Film Thought: The Foundation of Everything is Drama

I’ve always believed that drama is the foundation of all other genres, which could be interpreted to mean that everything is essentially a cross-genre piece, but essentially what lead me to this premise was thinking about how to to approach myriad genres as a writer, I think this can also apply to acting. There are few things that fall outside this cross-section.

Comedy is driven by obsession and as silly, or outlandish as scenarios may get the performers and the world created for them has to be one where there are stakes, consequences, needs and desires that ground these things. Even in parody comedies this should apply. Many cite The Naked Gun series as one of the best examples of this subgenre, and much credit in that case is due to Leslie Nielsen. For as preposterous as what he was saying or doing was he was committed to it, there was a dramatic intent bordering on deadpan that tethered the silliness of the situation to reality.

When applying this precept to horror it carries an additional even more significant burden. A comedy that does not make one laugh cannot really be said to be effective, but a horror film that one doesn’t find scary can be. A horror film is designed to terrify, to frighten, to scare to disquiet. Stephen King in discussing horror literature breaks down his own hierarchy wherein the gross-out is his last recourse.

The issue with the effectiveness of horror films effect on an individual in some cases can be heavily influenced by the individual. As a child I was rather sheltered, and kept to mostly age appropriate fare for quite some time. I didn’t like scary films. Gremlins scared me until, I later watched it in whole and found its dual intent. The first horror film that I really openly embraced, where I enjoyed being scared was The Shining. From there I was hooked and I sought out more.

Yet, seeking out more becomes the issue. You want to learn the genre but there are then fewer and fewer of those films with that seismic impact on you, even if it is that good. You get desensitized, to an extent to the more visceral elements of the film, which are its primary objective.

Thus, if a viewer is desensitized, or a horror film just isn’t as scary as it could be, what recourse is there for it? There is that foundation of drama. If the dramatic beats are set and strong; and I’ve said it’s not necessary before, and that’s true, but if the acting is strong, if the conflict is palpable; if the characters have some definition; if their goals, obstacles and needs are, at some point defined; then you’ve established drama in a horror film. You have there your foundation and the subjective matter of “Is this scary?” while it still matters, isn’t as as pivotal as it might’ve been.

As I said, this is a notion I’ve had for a while and it recently crystallized when I viewed a ghost story entitled The Awakening. It has its creepy moments, and this is easier to do in a ghost story perhaps than in other subgenres, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it terribly frightening, but the character’s conflicts and arcs, their interaction, the human emotion and struggle of the film; in short, the drama is really what drew me to it which is what brought this thought back foremost in my mind.

This may be why some films, and I won’t name names, that insist that their knowing cheesiness and lack of production value is their strongest asset don’t work for me. Great things have been done by filmmakers with limited resources who staunchly believed in what they were trying to commit to celluloid and did their damnedest. Usually, those are the films where you can smile and love it even through the glaring faults.

To conclude, I just want to clarify, if it wasn’t clear already, that I do not mean that everything needs to be treated sternly and severely, which is part of why I made references to comedies and Gremlins. The sensibility has to work for the film in question, however, even in a light tone there’s a dramatic foundation to it, a commitment, a dedication, which does not make itself apparent in the aforementioned unnamed films. To me that is what still strikes me as one of the fascinating things about the horror genre is that there is a when-all-else-fails contingency plan. That’s not to say that all films deal with material in a way that can transcend so well, or treat their foundation with the respect it requires, but it is there and those who use it well are really worth noting.

The foundation of everything is drama. The fenestration you add to it creates genre. It’s a building block to all film narratives, but with the horror film I feel it’s a most crucial one, because the prime objective is so very hard to achieve on a mass level that there needs to be something to fall back on.

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Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Genremeld (Part 10 of 17)

This is a recapitulation of a paper I did in college. This is part eight in the series to read other parts go here.

Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Creepshow, Weird Science, Time Bandits, Splash, Big, Back to the Future, The Witches of Eastwick and My Stepmother is an Alien all of these films crossed genres to try and make something new and unique, and this was a staple of 80s filmmaking.


It has been said that nothing really original has been said after 1800. In film much the same conundrum exists in that there really are no new stories, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t crave films. More so than any other decade prior the 80s were expert at recombining genres and on occasion creating something new or at least different enough that everyone flocked towards it.

One of the great hits of the genremeld was Gremlins. Never before or since has there been such a perfect balance of the horrific and comedic. There’s no tongue-in-cheek here it wants you to laugh and gasp in the same breath.


Gremlins (1984, Warner Bros.)

In the film Gremlins we have two important things occurring: first, this is one of the first films of the Spielberg School. It was written by Chris Columbus while he was attending NYU he later went on to work with Spielberg on The Goonies. It was directed by Joe Dante a former Corman protégé who later in the decade directed Innerspace and Matinee. Plot-wise this film is very important in that it’s a great example of the ’80s habit of fusing genres. Many ’80s many horror films were unintentionally funny this one is attempting to be purposely funny and succeeding. It was also quite frightening mostly to young kids because the cute, little furry things mutate into nasty, putrid beasts.


Structurally, this film is very tight. In the opening scene where the father (Hoyt Axton) buys a mogwai we are given rules, a trait common to many fantasy films, they are ‘don’t get them wet, don’t feed them after midnight and they hate bright light.’ The breaking of these rules end up being our act breaks and/or plot points. The first act ends in one of the most clear-cut fashions I’ve ever seen. Gizmo, the mogwai, gets water spilled on him in the 25th minute of the film and we see his progeny pop right out of him.


What a lot of people fail to notice is that there was actually a new creature invented for this film under the guise of an old myth. Gremlins were supposedly little monsters placed in machinery during World War II by the Germans. This creature comes from China according to this tale. It also allows for slight social commentary when Mr. Futterman complains about foreign cars and also while drunk he professes to believe in Gremlins in the classic sense. In the 1980s foreign cars truly bothered people enough such that the phrase ‘Buy American,’ was coined. 


Gremlins (1984, Warner Bros.)

The Spielberg School was always very big on ‘in-jokes,’ which can be readily apparent to the audience but are often missed (i.e. Rockin’ Ricky Rialto has the same billboard lettering as, and similar artwork to, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gizmo hiding behind an E.T. doll). There is also a cameo by animation director Chuck Jones. 


The characters in this film are quickly established. We see Rand Peltzer, the father, haplessly trying to pedal his invention, Billy (Zach Galligan) signing a petition, Kate (Phoebe Cates) works at a bar for free and Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) refuses to give a family more time to pay their loan. This film is funny and fun-filled and allusions to classic cinema are also play an important part in this story there is a clip from It’s a Wonderful Life and the Gremlins watch Snow White and in a hysterical turn they love it. There’s also mimicry of a popular film at the time Flashdance, and it’s great. The whole second half of this film is a wonderful mix of the hysterical and the creepy and sometimes both. Mrs. Deagle is thrown from her Stairmaster out the window to die in the snow. This shouldn’t be funny but it is. Then on the gross-out side we see a Gremlin melting in the sunlight. We also have the music of Jerry Goldsmith in this film who is wonderful composer who will turn out tunes just as hummable as Williams’s, but he specializes more in these fun types of films.

Gremlins was a big hit grossing $148 million on an $11 million dollar budget, and it’s easy to see why. It turns from a horror/comedy and there’s a lot of action thrown in. We laugh at what we shouldn’t. This is also one of the more tastefully done ‘horrors-on-Christmas’ films with a Gremlin getting chopped to bits while Burl Ives’s ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ is playing. I used to be deathly afraid of this film and it took me many years to gather up the courage to see it again. I’m very glad I did see it again though because, as strange as it sounds, this film is even whimsical in the way it handles its subject matter. As an adult, I don’t know who would be truly afraid of it but it does offer its fair share of the horror currency known as the “gross-out.” It’s so well handled in that regard I think we may be in suspense for a bit waiting for something else like it.

Franchises Which Could Use a Reboot

While I am no proponent of the rebooting trend there comes a point where screaming protestations does become tiresome, when even the biggest purist has to sit back and say “You know what? If this is the trend it may as well serve some kind of a purpose.” To that end here is a list of 10 film series that should be rebooted for one reason or another.

Rex Harrison in Dr. Doolittle (20th Century Fox)

10. Dr. Doolittle – This is another example Eddie Murphy’s sad decline ruining an altogether fine film concept. The Doctor Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting are magical and if adapted at the very least faithfully if not slavishly could certainly still be a huge hit and there is no reason it can’t start up again. Considering that the original 1967 rendition with Rex Harrison is mostly an afterthought it’s about time the series as written was done properly – installment by installment if possible.

Asterix & Obelix (Clement)

9. Asterix et Obelix – One of two foreign entries on this list. While there are animated versions of this popular comic available ad nauseum there are only two live action films and one can clearly see why. The story came across as stale and lacking in whimsy. Gerard Depardieu who was one of the leading men in cinema once upon a time comes across as a charmless, fat oaf and not Obelix. The cast and director should be scrapped. It can be done in France or anywhere for that matter as long as it lives up to the magic these stories that travel through history are capable of and with that theme story possibilities are endless since the source material already provides many of them.

In light of the worldwide box-office success and aesthetic triumph of Tintin motion capture would be a wonderful place for this series to go.

Daniel Cerny in Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (Dimension)

8. Children of the Corn – This is a series that has had a remake of the original. Now as it stands the original is fantastic. It is a quintessential 80s horror film and overall one of the better ones ever made simply due to its overall impact. Having said that the series of sequels that followed soon thereafter have watered down and bastardized the brand and the drop in quality from the original to the sequels is one of the most precipitous of any horror franchise ever (with few exceptions). For that reason I have placed the franchise on the list and it will be with a bit of curiosity that I will attend the remake to see if the franchise can be revitalized.

Zombie (Anchor Bay Entertainment)

7. Zombie – These are perhaps the films that Lucio Fulci, Italian giallo director, is best known for and it’s a mystery why. Slow-moving, sunlit and un-suspenseful when compared to Fulci’s best works. The occasional grossly unsettling make-up job is not enough to save any of the set-ups. These are a prime candidate for a relaunch. The island can be shot at night, or it could simply not be set on an island. Zombie films are all the rage for the time being find some other way to turn the genre on its ear under the zombie brand and it is sure to be a hit.

Jaws (Universal)

6. Jaws – Yes, Jaws is an absolute classic and should not be touched. There are reasons why the series is on the list. The series as a whole is very bad. Nothing that happened after Spielberg is any good and Hollywood has proven time and time again that absolutely nothing is sacred, not even Spielberg. A Poltergeist remake is in the works. So, theoretically, yes the Jaws series does belong here.

Samuel Costa in O Menino Maluquinho (Inter Filmes)

5. O Menino Maluquinho – This is the second foreign selection on this list and it is the film adaptation of the best-selling children’s book by Brazilian illustrator/author Ziraldo. The first film was absolutely wonderful and while not a literal adaptation it was most definitely one in spirit, which is the most important thing. There was a sequel which was good but not as good as the original as the cast was a little too old at this point to be believable in the story. However, with the character still popular in a daily comic strip it is easily a candidate for reboot. Brazilian audiences, especially younger ones are used to long series like Os Trapalhoes, and it would work perfectly if the kids were recast every few installments similar to the James Bond franchise.

4. Home Alone – This is another example of a series where it was the sequels failing the concept more so than the original. This is also one of those series where it’s one of the least necessary reboots but it’s the kind that makes you wonder why it hasn’t happened already, especially considering that it’s a John Hughes project Anyway, the second was regurgitation, the third was decent but weird in as much as it was just a continuation of the situation not characters or plot and the fourth was just painful.

Gremlins (Warner Bros.)

3. Gremlins – Yes, the first only was classic but they kind of dropped the ball. The sequel, though enjoyable, seemed like an afterthought and the time between the original and the follow-up could’ve contributed to its lack of success. It’s an idea that’s endlessly appealing and one of the best combinations of horror and comedy around while the film is an 80s classic there is no performance that’s irreplaceable so it’s surprising that studio executives haven’t jumped at the opportunity to jump-start this one.

Anthony Michael Hall, Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo and Dana Barron in Vacation (Warner Bros.)

2. National Lampoon’s Vacation – The Vacation films weren’t ever really designed to end. They’re all so great each one more memorable than the last and just silly. I think it’s a series that could easily come back into play by just having Rusty or Audrey go on a trip with their kids and have Grandpa and Grandma (Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo) along for the ride (Seriously, what else are they doing? And they should be doing something). With the last film being in 1989 there is so much socially and about the world that can be mocked, parodied or lampooned that wasn’t even in the public consciousness back then that it’s about time. People still laugh at the old ones and they would laugh at new ones too.

Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (Paramount)

1. The Naked Gun – Yes, the 3rd film was called The Final Insult but those kinds of titles have been contradicted before. I think along with a new James Bond we should have new Frank Drebin pictures. This can be done in one of two ways one the old pulling the investigator out of retirement against his will ploy can be implemented or he could be unwillingly training his replacement. Either way good parody is a necessity and his were second to none and he should be leading, not making appearances in second rate attempts so the parents in the audience can have a good laugh.

Ideally, I’d have loved the late great Leslie Nielsen to have been involved but the fact of the matter remains that the parody film is fast becoming a lost art of the comedy genre and perhaps a classic vehicle is needed to revive it with the right people in place.