IT

I saw the remake of IT. And something interesting happened afterward. I wasn't traumatized. Let me explain. I'm not a fan of horror. But I've watched a lot of it. Curiosity killed the cat. Nightmare on Elm Street freaked me out because Freddy attacked during our most vulnerable moment, in our sleep. Poltergeist, the original, scared the crap out of me because of the imagery and because the logic seemed right on. Build over a burial ground, piss off the the buried. Duh! One of my favorite movies, Alien, messed me up. I saw this when I was in grade school. Every lump I felt in my chest, every stomach ache I had meant that I was impregnated. Luckily for me I never gave birth to a chestburster. That would not feel good.

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Then the horror movie that fucked me up the most was Seven. After watching the film, I dreaded the coming night for three weeks. The dark made me relive my fear I felt in the theater. The funny thing was that the imagery of the murders weren't godawful disturbing, especially compared to what we see today. What was disturbing were the images created in my mind. All of the murders except for the last one happened off screen. All we saw were the results, the dead bodies and the mechanisms of death involved. Our minds couldn't help but fill in what had taken place, what had transpired into the resulting crime scene. I still shiver thinking about it.

During those weeks of fear I couldn't close my eyes when I washed my face in the shower. If Kevin Spacey was gonna get me, he'd have to get me with me looking. Ok. That's weird.

However, after watching IT, I was able to take a shower and wash my face with my eyes closed. Yay, me. I realized that I wasn't horrified. Or traumatized. I slept like a baby. Probably because my maturity level isn't too far above a child's.

Being a storyteller, I naturally wondered what was wrong with me. Why was I not scared?

I feel the film tried too hard when it came to the scary images. The clown was weird, the scariest thing in the movie. What worked was the contrast of IT's smile to IT's eyes that were highly focused, as if hunting IT's prey, as IT's lips dripped with drool. But when the other characters saw IT, their version of their fear manifested in different ways. And here is where the filmmaker seemed to have tried too hard to make what we saw scary.

One of the kids avoided looking at a painting of a misshapen women in his father's office. And when that woman came to life, as expected, the real life version looked like the painting. Maybe more menacing, but not scarier. In a way the monster was revealed before revealing the monster. What was scary was the anticipation of when these horrific things would appear. But once on screen, any fear that I had vanished. However, the audience I attended the movie consisted of mainly teenagers, and they gasped and screamed with pleasure. Maybe I am growing up.

A friend of mine had read a novel. I don't know the name, and I wish I did. But there was a scene where the serial killer had offed the whole family. Only the daughter was still hiding under her(?) bed. The serial killer slowly entered the room. He circled the bed and stopped at the foot of it. His shoes stood inches from her face. Blood from his knife dripped, tapping the carpet. We're left wondering if the killer knew she was under the bed. She must have been going mad. Who's blood was that? Her mom's? We knew the girl had no option except to force herself to keep calm and quiet and hope that he leaves. The blood stain grew with each drip. She heard the rustling of his clothes. He was kneeling. And he gazed under the bed and dragged her out by her hair. Her fate was sealed.

The horror in that scene starts from the beginning and goes well beyond the end. We don't need to see the girl getting sliced up. Our minds does the heavy lifting. The author has to show the dead body, of course, so there's no ambiguity. But that's an intense scene because we're imagining ourselves going through that. For me I'd shit my pants. So wearing clean underwear wouldn't be beneficial.

The point is to create the horror within the mind through storytelling, not rely solely on the images. Doing so removes the work our minds are keen on doing anyway.

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There's a saying: We fear the unknown.

That's why the dark can be menacing. Things can be hidden beyond our sight. Things that can follow us. Haunt us. Devour us.

That was one of the most intriguing things about Alien. When the astronauts entered the ship, they found an alien pilot that seemed to be fused to the pilot's chair. An odd sight. A small hole on the alien's abdomen looked like something exploded from the inside, a frightening clue. But to what? Then one of the astronauts, Kane, goes down a level and was surrounded by a field of massive egg-shaped things. Shining a light on one awakened it. The lips opened to reveal what looked like chicken breast. Again, the audience did not know what it was nor were there any trailers to spoil that fateful moment. Kane leaned over the opening, and a spider-like creature leaped out...the facehugger.

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But when we see Kane again, we're left wondering why his helmet was filled with a substance that resembled poached egg? Even when the crew cut the helmet off, all they revealed was the facehugger in full view. The only reasonable question was what the fuck was that thing doing? Every step of the way, a question was answered only to reveal another and more sinister question.

But with Alien Covenant, the unknown was known. What we wanted to explore was why the engineers created the xenomorphs, and why they wanted to kill the humans on Earth. Those were the questions asked at the end of the film Promethius, the precursor to Covenant. There was mystery there. Everyone in the blogosphere was talking about it. But with one fell swoop, Ridley Scott avoided delving into that mystery with a one-minute flashback. Then he ruins the xenomorph further by revealing who created them, which throws logic out of the window by ignoring the mythology already created by the prior Alien films.

Okay. I sorta went off track.

Point is, we fear the unknown. By going overboard on the CGI, the filmmaker missed the mark, not by a horrific amount. And when a horror flick resorts to sudden blasts of sound and music to shock the audience, then I'm pretty much taken out of the story. Again, we fear the unknown.

Don't Alienate Your Readers

Should a writer listen to the readers and craft stories with their expectations? Especially in an established series such as Alien? No. But that was one of the biggest complaints for the new film Alien Covenant. More on that later.

For me I've crafted my story with something real to say about the human condition. Outside input would only muddle that message. Trying to convey my message is hard enough as it is.

This leads me to Alien Covenant directed by Ridley Scott. There appears to be a lot of discontent around the net regarding his latest effort. Scott seemed to have ignored the basic timeline of the Alien universe, logical storytelling, and has fallen to using the worst horror cliches since the Friday the 13th movies. Impossible, you may say. Would a skilled filmmaker and storyteller recycle a shower scene where a couple is making out and both are killed? Hell to the No, you scream at me. Unfortunately, yes he did.

However, most reviewers, both who favored and hated Covenant, didn't comment on the most glaring thing that was missing. I can't blame them, though, as there were a lot of things wrong. A huge indication of what's missing is with the casting of James Franco as the captain of the ill-fated ship. He dies in his hibernating capsule right after most of the crew has awaken. This is not a spoiler because it doesn't do anything except beg the question: Why cast such a named actor if Scott wasn't going to use him beyond the beginning? That's simple. I'm assuming here, of course, but Scott was probably banking on Franco dying to get the audience to care. If that's true, then I don't think it worked. At least not for me.

Scott used that death by having the loyal crew argue with the succeeding captain that they should have some sort of funeral. The new commander denies their request because the ship is falling apart and repairs are needed now. Makes sense to me. Everyone is in a spaceship...in space...where if it falls apart everyone dies. However, the crew gathers below deck anyway and salutes the dead captain as he's shot out into...space.  The filmmaker is hoping the audience will care because the crew was loyal.

The issue is that there are no character traits to separate the many crew members, most of whom end up as cannon fodder. No character traits means no character arcs of any kind. Some of the reviews had touched on this by stating they didn't care that this person or that individual was killed. They may have not known why they didn't care. But it was obvious the writers didn't root the audience to anyone except to use Franco as Franco—not as the captain—breaking the fourth wall, which is the movie screen.

Here's what I think Scott is trying to do:

See this movie star James Franco who's been in everything? You guys like him, right? Well...he dies.

The audience shrugs because they know this is just a movie, and Franco the actor wasn't killed in the making of this film.

At this point the director hasn't pulled the audience into the Alien world. We have yet to suspend our disbelief.

Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston, is his wife—the original captain, not Franco. She cries a lot after his turbulent passing. Again, we don't care. We didn't see them interact as a couple. We don't know who she was. Does she prefer cats or dogs? Something, anything to hook our teeth into.

Now, if the writers had her share a moment with her husband, then it may have opened our hearts and drawn us in:

The ship rumbles, taking on damage. Mother, the computer, wakes the crew. The captain hauls himself from his hibernating capsule. After delegating orders to repair the ship, he pulls Daniels in and gives her a small birthday gift. They had gone into the capsules the day before her birthday, so he was saving this gift for when they woke up after arriving at the destination. The gift is a locket with a picture of them atop the first mountain they had scaled together. She recalls how cold it was that night. And he quips that she didn't complain inside their tent. She looks down at his pants and says that she had to take care of his little friend. He smiles and bites her nose.

On the planet, the crew explores the forest, WEARING SPACESUITS. The captain trips and falls on something sharp, unknowingly infecting himself with an alien virus. The day passes as the mystery grows: Who planted the wheat? Where are all the animals? Why is the captain getting sicker? The crew struggles to find what's wrong, but time runs out. Pain riddles the captain's body. He shakes and screams, giving birth to a xenomorph that rips him apart. Daniels screams, clutching the locket.

OK. Not my best.

Part of writing a story where death is such a prominent and visual aspect is rooting the readers or audience to the characters. Think of it this way: When we hear that someone is killed on the news, we're not really affected by it. We go on our day as if nothing happened. To that person's friends and family, the news hits them like a Mack truck because they're attached to the deceased. And that's the difference. Rooting is important to all stories. But when you begin to kill off characters without getting the readers to care, then they're not gonna care.

My point is, draw the audience in, give us a chance to suspend our disbelief, root us to at least one character, and slap us with tragedy. Badda-bing-badda-bang.