In the genre of horror fiction, many authors have touched upon the same subject matter and populated their works with similar characters. Serial-killers, Cop-killers, Child-killers: they have featured in hundreds of novels and films over the years. The same is true of Lovecraftian demons and spirits. Stories of haunting and possession are as old as history, and the deformed, shape-shifting and deceitful entities that are responsible for those haunting tales, have themselves featured many times across the work of authors whose lives have been separated by centuries. There appears to be nothing original under the sun.
Some writers do have an original take on an old story or character type, though. For example, in his novel, Cell, Stephen King has battalions of flesh eating zombies doing some nasty things to the population of Boston. Zombie tales and movies tend to keep to a standard pattern: zombie eats you alive, you then become a zombie yourself, and you eat your mum or another dispensable support character. No explanation tends to be offered why the dead have decided to rise – or why they are so hungry – and the main plot of these stories revolves around the survival attempts of a few desperate groups of humans. Some of these elements are true of Cell, but there is one remarkable and original difference to King’s Zombies: they are alive.
The un-dead – or phoners, as King calls them – have received a mysterious signal through their mobiles which sends them violently insane. Their behaviour is similar to run-of-the-mill un-dead flesh-eaters from books and movies of the past, but only up to a point. King soon takes his readers away from the conventional as his story unfolds.
The movie Wolf Creek is another example of giving a tired format a decent revival. A serial killer, roaming at his leisure across Western Australia, kills tourists visiting the Wolf Creek meteorite crater. The psycho-is-chasing-you format has been done in dozens of movies – hundreds, more likely – though in this film we have a refreshing change. The psycho is a decent bloke. There are no funny facial ticks, no talking to voices in his head; the killer is played straight by John Jarrett, and is much scarier for it. Even at his most violent, Mick Taylor, Jarrett’s character, never falls into parody: Jarrett plays the part as if he was influenced by no other performance on stage or screen – a remarkable achievement, actually.
Wolf Creek has another piece of originality going for it: there is no double-take used by the director. This shock technique features in so many horror films that its effectiveness has been diluted. We all have seen this at work. The camera stands behind a scared character; they look left, and the camera looks with them. There is never a baddie to be seen. Then, they look right – again the camera follows to show the madman is nowhere around. And then – guess what – they look left again and the psycho’s face is inches from theirs. You never saw that coming.
Actually, there was a time when cinema audiences were scared to death by that now much over-used technique. The double-take was first used by director David Lean in his version of Great Expectations (1946). It was used to introduce Pip to Magwitch, and, famously, to introduce Magwitch to the audience. It worked brilliantly. So much so, less original directors still use it
Murderous psychopaths belong to no-one – they can’t be copyrighted, so there is no quality control in place. The same is true of all types of horror villain and monster. If you get lucky, you watch or read something that catches the attention because it breaks the normal way of telling that story or presenting those characters.
Richard Matheson’s Vampire novel, I am legend (1954) has a protagonist who is considered a terrorist – an outcast, because he is in a minority (a minority of one, as it happens) and the rest of the population of Los Angeles is a blood-sucker. The novel offers the theory that vampires are the next evolutionary step for mankind. This is better than presenting them as Satan’s disciples on earth, who avoid garlic and drink virgins’ blood. That version of vampires has been overdone.
But then vampires are the one of the most popular horror novel or movie creatures; it is not surprising there is so much pap printed on paper and celluloid about the fictional blood-suckers; but, there are writers who offer an intriguing and original take on this type of story.
Anne Rice is one of them. Her novel, Interview with the vampire, (1976) was a best-seller, and the first of eleven novels collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles. The series tells of the adventures of Lestat De Lioncourt, a French aristocrat and actor, who was kidnapped and turned into a vampire in 17th Century Paris.
Lestat is posh but penniless. He ventures into the big city with Nicholas, his companion to expand their horizons and make their fortune. Nicholas, a talented violinist, takes work in the orchestra pit of a theatre while Lestat, ever the show off, treads the boards. Life is perfect. They take-in the sumptuous city: the people; the wine; the food – they indulge their passions, but Lestat becomes un-easy at the sight of a curious white face in the audience each night. Someone is stalking him.
Rice offers a mix of Dickens blended with Dorian Gray. There is the overpopulated metropolis with the detritus-ridden underbelly, and slopping about upon its surface are the beautiful people; drowning in decadence and drunk on wine and passion.
Lestat, for all his foppish, Wildean extravagance, has a killer’s blood pumping through his veins. Before eloping to Paris, he killed a pack of wolves that had been slaughtering people from his home village. On horseback, with his beloved Mastiffs by his side, he hunted and killed them. Doing so cost him his horse and his dogs, but the starving villagers and their cattle had a chance to make it through a cruel winter. He was a hero, but the folly of setting off alone demonstrated his maverick side. It is that – along with his physical beauty – that captures the attention of Magnus, the vampire with the ghostly white face who has been stalking him.
It is here that Rice begins to deviate from the norm as far as tradition and popularity in vampire stories go. Vampires in her world are capable of love and passion, they are capable of guilt and sadness – they are monsters, they are un-dead – but why should that mean they must be mindless demons, automatically slaying any human they spot? Rice’s vampires choose how they behave. Too many times in horror fiction vampires are portrayed as being enslaved by the insatiable thirst for blood; they kill because of it. It’s their addiction and their food. Not so with Anne Rice.
The thirst is nothing more than a demonic craving, leading to madness if not slacked, but not required for continued existence. Her monsters are a human / spirit hybrid; the spirit element craves the blood, but the human side – the physical body – no longer requires nourishment. As her vampires age, slowly the thirst subsides until the ancient ones, those at least a thousand years old, no longer need it at all. And with age comes ever increasing powers.
Magnus is one of the ancient ones. He chooses Lestat as his heir after murdering hundreds of similar looking victims. Lestat has the perfect balance of beauty and aggression and Magnus, after taunting him in his dreams – calling him wolf-killer – takes him to his lair and turns him, and does so, much against Lestat’s will.
Rice’s hero continues his life, but as a vampire. He still visits his favourite places and enjoys the culture of the time. He is frequently found in the theatres, cafes and strolling along the banks of the Seine. The circumstances of his existence have changed, but his tastes, and his entire thinking mind, have not. It makes her characters far more engaging than the one-track-mind demons that meander from one virgin neck to another. It also demonstrates Rice’s skill as an author. A lead character needs to elicit sympathy from the readers of a novel or the audience of a movie. Rice’s Lestat is a mass murderer, and she still makes him engaging and sympathetic.
Play it straight and tell the truth, that is the safest way. It is too easy to make a murderer lose credibility by getting carried away with the killer’s dark side. Even a murderer has a sense of humour. John Jarret played it this way in Wolf Creek, but he’s not the only one to get the portrayal of a killer spot-on.
Harrison Ford did a similarly grand job in What lies Beneath (2000). He gives, possibly, his best performance as Dr. Norman Spencer, an academic who puts his research first. In one scene, Ford’s character is explaining to his wife how her death will bring him and her daughter closer together. It is clear he means it; he will look after his step-daughter, and provide the very best for her. As he explains this to his wife, he is filling the bath to drown her. It is the incongruity written into the scene, topped off with Ford’s delivery that gives the scene its power. Even allowing for Dr. Spencer’s insanity, he never once comes across as dangerous. He is a graceful monster. And where is it written that madness has to be dangerous? Who decided insanity must lead to murder?
One film comes to mind with a lead character so psychologically damaged that it is remarkable not a single member of the cast gets slaughtered; a movie with the most deranged protagonist: The King of Comedy (1983) is that film.
Robert de Niro plays the psychopath, Rupert Pupkin, a stand-up comedian with delusions (literally) of grandeur. It is one of the most disturbing movies I have seen. Not a single murder, hardly any violence, yet the impression left by this film lasts long in the mind. It is very uncomfortable viewing. It proves dead bodies and gore will always come second to a quality script and decent actors in the race to disturb an audience. To creep under the radar requires no trickery. It requires you pick the lock of their critical shields and slip inside using truth. This is why gore-sodden celluloid like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) will make an audience squirm, will make them jump, but will never get access to the place where humans are truly vulnerable. Movies such as Saw and Hostel – and many others, of course – will try and batter their way in using boring tricks and double-takes.
Those blades are blunt.