There’s a Geico commercial playing in theaters these days that trots out several badly overused horror movie clichés. A bunch of teenagers are seen hiding from a creepy guy behind a row of chainsaws (!) rather than escaping in a running car, answering their cellphone and, finally, inexplicably, running toward a cemetery.
“If you’re in a horror movie, you make poor decisions. It’s what you do,” the announcer says.
It’s funny because it’s true: A lot of horror movies are bad. Really bad. That’s why I don’t bother with most of them. If I want to laugh at a horror movie, I want it to be intentional (think Young Frankenstein). I don’t want to go in expecting suspense, and instead have to suspend disbelief to avoid laughing out loud.
This brings me to Bird Box, the newly released Netflix film starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes and John Malkovich. I’ve written about the book here before, and I enjoyed it, so I went in hoping the movie wouldn’t entirely screw up a great novel (as movies are wont to do: Think Logan’s Run).
Thankfully, it doesn’t.
One reason it succeeds is that it doesn’t have people make inexplicably poor decisions simply to put them in harm’s way. They do make bad choices, but those choices are rational and — more importantly — driven by human compassion. The characters must decide whom to trust based on little or no information: Do they leave a stranger “out there” to die at the hands of a mysterious, ravening predator, or do they expose themselves to potential harm by letting that person through the front door? The tension between compassion and self-preservation plays a key role in the movie, as it does in the book. Contrast this with your typical low-budget horror film, wherein a bad screenwriter conjures up some false motivation that no one in real life would ever share in order to justify the terror. (Or simply forgoes motivation entirely and makes the “heroes” a bunch of idiots.)
Bird Box, the movie, wisely adheres to the same formula that made Josh Malerman’s book a success: focusing on the human response to horror, rather than the horror itself. This, I think, is at the heart of the formula for successful horror. Often, the more graphic the horror is, the more two-dimensional the characters become. They wind up being little more than props to be bludgeoned and butchered in the next big gore scene; mannequins at the mercy of Freddie or Jason (who are the real “stars” of the show). To be blunt, I don’t care whether those mannequins live or die, so why should I care about the movie?
I’ve seen a handful of horror films in the past year, and this has been the dividing line between good and bad in each of them. The Nun was awful, filled with jump scares and clichés that left me yawning and rolling my eyes. (Just because The Exorcist worked, that doesn’t mean filmmakers need to keep recycling the “Catholics vs. the Antichrist” theme from now until the Second Coming). The Halloween update was another by-the-numbers retread, rendered passable only by the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis.
On the positive side was Stephen King’s It, which succeeded for the same reason Stranger Things works as a series: It reintroduced us to a childhood we all remember through vivid characters placed in harm’s way. The “evil clown” trope wouldn’t have worked otherwise (it helps a little that it’s not a real clown). If you doubt me, check out Terrifier, another “evil clown” film that I turned off halfway through because I just wanted to go to sleep.
Also effective was A Quiet Place, which was, in some ways, similar to Bird Box. In both, society is threatened by a mysterious predatory evil that limits humans’ ability to interact normally with one another and their surroundings. In A Quiet Place, the characters must remain silent because the predators hunt by sound; in Bird Box, they can’t look at their enemy without being driven mad to the point of suicide. Both films feature strong characters, and I highly recommend seeing both, although I think the story behind Bird Box is more original. The idea that our greatest enemies are unseen, and that those enemies can drive us to the brink of insanity and beyond, is powerful stuff.
The movie did deviate from the book in a few respects. The birds play a bigger role in the film than they do in the novel, and there’s a romance between two characters that doesn’t exist in print. (I give props to Malerman’s original version, in this respect, for its subtlety and the recognition that a deep bond can form between characters without having them jump in the sack.)
The movie also gives the evil force a power I don’t remember from the book: the ability to play tricks on the mind by mimicking voices of its previous victims. While this does add some heightened suspense at the end of the movie, there’s little or no indication prior to that of any such ability on the part of the unseen enemy. Some foreshadowing would have helped.
As with Curtis’ presence in the new Halloween, Bullock and Malkovich bring considerable acting chops to Bird Box, but unlike Curtis in Halloween, they don’t have to carry the movie. The story does that, as it should.
Bird Box is what a horror movie should be — but hardly ever is: tension, suspense, human frailty and courage in the face of terror. Malerman’s book was still better, but it inspired a film that’s several cuts above for a genre that too often relies on cheap jump scares and tired tropes. Malerman understood that humanity is at the core of a good thriller, and the filmmakers wisely followed his lead. It’s an original story deftly told and a strong cast make this well worth seeing.