Friday, 29 August 2008

Creatures Of The Night

You know what I miss? Television programmes that scare me. I can't remember it happening since the early days of The X-Files. The episode "Squeeze", to be precise, which I watched upstairs alone so Dad could watch the football (or possibly just pass out in the living room). That was a pretty big mistake (though these days the fact it was set in Baltimore just makes me think of McNulty and co trying to investigate murders in locked rooms in which livers have been removed).

Since then, obviously, I've grown up (in the most literal sense if not in others), so the fact that TV no longer gives the willies can at least be partially attributed to be being all big and manly (shut up, it can). I'm not sure that's the only problem, though. Scaring people at the movies isn't especially difficult. I accept that a) I'm not a fearologist and b) I just made that word up, but it seems to me that the key to terrifying people is immersion.

Of course, that's true to some extent of instilling any emotion into people with flickering pictures. If you're not caught up in a film, you're unlikely to feel sadness at a character's death, for example. But the degree to which this is true varies on the specific feeling you want to evoke. You don't have to be paying much attention to a comedy to laugh, after all. So there's a difficulty scale in play here, and I reckon fear is very much near the end of that scale, just before the label that says "bastard hard".

In a cinema, immersion is a lot easier. The size of the screen, the volume of the incidental music, the surround sound, the darkness, it all aids in drawing you in (there's also something to be said for being surrounded by other people who are just as immersed as you are). Sat in your living room, in familiar surroundings, watching the glowing box in the corner, doesn't have the same impact. That doesn't mean you can't get scared (The Orphanage on DVD did a reasonable job of freaking me out a couple of months ago)

So shows like The X-Files already have the odds stacked against them. This is compounded by a comparative lack of budget. Creepy things that go bump in the night are often expensive to create. Which means unless you're damn careful you just end up with a crappy rubber mask or Knightlore-level CGI bogeyman that's impossible to take seriously.

There's even more to it than that, though. Whatever one thinks about the later seasons of The X-Files (and Big G is far less convinced about its meteoric plummet in quality than I am), it seems to me that after the first year of the show it was almost never scary again. It began to rely more and more on the funny/self-parody episodes (which is not to say they weren't enjoyable), "mythology" episodes (a strong story incompetently told, and certainly not scary beyond the fact that people were still buying it) and increasingly tripped-out ideas (trapped inside a hospital in another dimension, anyone?). As I say, I'm not dismissing any of that as being terrible (not in this post, at least), but it took the show to a place where any chance of a creepy atmosphere was pretty much lost. One of the main problems, though, was that Mulder and Scully were government agents. They had the resources of the entire FBI to count on. The public, by and large, gave them their trust and assistance, and they could call in a SWAT team whenever they felt the whim. Add this to the fact that they spent a lot of time wandering around the concrete jungle, and you lose the sense of isolation that works so well in horror.

To see this, just take a look at some of the best episodes from the first season. "Ice", "Shapes", "Darkness Falls", all of them are set either on the edge of the wilderness, or deep within it. Furthermore, all three deal with creatures with no obvious intelligence, primal forces that had to be destroyed or escaped from. "Squeeze" is the exception to both these rules (and that's because the episode is specifically about being attacked exactly in the places you thought were safe, hence Tooms jumping Scully in her bathroom). This was the show at its creepiest, when Mulder and Scully weren't investigating because it was what the government paid them to do, they were investigating because the alternative was getting eaten alive.

The X-Files did return to this sense of isolation from time to time, though with diminishing returns, mainly because of familiarity ("Firewalker", for example, was just "Ice" but with the alien maggots replaced with silicon-based mushrooms, which is a fun sentence to type), but in general the show seemed to drift further and further from this archetype. This is perhaps odd, since the show obviously owes a huge debt to Twin Peaks, which itself relied heavily on the town's remote location and proximity to the oppressive pine forests of the Pacific North-West.

In fact. Chris Carter has referenced Twin Peaks as an influence upon The X-Files since its inception. His main inspiration, though was apparently Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Again, he should have been paying closer attention. Kolchak was freelance, he wasn't trained, he didn't have the Federal Government backing him up [1]; which made any situation he found all the more threatening and thus scary.

So, The X-Files dropped the scary ball, and pretty much nothing on TV since made a successful and sustained attempt to freak me out. I began to wonder if the medium itself just made it too difficult to be worth the bother.

Then, thanks to BT, I discovered Supernatural.

Truthfully, Supernatural doesn't scare me either, but it comes a lot closer than anything's managed for a long, long time. I admit that I've only seen the first five episodes so far, so there's still plenty of time for it to become formulaic and lose its teeth that way. So far, though, the show is doing a large number of very sharp things, of which I shall highlight the top three:

1. Giving the main characters an immediate interest in fighting the supernatural. Yes, Mulder lost his sister years ago, and that was what drove him, but Sam and Dean both lost their mother in the past and their father (literally lost, rather than dead) and Sam's girlfriend over the course of the pilot episode. This gives them immediate motivation, and a genuine sense of an imposed time limit, rather than an emotional scar decades old. This advantage is heightened by the fact that Mulder was curious about the unknown, whereas Sam and Dean want to kick the unknown in the nuts and then run it over with a Chevy Impala.

2. Choosing locations wisely. As mentioned already, nine times out of ten, if you want to set up a scary atmosphere, you want to find somewhere remote to do it in. The American wilderness works particularly well. For all its power and development, the US is still a young country, and a big one; there are still vast tracts of the continent which are almost unknown to humanity. Meeting a Wendigo in the Colorado forests is innately more "plausible" than meeting a Black Dog on Salisbury plain would be. The land is not yet tamed. I made a glib remark earlier in the week about modern-day America's habit of co-opting the myths and ghost stories of the continent's original inhabitants, but the truth is that American folk-lore is an endlessly fascinating chimera of Native American and old European ghost stories, mixed in with modern urban legend. The elements swirl together, frequently merging (the Native American Garou and the European werewolf, for example) to create something truly unique. Take the powerful strangeness of these stories, and set them in the unclaimed wilds just beyond the streetlight, and you have an impressive mixture.

This is presumably why the Winchester brothers spend so much of their time on the fringes of civilisation. Sombre pine forests; deep, still lakes; the dark back roads of dark, back-road towns. The only time they drop the ball in this sense is in episode four, which is set in airports and jumbo jets. Interestingly, this is the most original of the stories I've seen so far, but it takes the show too far out of the Americana-drenched atmosphere it seems to employ so well.

3. Clever use of short-hand. The show so far has been almost breathtakingly derivative, but for the moment I don't care. People used to describe The X-Files as "like a movie every week". Well, maybe, but very quickly it was a tremendously badly written and confusing movie. Supernatural genuinely feels like a pocket film each time. Specifically, the films are What Lies Beneath (twice), Final Destination, and Ringu/Candyman [2], with some American Werewolf in London and House on Haunted Hill (the re-make, natch) thrown in for good measure. In fairness, all but the fourth episode involve mythology that predates any of the films mentioned, but it's still hard to miss the references.

Like I say, I don't care. It works. The visual cues (shadows in the mirror; jerky, jumpy ghosts), the soundtrack (and accompanying spooky tape messages and the like), that ridiculous way supernatural beings have of somehow becoming more powerful and imaginative as the film goes on are all present and correct. Hopefully some experimentation will come later (no more plane-based episodes, though, and stay away from aliens and time-travel).

I guess we'll see.

Anyway, I shall be watching the remainder of the Season 1.1 boxed set as soon as humanly possible (and once it's sufficiently dark outside).

[1] In fairness, Carter specifically chose FBI agents so as to explain why the creepy stuff kept happening to them. Of course, as is so often the way in long-running TV series, eventually the freaky shit eventually started happening just because. Mulder ends up trying to foil a bank robbery and suddenly it all goes Groundhog Day on his ass? Right....

[2] Episode five manages to steal from both the original end to Suzuki's novel and the Videodrome-inspired nightmare conclusion of Nakata's film version, which isn't easy to do considering the differences between them. Then it sticks Candyman on top. Because it can.

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