go on, scare me

When I go to a horror film I want to be scared.

It’s a pity it doesn’t happen very often.

I have a high threshold for horror, and I have standards (I expect a story and characterisation; yeah, I’m picky), which means that a lot of so-called horror films don’t rate very highly with me.

For instance, I just saw an Irish zombie flick called Boy Eats Girl. It’s clearly meant to be in the sub-genre of horror known as comedy. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its two essentials: the laughs are few, and it isn’t frightening. The gore factor only ramps up in the later part of the flick and apart from one decent zombie threshing moment, most of it has been done before in more imaginative ways.

Zombie films are very basic:

1. A group of people are introduced.
2. They are threatened by flesh-eating zombies.
3. They attempt to get away from the creatures.

Add whatever other ingredients you want (a dash of comedy, a handful of obstacles, and buckets of innards), simmer up to a boiling point, and serve.

I think for a zombie flick to be successful you need to identify with, or care for, the main characters. They will be under siege from the zombies for the majority of the movie, and if we don’t care if they live or die then a great deal of the frisson disappears from the film. This is true for most monster movies. For instance, in the awful House of a 1,000 Corpses there was never any attempt made for the audience to identify with the people under threat. Rob Zombie was more interested in the freaks–but they kill people in hideous ways, so where’s the charm in that?

Boy eats Girl tries to emulate American teen horror flicks by setting the main characters in an affluent private school in Dublin. This a rarefied world that the majority of Irish people don’t glimpse. Some of the teenagers in this film actually drive cars! This is normal in American films, but is so rare in Ireland that it is borderline incredible. Along with the wealth come the usual odious assortment of characters: the bully jock, the slutty pretty girls, the profligate poseur, and the assorted mindless hangers on. Then there’s the loser nerds who have all the funny lines, and among whom our hero is placed (note: my guess is that few screenwriters were ever jocks, or popular, in school). Of course, the sluts, jocks and nasty name-callers get munched upon by the zombies.

That’s so like life, don’t you think–only the bad get punished… Which is why the ending of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is so fantastic.

There is an essential problem with making your main characters teenagers and affluent: secretly we loathe them and want them to die. Yes, it’s a prejudice, and no, it’s not correct, but it’s an aspect of human psychology that writers should consider. Therefore, the characters need to be engaging and their plight has to be extreme.

Dynamics like: strangely attractive nerdish guy is bullied by the Jock because his nympho girlfriend wants some action from the strong-but-silent type is so clichéd that it will only elicit yawns. These are problems that kids would fucking wish to have. Who wouldn’t want the hot sexually-active blond offering herself to you? This strikes me as a fantasy of men who were rejected throughout their school years.

Teenagers have real problems. They are trying to negotiate the line between childhood and adulthood while trying to figure out the rules of society, contend with surging hormones, school work, and peer pressure. And that’s without even considering the problems they’re having at home… which is often the “fun” part of growing up.

I’ve seen this issue with characters crop up in the first season of the ho-hum British “horror” TV series, Hex. Again, it’s about teens being “threatened” (not enough, for my tastes) in an exclusive boarding school populated with the usual range of stereotypical toffs. Like Boy Eats Girl, some of the more difficult choices these people have to make is which boy do they fancy, and what outfit to wear to the next dance. It’s hard to get behind such characters.

Ultimately, one of the biggest problems I had with Boy eats Girl is that it doesn’t look like it was made by someone who knows the genre. It has the hallmarks of trying to cash into the continued popularity of the horror genre by emulating the American model without consideration of how it will work within an Irish framework. Apart from how the infection starts, there’s very little original in the story (and the zombies turn up far too late in the film).

I was depressed as I watched the credits roll because I see so few admirable Irish films. Often, they have decent actors, good production values, and some interesting story elements, but it’s rare that everything hangs together properly. It’s more frustrating when it’s a project with potential, like Boy eats Girl.

Tonight, I watched 28 Days Later again, which has great characters, good dialogue, atmospheric direction, a simple yet human story, proper use of background music, and really scary zombies. It can be done. And you don’t even need a huge budget.