Monthly Archives: March 2014

Points of Light: Horror Comedy

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Welcome back. Last week, I discussed being different as a writer to stand out, and the difficulties involved. In doing so, I mentioned one of my favorite types of films, horror-comedies, and how they stand out by going against the grain to make people alternately laugh and scream. Since these films stand out as excellent examples of being different, I would like to spend today going over a few of my favorites, to show how to blend two very unlikely genres together.

What is it

As you might infer, a horror comedy mixes the premise of a horror film with comedic moments. To be clear, films like Scary Movie don’t count, as they are satirizing the horror genre. Real horror comedies treat both areas with respect, giving both frightening moments and comedy equal footing. This can be a difficult concept, as making horror humoruous can be a disaster in straight horror films (see Nightmare on Elm 6, which involves Freddy Kreuger making oneliners and rolling a bed of spikes out for a falling man to land on, ala’ Bugs Bunny). Small moments can work, such as Jason Voorhees’ sleeping bag kill, but to make an entire film with the two require a lot of planning.

The Best

Tremors

Arguably one of the greatest horror comedies ever made, Tremors is the story of a desolate Nevada town attacked by huge worm like monsters called Graboids that eat anything that causes seismic vibrations. The film is full of frightening buildup, such a man on a telephone who died of dehydration rather then come down and face the monsters. The Graboids attacks are also full of suspense and blood, as every step the characters take could be into a Graboid attack. However, the characters bring a good amount of humor to the mix- the heroes are two handymen that are relatable, sarcastic, and just intelligent enough to fight the monsters. The real comedic gem however, is Burt, a paranoid gun nut that is fully prepared for WWIII and uses his home’s immense firearm supply to fight off a Graboid attack. The scene of Burt and his wife going through at least twenty guns to kill the rampaging monster adds the perfect blend of humor to this monstrous situation.

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

A recent entry into the field, this is a film that is deceptively clever, as it reverses the classic scenario of college kids on vacation vs. murderous hillbillies. Here, the two titular hillbillies are genuinely good people, while the college kids are shallow, prejudice and judge solely on appearance. This leads to a long series of misunderstandings, which generally end with the kids being the architects of their own destruction, albeit with ridiculous methods (watch the woodchipper scene. That’s the best way to sum it up). However, the movie still keeps things frightening enough with an insane, murderous college boy, filled with a hatred of hillbillies that goes after the heroes with all the passion of Leatherface.

Fright Night (2011)

Based of a 1980’s horror film, this modern retelling pushes the film into the comedic with a pair of excellent performances. While the main story of a vampire moving in next door is kept, and given much more gore, suspense, and death, the film is balanced thanks to the humor of Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a vampire hunter teenager turned wisecracking bloodsucker, and David Tennant as a David Blaine style Las Vegas goth ‘magician’ that is knowledgeable but drunk on fame, guilt, and initial cowardice. Their work balances the horror aspects and makes the film entertaining and well done on both fronts.

Arachnophobia

A film that expertly builds on a common fear (spiders) and still manages to add some humor. This films focuses on a doctor moving into a new town that is slowly overrun with hybrid spiders birthed from a deadly South American breed. The townsfolk are slow to deal with the threat but when it becomes overwhelming, it is easy to be creeped out (the queen spider is the size of a baseball mitt). And the scene of spiders swarming over a house is horror enough for most viewers. However, the film is balanced by the light tone of the ‘new doctor’ story and by John Goodman’s performance as a less then intelligent but fully trained exterminator.

Slither

Easily the most disgusting film on this list, this is the tale of a space parasite that infects a West Virginia town with brain slugs that turn victims into drooling zombies, or into raw-meat eating breeders for more slugs. The film alternates between moments of extreme gore (a man literally being slit from belly to forehead) and humor (the incompetent mayor ranting about not getting his Mr. Pib soda after a monster attack). Much of this comes from the excellent performance of Nathan Filion as the sheriff, as well as the ungodly makeup used to create the mutated human hosts. There is even a well told love story thrown into the mix, but nothing feels forced and the film flows well, creating a slimy but enjoyably so good time.

Final Verdict

In general, horror-comedies are played for entertainment, which is certainly true. However, when done well, they manage to speak to two strong impulses in readers- our desires to be both scared and be made to laugh. These are powerful impulses that require expert care to both be sated. So if you have any sort of genre-mixing story in your head, watch some of these films and see just how much goes into balancing two opposing forces in one story.

On a seperate note, I will be part of an author showcase this week at the Plainfield NJ Public Library from 2-4. Stop by if your in the area to talk and pick up a book.

Being Different

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Greetings once again. Today, I want to discuss an aspect of writing that can prove both a blessing and a curse- being different. There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to popular writing; you can follow the trends, or you can do something against it. In general, it’s considered better to be different, as the large number of failed Harry Potter knockoff adaptations has shown in the last few years. But if you do want to be different, there are certain concepts that must be understood and observed; including one central rule- being different is not the same as being good.

The Rules

Being different can have many meanings. The most identifiable one might be going against a popular trend, which can have positive and negative results. Being different will make you stand out, and may please an audience that is unhappy with the current trend. But it also means you must work harder to get your work out, since it is unlikely to please the masses at first. This was generally the approach I took with Lightrider- despite advice from others, I had no desire to write another young-adult fantasy story or supernatural romance; I desired to write something that might be enjoyed by those audiences, but more adult sensibilities (for example, an unknowing adult hero instead of a child ‘messiah’ figure). That question of what should be different is vital, as it will decide the tone, feel, and general ‘being’ of your book.

As to what they can be, it can be anything from character roles to tone. For example, horror comedies such as Tremors or Arachnophobia stand out because even though they are scary, they have several humorous moments to balance them out. Gremlins especially took advantage of this by having several frightening Gremlins that still managed to be funny through their behavior, or the classic movie theatre scene where they sing along to “Heigh-Ho” from Snow White. Characters can also benefit from being different- a classic example would be Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare’s presentation of Shylock as a villainous Jew is accurate for the time period. However, Shakespeare also has Shylock comment on his status, bemoaning that his actions are only what people expect of him, and that he has little choice but to follow society’s beliefs. Indeed, his forced conversion at the end makes it hard not to feel sympathetic to his plight. A more modern example would be The Dude from The Big Lebowski– a character that has no purpose, skills, or direction, but is the central character due to his innate coolness, lackadaisical attitude, and wit. This is a character that should be a side character at best, but the film focuses on him with hilarious and even dramatic results.

With all that said, there are two things that link these varied tones and characters- purpose and logic. Simply having these differences to simply to just make them different, even if it doesn’t need it, destroys any real meaning those differences might have caused. One example could be Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland. This version removes the ‘wild road trip’ element and replaces it with a traditional ‘chosen one’ story. While this does make the film stand out, it also takes a more fluid and unpredictable story, and replaces it with a more standard one, which despite the oddcap moments, simply feels rehashed and tired. I have also had the character concept explored by my ongoing personal arguments with friends over Disney’s Frozen (which I promise to stop citing).

In this argument, I took the stance that Elsa, the antagonist of the story (but not the villain), is a sympathetic character until the point where she lets her fear prevent her from even trying to undo the damage she caused. My friend’s point was how this made her different from previous Disney heroines in that she was not the perky princess that was gung-ho about solving problems (a role filled by her sister). I concede that point, but by giving her that difference, Elsa ironically embodies the worst trait of Disney Princesses- the ‘locked in a tower’ syndrome. By not wanting to even try to help, Elsa is now someone sitting in a room alone, waiting for someone else to solve her problem for her. Her difference makes her less of a character and more of an obstacle to overcome, while giving the audience a character they should avoid becoming rather then someone they should emulate. So in trying to be different, they created a character that not only loses audience sympathy but creates a negative role model in the Twilight mold of a girl that must BE helped because she will never do so on her own.

Final Notes

Being different can be a tremendous boon to writers. It allows them to come up with ideas and concepts that allow for their own freedoms. However, it can make them work harder to push their ideas, and being different can be mistaken for being good. Writers need to remember that if they have a different idea, they need to flesh it out and make sure that it brings something that works because of clear, well thought out ideas. Being different only works if it brings us something good- a broccoli-crème donut is different, but how many people would really want it?

On Magic

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Greetings once again and welcome to the blog. Last week’s discussion of Discworld and all its fantastical nature caused me to reflect on another element of fantasy- magic. While not all fantasy stories have this directly, there is usually a hint of it or it is part of the reader’s suspension of disbelief. However, magic is often portrayed as the ‘answer’ to various questions in these novels. This is understandable since magic is undefined and can really do anything. However, stories that use magic do need to have rules that define it, or magic simply becomes another dues ex machina.

Magic in Books

Because magic is imaginary, it can be bent to serve many forms. Wizards and sorcerers generally can use magic for anything they desire, or there are specific types of magic (fire-magic, for example) that can do certain things but not solve all problems. It also serves a difficult balance of not always needing to be explained. For example, if Merlin the wizard casts a spell, we accept whatever he does because he is Merlin and an established wizard. But at the same time, if a character was somehow affected by, let’s say, a healing spell, and then developed the ability to stop time, then we are left wondering why a spell would have such a different reaction on this person. An example of this kind of magic comes from a parody from The Simpsons, in which actress Lucy Lawless responds to fan questions with “A wizard did it’. This causes issues because it makes magic a blanket answer that also means that it has no rules and can answer a question without establishing why.

Many books do establish severe rules for magic. In the Dragonlance Chronicles, it is explained that magic requires not only innate talent, but perfect recitation and writing of spells. The use of magic also drains the user, until he or she must rest and regain their strength. This explains why wizards do not take over the world with their power. There are also divisions in the ranks- three distinct orders that focus on good, neutrality, and evil. While they are different, all orders are bound to magic and its preservation, and will work together when the need arises. However, not all examples of magic are so heavily regulated. Many fairy tales use magic in simpler ways that do not require a lot of detail. We can all remember the witches of Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast that could use magic. But since these characters are generally established to have power by designation alone and use it for evil, an in depth explanation is not required. However, this example proves that simply having magic is not enough.

This brings me to one of the reasons I chose to do this blog- a series of discussions I have had with a friend over Disney’s Frozen, which is based on the fairy tale of the Snow Queen. While I generally liked the film, I was disappointed that no explanation was given for the cryokinetic powers of Queen Elsa. When I brought up this point, my friend countered that this was clearly a magic land (as it had trolls that used magic) and that I was overthinking the matter. While that may be true, I still found this blanket answer an issue, as the trolls do not show the powers Elsa displays nor do her parents (nor do they have an encounter prior to Elsa’s birth that would explain it, as seen in the film’s predecessor Tangled). It paints magic as random and unpredictable and while it is conceivable that any of the reasons I mentioned might have happened, it is a blow to the film to not show them, especially as Tangled managed to do so in a two minute segment. Because while magic can do anything, it requires proper logic and rules behind to function, or it simply becomes the tool of a lazy writer to explain without actually explaining. And that is something no magic wand can wave away.

On a side note, I will be hosting a book signing at the Westfield NJ Town Bookstore this Saturday from 2-4. If you are in the area, stop by, meet me, and pick up a great book.