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: ‘Atlantic Rim’

 

There’s an old saying that there’s nothing new under the sun. Hollywood does its best to fulfill that saying by copying itself year after year, remaking movies, following whatever trend is hot, and generally retelling, recycling, repackaging, and telling the same stories decade after decade.

And then there are the ripoffs.

For years now, the Asylum has specialized in making a seemingly endless amount of ‘mockbusters’ designed to cash in on whatever hit movie is in theaters at the time. Typically made on an impossibly tiny budget and rushed into production, the end result is rarely good, but every so often you can get an amusing gem that manages to entertain despite its grade-Z production values.

‘Atlantic Rim’ is not one of those movies.

In the pantheon of Asylum films, ‘Atlantic Rim’ is strictly in the middle: It’s not horrible, but not great either, with scenes that don’t add anything to the story, plenty of mindless fighting, and three robots whacking a monster with giant robot melee weapons for what feels like fifteen minutes before realizing that it isn’t working. Still, there are a few good lessons to be found here, so let’s suit up in duct-tape covered wetsuits robot control suits and take a look.

Consider having your reckless character actually face consequences for his/her actions

Mech pilot Red Watters (yes, that’s his name) is your typical hot-blooded, reckless military maverick who is the best at what he does, but goes his own way without respecting the chain of command. However, unlike many other mavericks, Red is arrested after going on his initial mission in ‘Atlantic Rim,’ and destroying a lot of property and lives, earning him a trip to the brig instead of begrudging praise from those higher up on the command chain.

In our own stories, having a military maverick actually face consequences for their actions tells our audience that the characters in your story expect competence and don’t fool around. While it’s fine to bend the rules in fiction, it can be more surprising to see them strictly enforced.

Avoid having characters describe what just happened to other characters

Shortly after Red defeats the first monster, he happily tells Tracy and Jim what just happened, gleefully describing his exploits. While it’s logical to tell others what they couldn’t have seen, we, the audience, saw the events described, making the scene redundant and eating up screen time that could have been devoted to something more interesting.

When faced with needing to inform other characters in our own stories about events that have happened, the best option is to either have said characters be told off-screen, or saying something like, ‘It only took a few minutes for Carl to breathlessly tell the others about the dangers he had faced, and what they would be soon going up against.’

Consider poking fun at love-triangle cliches

Near the end of ‘Atlantic Rim’s second act, Red, Tracy, and Jim are celebrating and drinking in a bar (despite not having done anything to stop the latest monster attack), when Tracy and Jim nervously tell Red that they kissed each other, making us think that we’re going to be subjected to a late-game love triangle… only to have Red laugh and brush it off, revealing that he doesn’t care. Moments later, the three set off to save New York, and the love triangle is never seen or heard from again.

Love triangles may be among the most irritating story conventions to be found in fiction, especially where they aren’t wanted or needed, which makes ‘Atlantic Rim’ s take on the matter refreshing. Doing the same in our own works will tell our audiences that we know how annoying these triangles are, and that we aren’t going to subject them to one.

Consider having your missing thing be used as a weapon by the monster

Tell me if you’ve seen this before: A well-equipped group is searching for a monster (or in territory where there are monsters) and one of their distant vehicles or team members suddenly goes silent. It’s all too common for everyone else to suffer the same fate moments later, but I like how ‘Atlantic Rim’ handles this tripe: A submarine goes silent while hunting for an undersea monster, and the aircraft carrier in command of a naval fleet tries to get in touch with them, only for the submarine to be then thrown from the water into the carrier, sinking it.

Aside from the visceral thrill of seeing two huge vehicles slam into one another, having your monster/villain throw their prey back at those who are looking for him/her/it can be a great moment to show that the monster is more than just a dumb brute: By throwing their prey back, they can show intelligence by using it to destroy something else, demoralize others by taunting them, or humor, as if saying, ‘Oh, looking for this? Okay, here you go!’

When all else fails, throw your enemies into space

After what feels like 15 minutes of whacking the final monster with melee weapons, Red realizes that such tactics aren’t going to defeat it. So, what does he do? Ram the beast, fly it into the atmosphere, and eject it into outer space (where it explodes). It’s a simple but effective method, as hurling your enemy into outer space is a nearly foolproof way of getting rid of them for good. After all, space is really big, and once your enemy is thrown into it (presumably without any rockets, jet packs, or engines), they have nothing to grab onto, ensuring that they can’t come back.

The Takeaway:

When your story has an egomaniac military maverick, have them face serious consequences for their actions, while also avoiding love triangles, not having one character tell others what we’ve already seen, having the monster of the story use a missing object/individual as a weapon to showcase their intelligence, and then defeat that monster for good by hurling it into the void of space.

What we can learn from ‘Deep Blue Sea’

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Outside of ‘Jaws,’ it’s difficult to find good killer shark movies. There are dozens, if not hundreds of B-grade shark films, which makes finding the A-listers a real treat. In my opinion, ‘Deep Blue Sea,’ a 1999 horror/thriller that finds the staff of a research facility fighting for their lives against super-intelligent mako sharks, is one of those treats. While the premise is B-grade material, the high production values, humor, and willingness to embrace its R rating makes this one of Hollywood’s better shark films.

With all that said, let’s take a look and see (haha) what we can learn from this tale of genetic experimentation gone wrong.

1. Consider throwing the standard ‘who’s going to die’ rules out the window

Much like George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ saga, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ throws the conventional rules for who lives and dies out the window and spares those we thought would die, and spares those we thought would live. Some examples:

The horny young adults in the opening all survive:

 

The most famous actor becomes shark food less than halfway through the film:

 

 

 

All three ladies die (though only one in this clip):

 

 

 

 

And even the cute animal gets eaten!

 

 

 

 

 

The first time I saw the film, I was shocked at how everyone I thought was going to live, died, and was on the edge of my seat wondering who was going to get out alive or not.

In our own stories, defying the conventions of who’s going to die is a fantastic way of getting people’s attention. Instead of having the hyper-sexual, booze drinking teen die first in a slasher movie, have him survive all the way through. Have the intelligent, smart, resourceful character be the first to bite the dust. When your audience realizes that there really is no guarantees on who’s going to live and die, they’ll want to keep going to find out who makes it or not.

2. Consider putting your characters inside an isolated environment that’s failing

Like any good horror film, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ puts its characters inside a location that’s constantly unsafe and makes their escape to safety that much harder. In this instance, it’s a partially-submerged research facility that begins to sink once the chaos begins, letting the sharks swim inside to make escape even more difficult.

The advantage of having your main location falling apart in stages is that the characters never have much time to rest. They always need to stay on the move, with any safe place offering only temporary refuge, which helps keep them – and the audience – on their toes.

3. Consider making someone do the worst thing for the most righteous of reasons

While most shark films have a human villain corrupted by greed, a desire for power, or any other human failing, Dr. Susan McAlester is a refreshing chance of pace: she’s not motivated by greed or selfishness, but from wanting to cure Alzheimers. Considering that she finally has that cure within reach, it’s not surprising that she’s willing to bend the rules of what’s ethically and legally acceptable, but unlike so many other villains, she doesn’t set out to hurt anyone, which makes her the most interesting and multi-faced character of the film.

In our own stories, well-intended extremists, if handled well, can be the most interesting characters because they make us wonder what we’d be willing to do to accomplish a noble goal. Would we be willing to harm others? Would we be willing to break the law? And on top of that, would we be willing to sacrifice lives to accomplish that goal? Or would we still try to avoid hurting others as much as possible? Having seen the devastating effects of Alzheimers myself, I can understand why Susan did what she did, and I imagine many other viewers would feel the same way, which makes her ultimate failure in getting that cure to the surface all the more devastating.

4. Consider making the monsters more intelligent than we initially realize

The sharks of ‘Deep Blue Sea’ demonstrate their intelligence early on by using a stretcher as a weapon to break the underwater window of the main lab on the station, but it isn’t until near the end of the film that we learn that they’ve been secretly herding our protagonists where they want to ensure the station keeps flooding and sinking, so they can break out of the facility and into the open ocean.

In our own stories, gradually revealing a monster’s intelligence is a great way to make the audience realize that whatever our protagonists are messing with is more than just another dumb monster. It’s also a great opportunity for the audience to have an ‘oh crap!’ moment when we realize that the monster has had an ulterior motive all along that we weren’t aware of (but will subsequently catch on rewatches/re-reads).

5. Consider having your comedic relief be a competent fighter

It’s distressingly common for comic relief characters to be bumbling fools who are only good at cracking jokes, shrieking, and being burdens to the main characters. ‘Deep Blue Sea’ bucks that trend by having Preacher, the religious cook, be both amusing and a surprisingly good fighter: he manages to take out two of the three sharks in the film, survives being mauled by a shark (by using his crucifix to stab a shark in the eye), and saves the day by blowing up the last shark despite being badly hurt, thus keeping the sharks from breeding in the wild.

In our own stories, comedic relief characters need not be walking joke machines that everyone else would gladly leave behind: By making them competent (or at least willing to fight instead of trying to run away), and even come to rescue other characters, you can help make them the most likeable characters in your story.

6. Consider having the monster recognize its maker

 

 

What would you do if you came face-to-face with God? Would you shake His/Her/Its hand? Slap His/Her/Its face and scream about how unfair your life has been? In ‘Deep Blue Sea’ we get a moment where the last shark comes face to face with Susan and stops, clearly recognizing her… before chomping her into so many bite-sized pieces.

In our own stories, having a monster meet its maker offers an opportunity to get a glimpse of the monster’s inner workings. While killing its maker is the standard response, consider having the monster be awed, confused, puzzled, intrigued, or even worshipful; this gives us, the author, a chance to have the beast dispatched in a unique way (perhaps by having its maker lure it into a hydraulic press), or by persuading it to stop killing.

The Takeaway:

When doing a monster movie, consider having your characters be trapped in a location that’s failing, and killing off people we expect to see live, and vice versa, while having a competent comedic relief who’s not a burden to others, and having the main human antagonist be a genuinely good person who did something awful for the best possible reasons and create a monster that we come to realize is far smarter than we first imagined, and then having that monster encounter their maker and having it do something other than just treating them like any other victim they’ve met.