Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Fool Reviews Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

drink up, me hearties

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another installment of The Fool Reviews. Today, we're going to be looking at the latest installment in the well-known Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides.

Now, before we begin, I think it's important to establish that I am a big fan of the first three movies. I don't pretend that they're perfect. In fact, I consider both Dead Man's Chest and At World's End to be pretty damn terrible. But they're guilty pleasures to me, because, despite all the terribly confused mythology, awful pacing, groan-inducing attempts at humor, and the lackluster acting of Keira Knightley, there are good movies buried under there. They shine through in places, and I enjoy the hell out of those scenes. I can take the rest of the stupid for those few moments that match the sheer fun of the first film.

Which brings me to my next point. The highlight of all three of the first movies, in my opinion, was not Jack Sparrow. As the comic-relief-slash-deuteragonist of the first film, I found him engaging, but far from capable of carrying the movie on his own. No. To me, the greatest, most enduring character of the Pirates franchise is Captain Barbossa.

Look at this guy. This guy is fucking brilliant. This guy is pirate fiction incarnate. He's commanding. He's charismatic. He's an antagonist that never loses that threatening, menacing edge even when he undergoes a heel face turn. He's a magnificent bastard that basically carried the entire original trilogy. Geoffrey Rush is brilliant in this role. He's actually one of my favorite film characters of all time, and the ending of the second movie, when he comes walking out of the back of Tia Dalma's shack with his apple, had me grinning from ear to ear because I love this guy.

And yet, even though Rush is reprising his role in this movie, and Knightley has jumped ship, I did not have high hopes for On Stranger Tides. Rush is a great actor, and his character is a ton of fun to watch, but even he couldn't salvage the third installment. With the film under a new director and bringing in a mostly all-new cast, I couldn't see this being anything more than a train wreck, particularly given the setup it got at the end of the last movie.

And oh, boy, was I ever right. This is the only movie I have ever seen that actually competes with 2012 for the top spot on my personal "Most Hated Films" list. I despise this movie. 

So let's get this over with.

The Acid Test

So, since I've been going on about characterization and narrative structure for the last few posts, I figured it's time to tell you one of the most basic things that you can use to test your story to see if it meets all the requirements of having an actual narrative and characters, rather than a bunch of things that happen and props for them to happen to.

This is the acid test for writing.

It's very simple, really: remove something from your story. Does this substantially change the narrative? If so, then congratulations. That part of your story has passed the acid test. It is integral to the plot, and needs to be there.

The exact details of how to apply the acid test can vary, of course. When applying it to characters, you can just remove them from the story, but that will change how things go in most cases. That really only shows whether or not your character is a plot device. To tell whether or not your character is a character,  have them switch roles or dialogue with another character. Are they essentially interchangeable? Can you swap out dialogue between the two characters and not be able to tell the difference? Are the two characters able to fulfill the same roles in the story without any changes to their personalities? If they can, then they have failed the acid test. They're interchangeable and therefore not distinct characters.

When applying the acid test to events within the story, just remove the occurrence entirely. Do your characters get attacked by bandits? Have the bandit attack never occur. Does the story have to be changed substantially in order to accommodate this alteration? If not, then the event is unnecessary, and has failed the acid test.

This is, of course, just a rule of thumb. It is neither the best nor the most reliable way to test your story. For example, the acid test only really applies to the main cast, and only reliably so to rounded characters. Flat characters, due to their lack of depth, can fulfill almost any role easily and still have a point in the story. Certain characters might be designed to be simple plot devices. The fact that two characters are similar does not automatically mean that they're unnecessary to the story. And so on. Events within the story might not be strictly necessary to advance the plot, but might provide our characters with a little bit more development or the like.

Ultimately, only you can decide whether or not a character or event is necessary for your story. The acid test is only meant to give you a rule-of-thumb means of judging things offhand. It's a tool, to be used as needed and discarded when not.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Basics of Characterization

Since I've been going over the basics of narrative structure and writing techniques for the past few posts, I figured it's about time that I get to one of the more difficult parts of writing a story: turning your characters from names and appearances into actual characters.

Firstly, let's look at the different types of characters. No, I don't mean antagonists and protagonists. I mean static characters, dynamic characters, flat characters, and rounded characters.

Static characters are characters that remain the same over the course of a story. Dynamic characters are the opposite: characters that change over the course of a story. This doesn't necessarily mean physical changes, such as growing older. Those are some of the most superficial changes that a character can go through, really. Rather, it most often refers to emotional and personal changes.

Flat characters are characters with only one or two defining traits. They are, for all intents and purposes, cardboard cutouts. Or, going back to my first post, they're mannequins with names painted on them. Rounded characters are characters with depth and personality to them, with complex motivations and more to them than a few simple traits.

Now, here's the most important thing to understand: none of these character types are bad. It's incredibly difficult, in fact, to find any work of fiction that doesn't include at least one example of each. Just because static characters don't change doesn't mean that they don't have a purpose. Just because flat characters have little in the way of personality doesn't mean that they can't be useful. You just have to keep in mind that each type of character has a specific role in the story.

Let's look at an example story to get an idea.

Since I've already used Terry Pratchett's novel Guards! Guards! as an example in a previous post, let's go back to that. For those of you who don't know, Guards! Guards! is a fantasy-satire novel about the Night Watch of a fantasy city named Ankh-Morpork. The Night Watch is made up of the city's absolute bottom-of-the-barrel worst. They're not criminals. They're just considered utterly worthless by society. During the time of the story, the Night Watch has dwindled to four members. These are:

  • Captain Sam Vimes, the story's protagonist, a dynamic, rounded character
  • Lance-Constable Carrot Ironfoundersson, the story's deuteragonist, a flat, dynamic character
  • Sergeant Fred Colon, a flat, static character
  • Corporal Nobby Nobbs, a flat, static character
Let's break down how each of the character attribute combinations works here.

Vimes is the story's protagonist. He is the most important character, and thus the one that the audience will be spending the most time watching. As such, it's important that he be interesting to read about, and that he isn't a paper-thin caricature that the reader can't take seriously. Being a dynamic character makes him more interesting to read about, since we want to know how he's going to end up. He goes from being a bitter, cynical alcoholic who just wants to be ignored to... a bitter, cynical alcoholic who has decided that upholding the law is the most important thing in his life. He's also a rounded character. He isn't just shown to be bitter and cynical for no reason. We see why he's so jaded and miserable: he was once a wide-eyed idealist who had his dreams of being a well-respected upholder of the right crushed by the realities of life in a city as rife with corruption as Ankh-Morpork, but he retains his moral compass despite everything and does his best to do the right thing.

Carrot is an interesting case. He begins the story as a flat character, being the wide-eyed idealist whose only real purpose is to uphold the law despite everything and thus reawaken Vimes' idealistic side. However, he is also dynamic. He grows over the course of the story - and the series as a whole - becoming less of the naïve idiot and more of a charismatic paragon who knows full well that people are jerks, but chooses to give them all the benefit of the doubt anyway. As such, his dynamic side eventually turns him into a rounded character. This suits his role as deuteragonist perfectly. As the second most important character in the story, it isn't necessary for him to be as fleshed-out as Vimes, but he does get a good deal of character development as things go on.

Colon and Nobby are the simplest out of the four main characters to analyze. They're a flat, static characters. They have a handful of defining characteristics which give them their role in the plot, and they never step outside them (in this book, at least). And, as they are largely present to provide comic relief, this suits their roles perfectly.

So, to get a look at the final type of character, let's look at another cast member: Lord Havelock Vetinari, Patrician and semi-benevolent dictator of Ankh-Morkpork. Vetinari is a rounded, static character. He has complex motivations, desires, and many hidden depths, but his character is largely set and unchanging throughout the series. This suits his role in the series perfectly as well. Vetinari is an ever-present force in the series, and interacts with a great many characters. As such, he has to be complex and believable. But he isn't a main character himself, and his main motivation - to keep Ankh-Morpork running as smoothly as possible - is constant and logical. He has the ability to achieve that objective without any kind of substantial alteration to his personality or methods, so he doesn't need any character changes in order to make him work. 

You might still be wondering why anyone would ever use static, flat characters. They are, after all, by definition, flat, and never going to get rounded out, so why would you put them in your story when they're just going to get ridiculed for being shallow? Why not make all of your characters as deep and complex as possible, and show how they all grow as a. result of the events of the story?

Simple. The law of conservation of detail.

It's an easy principle that every writer should familiarize themselves with. Your readers don't have an infinite ability to absorb information, and you don't have infinite time in which to give them that information. There's only so much that they can absorb, and only so much that you can put out. As such, any detail which you give in regards to the story, whether regarding a character's personality or anything else, should be important to the story. 

You might argue that it's best to put as many details into the work as possible regardless, because this will help to bring the world of the story to life. Well, you're wrong.

That's pretty much all there is to it. Too many details can drown a work of fiction in a mire of pointless exposition. No one cares about the diner waitress' long and tragic backstory full of crushed dreams and broken lives when her only purpose in the story is to take the main characters' orders and deliver them coffee. Telling the readers too much about her takes time away from what you should be focusing on.

Besides that, certain character types stop working if you try to explore them too deeply. The comedic sociopath archetype, for example (Belkar from The Order of the Stick leaps to mind), stops being funny if you give the sociopath in question an in-depth backstory explaining how their abusive childhood led to their perpetuating the cycle in the present day. 

Look at your characters and determine the absolute bare minimum of personality and development that they require to function within the story. Generally, your protagonist should be both rounded and dynamic, since the story will be focusing most on them and their personal journey, and flat, static characters are useful as bit players and supporting cast (but not as the protagonist, deuteragonist, or antagonist, as those characters usually require more depth), but other than that, things are wide open. It's up to you to determine what character traits to use depending on what type of story you want to tell. 

Once you've determined what type of character you're creating, though, it's important that you go about creating them in the right way. Many works of fiction, not just blogs, begin by having their main character talk about things that they like: their favorite color, what type of music they listen to, what clothes they wear, what they look like, et cetera.


This is one of the most common mistakes that writers make, and one of those most perpetuated by those who try to teach the craft. It is extraordinarily bad characterization technique, and yet many works that purport to tell you how to create intriguing and engaging characters will tell you to begin by deciding on these basic characteristics. 

But these characteristics aren't actually important to who the character is. They don't tell us anything about their personality, really. It's just data. People consider things like this to be central to a character, but in reality, these are some of the most superficial aspects of your character's personality. And, again, this falls into the trap of violating conservation of detail. How much of this information is actually relevant to the story? Anything that you write that is not relevant to the story is boring. Reading about people describing their favorite band, color, food, and the like is boring. Mind-numbingly so. It's made all the more so because the reader knows this is pointless. Yes, in real life, people will post this kind of stuff on their blogs, but this is not real life. You do not have to start out by painting your main character as a boring, mind-numbingly uninteresting fan of music genre X.

These things are much less important than your character's defining personality traits. Are they kind? Bitter? Arrogant? Humble? Idealistic? Cynical? A hero? A coward? Those are the most important things about your character. Those are the things we want to know about them. Those are the things you should be telling us - but not in that way.

If at all possible, avoid any type of expository dump at all. This is another key point of storytelling: show, don't tell. Show us who your character is by having them do things. Have them react to situations rather than just telling us what they would do if something interesting happened.

Going back to the Guards! Guards! example, when Vimes is characterized, we don't get any kind of opening exposition dump regarding his character. Instead, we see it. He's blind stinking drunk in an alley, narrating to himself in crime-noir fashion about how the city is a woman: you love her, but she kicks you in the teeth, but you come back anyway, because she's all yours, all you have, even in her gutters...

Then, when it comes time for Vimes to reveal his true moral beliefs, we don't get told that he's made a decision to stand up against the corrupt officials. We see him doing so, pushing hard to get people to accept that the dragon is still alive to the point of losing his badge - and then carrying on regardless, upholding the law because he was always an officer of the law, and not the city.

Rather than telling us what your character is like, show us. Have things happen to them so that we can see how they react. That tells us more about the character than a week's worth of pointless posts regarding food and pets can ever do, and in a much more interesting fashion. It both tells us about the character and keeps the plot going so that people don't get bored.

Remember: it is always better to show us something about your character than to tell us about it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Narrative Structure

This is something that I've been thinking about for a while, and I think that it's important to say, particularly with regards to my audience who write blogs for the Fear mythos. In a blog, it is important to have a story.

This isn't meant to condescend to anyone, or to insult people for blogs that they've written. It's not to say that people don't understand the basics of this stuff already, because I'm sure that most of you do. But I'm going to start from the beginning so that you can follow my logic step-by-step and really understand what I'm trying to say.

So. Let's begin.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Fool Reviews Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes

Hello everyone, and welcome to another installment of Fool Reviews. Not that there's anybody actually reading this, but still. Today I'm going to give my opinion on one of the installments in the long-running Might and Magic series.

Now, before I begin, I think I should make this clear: I've never played any Might and Magic games before. In fact, before playing this game, I'd never even really heard of them, so I went into this gaming experience basically blind. In fact, I still don't know much regarding the rest of the series, so Clash of Heroes is going to have to stand on its own merits. 

Let's see how it holds up, shall we?

Let's start with what is obviously the most important part of the review: the gameplay.

For those of you who don't know, Might and Magic is a strategy game series which has garnered a large amount of critical acclaim for its innovative battle system. It's not a pure strategy game, but rather a mix of strategy and, of all things, puzzle mechanics.

Yes, you read that right. Might and Magic's battle system is seriously a strategy-puzzle hybrid.

Here's what really surprised me, though. It works. It works really, really well. It's actually incredibly addictive and highly entertaining. Let me break it down for you.

Tetris meets WarCraft. You may geekgasm now.

The battlefield is divided into upper and lower halves. Your army sits on the lower half, with your opponent's army occupying the upper. Each player has a certain number of hit points, which can be depleted when enemy units manage to break through your ranks. The objective is to reduce your opponent's HP to zero. Fairly simplistic, really. 

Here's where the "puzzle" part of "strategy-puzzle hybrid" comes in, though. The battlefield is divided into grid squares. In order to issue an attack order, you have to stack up three units of the same type and same color in the same column. This will join those three units into a "charge" and start its attack timer. When that timer hits zero, the charge begins, and your units will stamped upwards, trying to punch through the units in their way to reach your opponent.

You can counter this by just leaving lots of units in front of each attack, of course. That'll at least soften the blow. But the best way to protect yourself is to line up three or more units of the same type and color in the same row, which will turn them into a wall that has much more ability to withstand punishment than normal units. You take turns with your opponent to attempt to complete charges and walls.

This isn't all there is to it, of course. You only get so many moves per turn, and you can only move units from the end of a column onto the end of another, solitaire-style. You can also delete your own units if they're getting in the way. Since your units automatically move forward to occupy the uppermost part of your battlefield, this can be used to complete charges and walls that would otherwise be impossible (and when you complete a charge or wall, the units shift so that the walls and charges are at the top, which adds extra layers of combo-stringin' goodness). Or you can call in reinforcements to deplete an almost-empty battlefield, since units which charge get removed from the battlefield after completing their attack.

But even with that, Might and Magic offers still more depth and complexity to satisfy dedicated puzzlers. As mentioned above, your units can each be one of three colors, and they all have different charge-timer lengths, so they take different numbers of turns to actually launch the attack that you've set up. Setting up attacks of same-color units which will launch on the same turn will give each charge an attack boost. Putting two charges of the same color and type on the same column will fuse the two units together for extra punch, which has the added benefit of freeing up more spaces for you to coordinate with. 

And, for still more puzzly fun, the game has Elite and Champion units, which take up extra space on the battlefield and have to be "fueled" by forming a charge behind them with smaller units (which are then consumed by the larger unit), but have special abilities and added attack power. A normal infantry charge can bring seven points' worth of attack power to the battlefield, while a Treant Champion unit can send seventy-five points' worth across two columns at the same time after eating four normal infantry.

All of this means that Might and Magic challenges you to think both strategically and... puzzlingly(?). You have to coordinate your attacks and defenses so that you aren't getting in your own way with your units and are hitting your opponent's weakest columns, but you also have to have a puzzle gamer's ability to sort and coordinate the movements of your units so that you aren't tripping over your own moves while attempting to coordinate multiple attacks. It's incredibly addictive, simple to learn, and, most importantly, lots of fun. Battles in this game are a blast.

More than that, each army feels very different even though the gameplay between all of them is exactly the same. The Elves are fast, but not the heaviest hitters. The Griffin Empire are slow but very hard-hitting, the Demons are still slower and still more powerful, and so on.

Unfortunately, the battle system does have a few minor flaws. A few of the units feel entirely useless and only serve to get in the way. For example, the Fairy unit, a part of the Elf army, seems to be entirely worthless in every situation. Fortunately, there's no pressure to use it in your army. You get the privilege of choosing three core units and two Elite or Champion units to form your army, and you can double up on the three possible core choices so that you don't have to take any kind of unit you don't want to.

Beyond that, the system is slightly arcane. The game does provide a tutorial for most of the features, but there are a few things which will surprise you the first time. The most annoying part of this lack of information is the fact that the game doesn't tell you what the special abilities of your enemy's Elite and Champion units are. You know that Elites and Champions are powerful, because you've got some of your own and they're awesome, but the only way you're going to figure out what's about to happen to you when your enemy fields one that you haven't seen before is to wait for it to explode in your face. 

The other part of the battle system that I'm not too fond of is the reinforcement system. When your side of the battlefield begins to get low on troops, whether because you've been charging a lot or because your opponent has wiped out your defenses, you can spend one of your actions to call in more units to refill your ranks. You can do this as many times as you like - the game doesn't end until one player's HP has hit zero, and there's a very high rate of turnover on units, so having infinite troops is important - but the units you get, what color they are, and where the game drops them in is always random. Calling in reinforcements can be nail-bitingly tense, since you don't know whether or not the computer is going to give you what you need or completely screw you over. 

Still, neither of these are game-breaking problems. The reinforcements being random adds a little more tension to the gameplay, similar to Tetris when you're waiting for the perfect block. It does mean that the game has an element of luck that might not sit well with hardcore strategy gamers, but it's still fun, and the surprise of figuring out what an enemy Elite does for the first time, while frustrating, is also interesting.

It's kind of obvious what the berserker with the giant axe does though.
Unfortunately, outside of the battles, the game starts to drag a little. The story is well-told but very simplistic, and shows more than a few signs of being an Advance Wars ripoff. Demons from another world are posing as agents of certain factions in order to start a global war so that they can take over when everything's done with, and you have to fight your way through the enemy nations in order to unite them as one and bring them against your common foe. 

The main complaint that I have outside of the battles, however, is the overworld travel. Your character walks from "node" to "node" on a map at your direction, talking to people and getting into more battles. There really isn't any point in it, since you can't move off of the designated nodes, and thus there's no exploration. It feels like padding, and that feeling only gets more pronounced when the game has to load as often as it does. The map sections aren't very large, and the game loads each one when you move to and from them. Loading screens are quite common here, and last a little longer than feels necessary. I don't think it would have been that hard to roll a few of the map sections together and load them all at once, so the player could just sit through one loading screen and then have a while before they have to see one again.

It also kind of stretches disbelief when Satan is three feet away and yet you can't leave the node path in order to flee.
The multiplayer portion of the game, fortunately, really makes up for it. The online portion of the game offers two-on-two battles in addition to the standard one-on-ones, and each player can customize their own armies and commanders (which give passive buffs to the whole team and can cast spells to help their units). This amount of customization makes every multiplayer game different and engaging.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Fool Reviews Pontypool

shut up or die

Hello, everyone ("everyone" meaning "those one or two people who actually give a crap what I post here"), and welcome to our very first installment of The Fool Reviews

In my previous post, you may have noticed that I generally prefer older horror movies to the new ones. My favorites are Halloween, The Thing, Night of the Living Dead, and The Exorcist - which shouldn't really surprise anyone, since they're all well-known masterpieces of the genre. However, there is another entry on my list of favorites which is rather more modern, and since MesserTod asked, via comments, about what modern horror movies I like, I thought I'd go ahead and show it to you.

This is Pontypool, a 2008 low-budget horror film which doesn't get nearly enough love. 

Before I begin, though, I think it's worth mentioning that this movie is actually on my top-ten list of all-time favorites, and I think that you'd be best off watching it for yourself to see why. It's by no means one of the best films I've seen, but it's definitely one of those that I most enjoy watching. Be forewarned that this review does contain spoilers, and that you'll lose a lot of the initial impact of watching it for yourself if you read this first. 

If you're interested in seeing the movie for yourself, the entire thing is available on YouTube in six parts. It has a total running time of about an hour and a half, so if you've got some free time, I highly recommend that you check it out for yourself. The first of the six parts can be found here.

From here on in, I'm going to assume that you've either scene the movie for yourself or don't mind spoilers, all right? Good. Now, on to the review.

Pontypool's opening is actually one of the best that I've ever seen, and is definitely one of the strong points of the movie. The film stars Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy, a radio DJ in the small Canadian city of Pontypool. McHattie's voice has been described by multiple people, myself included, as "orgasmic", "the best sex your ears will ever have", and "audible chocolate". Really. I would go gay for this voice. I'm not entirely sure that listening to him talk doesn't already count as having sex with him, and I'm even less sure that I care.

Anyway. The film opens with McHattie providing an extremely strange and surreal narration, which begins as him expositing about a missing cat named Honey:

Mrs. French's cat is missing. The signs are posted all over town. "Have you seen Honey?" We've all seen the posters, but nobody has seen Honey the cat. Nobody. Until last Thursday morning, when Miss Collette Piscine swerved her car to miss Honey the cat as she drove across a bridge. Well this bridge, now slightly damaged, is a bit of a local treasure and even has its own fancy name; Pont de Flaque. Now Collette, that sounds like Culotte. That's Panty in French. And Piscine means Pool. Panty pool. Flaque also means pool in French, so Collette Piscine, in French Panty Pool, drives over the Pont de Flaque, the Pont de Pool if you will, to avoid hitting Mrs. French's cat that has been missing in Pontypool. Pontypool. Pontypool. Panty pool. Pont de Flaque. What does it mean? Well, Norman Mailer, he had an interesting theory that he used to explain the strange coincidences in the aftermath of the JFK assassination. In the wake of huge events, after them and before them, physical details they spasm for a moment; they sort of unlock and when they come back into focus they suddenly coincide in a weird way. Street names and birth dates and middle names, all kind of superfluous things appear related to each other. It's a ripple effect. So, what does it mean? Well... it means something's going to happen. Something big. But then, something's always about to happen. 

And this narration is accompanied by nothing but simple audio line.

As I said above, I consider this to be one of the best openings in cinema history. McHattie provides what might otherwise be an extremely boring and pointless narration with so much mood and atmosphere so easily that it draws you in and makes you want to know more. The narration's surreal tone and strange topic matter create an atmosphere of mystery and madness, foreshadowing the strange wordplay that will provide the film with so much of its mood later. And, to top it all off, the lack of visuals establishes firmly for the audience the fact that sound and words, along with their meanings and repetition, will be much more important to this movie than the visuals. This is something that isn't done often in movies, and is even less commonly done well.

The movie then fades in to our first view of Grant Mazzy, driving in to work early in the morning during a heavy snowstorm. Mazzy has an argument with his agent over the phone which is entirely irrelevant to the plot, but the movie knows this, and only uses it as a setup to our first creepy moment: while stopped at a light, Mazzy is startled by the sudden appearance of a woman, dressed in oddly light clothing for a snowstorm, appears outside his passenger-side window. She says something to him, but the window is in the way, and the audience can't make it out. Mazzy rolls down the window to talk to her, but the strange woman is already backing away into the snowstorm, fading from view, and when Mazzy calls out "Who are you?", the only response is the woman shouting the same question back at him.

This is a really creepy scene. It establishes that something weird is going on, and reinforces the theme that words and repetition are important to this film. It also isn't so creepy as to qualify as a scare itself. Rather, the film uses it as a means to establish mood and atmosphere, making later scares more powerful. It's simple and well-executed, avoiding either extreme of trying to terrify the audience from the beginning (which rarely works, as the audience hasn't had time to get adjusted to the mood of the film and so such scares can only really be jumps) and attempting pointless build-up with no substance and no creepy events whatsoever (which leaves the audience bored).

From there, we move to Grant starting his work day, and the movie does a remarkably good job of setting up the characters with comparatively little dialogue. Mazzy is essentially the radio community's version of the cowboy cop, dedicated to "full disclosure, no matter the consequences." His boss, Sidney Briar, is the beleaguered chief of police, and Laurel-Ann Drummond is their bright and bubbly ex-military intern. Despite the fact that I've just summed up the characters into those three short phrases, they don't feel like cutouts or cliches, as the movie does a remarkably good job of showing their personalities, establishing that they're all good people in their own ways, and showing us that, while they might clash with one another occasionally, they genuinely are friends. And it doesn't hurt that the performances that McHattie and his supporting cast turn in are absolutely top-notch.

We're also introduced to our fourth character of the movie: Ken Loney, the faceless weatherman of the station who communicates with the rest of the crew via phone, because he's nominally in his "Sunshine Chopper" - actually his car parked on top of a hill due to the station's low budget. Loney's character is another pleasant surprise in this movie. It takes talent to pull off a character without having the actor ever actually appear on-screen in any way, shape, or form, and yet Pontypool gets you invested in this character as well. Granted, it's not to the extent of the main trio, and you never really get to care about him the same way you do the rest, but he's a character, not just a cutout.

We also get a couple of bits of information which, at first, seem like throwaway pieces of the movie. If you watch carefully, though, you can see their significance. Nothing in this movie is wasted. One, the movie takes place on Valentine's Day; two, there is a copy of Neal Stephenson's science-fiction novel Snow Crash on one of the desks in the radio station. Snow Crash's presence is a nice little bit of foreshadowing for those who have read the book, while the Valentine's Day date  has later significance. I'll explain that when we get to it.

We then get our next bit of plot: Ken Loney calls in for a second time, not to report on a change in the weather, but to let the rest of the crew know of a breaking news story: a mob has gathered around the offices of Doctor John Mendez, who is under investigation for writing unnecessary prescriptions. As Ken reports on the situation, he begins to panic as the building "explodes outward", with people tearing through the walls inside and trampling one another. Military vehicles and helicopters arrive on the scene, and dozens of people are trampled to death just before they lose Ken's signal.

And this establishes another critical point about this movie: Pontypool knows how to avoid opening The Door.

The majority of the creepy scenes in this movie are audio-only. Mazzy and the rest of the cast never leave the radio station. Instead, we hear reports of what's happening outside, and the lack of accompanying visuals allows us to substitute our own fears in place of the limited visuals that the crew would have been able to produce with such a small budget. This actually helps the film greatly, keeping it as a horror film, rich with atmosphere, rather than being a simple action movie.

Mazzy's report on the incident is, however, interrupted when a group of singers arrives for a pre-scheduled radio performance of one of the songs from a musical adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia. This might be interpreted as padding, except that it gives us another creepy moment at the end: the youngest of the girl singers, after the song is concluded, begins to speak:

I can't remember how it ends. It just keeps starting over and over. And over and over. And over and over. And it's not called "The Lawrence and the Table" and it's - not anymore. No. No. Prah. Prah. Prah. Prah. Prah. Prah...

Again, like the beginning of the movie, this is an incredibly creepy scene. It's even creepier because we've seen this girl over the past few minutes, and a few seconds ago, she was completely normal. It reinforces the themes of repetition and nonsensical phrases, and, because it was placed at the end of such a deliberately innocuous scene, it's extremely jarring and unsettling. Also like the beginning of the movie, it serves to frighten the audience without being so much of a change that it serves as a climax to the buildup of tension that's been happening so far. Rather, it both frightens and increases the already-intense atmosphere of the film.

Allow me to take a moment here to talk a little bit more about horror as a genre. We all know that the whole point of horror is to frighten, but there's more than one way to do that. Broadly speaking, though, there are two main ways to scare the audience: you can build atmosphere, or you can go for the payoff. Think of atmosphere as a resource which the horror writer can create and store. As long as he stores that atmosphere, it will drain away slowly, but as long as there's any left the audience will continue to be creeped out. The more you have in storage, the creepier your movie is. The "payoff" can, to use an extremely crude analogy, be thought of as the money shot. The more atmosphere you have, the more oomph your payoff will have, but it will completely empty your stores - and you have to be careful that your payoff is awesome enough to channel your entire store of atmosphere, or you've just wasted all that you had built up but couldn't use. If you haven't built up any atmosphere whatsoever, going for a payoff scare will have no effect on the audience. If you do it right, such as in the titular thing's reveal in The Thing, it can be incredibly, explosively terrifying, but it's a high-risk, high-reward type deal, and it's entirely possible to terrify your audience without doing it at all. Too many horror movies rely entirely on attempted payoff scares, not realizing that they're entirely pointless without the requisite buildup. Even fewer movies realize that you can actually make an entire movie absolutely terrifying without the use of any payoff scares whatsoever - but that's getting too far off track here.

The scares that we've seen so far in Pontypool - the woman in the blizzard, the phone call from Ken Loney, and the repetition from the little girl - have all been dedicated to building up the atmosphere of the film. Because none of them have been payoffs, the movie just continues to get more and more heavily atmospheric, and therefore creepier. The film is building up its levels of scary, and in an extremely well-executed fashion. The audience is unsettled and creeped out from just those three scenes.

I think it's also worth noting here that the film's soundtrack is excellent. It's rather like the Joker's theme from The Dark Knight, or the main theme to The Thing: extremely understated and rarely noticed, never in the foreground of things, but always building at exactly the right pace and hitting the precise pitch which will serve to emphasize what's happening while keeping the audience, in most cases, from even being consciously aware of its existence. This is something that a lot of horror films lack. The right score used in the right way can help to make a scary moment that much scarier.

Other callers begin to try and reach the station with reports of more unsettling incidents, but they all get cut off before Laurel-Ann can transfer them to Mazzy. Then Ken Loney calls a third time, claiming to have seen people walking the streets imitating the sounds of windshield wipers and chanting "Watch out for U-boats!" ad infinitum. Again, we don't get to see any of this, which only serves to make it all the creepier, particularly when Ken witnesses a horde of these people attacking a van, pulling the passengers out, and ripping them open in an attempt to climb inside them. Then one of the crazed mob members attacks Ken, only to break its own limbs and become unable to move. It lies there, whispering something, but before Ken can get close enough to make out what it's saying, the signal is interrupted by a broadcast made in French. The translation which Mazzy makes is, in my opinion, one of the greatest "oh, crap" moments ever:

For your safety, please avoid contact with close family members and refrain from the following: all terms of endearment, such as "Honey", baby talk with young children, and rhetorical discourse. For greater safety, please avoid the English language. Do not translate this message.

I mean, really. That's chilling. That's mysterious. That's suspenseful. That's ominous. And, to top it all off, it's followed immediately by Ken Loney calling in again to reveal what the whispering man was saying: "Mommy", over and over, in the voice of a baby.

Really, this is one of the creepiest scenes in all of cinema history. It's absolutely pants-wettingly terrifying. Even Mazzy freaks out to the point where he attempts to force the others to leave the station, only to be forced back inside when a horde of people - all chanting various things which the radio crew said on-air earlier that day - attack them. Laurel-Ann's military instincts save the day, allowing her to recognize the danger fast enough to shut the door and keep them out. 

And then she starts to begin repeating variations on the phrase "Mister Mazzy is missing".

Now, this is where I finally have to stop giving this movie nothing but praise. Pontypool is an excellent horror movie, and well worth the price of admission, but it does have two failings, both of which surface here. Following her repetition of that phrase, Laurel-Ann begins imitating the sound of a tea kettle. This is an incredibly unsettling scene until one of the windows of the radio station opens up from the outside, admitting a fat man in a suit. This man is revealed to be Doctor John Mendez. 

Mendez is one of the film's two weak points. He isn't bad. Far from it, in fact; he's an incredibly interesting character, because you know he's wrapped up in this and he knows more than the rest. But he is jarring. Mendez, you see, is presented as a funny foreign man, almost manic in his actions no matter how dark the situation gets. He never seems to really think that there's any danger. He's just interested. He's very creepy in his own way, but he does seem slightly out-of-place in this movie, particularly in those parts when he's acting as a sort of pseudo-comic relief.

Anyway, back to the movie. Mendez drags Sidney into the soundproof broadcasting booth, declaring it to be a "lifeboat", and locks the infected Laurel-Ann outside. He claims that she can't know where they are if she can't hear them, so the soundproof booth is their best defense. Laurel-Ann knows about the soundproof booth, though, and so begins throwing herself repeatedly against the glass. This is also a very well-done and disturbing scene.

Then we get to the film's biggest weak point: Mendez's explanation of what is happening. If you're familiar with Snow Crash, you've very likely guessed it by now: the "virus" isn't a virus at all, but an infectious meme. Certain words in the English language are "infected" - and it's not always the same word - and catch on the victims' brains when they understand them, turning them into replicators for the "signal". The victims are driven by a need to find someone else to "suicide into", to force into accepting the virus. 

Now, don't get me wrong. This is an idea that, even though it was inspired by Neal Stephenson's novel, has very, very rarely been done in fiction, and certainly never in this way. But it's still extremely outlandish, and requires a lot more suspension of disbelief than the rest of the movie has thus far. I will give it credit in that the explanation still leaves The Door closed far enough that the infection is still genuinely threatening, even though it is something of a jarring explanation just because it hasn't ever been done before. It's not bad, if you don't mind a little strangeness in your fiction (and I certainly don't), but it does stand a chance of shaking you out of your immersion if you aren't willing to stretch quite that far.

Ken Loney calls in one final time in an extremely creepy scene which reveals that he has also succumbed to the infection, and Laurel-Ann dies horribly, vomiting her innards up all over the glass of the booth in the film's only visual scare. It's well-executed and disturbing, and serves as a solid payoff to the buildup thus far. Unfortunately, Laurel-Ann's final demise doesn't mean that our three survivors are safe; the infected have found their way inside the radio station, and are crowding around the booth, trying to smash the glass. 

Mazzy, Sidney, and Mendez use the station's exterior loudspeakers to broadcast the message "Sidney Briar is alive" to the crowds, luring them out of the building and simultaneously sending a signal to Sidney's children, living several miles away in another city, that she hasn't succumbed yet. Unfortunately, just as Mazzy and Sidney begin to relax again, Mendez begins to repeat the word "breathe" to himself and babbles in another language. Mazzy and Sidney abandon him in the booth, despite his protestations and cries of "It's only the English language that's infected", in order to find somewhere safer to hide. 

And, while they're moving quietly through the station, we get yet another perfectly-executed scare: the singing girl from the beginning of the movie is lurking behind a desk, and attacks Sidney, echoing her screams of "Grant, run! Run now!" It's incredibly frightening, especially given the gore-discretion shot which comes into play when Mazzy and Sidney kill the girl. 

And then yet another thing goes wrong: the power flickers, causing the stereo system of the radio station to turn on and re-attracting the infected. Mendez runs out of the booth and sacrifices himself to buy Sidney and Mazzy time to hide themselves, proving that he was right in saying that only the English language is infected; he wasn't succumbing to the infection, but trying to avoid its effects entirely.

Mazzy and Sidney lock themselves in a supply closet, but Sidney begins to exhibit symptoms, repeating the word "kill". Mazzy, desperate, begins trying to counteract the effects of the infectious word by forcing her brain to reject its meaning. He finally succeeds through repetition of the phrase "kill is kiss", and Sidney is cured. Mazzy immediately seizes upon the idea that they can cure the rest of the infectees through a similar method using the station's broadcasting equipment, and the two of them return to the booth to make their last, desperate gamble to save Pontypool. 

Outside, military forces have begun slaughtering the citizens of the city in an effort to contain their spread. Mazzy and Sidney begin utilizing free-association techniques in an effort to confuse the infectees, forcing their brains to reject the understanding of the words which have taken them over. Outside, military officials use loudspeakers to scream, in French, that Sidney has to stop Mazzy from broadcasting, as he is infected. But the two of them both refuse to end their broadcast. When it becomes apparent that the military is killing people faster than Mazzy can hope to cure them, if he's having any effect at all, he shouts for everyone to stop -

 - and they do. An eerie silence descends over Pontypool, and Mazzy makes his final speech, which forever establishes him as the single most badass radio announcer in history. Unfortunately, it isn't enough to convince the military to withdraw. They haven't stopped killing people - they've just been withdrawing troops in preparations to carpet-bomb the area. The film ends with a French countdown, with Mazzy and Sidney kissing as it reaches zero.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Horror and Characterization

So, since I'm apparently awake and not falling asleep any time soon, a few thoughts on horror literature again.

Let me get one thing set out there first: I like EAT. EAT is one of the Fears that I consider most interesting, and I'll explain why later in this post.

Now, that said, I don't think EAT is as scary as the rest of them.

Some of you might be wondering why. After all, EAT absorbs you into a hive mind and replaces all the water in your body with itself, turning you into an only-partially-human abomination whose personality has been obliterated and subsumed by The Camper. That's pretty terrifying, right?

Well, no. I don't think so. EAT is, essentially, the Borg. It assimilates you. And the Borg, while awesome, are not particularly scary. They're intimidating, yes, but there's a big difference between being intimidated and being terrified. EAT also runs on paranoia fuel, since, conceivably, any drop of water could be the one that turns you into a zombie, but still, I don't find that to be terrifying. Would it be absolutely nightmarish to be in a world where EAT exists? Oh yes, the same way that it would suck to be in a world where the Borg were actually flying around space in those giant cubes.

But I don't find it particularly nightmare-fuel-y when placed next to the rest of the Fears. Why? Well, because EAT opens the door.

Like I explained in my last post, "opening the door" means "revealing too much information to retain the aura of sinister mystery which enables the audience to fill in the gaps with their own fears". EAT opens the door. It infects you when you drink part of its "ichor". Once you're infected, you become obsessed with something; if that obsession isn't enough to keep you away from the ichor, you drown yourself and become part of The Camper. Even the process of creation and development for The Camper is fully explained. This really leaves only one question for the audience to answer in the privacy of their own heads: "what does EAT's 'true form' look like?" And there's really only so much terror the answer to that can produce, even given Lovecraftian levels of atmosphere.

Beyond that, EAT is a character. EAT has a personality, concrete goals and desires, and, most importantly, a voice. It's possible for a character that speaks to be frightening, of course, but it's always going to be a very different kind of fright than that engendered by a silent antagonist. Going back to the Borg analogy here, in Star Trek: First Contact, the crew of the Enterprise is attacked by a Borg cube. But this Borg cube has something else with it: the Borg Queen.

Until this point, the Borg (except Picard, when he was temporarily assimilated) have been largely voiceless, emotionless, and entirely lacking in personality. They're nothing more than mindless assimilators. They're intimidating because they can't be reasoned with, they can't be bargained with, and they're nearly impossible to stop. Once the Borg Queen shows up, the Borg have a voice and a personality behind them. They weren't particularly scary to begin with, but once the Borg Queen shows up, they're no longer scary at all. They're still intimidating, yeah, but they're not frightening.

Why? Because the Borg Queen is not a monster. The Borg Queen has a face, a personality, a voice. The Borg Queen has an identity. The door is fully open for the Borg Queen. Contrast this with Michael Myers. We know almost nothing about Michael. Therefore, he is frightening.

That's what EAT is. EAT is the Borg Queen. EAT has a personality. Thus, EAT is not as frightening as the other Fears.

You might recall, though, that I said at the beginning of this post that I like EAT. Why, if I don't think it's particularly frightening? Simple. That's not EAT's role in the story. That's not what EAT is meant to do.

Because EAT has a personality, we can do things with EAT that we can't do with any other Fear. EAT has an agenda, and it's been known to work with humans to achieve its ends. That's something no other Fear really does. The Blind Man does it in some adaptations, but not as often, and rarely does it work with actual protagonists (as opposed to the cult which comprises The Archive).

So no. EAT is not particularly frightening. But it is extremely useful, and that's something that shouldn't be overlooked. Because EAT exists, the mythos is open to a lot of stories that wouldn't otherwise be possible. That's why I like EAT. When it comes to scares, I'll look elsewhere. But EAT can fill roles in the story that nothing else can, and that is a priceless tool.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An Intro To Horror

Horror stories are scary. That's kind of their defining characteristic. Without horror, they can't really be called horror stories, can they?

It's kind of an obvious thing. So obvious that most people don't think about it, in fact. But a lot of horror fiction falls flat on its face because it doesn't seem to understand that. It isn't enough that your characters have to be put in scary situations. That's important, yeah, but it isn't enough. Frightening the characters isn't necessary to frighten the audience. It definitely helps, but it's not necessary.

That's why a lot of horror movies and horror stories fail. Let's take one of the most egregious offenders as an example for closer study: the Hostel series.

The Hostel films are extremely simple and formulaic. They're set up like this:
  1. The cast goes somewhere to get drunk and party
  2. The cast is kidnapped by an organization that gathers subjects for rich people to torture and murder
  3. The cast is tortured and murdered until one is left
  4. The final survivor "escapes" one way or another
That's about it. There are slight variations regarding the methods of escape, but none of them are particularly important to the story. The vast majority of the movies are dominated by part three, with the escapes tacked on at the end as an excuse to say that the movie has an actual plot rather than just being a series of loosely-connected scenes of torture porn.

Now, here's the thing: the Hostel movies are not scary.

Oh, they're squick-tastic, yes. They have several cringe-worthy moments, yes; the series is practically built on them. The idea of being captured and tortured before being murdered is a scary one, yes. But the movies themselves are not scary. At all. You don't want to look at the screen, sure, because you don't want to see what's going to Hapless Cast Member #3 next, but you aren't going to go home that night looking over your shoulder every step of the way.

In contrast, let's look at what I would consider to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time: John Carpenter's Halloween.

On paper, the formula for the movie is extremely reminiscent of Hostel:
  1. Psychotic killer escapes mental asylum
  2. The cast is stalked by said psycho in their homes
  3. The cast is killed off one-by-one until only a few are left
  4. The survivors drive the psychopath away
And yet Halloween will have you looking over your shoulder for days after seeing it. I know many people who refused to go home alone after seeing the movie. People were genuinely frightened by this movie in a way that Hostel just can't compare to. 

So what makes Halloween terrifying and Hostel merely cringe-worthy? The answer to that is extremely simple, really, but there are many different parts to it which have to be considered. So let's break it down.

POINT ONE: Halloween has a plot.

Remember a few paragraphs ago when I said that the plot outlines for the two movies look very similar? Yeah, that's because the plot outline for Halloween was... well, an outline, whereas the "outline" for Hostel wasn't so much an outline as it was "everything that happened in the movie". Hostel's "plot" is incredibly simplistic to the point of nonexistence.

A plot is, traditionally, structured in the form of a pyramid: rising action, climax, falling action. That's an incredibly simple view of it, of course. The three-act structure is another way of looking at it, and it is possible to have a plot which doesn't fall into any established category. But Hostel doesn't merely have a non-traditional plot. It almost lacks a plot entirely, existing only as a vehicle for scenes of graphic torture and mutilation. The only thing which might be considered to be part of any sort of plot is Paxton's escape and subsequent killing spree, which doesn't take place until the very end of the movie and is largely pointless, serving only to add a few more death scenes to the list.

Halloween, on the other hand, has a much more complex plot than implied in its outline. Doctor Loomis' involvement, for example, or the fact that Michael is stalking his sister in particular, or the implied supernatural abilities that Michael may or may not possess. There is a lot going on in Halloween beyond "psychopath killing random people".

In Hostel, there are a grand total of two notable events: Paxton and his friends being captured and Paxton escaping to go on his murder spree. One happens at the beginning of the movie, and the other happens at the very end. So little of note happens in this movie that there isn't any reason for the audience to care.

Lesson to take from this: you need an actual plot in order to frighten your audience. Otherwise, the audience has exactly zero reason to care what's going on.

POINT TWO: Halloween has likable characters.

This point is very simple, but something that a lot of horror writers don't seem to understand. You can't just throw a bunch of characters into a scary situation and expect the readers (or viewers) to feel anything other than apathy.

There is a huge difference between seeing Captain Dallas' death in Alien and seeing Josh die in Hostel. Josh has little to no developed personality or defining character traits. He is essentially a prop for one of the antagonists to poke sharp things into. The only emotion anyone in the audience will feel watching Josh die is "eww, that's nasty". 

In Alien, on the other hand, Dallas is set up as the lead. We see Dallas trying to lead his crew to safety in the midst of the xenomorph attack. When he dies, it genuinely surprises and frightens us, establishing an atmosphere which declares that we cannot trust our expectations in this movie, heightening the feeling of suspense. This makes the movie scarier. 

Or, going earlier, Psycho sets up Marion Crane as our lead up until the famous shower scene. That scene terrifies us because we weren't expecting her to die. Her death meant something more than "oh, that prop with a face has been removed from the movie".

Lesson to take from this: you have to develop your characters if you want your audience to have anything but the shallowest reaction to their death. Sure, Josh's death was gruesome. But did we actually care that Josh was dead, or just that having your Achilles tendon cut sounds painful? Josh's death doesn't scare us, because there isn't really a "Josh". There's a mannequin with the name "Josh" painted on it. Seeing a mannequin get tortured doesn't frighten us. It just squicks us out.

POINT THREE: Halloween has contrast.

This is something that I think is vital in pretty much any kind of art. Contrast keeps the audience engaged, makes them want to see more. A work with no contrast between its various parts is entirely uniform and therefore uninteresting. Dragonforce is an uninteresting band because its music is nothing but shouted lyrics and wailing guitars all the way through. "Save Me", by Queen, is a fantastic song because of the contrast between its slow and sedate verses and its raw, powerful chorus.

Horror fiction benefits from contrast more than any other genre, though, in my opinion. This is something that every horror writer really needs to understand. The scariest things are those which are contrasted against things which are not scary.

This is yet another failing of the Hostel series. Once the torture starts, that's all there is for the entire rest of the movie. There are so few scenes with anything other than people being brutally tortured that the audience ceases to care, if they did in the first place. It's horror overload.

One scene of torture might be particularly effective, but each one afterward has less and less of an impact, because we've already seen lots of torture and are becoming inured to it. If there are multiple scenes of torture, torture ceases to be something to be afraid of. Even in real life, the threat of torture is more effective at extracting information than the torture itself.

Having one scene of torture is fine, after serious build-up (or even as part of it); it can help to drive home the helplessness and genuine scariness of the situation. But an entire movie consisting of a series of torture scenes stops being scary, because we know exactly what's going to happen. There's no suspense. There's only squick. Squick might be hard to watch, but it isn't scary.

Lesson to be learned from this: suspense is more important than the scare. A single scare, even a relatively "tame" one, which has been built up properly is infinitely more frightening than a series of "technically" scary things. The Thing's initial transformation in The Thing was more frightening than the first torture scene in Hostel simply because John Carpenter understands how to set up his horror. Horror without suspense is just boring.

POINT FOUR: Halloween doesn't open the door.

This is the most important part of horror, and something that I think that every aspiring producer of horror fiction needs to understand. I can't take credit for the analogy I'm going to use to get it across, though. While I had this thought myself a long time before I read Stephen King's Danse Macabre, he says it much more simply and eloquently then I could.

Imagine that you are producing a monster movie. Your monster in this movie is a giant, one-hundred-foot-tall cockroach. Early on in the movie, the protagonists are trapped in a building with the bug outside. It's time for them to open the door and unveil the monster for the audience. It's time for the big scare. Everyone watching your movie will scream and faint at the sight of this horrendous beast -

- except that they don't. Instead, the audience breathes a sigh of relief. Do you know the thought that's running through their heads? "Oh, well, that's not so bad. I was afraid it would be a thousand feet tall."

The lesson from this? Don't open the door.

How this applies to other types of horror may not be immediately obvious, so allow me to elaborate further. Always leave some element of mystery in your horror story. What the audience can come up with - or, rather, what they can't come up with - in the privacy of their own heads is always infinitely more frightening than what you can actually show in the story. However much we might like to think that we are just that awesome, we are not actually capable of writing down "cosmic truths" so horrific that the reader will literally go mad from the revelation. This is why Lovecraft only showed snippets of the Necronomicon's texts in his stories, and why he left the Outer Gods so vaguely-defined. The element of mystery means that they're genuinely ominous.

The understanding of this fact is Halloween's greatest strength. The lack of understanding of it is Hostel's greatest failing.

In Halloween, we never really get an explanation as to why or how Michael Myers does what he does. He's shown killing, without any mercy whatsoever, from a very young age. He's described as having "pure evil" behind his eyes by Doctor Loomis. He designates freakish strength, offscreen teleportation, superhuman durability, and absolute sociopathy - if, indeed, he possesses anything that can be called a personality at all.

What made him like this? We don't know. We never get an explanation. We never even get explicit confirmation that anything he does is actually supernatural. We don't know what he is, and that makes him a thousand times more terrifying than any normal human with a knife.

Hostel, on the other hand, tells us exactly what's going on. Rich dicks with a murder fetish. That's it. That's the entirety of the threat the characters are facing. And that could have been enough to base a plot around in another genre, but not in horror. It might have made for a good thriller or some decent suspense or an action movie. But "rich people being dicks" is not enough to scare someone.

That's not to say that all horror must necessarily include an element of the supernatural. But it does have to leave something unknown for a decent length of time to give the audience some suspense. Se7en has no supernatural elements, and yet it's an effective horror movie because we know almost nothing about John Doe except that he's crazy and kills using a seven deadly sins motif. The Silence of the Lambs is scary because Buffalo Bill is painted as barely human, and we don't know how or why he got that way or to what lengths he's willing to go. Lecter is even more terrifying, because he's shown to be something more than the normal killer but we never really get an explanation as to what's so different about him. And so on.

So, to sum up, I'll leave you with this well-known quote from H. P. Lovecraft. It's something that you should take to heart if you want to do anything involving horror.

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."