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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: Josh Malerman

Movie review: "Bird Box" is what horror should be — and usually isn't

Stephen H. Provost

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.

Capsule review:

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.

"Bird Box": a thrill ride about ordinary humans in extraordinary crisis

Stephen H. Provost

Every now and then, a story is so engaging and deftly told that it overcomes the reader’s own personal difficulties with style and renders the so-called “rules” of writing superfluous. Bird Box was one such book for me. Author Josh Malerman delivers a story that kept me interested from start to finish, which is – in the end – the hallmark of a successful novel.

Although he occasionally falls into a clipped voice (especially in the early going), his quick-hitting style is an asset overall. It’s far better than being sucked into an endless quagmire of unnecessary description, and it fits the story perfectly. It allows the author to build suspense throughout without boring the reader – quite a feat in any novel-length endeavor.

There are a lot of things Malerman doesn’t describe in the book, some of which the reader is probably just itching to know. But the fact that he leaves out these descriptions is a master stroke, because it allows the reader to focus on what’s important: the human story about how people cope (or fail to) and interact in a world overrun by paranoia, false hopes and heroic deeds that sometimes succeed but just as often end in tragedy.

Josh Malerman is an American author and the lead singer for the rock band The High Strung. Malerman currently lives in Ferndale, Michigan.

Josh Malerman is an American author and the lead singer for the rock band The High Strung. Malerman currently lives in Ferndale, Michigan.

The premise of Bird Box is ingenious: How do human beings adjust to a world in which opening one’s eyes means near-certain madness? The execution is also first-rate, sometimes in spite of the fact that Malerman breaks the rules - and sometimes because of it.

A writing coach might tell you that Malerman uses variations on the verb “to be” far too much. But it works, and that’s what matters. It amplifies the matter-of-fact narrative, which reflects the crisis situation that pervades the book. This is proof that rules sometimes demand to be broken, when the author does so in service to the book’s mood and plot. It’s to his great credit that Malerman is willing to do so.

The main stylistic problem I had with Bird Box (HarperCollins, 2014) was its reliance on present tense in the two streams of narrative that run through the novel, one present day and the other in the past. For me, it slowed down what was otherwise a tension-filled page-turner of a ride, especially when the writer moved to past tense in the midst of a present-tense section. (None of these moves were wrong, structurally speaking; they just slowed me down a bit.)

Malerman also seems to run short on material for his present-day narrative stream and, as the book goes on, uses it more frequently for flashbacks that aren’t covered in the “past” stream. At times, he does so to provide key information that might not otherwise be available, which is all well and good. In any case, this is a minor quibble and in no way a deal-breaker.

A few questions are left unanswered, such as why some animals go mad and others don't - or why they do so at varying rates, whereas nearly all humans are exposed to the danger that's involved in opening their eyes very early. But this, too, is minor, and not essential to the plot. In fact, Malerman's ability to keep from getting bogged down in the nonessential is part of what makes Bird Box such an engaging read.

In fact, I’m giving this book five stars because it’s so successful in spite of my own personal criticisms. I don’t do that often because, honestly, most authors who use a style I don’t enjoy, such as present-tense narrative, don’t hold my attention beyond the first ten pages. The fact that Malerman was able to hold my interest is testament to his ability as a storyteller and to the success of “Bird Box” as a story about humans in crisis and how they react both to that crisis and one another.

Highly recommended.

Don’t open your eyes.
— Tagline for "Bird Box"