The King Has Entered The Small Building

28 03 2008

I just finished watching the movie The Mist, based on the Stephen King novella of the same name. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed it. I remember hearing some complaints about the ending, and now that I’ve seen in, I sorta get it, but really, how would you have ended it? The world is saved, everyone lives prosperous lives, the dead are revived, the disgruntled are settled, and the two arguing groups find common ground? I say there’s a place for a swell, happy ending, but it just wouldn’t have fit here. I’m not sure the ending they decided on fit here either, but like Frank Darabont or Stephen King mention, “There was like, two hours of movie before the ending.” Well put, Frank Darabont or Stephen King.

But this is not a movie review.

No, today we talk about something that’s been bothering me of late. The subject of violence in movies. Note, please, that it’s not the violence itself that bothers me. Recently, a work friend of mine invited me to a table read of a script written by a kinda-friend of his. Afterwards, this work friend of mine and I talked about the script. Without giving too much of the story away, I’ll just tell you that most of the script is a relatively dark comedy. However, about halfway into the script, a couple of guys discuss some killings which included some pretty gruesome torture. Later still, a main character himself is tortured to within an inch of his life.

I don’t mind violence in movies. I don’t even mind torture in movies. I’ve seen all the SAW movies, and as long as they keep having interesting twists that I don’t expect at the end, I’ll probably continue seeing them. No, I don’t mind violence in movies; I do mind violence in movies where the violence just doesn’t fit. If you include a graphically violent scene in a movie, you better either be making a movie where the violence is the reason for the movie, or a movie that has earned that violent scene.

This kinda-friend of a work friend of mine’s movie neither had non-stop violence, nor earned the violence it did have. When I mentioned this to that work friend, he disagreed, which is cool. However, his main point seemed to be that these days, you need to have the violence in order to sell the movie.

So I guess what I’d like to do is to clarify what I mean by earning your violence. Because I refuse to believe that mindless violence is really what people want these days, and if you haven’t earned your violence, then your violence is, indeed, mindless. So, how do you earn it? I say two ways: character and story.

Yeah, I know. You’ve heard all this before. But that’s because it’s true. Why do I care that somebody just got decapitated? Or impaled? Or eaten? I don’t. Unless, that is, you’ve made me care. Let me know who these people are. I don’t need their whole life history, but I’d like to know a bit more than, “This guy is scared because someone is chasing them. And the someone chasing them is angry because the script told them to be.”

I used to be a fan of horror movies. But recently, I saw a billboard for some movie. Maybe it was The Ruins, I’m not sure. That was so weird to me. Even as I was looking at the billboard, I wasn’t sure what it was. As far as I’m concerned, so many of these recent “horror” movies are interchangeable. P2, The Ruins, Captivity… I don’t know what these are anymore. I really have no interest in seeing them, and that leads me to believe that that’s because they aren’t being advertised well, and that leads me to believe that that’s because the studios just don’t care anymore. As long as people are flocking, why change? Of course, it’s really just a cyclical practice, right? At first, when SAW came out, people flocked because it was something kind of new. Then the studios started making more and more, and eventually that’s all there was, so people had no real choice but to see the movies. Remember when The Real Cancun came out, and everyone was freaked because if this was popular enough, it might have meant the end of scripted movies? So, when it bombed, everyone breathed a sigh of relief? Remember that? Well, the truth is that if the studios had kept at it, kept making “reality movies,” eventually they would have become successful. People won’t stop going to the movies, so if they give us fewer options, we’ll just have to take it.

So I had all but lost my faith in horror movies.

I just finished watching The Mist. Thank you. Thank you for making a movie about, get this, people. There’s the dad who wants to keep his son safe (and thankfully, it never gets into cheesy Tom-Cruise-War-Of-The-Worlds territory, where danger makes him realize that he should be a better father), the woman convinced this danger is the wrath of a vengeful god, the man who rather be smart and dead than foolish and alive, the soldier in love. So, what did all this character building and backstory and history accomplish? It made the deaths matter. When one person died, or killed another, it impacted us. It wasn’t just another death to get the killer closer to another death to get the killer closer to the eventual showdown with the hero.

And these character building moments, combined with keeping the monsters shrouded in mystery for a while, made the violent images stronger, because we a) cared about the people, and b) knew that the movie had accomplished so much with so little, so that when they finally did show us stuff, it stood out.

So thank you, The Mist, for letting me enjoy a horror movie again. And really, thank you Stephen King. You’ve given us worldwide horrors, nightmares personified, and literal battles between Good and Evil. But I’d say some of your best stuff comes from throwing a small group of people into a cramped building or room, tossing in a threat, and seeing how they react.

— ldi