Monday, November 2, 2009

The Means Are Not the Thing

The means of telling a story are not the story itself. This is something we genre writers can forget in our desire to honor and subvert the conventions of our favorite kinds of narratives. It's also the reason why Hollywood can throw entire special-effects departments at a script and still not end up putting an interesting tale on the screen. Since we're coming off of Halloween, let's consider two horror films as examples of this aphorism, both featuring the genre's requisite grue but with entirely different end results.

In Final Destination 2
-- the only installment of the long-running franchise I've had the misfortune of seeing -- an unexpected premonition saves a group of photogenic strangers from a fatal pileup on the interstate. But Death (note the capital) doesn't like being cheated, so it stalks the unlucky survivors like some malevolent providence, killing them off in increasingly inventive ways with everyday objects. That's the warp and the woof of the thing, and it spends the lion's share of its running time executing almost interchangeable bystanders with PVC pipes, escape ladders, sheet glass, barbed wire and barbeque grills, all displayed in loving detail.

The Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In takes a different tack. True, the story of lonely, bullied, twelve-year-old Oskar who befriends a young vampiress named Eli has plenty of cringe-inducing material. Throats are opened. Necks are snapped. A pack of enraged felines swarms a newly created denizen of the night. But the camera rarely lingers on such horrors. Indeed, it usually cuts away before you can count to five. Instead, the film focuses on the ephemera of relationships, on a piece of paper upon which Oskar and his father have scratched out a game of tic-tac-toe or the twisting of Eli's pale fingers as she fusses over a Rubik's cube.

The difference in the two approaches is striking. Where Final Destination 2 feels almost pornographic, Let the Right One In never allows the horror tropes to come unmoored from its characters. The visceral stuff exists solely to advance the narrative (which is mostly concerned with love and loneliness), and that's why its presence is limited to a pinch rather than a pound. (Notably, the bloody climax occurs almost entirely off-screen.) It's something we all should remember. Spaceships and swords or criminals and cobwebs can help us identify with a particular set of people or take us along for an exciting ride or allow us to ponder engaging ideas. But they never can be the story itself.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


Unknown said...

"Let the Right One In" managed to be scary in a stay-with-you sort of way, especially (for me) the very final scene, when I realized what Eli's purpose had been all along in courting Oskar's friendship. More ewww-inducing scares don't stick around much longer than it takes me to focus my thoughts on rainbows and butterflies.

Loren Eaton said...

Did you think that Oskar was merely supposed to be a replacement for HÃ¥kan (the guy with the gas mask and the knife)? Interesting. I thought their (Oskar's and Eli's) relationship was almost exclusively romantic, given that they're tapping K-I-S-S to each other in Morse code in that last shot. Not that either is completely sympathetic by the end.

That underwater scene, though -- wow.