomed to a terrible, fishy death. By preventing them from just sitting around and waiting for rescue, the story ensures that they have to stay active and work hard to ensure their survival, which keeps things moving forward. Even better, almost all those on board are thieves who want the diamonds and are willing to betray each other to get them, making their interactions more interesting than ordinary people just trying to stay alive.

Consider having your jerk have one completely selfless moment of compassion for others

Ollie the photographer is a pretty standard camera snob who’s only interested in getting his shots throughout the film (but with Brazil’s gorgeous scenery, can you blame him?). But in a smart move, Ollie does get one good moment on the sinking boat where he tries and help an injured crewmember without any ulterior motives. While he’s not the standard, ‘heartless, smug professional who’s not interested in helping others’ type, it is a nice, effective redemption moment for him.

Having a selfless moment for your own jerk characters allows you to make them more interesting: Imagine a snob who is mean to everyone they meet throughout your story. They insult, put down, and offend everyone they can, just because they can. Then, imagine that they’re seen handing out food and supplies to the homeless in subzero weather without any regard to their own comfort. Though it won’t automatically make them a well-rounded, compelling character, such opposites will help in developing them, and maintain the interest of the audience.

Consider having two characters who hate each others guts declare a truce during a bigger disaster

It’s always interesting to see character who hate each other’s guts being forced to work together, which is what happens with Robert and Paul, who have to put aside their desire to kill each other to survive piranha who want to kill them both… at least, until they can both survive long enough to try and kill each other again.

While mutual survival is the most common reason for enemies to work together, writers have a great opportunity to try many different things with such a relationship:

*The two can learn to like each other and become friends.

*The two work to irritate each other as much as possible.

*The two gain a begrudging respect for one another that lasts after the crisis has passed.

*The two still try to kill each other at every available moment.

*The two immediately fall in love and marry each other (not likely)

The possible outcomes for such a relationship are almost endless; few storytelling techniques leave your audience completely in the dark on what can happen, making for compelling drama, comedy, or whatever genre you want to explore.

If you’re doing a monster story, have the monsters be the focus of said story

Perhaps the biggest error ‘Killer Fish’ makes is that it’s not a movie about killer fish: it’s a film about thieves betraying each other and trying to get some diamonds while having to deal with the inconvenience of piranha stopping them from getting away with said diamonds. Most of the film revolves around them betraying each other, with the aquatic menace being regulated to a subplot, instead of the other way around.

No matter your genre, remember to keep the focus on what your audience came to see, whether it’s monsters, a natural disaster, aliens, etc. To use ‘Jaws’ as an example again, imagine if the film revolved around Brody and Co. fighting to save Amity’s only seafood restaurant, with them having to fight the shark to retrieve the sunken deed to the building. Yes, they’d still blow it up, but at the end of the day it would be about saving a restaurant, not saving Amity from a killer shark. Audiences would be disappointed that they didn’t get a shark-focused story, and would be angry at having been tricked into seeing a story about saving a restaurant.

The Takeaway

When doing a monster movie, keep everything focused on the monster, including opening with a tease of its fearsome abilities, foreshadowing its appearance later on (along with any other disasters that might occur). When everything falls apart, consider having your character’s place of safety slowly fall apart, forcing two characters who hate each other to work together for survival, giving a jerk a chance to do one truly selfless, charitable act.

Favorite Moments: ‘The Shining Recut’

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

‘The Shining Recut’

Why it’s Great

Ah, Halloween. The most wonderful time of year for people who love the supernatrual, the spooky, and the macabre. This is the holiday when Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, and all the other malevolent legends of pop culture get to enjoy the limelight, and when our favorite horror films are popped into the DVD player or streamed online. It’s a celebration of all things terrifying… but instead of posting a video showcasing that terror, let’s go with something a bit different… turning one of those horror films into a feel-good family film!

‘The Shining Recut’ is arguably the video that launched the ‘recut trailer’ genre, and is still one of the best. The humor of seeing a dark, creepy film turned into a feel-good funfest cannot be overestimated, especially knowing the context of all the scenes used in the clip, and imagining just what ‘The Shining’ would be like in this alternate version, where Jack, Wendy, and Danny come together as a loving family who overcome all their hardships in life… instead of, you know, freezing to death in the show and enduring permanent psychological trauma.

I think one of the great pleasures of Halloween is taking icons and beings who scare us and making them harmless and fun, if only for a day, and one of the best ways to counter that fear is to turn it into something funny. Where we would otherwise run and hide from a maniac with an axe, or a chainsaw, or an alien who wants to eat us, we render them harmless through the power of comedy. And maybe that’s what Halloween is really about: Gaining mastery over the powers of the night… well, that, and filling our arteries with sugar.

Happy Halloween!

 

What we can learn from the scariest short story I’ve ever read

MasterpieceCover

Is there such a thing as the perfect horror story? One so tight, so focused, and so scary that it cannot be improved upon? Probably… but I haven’t found it. ‘Masterpiece’, comes close, though.

There are several versions of this story online, but this is the first one I read a few years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since, becoming one of my favorite horror stories; it’s short, concise, to the point, and haunts you long after its over with. But more than any other monster story, or tale where a ghoul or alien chases people around, ‘Masterpiece’ sticks with me not from the blood or gore, but from the way it so effectively uses sadism and the fear of inevitable pain. So in honor of Halloween, let’s see what we can learn from this short and chilling tale:

Consider starting your story in media res

What’s in media res, you ask? It’s when you start the story not at the beginning, but at the halfway point or later, before cutting back to the beginning, which is almost guaranteed to get your audience’s attention and curiosity immediately. ‘Masterpiece’ does so by starting with our unnamed narrator alone in his bedroom at night, staring at the dead bodies of his parents, leaving us to wonder how on earth he got there. Yikes.

Consider having something awful happen to your loved ones in a horror story

We often like to imagine ourselves in stories, taking the place of the protagonist as they go on adventures, save the day, etc. But when it comes to horror movies, that imagination can backfire. While we learn nothing about the narrator’s parents, that’s not necessary to feel the horror of them being murdered and defiled. It’s all to easy to imagine our own parents going through such horrific treatment, and while that would be enough to make some people close the page and walk away, it does serve as an effective way to suck readers deeper into the story. And it doesn’t have to be parents, either: it could be a beloved aunt, grandparent, or pet.

Consider having your antagonist be an intelligent, non-human being who psychologically torments its prey

It’s a bit cliché, but having your non-human monster be intelligent is a surefire way to ratchet up the creepy factory in a horror story. By going with something that can think, plan, and outwit the protagonist/s, or worse, torments its prey with tricks and mental torture, you make your protagonist’s predicament all the more dangerous and gripping, as cruelty can be more frightening than the raw power of a simple-minded beast. The monster in ‘Masterpiece’ is memorable not because it kills the protagonist’s parents, but because it toys with the narrator and letting them know they’re screwed no matter what they do, and presumably taking great pleasure in such a fact.

Consider having your protagonist be truly helpless in a horror story

It’s common for heroes to be initially helpless against a monster in a horror story, but as they learn more about their opponent, they’re able to fight back, either by getting a weapon, creating one, or exploiting a weakness of the beast. The narrator in ‘Masterpiece’ has no such hope. He/she is in a bedroom with a monster under their bed, and the moment they try to get out or run, they’re dead. That feeling of helplessness, of not being able to fight back or inflict any harm on a tormentor, is one of the most visceral and effective feelings in horror, and arguably the bedrock of the entire genre.

Consider ending your horror story with the promise of pain

Of all the ways to end a horror story, there’s perhaps none more chilling than letting the reader/protagonists know that the only thing they have to look forward to is pain and suffering. ‘Masterpiece’ ends not with the monster ripping the narrator apart, but the simple act of telling him/her that it knows that they’re awake. With the monster less than three feet away, it’s easy to imagine it smiling and waiting for the helpless narrator to just try and run, and that they have no chance of escaping. The narrator is going to die, no matter what.

What’s so good about this type of ending is that it’s a perfect example of the mind being more effective than anything the author can create. There doesn’t need to be any bloodshed, shots of mutilated flesh, or limbs being cut off because our imaginations are so much more effective. If you end a story with a scene of a person being dragged into a dungeon and seeing a tray holding an ice cream scoop just the right size for a human eyeball… well, you can guess what happens next.

Sometimes, not showing what’s going to happen, and leaving the details to the imagination, are far more effective than showing it.

The Takeaway

For a really effective horror story, have an intelligent, sentient monster do something horrifying happen to a helpless protagonist’s loved ones and then trap them in a situation where they can’t escape or fight. But to take the story to the next level (and freak out your audience), have the monster psychologically torture the protagonist.

Wow. That was intense. Here’s a video of someone being a goofball cop in 1940’s Los Angeles