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 ‘Sharknado 5: Global Swarming’

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Last week, we took a look at… You know what, you know the drill by now.

1. Consider making the backstory behind your monster something your audience won’t expect

For the first four films, the Sharknado series has stuck with the idea that the sharknadoes are an entirely natural phenomenon. ‘Global Swarming’ bucks that trend by revealing that sharknadoes are actually a supernatural phenomenon caused by a shark god that humanity has fought in the past, and defeated. In as serious series, this would be pretty far-fetched, but the dopey nature of the Sharknado series makes this a plausible twist that retroactively paints the series as humanity’s latest fight against a supernatural menace trying to wipe us out, giving the series a bigger feel, in that there’s more going on beyond what we see in the films.

2. Give your character/s a good reason to chase after the monster.

One of the hardest hurtles to overcome in monster movie sequels is giving the hero a valid reason to chase after a monster that any sane person would run away from. ‘Global Swarming’ is one of the few monster sequels I’ve seen that gives the leads a legitimate and logical reason to do so: Finn and April’s son have been sucked by a sharknado that can teleport around the globe, forcing them to give chase in order to save him. Thus, they’re not motivated by greed, revenge, or wanting to destroy the menace once and for all, but to save a loved one, a motive that everyone can relate to and understand.

3. Take advantage of exotic locations, but make sure they advance the story

Where the four previous Sharknado films took place entirely within the United States (and outer space), ‘Global Swarming’ finally takes the toothy menace across the globe, including England, Switzerland, Italy, Australia, Japan, and Egypt. Predictably, this allows the film to poke fun at the various attractions at each location, the most enjoyable of which is Finn leading the charge to save the Queen at Buckingham Palace, a brief sojourn in Africa where we have lions vs sharks, and the statue of Christ the Redeemer literally giving Finn and April a hand as they continue to try and save their son.

However, when your characters go to exotic locations, make sure their adventures advance the story: ‘Global Swarming’s sequence in Switzerland, which features a steampunk zeppelin and lots of skiing and dog mushing, feels like padding. While an action sequence may have plenty of cool-looking action, if it doesn’t advance the story or characters, it will ultimately be padding. Cool-looking padding, but padding nonetheless.

3. Consider giving a long-running sidekick a less-than-honorable motivation (and then let them redeem themselves)

Nova’s role in the Sharknado series is to be the action girl unfettered by a family or loved ones beyond Finn, and ‘Global Swarming’ puts her in command of the Sharknado Sisters, a cavort group dedicated to wiping out sharknadoes. But then it’s revealed that what Nova wants is pure revenge: to kill every shark on earth, even if she has to give up on rescuing Finn’s son, Gil. Considering that sharks killed her grandfather and nearly ate her, it’s understandable that Nova would want to kill an entire species, but such a revelation retroactively makes her a darker character.

However, the movie does give her redemption and the chance to balance out her bloodlust: Nova is the reason Gil gets sucked into the sharknado, and she tries to save him in Tokyo, but fails and dies, but not before reconciling with Finn and April, proving that when it comes to redemption quests, the effort of just trying is just as important as if the character succeeds or not.

5. When all else fails, throw in an athlete using his/her skills to help save the day

Is your story sagging by the middle of the second act? Are you trying and failing to find a way to sustain your audience’s interest? Why not try throwing in a random cameo by an athlete using their skills to help save the day? In a film filled with sharks in tornadoes attacking multiple countries, the pope giving out laser-firing chainsaws, and ancient shark gods, the most random moment may be Tony Hawk appearing out of nowhere in Australia and using his skateboarding skills to help fully transform the Sidney Opera House into an anti-sharknado weapons platform. Does it make any sense? Not really. But it is memorable and amusing to see him use skateboarding to help fight a sharknado, similar to how Gymkata features an Olympic gymnast defeating bad guys with gymnastics and conviniently placed horizontal bars and pommel horses in city plazas and alleyways.

6. When introducing an evil organization/villain, give them some motivations and goals

When in Brazil, Finn and April learn more about the ancient artifact that can be used to control sharknadoes. But it isn’t long before a shady man sneaks in and steals it, prompting an inter-continental chase to Rome where Finn takes on the bad guy and gets the artifact back. However, this man’s appearance feels almost like an afterthought: he appears without any foreshadowing, and is dispatched quickly a few minutes later without having any real effect on the story, aside from getting Finn and April to Rome. I got the impression that he’s part of an evil organization that wants to control sharknadoes, but this story idea is never pursed or given any development.

While it’s acceptable to have antagonists appear suddenly in stories to accost and badger our protagonists, it’s important to give the reader some sense of who they are and what they want. Even if they have the coolest looks, the baddest weapons, and the most awesome equipment, it’s still important to give them a motivation, rather than being a random goon who leaves as quickly as he or she appears.

7. Dramatic moments have a heavier impact in comedy

‘Global Swarming’ starts off like all the previous Sharknado films, focusing on jokes, goofy and outlandish attacks, and the like. But when the film gets into its third act, it takes a sudden turn into the dramatic: Nova fails to save Gil from the sharknado and dies; Fin’s entire family is killed by sharknadoes, and then the film kills not only April, but everyone else on Earth, leaving Finn the world’s sole survivor. And there’s no comedy or jokes to any of these scenes: they’re all played straight, resulting in what may be the most emotionally effective moments in any Scyfi/Asylum film to date.

What makes these moments effective is how unexpected they are; we, the audience, watch comedies to laugh and feel good, which makes the sudden introduction of drama and death catches us off guard. It’s one thing to watch characters die in dramas and thrillers; we expect it. Having a dramatic moment in a comedy and not playing it for laughs will get people’s attention because of how unexpected it is.

8. When people lose their loved ones, make sure they grieve

While ‘Global Swarming’s dramatic moments are effective, I couldn’t help but feel that Finn and April don’t grieve enough when they learn that their entire family is dead, especially when Finn hears his older son die on the phone while talking to him. Such an event should drive them to their knees and crush their spirits, and the only reason they could even go on is fueled purely by wanting to get revenge on the sharks, with all thoughts of saving humanity thrown aside.

When your character’s loved ones die, make sure we see them grieve. The struggle of having to go on even when all they want to do is collapse makes us sorry for them, yet we can admire them for continuing on after going through what is arguably the most traumatic thing a human can ever experience.

9. When you have a downer ending, strongly consider having a ray of hope

‘Global Swarming’ ends with everyone on Earth dead except for Finn. Had the film ended there, it would have the most shocking ending in the series to date. However, there is a faint thread of hope as he meets – thanks to time travel shenanigans – his now grown son and heads back in time to save everyone else.

In fiction, downer endings are pretty much guaranteed to stay with people long after the story is over, for both good or ill. While they are memorable because they go against the expectation of having a happy ending, or, at least, a bittersweet one, there’s also no escaping the fact that they’re depressing, making it hard to come back to the story again and again. However, if the characters, and the reader, have the smallest thread of hope that things will get better, that can transform a terrible situation into one where the audience will remember your story even more fondly than if there is no hope.

The Takeaway:

When doing a sequel in your monster series, consider exploring an unexpected background behind the monsters while taking advantage of travelling to exotic locations in pursuit of the monster for a noble goal, while making sure those travels contribute to the plot; along the way, make sure villains get some motivations and goals when they appear, and have your characters react realistically to losing everyone they love, and if your story has a downer ending, leaving a thread of hope that things will get better will go a long way to satisfying your audience.

Note: Due to missing ‘Sharknado 6: It’s About Time’s broadcasts, and that the film is not yet available on DVD or streaming, my critique of the film will have to wait until it is available. Until then, the series-wide analysis is on hold.