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: ‘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.

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

What we can learn from: ‘Every 90’s Commercial Ever’

Halloween’s only a week away, and the internet is in full swing with all sorts of Halloween-themed posts, sites, and spooky sights to celebrate the season. But you know what? Let’s take a break from Halloween horrors and take a fun-filled trip back to the 90’s!

Umm… yeah.

Aside from the totally radical 90’s attitude (oh, those bright colors! The VHS scratch marks! The guitar music!), this charmingly gruesome commercial features a few treats for writers digging into it:

When doing a period piece, consider embracing cliches and stereotypes

What do you think of when you imagine the past several decades? Rock and roll music, drive-ins, and cheesy sci-fi B movies of the 50’s? The garishly bright colors, disco, outrageous hairdos, and shag carpeting of the 70’s? Or how about totally radical hipsters getting around on skateboards and surfboards while playing Nintendo 64 and watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies in the 90’s? While there was always more going on in those eras, embracing these stereotypes can work to our advantage when doing stories that don’t rely on historical accuracy: You can play around with these elements and exaggerate them, playing up the nostalgia factor for all its worth, bringing a smile to members of your audience who grew up in that era (and there’s nothing wrong with a little fun-spirited nostalgia every now and then).

If you’re doing a horror piece, consider starting off with ridiculously happy material before bringing the horror

What makes ‘Every 90’s Commercial Ever’ so memorable is that there’s no foreshadowing of its sudden swerve into horror territory. We’re sucked into this charming, goofy commercial of cliched 90’s kids heading out to the park to play football with a big name star (because that’s what every kid in the 90’s did) after drinking some totally awesome Capri-Sun Liquid Slam, only to be suddenly assaulted by a horrid, ‘Thing’ like abomination that proceeds to melt a kid’s face off.

Yikes!

In our own works, a sudden, unexpected swerve is guaranteed to get the audience’s attention because they’re not prepared for it. Such a swerve can work in blending different genres (horror to comedy, sci-fi to western, etc.) but going from comedy to horror may be one of the most effective because the audience will want to see how these happy characters deal with horrors that want to kill them in blood-chilling ways. Another great example of this is the opening to ‘Ghost Ship’ which, while not comedic, was still goofy with it’s family-friendly facade.

Consider having the comic relief/role model character be surprisingly effective at fighting

If there’s one thing more unexpected than seeing three children morph into an eldritch abomination, it’s seeing a professional football player yank a flamethrower out of nowhere and incinerate the beast while screaming for it to die.

In our own works, having role models/comic relief characters suddenly man up and take on monsters can be a great source of comedy (if it turns out they have no fighting skills at all and die almost instantly) and/or awesomeness. In real life, we love seeing a random stranger embracing their inner hero and saving the day when everyone is panicking, and the same runs true for fiction, especially if they’re larger than life characters like professional sports players who have never fought in their life.

Turning the comedic/role model characters into warriors also has the advantage of making them into the underdog: someone who’s phenomenally skilled at one thing, and then being thrust into a role they have no skill or talent in (You’ll also get comedy bonus points if they yank out a powerful weapon out of nowhere).

Consider throwing in product placement that makes everyone unrealistically happy, no matter the situation

How would you feel if you saw your friends be devoured/melted by an existential horror from beyond the stars? Shell-shocked, most likely, with a hearty dose of PTSD. In real life, such a catastrophe would take years of therapy to get over, but in commercial land, all you need to cheer someone up is give them some branded junk food.

Considering how short they are, commercials need to show you why using their product is a good thing, so it’s expected that eating junk snack food will make anyone in commercial land feel great. But why not try using that for comedic effect in in your own works? If you’re doing a comedy, have your characters recover from any experience, no matter how traumatic, by eating any manner of junk food: Someone lost a friend to rampaging dinosaurs? No problem! Your home planet just got blown up and everyone you know and love is dead? A few stuffed pizza pockets will take care of that! Died and ended up Hell for all eternity? Not to worry! A few microwavable tacos will have you dancing and singing your cares away!

Consider bringing the monster back at the last second, even if its been killed

Yes, it’s cliched, but bringing back a monster at the last second for one last jump scare is always effective, provided its appearance is pulled off well. Here, it comes in the form of another unexpected swerve, as the audience is expecting more jokes related to pizza pigskins, making the kid-monster’s appearance all the more unexpected.

Consider (very carefully) killing off a kid in your horror story

Aside from the sudden appearance of the Capri-sun Liquid Slam monster, what’s the one element of this commercial that sticks with you after you’ve seen it? I’d guess it’s that one of the innocent kids playing football ends up dead after having his face melted off. It’s arguably the one element that makes this video so memorable; if he had survived, or everyone had lived, the video wouldn’t have had the same impact.

While horror movies can get pretty bloody, there’s an unwritten rule that kids don’t die; breaking that rule tells your audience that you’re not fooling around, and can make for shocking moments that stick with the audience long after the story is over. Still, be cautious when killing children, especially in a comedy. It’s a very fine line between shocking and sickening.

The Takeaway

When doing a period piece, don’t be afraid to use stereotypes and cliches for comedic effect, and try using a comedic opening before starting your horror story so as to draw your audience in. When the carnage begins, considering killing off a child to show you mean business, while having your comic relief character be revealed to be a surprisingly good fighter, and then have everyone be cure of their depressions and trauma by enjoying blatant product placement before the monster unexpectedly returns.

BONUS

Just for fun, here’s some of the commercials being parodied here. I still remember seeing these, too!