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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: horror

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.


Nightmare's Eve: About My New Collection

Stephen H. Provost

A Collection of Twisted Tales

Connoisseurs of the murky and shadowy side of our existence often seem at pains to define the word “horror.” Too often, it brings to mind the B movies unleashed on us every year at Halloween. Or the grainy black-and-white “classics” they used to tuck away at the upper end of the UHF dial on weekends between midnight and 3 a.m. All bloodletting and jump scares and shaky cameras. I’ve never been much for any of that, because (for one thing) it always seemed like a wilted daisy chain of clichés and (for another) it didn’t scare me.

Jump scares startle, they don’t scare. Shaky cameras  make me queasy, and blood loses its impact when it spews out all over the place like Old Faithful.

This kind of thing, admittedly, does scare some people. Everyone’s different. But blood and gotcha scenes and monsters don’t add up to horror in my book — which is one reason I never really thought I’d write horror. It’s a bit of a surprise, to be honest.

It may surprise you, too, if you’ve read some of my other material, say the whimsical Feathercap or the uplifting Undefeated. In many ways, Nightmare’s Eve is the antithesis of the latter, which is a series of true stories about people who overcame seemingly impossible odds. The stories in Nightmare’s Eve aren’t true — and thankfully so, because most of them involve odds that really, truly are impossible.

The essence of horror

That’s where my definition of horror begins. It’s got nothing to do with monsters or gore, specifically. It’s all about what scares you. True horror dawns when you realize that you’re somehow “on the wrong side of things” ... and there’s no realistic way that you’ll ever get over to the right side again.

Horror is being trapped, hopeless, desperate. It’s that sickening feeling that rises up from the pit of your stomach when you recognize there’s no way out. And isn’t that true for all of us, really? You’re stuck there in that body of yours, and you won’t be getting out of there alive now, will you?

But horror is about more than death, it’s about that inexorable journey toward it. Our survival instinct demands that we claw and rage against it, but our very resistance to the inevitable can make it all the more tormenting. In fighting a battle we cannot win, do we merely prolong our agony as we fall apart piece by piece, inexorably? What would be, to you, most terrifying? To lose your freedom? Or your memory? Perhaps a loved one, or your ability to separate reality from illusion. When the things we love, we count on, we take for granted are stripped from us one by one, with no hope of ever recovering them … that is the true, naked aspect of horror.

Horror is the dawning of hopelessness, in that twilight time between waking and sleep when fear and panic mount for we who find no solace in slumber. For those of beset by nightmares that visit us anew each time we close our eyes. We cannot make our eyes remain open forever, yet as we surrender to exhaustion, the Sandman shows no mercy — but throws open the doors of our inner mind to madness.

From The Twilight Zone

The stories and verse you’ll find in Nightmare’s Eve will strike a familiar cord to those familiar with The Twilight Zone. They’re stories of ordinary people in the present day, extraordinary people from the past and imaginary people from a not-too-distant future that might be. Some hope does manage to seep in, on occasion, a solitary beam of sunlight creeping through the blinds into the dusty, vacant prison that is our soul.

What will it illuminate? A way out of the maze, or another dead end?

And a maze it is, this journey, with twists sometimes ironic, sometimes terrifying ... but always unexpected.

There are tales of the occult; of two renowned and noble saints (one named Nick, the other George); of fate and vampires and space exploration. Of psychic powers and time travel; of malevolent entities and genies and dragons and man’s best friend.

This work began as a small collection of three stories: Turn Left on Dover, Will to Live and A Deal in the Dark. The first of these, also the first written, contains a character for whom I named my cat, Allie (not Alley, as in Alley Cat, as many often suppose). It takes place in a city modeled after my hometown. And if you don’t know where that is, just pick up a copy of a very different book I wrote titled Fresno Growing Up.

The collection expanded gradually over the course of about four months to include 16 tales and 10 poems. I’ll share below the table of contents to whet your appetite for a journey that isn’t for the faint of heart or heavy of foot. You’ll want to have a spring in your step for what lies ahead. Read it before bed if you dare; it’s designed keep you awake at night.

Tales

  • A Deal in the Dark
  • Will to Live
  • Just the Ticket
  • Turn Left on Dover
  • Mama
  • Breaking the Cycle
  • Virulent
  • Anatomy of a Vampire
  • The Ends of the Earth
  • The Howl and the Purr
  • Teeth
  • The Faithful Dog
  • Lamp Unto My Fate
  • Nightmare’s Eve (Rotten Robbie's Christmas Comeuppance)
  • Stranger Than Fiction
  • George & the Dragon: The Untold Story

Verse

  • Certitude
  • Lost Soliloquy
  • Unwound
  • Upon Reflection
  • Merlin's LAment
  • Bleed Not
  • Lost at Sea
  • Torrent of Tears
  • A Never-Setting Sun
  • This Vale of Dreams