On our last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (which has now run for a whopping 37 episodes!) my erstwhile co-host William Bibbiani and I talked briefly about a straight-to-video sequel called The Howling Reborn, which comes out this Tuesday. William marveled briefly that the old horror trope of “Your parents aren’t who you think they are!” is still in active play at this late date. He and I also reviewed Lucky McKee’s new film The Woman, and commented at a slightly longer length about how it bucks certain conventions and uses old horror movie types to an original advantage.
Both of these films, for however different they were, managed to bank on familiar character tropes that we have seen in dozens of horror films of the past; The Howling 8 to bland effect, and The Woman to extreme twisted effect. Seeing as it’s October, and I’m thinking about horror movies all the time, the idea of writing about stock horror characters seemed perfectly fitting at this juncture. Horror films, like any other genre, often trade on ancient character types (like legitimately ancient; look up the rules of Commedia dell’arte sometime). But with horror, especially in the post-slasher era, the broad types seem to stand in starker relief than in, say, romantic comedies or action films. Part of the charm of slasher films is how banal the plotting is. We’re not here to see new interesting characters or incredibly original plot twists. We’re here to see mayhem and blood.
The banality of the slasher genre has spawned an entire generation of mad catalogue completists like myself, who recognize the patterns, and insist on making entire catalogues of said patterns. And this was going on long before Randy started saying it out loud in Scream. This has been a practice as old as the genre. I know the go-to source of film information these days in the Internet Movie Database, but there was a time, pre-internet (ya young whippersnappers) where we had to go to large, wacky, hard-to-find coffee table books like The Psychotronic Film Guide to get our obscure movie information. If you find one of these books, thumb through it, and you’ll find that the impulse to catalogue and scientifically record horror film clichés pre-dates the Irony Age.
In that spirit, as someone who used to pore over such books when I should have been paying attention in class, I offer some of my favorite character types from horror films.
THE MYSTERIOUS CLIQUE
In The Howling Reborn, there was a team of snotty, elitist high school kids, who were starkly aware of their school’s caste system, and were careful to reject anyone with even the slightest whiff of gaucheness on them. For the first few scenes, we’re supposed to be led to believe that these kids are secretly werewolves. I hate to cite it directly, but the same thing happened in Twilight: a mysterious cadre of standoffish studs and babes prowled around the school, quietly intimidating all those they passed. They were, of course, secretly vampires. I never witnessed it first-hand, but in movie high school, a Queen Bee type will always stride confidently down the school hallways, with two or three lackeys, slightly shorter, walking slightly behind her. Maybe I went to the wrong kind of school, but I begin to doubt that really happened.
The horror films with these cliques are rarely about the cliques. They’re always about a shy outsider who wishes to either infiltrate, or to destroy. By turning the cliques into potential monsters, the film in question manages to tap into a very basic teenage fantasy. Either you can become the popular kid, or you can kill them. There’s something so very refreshingly pure about this reptile drive, that, even though it’s a cliché, I always love the campy shots of good-looking-yet-innocuously-evil teens strolling down a hallway in slow motion.
THE WARY VILLAGERS
One of my favorite lines of horror movie dialogue come from the 1934 classic The Black Cat with Bela Lugosi. A skeptical city mouse, on vacation in a creepy part of the mountains, hears the tale of a monster lurking about at night. “That’s just superstitious baloney” the man says. A creepy villager (Lugosi) then shoots back, in that implacable accent of his, “Superstitious? Perhaps. Baloney? Perhaps not!” It may not look like much on the page, but hearing Lugosi say it is amazing. I just like picturing Lugosi at his local market, shopping for baloney, and speaking the line to the guy behind the deli counter. The line was notorious enough to become a lyric in a Monkees song.
But I’ve always loved the creepy group of superstitious villagers. The ones who lives close to Castle Dracula, or the Haunted Woods, or Horrible Death Lake, and react with shock and horror when some city-dwelling neophyte fliply announces that they’ll be going to said place. These are hearty, Eastern European types (and it’s always Eastern Europe) who seem to live to warn visitors. I wonder what their lives are like when they don‘t get any visitors? Are they always in fear of Castle Dracula, or do they forget about it until someone says they’re going there? It must be like living in Pompeii. You forget after a while that you’re doomed.
Doomed or not, these are the same villagers who will take up pitchforks later.
THE TALKING KILLER
You ever see that movie Popcorn (1991)? I like that movie. It had the best poster, and one of the best horror taglines: “Buy a bag, go home in a box.” Popcorn was the earliest film where I remember seeing a Talking Killer. Talking Killers appear in action films too. You know what I mean: In a final scene, when the movie’s villain has the hero cornered, a gun poised, the killer chooses to have a brief speech, explaining their grand plans, rather than doing the easy and logical thing by immediately killing off the hero. Popcorn had a talking killer. He had the film’s heroine chained up in a basement, and explained that he was scarred in an accident, and could emulate human faces. Why would you tell anyone that? Just kill he and continue to sneak around unfettered.
Despite the frustration, the Killer’s Speech is always a fascinating one, and can often tip into joyous ridiculousness. In the cases of most slashers (and for some reason Scream 2 is coming to mind) it’s the only time when we’ll get to hear why the killer is killing, and what they hope to achieve. Depending on their motivation, we’ll either be creeped out by the true insanity of the killer, or we’ll scoff in incredulity over how silly a motivation it is.
THE FILM NERD
This is a more recent trope that was directly birthed by Scream. Randy (Jamie Kennedy) was the horror film expert that could recognize when he and his peers were in a horror movie-like situation. Since then, almost every horror film contained a line similar to “This is just like in that movie!” and often contained an entire character devoted to deconstructing the clichés around them. Scream did it well, as it was one of the only films to recognize how horror in the movies and real-life violence interact. The hundreds of rip-offs, not so much.
The Howling Reborn had a character that gave the hero all the info he needed on werewolves that he learned from the movies. The remake of Fright Night features a young hero seeking the help of an expert to kill vampires (even though he could have gone online). Even Dead Snow, an obscure Nazi zombie flick from Norway, opted to include that one obnoxious character who spews forth horror movie trivia. In 1996 self-awareness became the word of the day. To this very day, you can spot a ringer a mile off thanks to the inclusion of a film nerd.
NEXT: Bibbs mounts a defense of clichéd horror characters everywhere, and lists some of his own personal favorites…
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
Stock character types are not unique to the slasher genre, or even strictly speaking more prevalent, but whenever a story is told in broad strokes – like most horror movies – you can spot them a mile off, whether Jason Voorhees is slaughtering teenagers, Arnold Schwarzenegger is keeping the world safe from terrorists or Sandra Bullock can’t seem to find the right guy. While many other kinds of writers don’t necessarily work this way, most screenwriters are conditioned to view their stories first as a concoction of individual elements: plot points, characters, ebbs and flows in the pacing and so on. Before all the nuances and details added during production, a good screenwriter knows that the story works on principle, because every element they included has a specific function. What we call “stock characters” are stock characters specifically because those character types serve their functions very, very well. We’ll break down some of my favorite, mostly horror-specific examples in a minute.
“Clichés are clichés for a reason.” In real life you hear this expression most often as an excuse for racist jokes, but when it comes to storytelling it’s a fundamental truth. There aren’t many narrative feature films that don’t resort to at least a few of them. While it’s usually frustrating when a movie has nothing to offer besides clichés, I contend that the clichés themselves are not fundamentally the problem. If a storytelling element is used often enough to be recognizable, it’s because it serves a narrative function so well that nobody’s come up with a better way to do it. A good example here is “The Big Game,” which ends almost every sports movie, from Rocky I-IV (and VI) to Searching for Bobby Fischer. It’s a direct conflict between a hero and their antagonist (who may or may not even be a bad person), on a level field of play, in which our protagonist puts to good use the lessons they’ve learned throughout the story. If you can think of a better way to illustrate the hero’s growth by juxtaposing it against the antagonist’s failings while simultaneously building a dramatic crescendo that ends the film on a high note in a movie about sports, then by all means speak up. Every writer in the world would like to hear it. The Big Game is a cliché but it serves its dramatic function perfectly.
If I’m making all of this sound really technical, that’s because it is. Screenwriting is hard, and there’s a lot of chemistry involved, and maybe a little math. In a good screenplay, even a clichéd one, every single element of the story interacts with all the others in a constant state of movement. If you remove a cliché, like for instance “The Doomed Sidekick” from many an action movie, you would have to find suitable replacements for each one of its dramatic functions. You’d have to find another form of comic relief, another sounding board for the protagonist’s personal thoughts, another normal person to endure the same hardships as the hero to emphasize the greatness of their accomplishments through contrast, and another person to die just before the third act to establish the villains as genuine threats and knock the hero down a peg so their final victory doesn’t seem like a foregone conclusion. You can either find a new way to convey all of those dramatic necessities, or you can just give the hero a f***ing sidekick.
Pretty much every clichéd horror character serves a host of useful purposes too, at least when used correctly. That we recognize them and occasionally groan when they appear on-screen has more to do with the vast quantity of media we consume than their actual value to a film. We’ve seen so many movies now that, whether we realize it or not, we catalogue these things the same way the screenwriters do, even if we’re not consciously aware of why they exist. So the next time you see a creepy old man rattling off a ton of exposition at the beginning of the horror movie to a group of kids who eventually die because they don’t heed his words, be nice about it. He’s there for a reason. Speaking of which, here are some of my favorite stock horror characters.
THE HALF MAN (aka THE EXPOSITION GUY)
…whom I have just described. On one level, “The Half Man” is closely related to those “Wary Villagers” Witney talked about. He (and occasionally she) knows all about the monster, usually through some form of personal experience. Blake Snyder, who wrote a great book on screenwriting called Save the Cat (seriously, read it), used the term “Half Man” to describe this character for a very good reason. Anyone can give exposition. A narrator could do it before the credits. But this character is now “half a man” because he dealt with the creature, killer, ghost or what have you on a previous occasion and lost something in the process. Maybe he’s been physically diminished, like Whistler in the Blade movies, or maybe he’s been damaged more deeply than that, like the kindly old Holocaust survivor in the cult classic Monster Squad.
As a result, the Half Man is a screenwriting double-threat: he provides information both the heroes and audience need and also an example of how dangerous the antagonist is, since even those who escape its wrath have had their lives ruined in some way. He doesn’t have to be a creepy old man, either. Sigourney Weaver’s beloved character Ripley turned into the Half Man character in the Alien sequels, particularly Alien 3, while still remaining the protagonist. Each film introduced a new cast of characters to be devoured by H.R. Giger’s Xenomorphs, and each cast learns about the creatures from Ripley, whose life has been utterly ruined by the bastards. Typically, these new potential victims fail to heed Ripley’s warnings because they perceive themselves as stronger than she is, since she has been visibly weakened by her experiences. And that’s all part of the useful cliché: they fail to notice that the Half Man is the only survivor, and therefore has something valuable to teach. It also relates to another tried-and-true horror movie cliché: learning the right lesson, far too late.
THE ONLY HALF-MAD SCIENTIST
Here’s a character you can find in most recent version of The Thing, another movie we discussed on this week’s B-Movies Podcast. I like to call him “The Half-Mad Scientist.” A conventional “Mad Scientist” wants to do something like create an army of supermonsters to destroy the world, a la Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Varnoff in the Ed Wood “classic” Bride of the Monster. In contrast, a Half-Mad Scientist doesn’t actually want anyone to die. Their intentions are often quite noble, like curing the sick, creating a helpful robot, etc. But when their experiments go awry, they definitely aren’t going let a few unexpected funerals get in the way of scientific progress, like Ian Holm’s character Ash in the original Alien (not to keep going back to that series, but hey… it has a lot of stock characters). Sometimes you feel a little bad for them, but usually they’re there to make a blunt but important moralistic point about scientific hubris and the objectification of human life.
You’ll usually find that the Half-Mad Scientist lives long enough into the storyline to get good people killed, but generally dies just before the beginning of the third act since the audience hates them so much. If they live longer, it’s for one of three reasons: 1) They’re Herbert West in the Re-Animator movies, since he’s the only Half-Mad Scientist anyone actually likes; 2) They gradually turn into a full-blown Mad Scientist, kinda like Sam Neill in Event Horizon, and are a big part of the big climax; or C) They finally see the error of their ways and die semi-heroically at the end, like Walter Pidgeon in Forbidden Planet. But usually their uppance comes earlier in a particularly gruesome, cathartic fashion because hey… that guy was a jerk, right?
THE GUY WHO DOESN’T GET IT
A mainstay of the zombie genre in particular, “The Guy Who Doesn’t Get It” is seriously one of the most annoying characters in all of horror literature. But if you think about it, he’s also one of the most sympathetic and sad. You see, most horror movies take place in “the real world” before all the supernatural (or at least ridiculous) violence kicks in. The real world has a complex social structure, obviously, and so to survive in everyday life we all have to find a place in it. The Guy Who Doesn’t Get It is great at living in the real world. He has a good job, usually in middle management, and while he often has a loving family he’s just as likely to be a schmuck in a fancy suit who gets all the chicks. He’s the alpha male of urban living, and that puts him at a huge disadvantage when he’s placed in life-or-death situations. To put it another way, in the RPG of life he’s placed all his XP in “bartering,” which does him no good when he has to fight a flipping dragon.
The earliest example I’ve found of The Guy Who Doesn’t Get It comes from The Night of the Living Dead, where a guy named Harry Cooper (played by Karl Hardman, who also produced the film) refuses to relinquish command of the situation – the zombie apocalypse – to the clearly more qualified candidate, Ben. Their arguments have twinges of class warfare and also a racial divide, since Ben was played by Duane Jones, a black man, at a time when persons of color were rarely cast in leading man roles, particularly when the rest of the cast was white. Romero said the casting of Jones was color blind (he apparently just gave the best audition), and the finished film called little attention to it, but given the social structure of the 1960s the undercurrent is difficult to ignore. Naturally Harry and the family he was trying to protect die horribly, but then so does Duane, since a posse of good ol’ boys eventually shoots him on sight. There's that racial tension again. But I digress.
The Guy Who Doesn’t Get It lives on to this day, usually in zombie movies or horror movies with a similar, apocalyptic slant. When things get so bad that having a career in middle management officially means nothing, you’ll find these guys somewhere in the film bitching about it.
THE SCREW-UP POLITICIAN
“The Screw-Up Politician” is a close relative of “The Guy Who Doesn’t Get It,” in that they’re both in a position of authority before the horror starts. Unlike The Guy Who Doesn’t Get It, however, The Screw-Up Politician keeps his position of power throughout the film. They both get a lot of innocent people killed though. You’ll remember this guy very distinctly from Jaws, where Mayor Larry Vaughan (played by esteemed character actor Murray Hamilton from The Graduate and The Hustler) refuses to close the beaches just because there might be a killer shark out there. He’s not just being a douchebag, The Screw-Up Politician. He’s running the numbers: if Larry closes the beaches during the height of tourist season, the economy of Amity Island would collapse. People might live, but their livelihoods would be destroyed. If there wasn’t a shark out there he’d have turned out to be a wise, prudent man. But since it’s a horror movie and there was a shark we vilify the guy, because he gets innocent people killed. The Screw-Up Politician is a great way to keep the body count rising even though the protagonists already know what’s going on. If it weren’t for Mayor Vaughan, Jaws would have been over in half an hour.
This character usually only shows up when whatever’s threatening the populace hasn’t been confirmed yet, or only seems like a possibility, so you’ll find them more often in disaster movies like The Towering Inferno or Titanic. But whenever there’s a genre overlap, and an entire population is threatened by a killer of some kind as opposed to a meteor or volcano, you’ll find The Screw-Up Politician in horror movies too. Paul Reiser’s Burke from Aliens (there's that franchise again) certainly qualifies, even though he’s more of a businessman than a politician, as does Gregg Henry’s character Jack MacReady from James Gunn’s excellent horror comedy Slither. If they acknowledge their mistakes and eventually try to do the right thing, there’s a good chance they’ll live to see the end of the movie. If they don’t, or try to weasel their way out of taking responsibility for the deaths they inadvertently caused, they’ll probably die in a spectacular and satisfactory fashion.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE STOCK HORROR MOVIE CHARACTERS?