I want to believe.
It’s why I love scary movies and scarier novels. It’s why I love a haunted house and crafty Horror writers. But the loss of scary in Hollywood seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of demise. The “Great Days of Horror are behind us,” chant the speakers of doom. But how can that be at a time when special effects can mimic the exact Horror writers see in their imaginations? Well, the “proof” seems to be encapsulated in ABC’s new television series, “The River” and never mind its implied pedigree with attachments to a name like Spielberg.
Dead on Arrival
Hollywood is looking a lot like the publishing world: if an idea sells, keep selling that idea. Meanwhile they tell the bulging encampment of new writers at their doors that they want “something different.” Yet what we see on television and in bookstores is the same thing over and over again. Why can’t people who are paid to maximize the use of their words say exactly what they mean? What they want is something that sells; but if they don’t screw up at least as much courage as the Cowardly Lion to accept what they’ve asked for, we may in fact be doomed to endless imitations of the same storylines and recycled writers.
Take “The River.” Please.
· There is nothing in the series that makes us care about anyone or anything.
· The plot is underdeveloped. (Maybe that makes it easier to say that anything can happen so one should stay tuned: but I find I am cheering for the Monsters to eat the writers.)
· The characters are underdeveloped. (The Monsters can eat any one of them at any time and it will make no real difference to the storyline.)
· It uses gimmicky camera shots to avoid really divulging any Monsters. (And thereby to force use of the traditional Horror convention of keeping the Monster just out of vision and a fleeting blurred image in the corner of the eye to carry the total tension of the plot.)
· It weaves different magical, folk, and spectral traditions together into a hodgepodge pool of nonsense in an effort to keep the audience befuddled. (Really, fellow Americans, more is not always better!)
· The river has no role. (I’ve seen a lot of banks, and a lot of jungle treks that takes main character and lost explorer Emmett Cole forever to navigate and the rest of the cast mere minutes to follow…Why isn’t there at least an effort to really use the actual river in the title of the show?)
· There is a pale attempt at diversity and an over-reliance on a cheap plot device in the inclusion of the caricature that is the mechanic’s daughter – who only speaks Spanish which almost no one else speaks, but like Lassie, is always understood. (Is it perhaps because the entire forward momentum of the plot depends on her character’s hidden “native” knowledge? If so, one has to wonder what the heck the wife and son were doing out there with the now-missing spouse and father all those years, and why don’t they have this hidden knowledge from their own experiences and research?)
· There is too much technical illogic that has nothing to do with the “different logic” of the paranormal. (Seriously. Someone should have done some homework here instead of relying on general ignorance to carry the day.)
I’ve watched each episode since it started. I’m still waiting to be terrified. So far, I’m not even slightly scared, and I haven’t even been successfully startled. Yet I was warned that I would pretty much be scarred for life. Not so. Even after I tried turning out the lights. Of course, “Paranormal Activity” didn’t scare me either. I found it vapid and an incredible waste of an afternoon. Not that I’m jaded or anything, but I’ve actually encountered “things” that I have yet to explain which may have fallen into the category of paranormal in my own life, and which for their idiosyncrasies did succeed in scaring me. Maybe encountering something of the “real thing” makes all else pale. But then I wonder why don’t these people do their homework (and I mean outside of Hollywood)?
On Resurrecting the Dead
Maybe television writers and Hollywood writers don’t read outside their genres. And I am not presupposing that I know what ingredients make a good movie, either. However if you want to create good Horror on either screen, why not (pardon the pun – but I really have to say it) go to the Source? Even if you only went so far as Hitchcock… It just takes a little dedication.
“The Truth is out there,” after all; everything from how to scare to why it scares. The helpful hint is: it’s more than just camera angles, and we should be sophisticated enough today to not have to depend on the adulterated Mysteries of The Primitive Other to carry a modern Horror tale. If Lovecraft and Poe can do it, what is our excuse?
Placing a Horror story on the Amazon (try not to trip on that metaphor) was definitely creative and intriguing. But “The River” fails to use the rich tapestry of setting to its advantage; the story could be moved to the Mississippi for all its relevance (and at least there it might have generated some tourism for several states) -- if we even manage to move the darn boat (as apparently the Amazon is an extremely shallow river, with virtually no natural animal life, and few humans who need to make a living from it). In “The River” it has as much exotic appeal as a swimming pool.
Ultimately, Hollywood can be part of the problem in modern Horror or part of the solution. But if Hollywood wants to resurrect the popular Horror film and (by its proximity) the Horror series, it needs to pay attention to the actual tradition of Horror which evolves with its audience out of necessity. It needs to push the publishing trends which need to push it back – to keep Horror writers taking chances. Real genre writers don’t parrot plots and devices; they find new ways to tell scary things to skeptical audiences.
If the genre of Horror is not going to become a laughable parody of itself, we need to build on the solid platform of what came before. The United Kingdom knows that – this is why it is almost singlehandedly responsible for some of the world’s greatest Horror writing even today; it mines its own traditions. The Horror Writers Association knows that; which is why it is overwhelmed by and concerned with the ultimate impact of internet-published Horror writing that implies a place in the genre and which has not been “validated” but may well influence and contribute inadvertently to the degeneration of the genre. The bottom line is that we all have a vested interest to see to it that the envelope is pushed, not that we return to an era of zippered monsters and spooky music.
To call “The River” successful Horror because certain scenes are unsettling is a disservice. A scene is an instrument of plot. It is the plot or the characters that must unsettle, the hard mechanics of story that must disturb. If “The River” was a novel, I am certain almost every sentence would be punctuated with an exclamation mark. This is not fear. This is not Horror. This is “Lost” without the innovation; it is “Blair Witch II.”
Sadly, it seems that Hollywood is misinterpreting interest in the paranormal for proof that we like what is produced. Really, I wonder, does it take a rocket scientist to figure out that the human species has a morbid curiosity if not a natural need to understand these things? That any appearance of an exploration into the same will automatically draw people for those reasons? People are still seeking proof of the afterlife as much as a good time. They are seeking to better understand the human condition and the purpose of life. Watching “The River” may make for a campy, fun night, but it does not deliver the Scare Factor; it is too convoluted, too contrived. It most certainly is not good Horror, nor written Horror told well. That’s the truth. And truth really is scarier than fiction. Find the truth, I say, and mimic that. I’ll be a fan for life. And if you’re really good, maybe even after that…