SPOILERSI've been talking and thinking a lot about creature features recently thanks to my mate and co-writer Jared (yes, the one who was about 47 hours late AND went to the wrong Coach & Horses that time. I will never forgive him and you shouldn't either).
I've read A LOT of creature features via Bang2write over the years (though interestingly, hardly any in the last eighteen months or so). One thing spec creature features (CFs hereafter) usually do well is THE KILLING. And that's unsurprising, since THE KILLING (and ripping, tearing and maiming) is easily the most "identifiable" element of the creature feature (bar the actual monster).
Yet creature feature specs hardly ever "hold up" in the same way as a produced monster movie, even a poor one, so I thought I'd take a look at why - looking at three produced CF movies of the past ten years: The Cave, The Descent and Pitch Black.
I've written before there's loads of movies about with the "same idea" and that originality is overrated. With this in mind then, The Cave and The Descent have essentially the same premise: a load of cavers go into a big hole and there's monsters inside. Run! Both even had prologue sequences: The Cave showed us Romanian guys opening up the mouth of the hole under the big church; in The Descent we see the death of Sarah's family before that ill-fated caving trip.
So let's look at the differences:
The Cave was American and The Descent was British. The Cave had the more of less "classic" cast set up made probably most famous by Alien: a bunch of guys and two gals. The Descent, interestingly, had an all-female cast (of cavers, anyway). The Cave was classic Hollywoodised fare, with good-looking fellas (of various ethnic backgrounds, thangyew) with rippling muscles and at least one girl in practically her bra and pants, even when rock climbing. In comparison The Descent had more of a "nightmarescape" feel to it. Oh yeah, and probably the most important difference: I found The Cave to be crap and non-scary, whereas I thought The Descent was actually quite good and definitely scary.
Now let's look at Pitch Black. Like The Cave and Descent after it and like Aliens before it, Pitch Black includes multiple monsters (rather than the lone creature of Alien, Alien 3, Predator or Predator 2). Again there is a cast of both male and females of various backgrounds, though interestingly there are children and teenagers present too - and children and teens die, unlike Newt in Aliens and just about every other CF with kids in I can think of. Like The Cave it was a Hollywoodised affair, but that didn't stand in its way this time; I didn't find it as scary as The Descent by a long shot, but I did find it quite thrilling and there was enough gore to keep a hardcore Horror nut happy as far as I was concerned. There were some moments of humour too, missing from the other two:
JOHNS: How does it look?
RIDDICK checks out the terrain.
RIDDICK: Looks clear.
Johns attempts to make it out beyond the fallen vehicle just as a HUGE CREATURE bursts out, nearly taking his head off.
JOHNS: You said it was clear!
RIDDICK: I said it "looks clear".
JOHNS: Well, how does it look now?!
Riddick checks out the terrain again, turns back with a smirk.
RIDDICK: Looks clear.
So those are my thoughts on the films themselves, now let's take a look at those elements that make them up that are so often MISSING from spec CFs:
The Monster/s # 1: Simplicity. In The Cave and The Descent, the cavers descend directly into the creatures' lair. In Pitch Black, the survivors of the spaceship crash land on a planet infested with creatures. THAT IS IT. In essence, humans are TRESPASSING into creature territory. This is a great, simple way of investing in the premise: HERE THERE BE MONSTERS and all that... Go near them, get your head bitten off. Simples. Remember we saw similar in the Alien franchise - first Dallas, Lambert and Kane actually pick up the creature and take it into the Nostromo; then the colonists do similar on Burke's recommendation after hearing Ripley's story; then Ripley takes the creature onto the prison planet... forget about ALIEN: RESURRECTION (scientists recreating the creature is not the same and also, not simple in the same way). Sometimes the creatures come to human territory - the Predator is the most obvious here - but again, crucially, the marines blunder directly into The Predator's path WHILE DOING SOMETHING ELSE (ie. rescuing the hostages at that jungle base, drawing the Predator's interest as a foe to be reckoned with). In direct comparison then, in CF specs, often WHY the creatures turn up is FAR TOO COMPLICATED and/or WEIRD. Very often I'm writing, "why do the creatures attack NOW?" especially if the action takes place on Earth or above ground, near human territory.
The Monster/s # 2: Origin. Very often scribes want to let the audience know *exactly where* creatures have come from... This means there's a lot of electricity, radiation, demonic and screwed-up evolution monsters in the spec pile. In The Cave, they tell us a number of things VERY OVERTLY about the creatures, most notably they are demons (making the cave not a cave at all, but a Hell pit), but also they were those original Romanian builders who got trapped in the prologue (hence the tattoos on their hands). What's it to be?? This is a very good example of TOO MUCH exposition being more confusing than too little. In direct comparison, The Descent is much more skillful, suggesting via a single scene the creatures *could* be evolved from cavers trapped down there in Victorian times when they see that very old school bolt in the rock going one way, with none coming out. Similarly, in a single scene Pitch Black fills us in via the moving model which shows us about the eclipse and how another is coming - which they know already spells trouble, since Zeke is already dead by this point (down in the dark hole). If a scribe WANTS to tell us where the monsters have come from, then better to tell us ONCE, not multiple times. (NOTE: this is not the same as characters THEORISING about the creatures throughout, like Hud in Cloverfield, which NEVER answers where the creatures come from. If a scribe wants to go for this idea in their CF, I would recommend a few choice moments of theorising, rather than going overboard and having it as the only thing that character talks about).
The first death. Very frequently, the first death via creature comes FAR TOO LATE in CF specs I see... and when they do come early (ie. end of Act One is optimum, though I've seen people die even in the first ten pages to good effect), it's very frequently a RANDOM CHARACTER PUT THERE SIMPLY TO DIE who is not directly part of *our* group (ie. a random guide). Yet genre convention demands we invest in the GROUP in Horror, meaning we need someone we KNOW (ie. not a faceless dying person) to die first. It's even better if we *think* we know who it will be - and it turns out to be someone else. For example, one thing The Cave does well is it sets up one character, Briggs, AS IF he will die by sending him ahead of the group and them losing contact with him... Only for it to be Strode instead, who we the audience had deemed "safe" as he was at the BACK.
No going back. Too many times in CF specs there is a "way out"... And characters are too stupid to realise and take it. If we look then to all three of the movies, there is quite literally no going back. In The Cave, Strode's death brings the underwater rockfall that means they are all literally trapped underground; something similar happens in The Descent. In Pitch Black, they are literally stranded on the planet thanks to the original spaceship crash and must find their way off, rather like Ripley sends Bishop to get the other plane in Aliens. Again, all very simple... but so often missing in CF specs: TRAP your characters, FORCE them to confront the creatures.
Character # 1: The Group's problem is not *just* the monster. There should always be someone "in league with the beast" if not directly, then indirectly - and this is another element I frequently see missing from CF specs. In The Descent, Sarah doesn't just have to deal with the monsters, but the fact she's down there with Juno, whom she blames for her family's death. In the Cave, Jack is TURNING INTO one of the creatures literally, a twist on the Zombie myth. In Pitch Black, we have not only the duel for supremacy over the group between Johns and Riddick, we also have the weakest link Paris undermining everything including destroying their original plan (which most likely would have worked) through his own cowardice.
Character # 2: Group dynamic. Of the three, surprisingly I felt Pitch Black presented this the best. The survivors are the "fucked up family" Riddick describes them as - and they really do tear themselves apart via a series of revelations, whether it's John's addiction, Riddick's murderous past, Jack's gender or Fry's moment of madness in the cockpit during the prologue. Sarah has her friends with her, including her own sister - but crucially the addition of Juno gives the story the edge as both women size each other up throughout, with a confrontation between them near the mouth of the cave in the Resolution. Of the three, The Cave presented the poorest characterisation, despite its attempts to differentiate: most of the characters are marked out as creature fodder or are mere cardboard cut-outs, essentially become plot devices. Even the fact Jack and Tyler are brothers - and there's sibling rivalry hinted at - is not capitalised on and perhaps most surprising of all, when Jack begins to "turn", no one seems shocked or even that surprised, even saying, "He's not human anymore" - HELLO! DOESN'T THAT FREAK ANYONE OUT, JUST A LITTLE BIT?! The CF specs I see then are often more like The Cave in terms of character, than The Descent or Pitch Black.
CONCLUDING: If writing a CF, consider the notion of taking your human group directly into the path of the monsters *for some reason*, rather than the other way round; whilst the latter CAN work (ie. TREMORS, CLOVERFIELD), it's much more difficult. Consider the needs and dynamic of the GROUP, make us invest in them and surprise us when you kill one of them for the first time, whilst making sure your characters just can't walk away from the problem.
ON THIS BLOG BEFORE ABOUT CREATURE FEATURES
Heroes & Monsters
Know Your Enemy (But Don't Know Too Much)
The Required Reading List - Genre Section