I’m not certain the source of a series of thoughts I had while working on a two-part post called, “The Best Way to Kill Man (which I’ll post next week). I do know it came to me while I was mulling over different movie selections to illustrate my thoughts on apocalyptic survival films. Like most things in my head, one idea led to the next and then the next and shortly I realized I had to write it and see if others share the experience.
You see I like the “layers,” whether it be in books or movies. “Layers” are all those things that are happening within a story that aren’t necessarily the main point. Sometimes these things are the puzzle within the puzzle. Gamers call these little sidebars “unlocking achievements,” or “side campaigns,” and software programmers call them “easter eggs.” Each of these terms means something slightly different but what they share is a deeper level of the things we are experiencing. Understand though that I am not necessarily talking about something “smart” like we see in the film Memento, nor necessarily an ending with a “twist.” No these moments I speak of can, at times, go unnoticed because they are often seen only in reflection. They are “horrific” more in their “permanence” or their quiet “contemplation” than in their overt action or presentation. They are the part of the story that resonates in a bad way because they leave you with that empty feeling of “wow that sucks.” And sucks on a grander scale.
Perhaps I’m a little over academic when it comes to this stuff, but I have found that even a bad movie can inspire the consideration of something else if it contains an “easter egg” moment. I’ll explain through an illustration of some of my favorites from films. I will warn however, that not all of these moments fit an exact a+b=c formula, but I think you will get the general gist of my love for the appearance of a deeper shade of horror.
I’ll start with a small example from a film series that I love, but that others may not have considered great. Yes, my often mentioned Paranormal Activity. There is a layer within the first two films that is easily ignored, but if considered is pretty horrific. We know by the end of the second film (which takes place in time before the first film) that married sister and husband sent the demon to unmarried sister. The littlest thing, the thing so easy to overlook, is that scene in the first film where unmarried sister brings up a question of their childhood. Married sister’s advice, “hey don’t think about that stuff from the past, just leave it alone.” In the first film this is seemingly predictable sisterly advice with no malicious intent. After the second film though if we go back and watch that scene we realize…that is purposeful misdirection you bitch. That my friends is horror.
The Alien series is another one of those films with a different kind of layer. Now don’t call me on the exact numbers here, I’m illustrating through approximates . So Ripley awakes in film one and then spends about a week running through the ship trying to avoid death by alien. She wins, goes to sleep for 75 years, wakes again and a little while later spends another couple of days trying to avoid death by alien. She wins, goes to sleep and wakes a little bit later whereas she spends another couple of days trying to avoid death by alien. Not a lot of plot creativity here but consider this – Ripley stayed alive for one hundred years (most in cryo-sleep) but in reality she was awake for only what? A couple of weeks and most of that spent fighting an alien. Is it hell, fate or just bad luck? I don’t know, but in reality she never really survived the first encounter…she just delayed the inevitable.
I thought Pandorum was a decent film with a decent premise. On a long voyage through space, humans somehow evolve into a physical form better suited for their ship encased existence. That in itself was really enough to make the film interesting – add in all the other craziness as a bonus. The evolution though wasn’t the deeper shade for me. It was the issue of time. They weren’t in space all that time, they were actually underwater…on that intended planet for what? 100, 500 ,1000 years. An entire evolution had occurred not through some DNA splicing or chemicals…but just because they had been there for sooooo long. My mind starts thinking of all the ways that could have ended, of how many opportunities they had to just continue in that strange existence. Like I said, maybe I’m a little too cerebral with this stuff.
There is no shortage of “end of the world stories” (which is why I’m penning a two parter on the topic), but the usual stuff rarely ever strikes me with a “deeper shade of horror” moment. There is one film though that brought me there. The Knowing was hardly a great film. The premise and the conclusion is a classic if not cliche solution to many a SciFi plots – “oh how cool it’s the real story of Adam and Eve.” What I did, however enjoy were the final scenes on earth. In most (if not all) of these stories there are a least a few survivors (be it on boats, fighting the infected, or blasting the killer asteroid from space). The Knowing did not mince words and could only be considered a “happy ending” if we think…”well the species has survived be it elsewhere.” For me it was the contemplation of the Sun blowing up that did it. The finality of it. That realization that there is no where to run, no where to hide, and no tomorrow..but more than enough time to think about it.
My last example could perhaps also be called a twist, but I found it to be so unexpected that it stayed with me for a while. The movie was the Descent where several young women go cave diving, find a violent species of blind humanoids and spend the balance of the film trying to get out of the cave of death. It was a good film although the concept was not all that new. The part, however, that resonated with me was the ending – although the ending I’m speaking of may have been either the theatrical or alternate ending…not certain. The main character escapes the cave, runs to her SUV, and flags down a truck to aid in her escape. Happy ending until she wakes up…in the cave…and realizes her entire escape was just a dream. Dude…that sucks. I don’t know why the writers choose to end it that way, but I’m glad they did.
In consideration all these “shades” I find that they share a common theme -time. I don’t know what that says about my own psychology but perhaps all this loss of time is just a reflection of my own concern with the way it slips by. It’s not about getting older as I am one of those people who would never choose to be 16 or 26 again. I have worked hard, accomplished much, raised great kids, and somehow survived all the mistakes of my past…I wouldn’t tempt the fates by trying a do over – I never liked “double or nothing.” I do tend to fill up my life with projects, career, story writing, and family so it’s possible that “horror” for me is just about running out of the time to do more. This is the reason why I love horror. The stuff we can really get out of it, if we look beyond all the horrific beasts and sharps knives, is a fun house mirror’s reflection of our real fears. Sometimes what lies beyond that twisted grotesque image is far more darker and fearful then the story ever intended…because it is the horror that lives in the shadowy corners of our own mind – the fear that we can’t escape because it is a part of us.