Ever since it’s release in 1980, ‘The Shining’ has kept viewers guessing for decades about it’s various secrets, including exactly what is going on with the Overlook Hotel itself. The film strongly hints – and the sequel, ‘Doctor Sleep’, all but confirms – that the building itself has a sort of consciousness that forces the ghosts of the hotel to do its bidding and absorb more souls into its haunted walls. And this hotel is an example of the most frightening kind of evil, one that is patient, biding its time as it watches it victims, learns about them, discovers their weakness, and slowly applies pressure to make them give in to their worst impulses without them realizing it, eventually becoming permanent guests in the time-warp that is the Overlook Hotel.
But like all great horror stories, ‘The Shining,’ never reveals what the Overlook’s malevolent self looks like. It is always out of sight, always hidden, and never seen..
But what if the Overlook’s dark core has been hiding in plain sight?
In the 2019 adaptation of ‘Doctor Sleep,’ a grown-up Danny Torrance returns to the rotting remains of the Overlook. What follows is a nostalgic tour of the hotel’s many iconic areas in a state of disrepair, including the Gold Room, where Danny has a ghostly reunion with his father. And while the film rightfully focuses entirely on the talk between father and son, there’s something about this scene that isn’t noticeable unless you’re paying very close attention to the background. Specifically, this shot:
Notice those lamps in the background? They look like mouths. Gaping maws of darkness with the bright, glowing, featureless eyes above them. This, I believe, is the true face of the evil haunting the Overlook, a gaping maw and inhuman eyes, ready to suck in anyone it can get, and they’ve always been there. Compare that shot to the original film:
Notice how in both films, neither Jack or Danny notice these faces. But Lloyd does, and so does Jack when he’s behind the counter in ‘Doctor Sleep.’ How can you tell? Look at their eyelines.
It’s as if they’re silently watching their demonic master before turning their attention back to the latest slave the Overlook wants to add to its collection. And it’s not just the gold room; these lights can be seen throughout the film: the very first time we see Jack, the hotel is watching him.
It watches Jack when he’s working on his book:
Or when Danny is riding his bike:
Or when Rose walks through its halls decades later:
But that’s not all: there are moments when these lights are not lit, like when Wendy is walking around:
The lights aren’t lit because the Overlook isn’t interested in Wendy. It wants Jack and Danny, not her, so it doesn’t bother watching her. Likewise, when Dick arrives at the Overlook and looks for the Torrances, the lights aren’t on; he doesn’t see them:
Yet, moments after he dies, the lights are on, watching Jack, encouraging him to continue his rampage:
Of course, this is just a theory. But perhaps the Overlook has been staring at us for decades; we just never saw it.
Throughout Hollywood history, there have been many classic films have been spared from getting unnecessary sequels: ‘Gone with the Wind’; ‘Ben Hur’; ‘Schindler’s List’, and ‘The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.’ But while they were all spared from subpar followups, ‘Jaws’ was not.
The biggest problem with doing a sequel to ‘Jaws’ is that the film’s ending was about as conclusive as you could get: the shark was killed and Amity was safe to collect tourist money once more. The conflict was wrapped up. The story’s reason for existence had been dealt with. There was no logical way to continue Brody’s adventures without feeling contrived and tackled-on. Yet, the lure of more box office cash was too strong, and the world was given ‘Jaws 2’, one of the most unnecessary sequels ever made.
While it can’t stand on the same level of the original film (which, in all fairness, no sequel could) ‘Jaws 2’ is actually not that bad. Compared with most shark films released in the last twenty years, it’s a markedly better than most, with a number of good scares, some good performances, the ever-stellar music of John Williams, and Roy Scheider’s excellent performance as Chief Brody. And while it’s best remembered as a mediocre sequel to the film that invented the modern blockbuster, it’s not without its merits. Let’s take a look at five things it does well.
6. It doesn’t copy the first film
It would have been easy for ‘Jaws 2’ to copy the same plot of the original: have a shark attack Amity, have the people in charge refuse to shut the town down because money is important, and have Brody head out once again to kill the shark and save the day. And while ‘2’ does follow the same basic plot, it makes some substantial changes. Among them are:
*Instead of the shark attacking beaches in full view of the public, it mainly focuses on individuals and groups far out at sea, away from the public eye, making the disaster more ‘undercover’ so to speak.
*There’s greater variety in the film’s attack sequences: Where the shark in ‘Jaws’ attacked swimmers, a dock, and some boats, this film features attacks on a water skier, scuba divers, teenagers on sailing craft, a killer whale, and even a helicopter.
*Most of the story is set around Brody trying to deal with his own paranoia/post traumatic stress disorder and the shark after he loses his job.
*Brody has a bigger personal stake in the story. Previously, one of his sons had a close call with the shark, but was otherwise unharmed. Here, both of them are out at sea and attacked by the shark, giving him a good reason to head out and face it.
5. A strong sense of isolation
The first ‘Jaws’ excelled at its sense of isolation, and ‘Jaws 2’ continues that tradition by having all the victims and attacks take place where help is too far away to come in time, or where it’s impossible to even call for help in the first place, such as the teenagers on their boats, or the driver of the watersking boat. Her demise is particularly awful, as her boat is easily broken up the shark, and she’s too far away from shore to swim to safety. It’s no wonder she’s desperate enough to try burning the shark, because, no matter how dangerous it is, it’s the only chance she’s got to survive.
And while she dies, another teenager is left alone in her sailboat after her boyfriend is munched to death with no idea how to get back to shore, and with only the flimsy walls of her craft standing between her and bloody death. It’s no wonder her pleas to God to make the shark go away feel so genuine: I’d be praying like mad as well.
One twist I particularly like is that the movie plays around with this isolation: even when the teenagers are helped by a helicopter, the shark destroys it and shreds their sails with the ruined blades, leaving the teens worse off than before.
4. A shark that’s suitably different from the previous one
How do you distinguish one Great White shark from the next? Aside from its size and intelligence, it’s a difficult task. ‘Jaws 2’ distinguishes itself from most shark movies by giving its beast an enormous burn mark on its head. It may be a bit cheesy (an evil shark with an evil scar!), but in a crowded field of killer shark movies, it makes the beast stand out.
3. This fantastic jump scare
If there’s one scene that ‘Jaws 2’ is remembered for, it’s the infamous helicopter scene, where the shark takes on a helicopter (albeit, one that’s floating on the water instead of hovering in the air) and manages to destroy it. What makes it work is that the attack is so unexpected. Logically, we know that the kids can’t be rescued at this point in the story, and that something is going to happen, but we imagine that the boats are going to be attacked, not the helicopter. Even better, the film has the shark’s sudden appearance filmed from inside the cockpit instead of a wide shot outside the craft. That gives it a more intimate feel, and helps make it more frightening because we see the shark from the pilot’s perspective.
One other part of this scene is also its effectiveness in not showing what happens to the pilot after the helicopter is turned over. It’s obvious that he’s killed, but not showing how it happens makes his demise more frightening, as we have to imagine the poor guy trapped in that tiny cockpit, drowning and unable to get out while the shark munches him. Interestingly, there was some footage shot of the pilot trying to get out, which was later deleted from the film. Personally, I think leaving it out and letting our imaginations run wild was a wise choice.
2. Vaughn’s Vote
Compared to his substantial role in the original film, Mayor Vaughn’s presence in ‘Jaws 2’ is noticeably smaller and roughly the same as the original (a politician who wants to keep the town open no matter how dangerous an attacking monster may be because money is great), but there’s a new depth to the relationship between him and Brody, best shown in scenes that aren’t even in the movie. Two deleted scenes show the town’s leaders wanting to remove Brody as chief of police, culminating in a vote. Out of all those present, Vaughn is the only one who votes to keep Brody on.
(the scenes begin at 5:32)
It’s a great moment that humanizes Vaughn beyond the cliché of ‘leader of a community forsakes safety over profits’: he’s still Brody’s friend and respects him even when the two don’t agree. Compared to so many other unreasonably mayor figures we’ve gotten in pop culture, that little moment gives him a depth that his contemporaries lack.
1. It focuses on Brody coping with the events of the previous film
In my opinion, the one thing that makes ‘Jaws 2’ work isn’t the shark, the attacks, or its scares. No, what elevates ‘Jaws 2’ above its successors is Brody. In the first film, he was a competent, well-meaning, and rational man who was out of his element when it came to shark hunting, but who nevertheless stepped up to the challenge. But unlike so many sequel heroes, he isn’t a confident person who leaps back into action at the first sing of trouble. He’s a man who’s still competent, but struggling to deal with the stress of what happened to him, and the fears he’s gained of the ocean. That fear manifests itself best in an early scene where he has to get the wreckage of a boating accident.
Without any words, we see just how badly being attacked by a killer shark has affected Brody and made him so reluctant to go into waist-deep water. Watching Brody deal with that paranoia and fear throughout the movie gives him a vulnerable edge that so many other characters lack: He’s still a good man who wants to keep his community safe, but his PTSD drives Brody to do things he normally wouldn’t do, such as his famous beach scene, which is arguably the best moment in the film:
This all comes to a head after Brody is fired from his job. After all he’s gone through, he could just walk away and let someone else deal with the shark, but he still chooses to go out and face the beast to save his sons, and the lives of innocent teenagers, showing that, even when battling his inner demons, Brody is a good man, and will still do what’s right.
In a way, Brody can be seen as a predecessor to Ellen Ripley in ‘Aliens’: He fought a monster, survived, and made it back to safety, but suffers psychologically and has to face the monster again to conquer his fears for good. And once he does, he comes out stronger than before, more capable, and worthy of praise. Martin Brody is the heart and soul of ‘Jaws 2’, and he single-handily elevates what could have been a bad sequel into a watchable one that’s nowhere near deserving of the scorn it or its successors have gotten over the years.
‘Jaws 2’ may be an acceptable sequel to the original, but the arrival of the next sequel sent the franchise began down the road to silliness, terrible visual effects, and roaring sharks. Tune in next week when we’ll take a look at the third entry in the Jaws saga, ‘Jaws 3D’
Back in 1975, Steven Spielberg made a little movie called ‘Jaws’, creating not only the era of the summer blockbuster, but also the best shark movie of all time. Even after 45 years, no other shark film has managed to surpass it, and Hollywood, recognizing what a gem they had on their hands, wisely and respectfully allowed the franchise to end with just one movie.
Just kidding. This is Hollywood we’re talking about, so we got three sequels of increasingly lower quality, ending with one so reviled that Universal hasn’t tried to make a new ‘Jaws’ sequel in over thirty years. Perhaps no other film franchise in history has suffered so badly from the law of diminishing returns, going from one of the greatest horror/thrillers ever made to one of the most mocked. Yet, are ‘Jaws 2,’ ‘3D,’ and ‘The Revenge’ really that bad? Are they actually better than pop culture would have us remember?
No. No, they’re not. But the greatest learning comes from the greatest failures, and what better way to learn how to do unnecessary sequels than to study the mistakes and missteps of Jaws’ unloved children? Thus, throughout January, we’ll be taking a look at all four Jaws films to see what lessons they can offer writers on how to do sequels. But unlike my Sharknado series, or the Friday the 13th comparisons, I’ll be doing something differently this time around: Instead of focusing on what the films did wrong (too many characters, bad visual effects, roaring sharks who want revenge on the Brodys, etc.), I’ll instead be focusing on what each film does well, because, despite their reputation, the three Jaws sequels do have their merits. Today, we’ll kick things off with the one that started it all: 1975’s, ‘Jaws’
Do I really need to describe just how good ‘Jaws’ is? It succeeds at every aspect, from characters, story, suspension, and casting, to cinematography and visual effects. So, in order to avoid a Stephen King-length analysis of what the film does right, I’ll stick with the four things I think it does best. (If you’re looking for a much more in-depth look at how good the film’s story and characters are, I suggest reading this excellent article by Jabootu.net).
4. The Story Is Self Contained
It seems like every movie made these days is written as the start of a trilogy, with studios hoping to create franchise after franchise they can come back to time and time again for decades to come. But despite being followed by three sequels, ‘Jaws’ is refreshingly self-contained with no loose ends or hints of a sequel. By the end of the film, the shark has been blown up, the threat to Amity Island is ended, and Brody and Hooper are free to pick daisies, frolic through the meadows, and live happily ever after. It’s the logical end to the story, one that doesn’t need any follow-ups or sequels, and doesn’t leave us feeling like we’ve only seen a full-length ad for the next installment.
3. The Isolation
Isolation is a critical part of the horror genre: What’s more frightening then being far from civilization and cut off from help while facing something wants to kill you, or worse? It might not be obvious at first, but ‘Jaws’ thrives on this isolation, taking place entirely on an island and a boat at sea. Yet, there are still multiple examples of characters being isolated and alone when attacked:
The opening attack, where poor Chrissie is alone and helpless in the water, her friends too far away (or too drunk) to hear her screaming for help as she dies.
The two guys on the pier have no time to call for help when the shark goes after their bait, and then comes after them.
Ben Gardner and his mate were alone when he was attacked, and Brody and Hooper are equally isolated when they come across his boat in the dead of night.
Brody, Hooper, and Quint are isolated on a slowly-sinking boat and unable to call for help or get to shore without being eaten, and their only chance is to build a shark cage in a last-chance attempt to kill the beast.
The common thread in all these moments is that the characters are in the ocean with few to no tools or weapons they can use to fight back. The shark has all the advantages (speed, killing power, size, etc.), while the humans have only their wits and intelligence.
2. Everything In The Film Revolves Around The Shark
One thing that I admire about ‘Jaws’ is something that sounds so simple, yet is so hard for so many movies to get right: Everything in the film (with the exception of Brody’s introduction) revolves around the shark. Even when it’s not on-screen or killing anyone, everything the characters do revolve around the shark: A town hall meeting is held because of the shark’s attack on Chrissie; Brody and Hooper have dinner to discuss cutting open the caught tiger shark, despite Hooper believing that the real shark is still out there; Quint talking about the Indianapolis on his boat that he, Brody, and Hooper are on because the want to kill the shark, and so on.
Virtually every scene in the film happens because of the shark, or is influenced by its actions. It’s holding the entire island hostage, and the story and the characters react accordingly. So many other monster movies have scenes or subplots that don’t revolve around their respective beasts that they take away from the film, but ‘Jaws’ wisely avoids such a mistake.
1. The Unseen Is Scarier Than What’s Seen
If there’s one thing ‘Jaws’ does perfectly, it’s that it relies on not seeing the shark so much, forcing our imaginations fill in the blanks every time its presence is felt, making inanimate objects like a broken pier, a stick in the surf, or a splintered piece of wood on Ben Gardner’s boat, bone-chilling. Not seeing the monster makes it so much more horrifying, and this extends to the first time we get a glimpse of it without seeing its whole body. But even better, the film doesn’t go overboard once the shark fully appears when Brody and Co. are hunting it; there are still plenty of times it’s hidden, and uses those moments to imply its intelligence and cunning, before finally having it take center stage at the climax.
Like salt, ‘Jaws’ masterfully uses the shark sparingly, letting it appear just enough to satisfy out curiosity, but letting it stay hidden most of the time, marinating our fear and making its inevitable appearances all the more satisfying.
Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at Jaws 2, one of the most unnecessary sequels of all time, but not necessarily a bad one.
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.
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.
Last week, we took a look at the book version of ‘The Ritual.’ Today, let’s take a look at the film adaptation and see what writers can learn from the big (small?) screen version of the novel:
Consider starting your story with a lighthearted touch, then immediately shifting to horror
‘The Ritual’ begins with Luke and the others (and newcomer Rob) having a typical guy’s night out with drinks, joking, and taking in a city’s nightlife. I first thought it was going to be a predictable scene of the group wanting to get away from their boring lives, but was quickly proven wrong when Luke and Rob stumble into a robbery, and Rob is killed. Only then does the film cut to the outskirts of Sweden’s Forest of Death six months later.
The brilliance of this sequence is how it plays with our expectations: We expect it to be another buddy-movie opening, but by then shifting into horror, it grabs our attention like a slap to the face. Consider doing the same subversion in your story: while the first part risks having the viewer say, ‘Oh great, not another cliched opening,’ the unexpected always gets their attention, letting them know that this isn’t going to turn out the way they think.
Consider having your characters learn to overcome fear
It’s standard advice for writers to have characters change and grow throughout their stories, giving readers the sense that their heroes are capable of learning and growing from both triumph and failure. But what kind of arc should they have? Here, Luke’s arc takes him from being a coward (not helping Rob when he’s being beaten by thugs), to learning to face fear (in this instance, a forest god who will turn you into a flayed flesh-flag if you don’t worship her).
One advantage of having your character learning to stand up for themselves is that everyone can relate to it. Who among us hasn’t felt small and afraid when faced with bullies, angry parents, or enraged employers? And who hasn’t felt the elation of finally standing your ground and fighting back? Having your characters do the same is almost guaranteed to be a fist-pumping, ‘hell yeah!’ moment because we know the struggle it takes to get to that point.
(In all fairness, though, you can’t blame Luke for not stepping in to help in the market; a glass bottle wouldn’t do much against two thugs who aren’t afraid to kill to get what they want.)
Consider having the victim make everything worse for everyone else
After injuring his knee early in the hike, Dom wants nothing more than to get out of the forest. But while his pig-headed stubbornness to get out as quickly as possible is understandable and relatable, it has the side effect of leading almost everyone else to their doom. Had the group just turned back, they probably would have gotten out of the forest alive. Such a contrast creates mixed emotions for your audience: they can sympathize with the victim who just wants to live, but also be angry at him/her for making things worse for everyone else by refusing to listen to reason.
Consider having a small mystery that’s never solved
About halfway through ‘The Ritual,’ Luke and the others find an abandoned tent that belonged to Anna Erikson, a woman who went missing in 1984. While this mystery is never solved, it does engage our imagination: What happened to Anna? Did she escape the forest? Did Moder kill her? Or did she join the cult and worship Moder? It may be possible that the villager who explains to Luke who Moder is Anna. Either way, the ambiguity behind the mystery helps reinforce the fact that Moder has been active for a very long time.
It’s important to note that this mystery is a small one, and not important to the plot. Had it been the main focus of the story, where Luke and the others heading to the forest to find this woman, then it would need to be solved.
Consider hearing something horrible instead of seeing it
It’s common to hear a monster in a creature feature long before it’s seen, and for good reason: Hearing an unearthly beast allows the reader’s/viewer’s imaginations to run wild, and making them lean close the screen or the page in hopes of catching even the smallest glimpse of the monster. However, using sound instead of visuals can also be effective in many other situations. In ‘The Ritual,’ it’s used to chilling effect when Phil is dragged upstairs where we hear him shrieking. We don’t see what’s going on, which makes us wonder what’s terrifying him so much. Torture devices? Other captives who fought back and were mutilated? A big, fat, naked man trying to seduce him?
By leaving something unseen, even if it’s not a monster, you can turbocharge your audience’s imagination… and make their skin crawl as they debate whether they want to see the unseen horror or not.
Consider having your characters sacrifice something for their freedom
In many stories where a character has to escape a location (a cell, a locked room, etc.) they manage to get out of their restraints without any pain. But if you want to turn up the tension, and make your audience squirm, consider having your characters sacrifice something to achieve that freedom. Here, Luke has to sacrifice his thumb by breaking it in order to free himself from his bindings.
Part of fiction’s appeal is imagining ourselves in the place of our heroes and imagining us accomplishing what they do, escaping from impossible situations included. Why not make them squirm by having them wonder if they’d be able to sacrifice a body part to escape. Would they be willing to break their arm? Lose an ear? How about an eye?
Consider having your final confrontation be a battle of wills, not physical strength
In my opinion, the most interesting thing ‘The Ritual’ changes from the book is the final showdown between Luke and Moder. In the book’s climax, the two collide in a van, and Luke drives her off with a pocketknife. Here, however, Moder tries to force Luke to worship her, presumably so she can continue to live from the strength of his prayers. In a physical fight, Luke is no match for Moder, but she’s in a difficult situation: if she kills Luke, she loses her last chance of getting a follower. Thus, Luke finally gains his resolve and refuses to kneel. And thanks to an axe-to-the-face moment, he manages to defeat Moder: not by killing her, but by leaving her powerless, alone, and trapped in a prison she cannot leave.
It’s a fascinating twist on the standard climax of having hero and monster fight in a duel to the death. Here, both parties survive, but Luke is still the winner. ‘The Ritual’ is proof that not every confrontation needs to involve weapons, fists, and pitting strength against strength. Sometimes the most amazing duels are fought with words and wills, where even the weakest in body can stand up to the biggest of bullies.
When writing a story about monsters, a good way to quickly suck viewers in is to start off with a familiar plot, only to quickly swerve into horror territory, setting up a story where the main character has to learn to stand up for himself and face his fears while dealing with injured companions who make things worse for everyone due to their stubbornness, creepy mysteries that they’ll never solve, unseen horrors that he doesn’t want to face, enduring great pain to gain freedom from captivity, and facing the beast and defeating it with courage and their will instead of weapons and strength.
BONUS: When all else fails, punch the evil old woman