Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Familiarity Curse

What is it about surprise horror hits that generates such a large amount of terrible sequels? Sequels are generally inferior anyway, of course, I haven't forgotten, but this particular sub-division of the horror genre seems awash in awful reprises.  Blair Witch 2 is amongst the very worst films I have ever watched. Hypercube isn't quite as bad as its reputation suggests, but it very nearly is.  Battle Royale 2 is a ridiculous mess.  Pitch Black - which we can count as horror with a wee bit of squinting - was followed by the plodding, po-faced Chronicles of Riddick.  The Japanese and American sequels to Ringu/Ring are horribly messy and horribly messy plus quite dull, respectively - and that's before we get into the fact that Ringu had an earlier sequel, Rasen, which is so legendarily bad it's been deleted from the public consciousness like a Star Wars Holiday Special based on spending Christmas with a dead chick down a well.

As of last week, I can now add REC2 to the list of horribly disappointing second instalments.  But what makes horror movies so abnormally susceptible to the curse of the shitty sequel? [1]

I actually think REC and its sequel make a good case study on where the problem lies.  To that end I'm going to spoil both films reasonably thoroughly, and therefore my musings are going below the fold.

There are two plausible explanations for the steep dive from inspired film-making to mediocre-if-you're-lucky crapulage.  The shortest and simplest is reversion to the mean: we only hear about low-impact films when they're particularly good, which skews the results.  Presumably there are plenty of middling films of that kind that we never get to see, unless they happen to have been attached to a well-regarded previous film.  If you've got a 1% shot of making a great film first time round, you've presumably only got a 1% chance at the second being great as well, so reversion to the mean suggests 99 times out of 100, that film you heard about precisely because it was good will produce a lame sequel.

As a partial explanation, I'm entirely fine with that.  But I think there's at least one more influence working away, and to understand this one you have to think about what makes a horror film work in the first place.

My opinions on what makes a horror film good have been well-recorded on this blog, of course.  To summarise: the best horror makes its hay from mystery and ambiguity, both in terms of the narrative (what will our heroine face next?) and in terms of structure (what is haunting this place and what rules does it follow?).  It is no coincidence that so many horror films fall apart the very instant it is revealed what is going on. REC avoided this fate through two approaches.  First, by simply stapling together the zombie genre and the found footage genre, it ensured anyone even marginally horror-savvy would understand the fundamentals, and could therefore just get on with running through its pretty unoriginal plot with maximum style [2]. Secondly, it saved what little it had to offer by way of explanation until the closing minutes, and kept the ambiguity alive. Was the girl possessed by a demon who gave her a communicable disease, or was a communicable disease that turns people in flesh-hungry lunatics the only way the Vatican could understand what they were seeing?

Oh, and thirdly; there was only a few moments to absorb all this before the film reached its really rather disturbing conclusion.

The problem with horror sequels is that there's really only three options available.  You can solve the original mystery, you can cook up a new mystery, or you can try both.  All these options are fraught with peril.  Solving a mystery removes its bite - a crucial quality for a horror film - and runs the risk of retroactively damaging your previous work (we could call this the "midichloriates problem").  Creating a new mystery is probably safer, but you run the risk of dragging the film too far from the territory that originally made it a success, and ultimately pissing off fans who have convinced themselves a solution is what they want (the "Twin Peaks problem"). Trying both, of course, just gives you two ways to fail simultaneously.

REC2's central flaw is that it throws itself utterly into the first camp.  It does so with such hilarious force that not only does it remove the ambiguity that so benefited the first film within a few minutes (turns out yes, it really is a case of demonic possession), it chooses not to offer any new mystery to solve beyond "where did that possessed girl go".  In other words, finding Tristana in the penthouse is the conclusion to this film as well. It's one thing to believe you can slap together stale genres and make them interesting again [3], but it's quite another to think you can just recycle the entire previous film with less action scenes and screaming zombies and have it still work.

Yes, there's some interesting stuff about another layer of reality that only exists in the darkness (though anyone who thinks the penthouse is in complete darkness when the lights go out doesn't understand how night-vision works), which allows for some nice tension and quick nods to Descent and Ringu (why the penthouse contains a well - in this reality or otherwise - is never explained, but we can file that question away with "why are there several naked zombie children in the air vents" under "shit we will never understand).  But this is mere window dressing on a zombie movie which has been remade without much in the way of zombies, and which harms the original as well by shining too bright a light on what was originally trading on uncertainty almost as much as it did violence.

Final prognosis: death by lack of imagination and an explanation overdose.  It's so sad that they always take the pretty ones...

[1] I'm not talking here about the endless fucking around with Friday 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street here. Which is not to say they're not bad, it's just the commonly-voiced opinion that they lack quality (I think I've seen a grand total of three of the sequels from all three franchises combined) can easily be explained by the compound nature of the law of diminishing returns.

[2] Really, the only contribution the film made to the concepts of horror (as oppose to its execution) was the idea of a zombie virus that took people over at different speeds according to their blood type.  That's such a brilliant dodge to justify life expectancy via authorial fiat that I'm surprised it took as long as it did for someone to make use of it.

[3] It's worth noting REC2's use of the possession genre is nowhere near as stylish as what they did with zombies in the previous film; the kinetic energy of REC is replaced with people talking in silly voices about how evil they are. It's The Exorcist without the pea soup, basically.  Yawn!

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