Shudder Watch: Sometimes Lovely, Mostly Campy – DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS

Final VerdictMayyyyybe worth a watch if you’re curious about a fairly corny, occasionally inspired cult erotic sorta-horror flick.

When you combine being sick in bed on a Sunday with Shudder’s unique streaming alternatives, you can easily find yourself watching something you ordinarily wouldn’t. You ou see, while Shudder’s service has the familiar “watch what you want any time you want” option of every other streaming service, it also has what basically amounts to four “channels” that feature unalterable, programmed content. There’s “Slashics” which–you might guess–runs slasher movie classics. There’s “Wicked Grin” that features more comedic or lighthearted horror / thriller fare. There’s the “Psychological Thrillers” channel, which doesn’t have time for any cute name shit. And then there is the primary channel, “It Came From Shudder” which, near as I can tell, just plays whatever the hell it wants to.

It’s a pretty cool option to have, I think, as it has the potential to introduce you to flicks you’ve either never heard of or seen before, or at least wouldn’t have been searching for at that exact moment. Sometimes those flicks are little gems, like the surprising German zombie flick I’ll be writing about in the future1. Otherwise, well, let’s get into Daughters of Darkness.

First off, I was surprised at how well-received this movie was and, to some extent, still is. Admittedly, I’m not up enough on my 70’s Euro-arthouse cinema, so I can’t offer any counter to the reviews that note it as a strong example of that genre merged with horror. And to be clear, the film doesn’t have a unanimous, outstanding reputation, so much as a generally solid rep as a cult / underrated near-classic. I almost see what some of the positive reviews are getting at when they call it an “exercise in mood [and] tone” or “fairly stylish” (the latter from Roger Ebert’s curiously non-committal review that’s mostly just a rundown of plot points). Ultimately, though, no, I don’t see it. The movie has some lovely moments here and there, but not nearly enough to make up for the clunky campiness that makes up the bulk of the film

The story is very straightforward and the plot eschews any attempts at mystery. Two newlyweds–an unfortunate young woman named Valerie and her untrustworthy, murder-and-torture obsessed new hubby, Stefan–stop over at an old hotel when their planned train trip meets an unexpected roadblock. The newlyweds happen to be placed in the favored royal suite of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a woman who hasn’t visited the hotel in 40-years, who checks in with her female companion just after the married couple arrive.

In case the Countess’s name was too much of a dead giveaway as to her true nature and eventual motives–and a glowing neon clue as to who’s behind a spate of murders committed in the area–the hotel porter tells her right to her face that he remembers her from four-decades prior, when he was but a bellboy. Only she hasn’t aged at all, he claims! She looks just as she did all those years ago. And she just sort of semi-coyly plays along and before denying she is the same woman. This all happens less than fifteen-minutes into the movie.

Not very long after–but longer than you think, given how little actually happens between scenes–Bathory introduces herself to Valerie and Stefan, and wastes little time in regaling Stefan with the sexually torturous exploits of the Countess of legend while groping him right in front of his wife, as is customary in Europe, I presume. Valerie is more horrified by the explicit descriptions of torture that are very blatantly arousing Stefan than she is upset with this woman having her hands all over her husband, and I can’t tell if that’s absurd or understandable because the scene is so bizarre you can’t expect her character to behave like a normal person.

Tempted as I am to turn this entire write-up into a plot-recap highlighting one silly moment after another, I don’t really want to do that (anymore than I already have). Hopefully what I’ve written already gives you an idea of what you might be in for if you chose to watch Daughters of Darkness. If not, I will add that it has two death scenes that are inept enough to lift an eyebrow, but not quite baffling enough to be full on laughable. They involve sharp-but-not-sharp-enough instruments falling in impossible ways to stab or cut people in fatal ways that defy what you’re seeing.

I can’t say I regret having watched Daughters of Darkness, but there’s no way in hell I could recommend it. The writing is thin, the characters may as well be aliens, the handful of lovely shots are undermined by the barrell-full of overwrought, corny moments, and the interesting score is rendered ineffective by a comical overuse of dire-strokes punctuating any moment that might be remotely seen as sinister and several moments that aren’t close to being sinister. And I suppose, once-upon-a-time, this movie was erotic, but even the “seduction” and sex in this film is rudimentary.

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Shudder Watch: The Splendid Leanness of THE FOG

Spoilers abound. Be warned.

John Carpenter’s The Fog initially had an 80-minute runtime before Carpenter, dissatisfied with what he believed to be “a movie that didn’t work,” reshot some scenes to improve what he didn’t care for and make the movie bit more coherent where he felt it was needed. These reshoots included new and extended scenes, which beefed the runtime up to a whopping 89-minutes. Ironically, one of the added scenes makes the movie cut even more abruptly to the chase than it would have otherwise.

In the opening scene, an old sailor is sharing an important piece of local ghostlore to a group of captivated children. That ghost story gives us about 90% of the background information regarding who our antagonists are what their motivation is. It precedes the titular fog’s first appearance and the killings associated with it, so that by the time it happens there’s little mystery as to who’s behind the killings and why. Excise this scene and we’d have to instead wait for Father Malone’s reading of his grandfather’s diary, which comes in around the 40-minute mark, to get a proper explanation as to what’s going on (presuming you haven’t read a synopsis in advance). As it is, the information in the diary just fleshes out the final 10% of  the story that the opening campfire tale wasn’t privy to.

Carpenter clearly wasn’t interested in wasting anyone’s time. The movie has little to no interest in its subplots. The potential “romantic” subplot between Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins is actually a “casual hookup/we’re just hanging out” aside that gives the characters a bit of life, but doesn’t come close to distracting from the primary story. Adrienne Barbeau’s DJ-in-a-Lighthouse is a single-mother whose son is there to discover key pieces of plot that get washed ashore, and to be a potential rescuee later in the movie. Her flirty interactions with the weatherman are just setting up a reason for her to hear things that will confirm her suspicions about the fog later in the film. No romantic detour for her, and no ex-husband / deadbeat dad drama surrounding her child’s father. When the chairwoman of the town’s Centennial Celebration finds out her husband must have died at sea, she grieves onscreen for less than 30 seconds before she’s like, “Welp, show must go on. Time to give my speech.” Who has time for any other business in a killer fog movie when there’s a killer fog out there fogging up the town and killing people?

I haven’t come out and said it yet, so now’s as good a time as any: I think The Fog is great. It’s a perfect Halloween-horror type of story. It’s grim, but hardly nihilistic, it’s dire but not dour, menacing although bloodless (more on that later), and ghastly if not full on frightening.

The characters aren’t especially deep, but they’re all built to be immediately interesting. We have the aforementioned DJ-in-a-Lighthouse, which is the kind of fictional job that I think would get ridiculed for being implausible if it showed up in a romantic comedy. We have an aspiring photographer hitchhiking her way to greener creative pastures. We have the local guy who’s apparently cool enough to pick up pretty young hitchhikers and have them want to sleep with him on the first night, and then they just chill in bed together looking through her portfolio like it’s nothing, just stuff that adults do, which, you know, of course it is.

Everything about the movie is so very matter-of fact. When our trusted local DJ starts issuing warnings to the population to stay off the streets and avoid the fog, we see the aforementioned chairwoman and her assistant–who haven’t encountered anything remotely resembling a threat so far–immediately take the DJ at her word. Granted, the night before the entire town basically experienced some kind of unexplained kinetic havoc that set off car alarms and blew out windows, so it’s not as if they had no reason to believe that something bizarre was afoot. Nonetheless, the refusal to waste time on characters debating the believability of what’s transpiring helps keep the movie so lean. The leanness is part of what makes the flick such a blast. It’s funhouse horror done right.

It’s also an example of how good a PG-13 horror movie can be if it’s, you know, made well. “But John Carpenter’s original was rated R, you idiot. Are you talking about that pathetic remake, you dumbass know-nothing.” First off, the name-calling is unbecoming. Secondly, the R-rating for the original film is incredibly bogus. I mentioned earlier that this film is entirely bloodless, and the quick glimpses of gore we see, courtesy of the rotted faces of the restless dead, isn’t as graphic as any of the gruesome images seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a PG movie that came out a year later. Carpenter and Debra Hill (co-writer and producer of the film) stated that one reason for the reshoots was to add gore to the film to help it stand amongst the gorier horror movies that the 80’s would soon bring us. In that respect, the reshoots apparently failed miserably. Again, there is literally no blood in the movie. The juicy corpses are maybe as horrid as any of the ones seen in the decidedly PG-13 remake of The Mummy, only the fetid faces in The Fog get far, far less screen time. If this movie were re-rated today it easily be PG-13. It’s rated R because PG-13 didn’t exist in 1980, and because the MPAA is, at best, wildly inconsistent.

So do I have any beefs with The Fog at all? Well, on this rewatch, it did strike me as a little odd and contrived that Father Malone stopped reading his grandfather’s diary after reading about all of the murderous conspiracy bits. “I couldn’t read any further” he said. Really? Because I feel like you already got through the worst of it? What did you think you were going to see on the next page? “Now that I’ve developed a taste for murder, I think I’m going to take a trip to London, target some prostitutes, taunt Scotland Yard with a letter or two.” A few pages deeper and he would have found out about the important-but-not fact that the church’s large gold cross was made from the melted down gold stolen from our vengeful spirits.

Then there’s the ending, which I’m probably sourer on now than I was when I was younger, just because it reminds me of the issues horror movies still have with ending confidently absent “one last scare.” The story is concluded. Six had to die to pay for the number of lives lost, or so we thought, but the unexpected repayment of the stolen gold appeared to quell the bloodthirst of the spirits after all, sparing the sixth life. Does it make a ton of a sense? Eh. But it works better than having Blake’s spirit seemingly accept the gold as recompense, only to come back later as though he changed his mind. How did that go down?

“All right boys, we did it. We rode the fog into town, killed the five that had to die and even reclaimed our gold as a bonus.”

“Uh, boss. There are six of us. Six had to die.”

“What? No. It’s just five. I counted before we left. There’s you, Brad, Smokey–”

“You forgot to count yourself again, didn’t you?”

“…shit. Shit. Now I have to go all the way back there…”

Ultimately, these are minor things, and my final verdict on The Fog should be apparent.

Worth your time?

Always and forever. Pick an evening, any evening–although preferably a foggy one–put this one on and enjoy.

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Simple Mistakes Afflicting Too Many Short Horror Films: No Characters, Just Actors

In the previous post on the subject of short horror films, I took some time out to gripe about short horror films that don’t even bother to tell a complete story, but instead start and end with (an often quite thin) premise. I wrapped that post up by sharing one of my favorite horror shorts, which actually features a full story, and as such has room enough to also give us at least one legitimate character, who undergoes about as much of an “arc” (something that, admittedly, I find a bit overrated these days in storytelling, but that’s something for another day) as one can in a 9-minute movie.

This leads me to the 2nd flaw I feel is hindering too many horror short films…

No Characters, Just Actors

In the prior entry, I referred laid out the following scenario for a story-less short horror flick:

“Undistinguished person X encounters some sort of inexplicable ghostly phenomenon, experiences an escalation of the threat posed by said phenomenon, then succumbs to said phenomenon. Cue credits.”

Undistinguished Person X, played by Actor Given Very Little to Work With, is a pseudo-protagonist who appears in several weaker short horror flicks. They are present solely to see something ostensibly scary, react to it, and possibly be killed by it, or left “presumed killed” by it off-screen. They are as generic, unimportant and forgettable as a character can be, so much so that they only qualify as a character in the strictest technical terms. They have no actual character or notable, defining traits or ambitions or qualities unto themselves.

The time constraints of a short film can understandably present a challenge to a filmmaker when it comes to crafting a half-decent, legitimate character. This is especially true with certain super-short horror flicks that last maybe 2 minutes or less from opening moment to closing credits. This same challenge can be overridden more easily in literary flash fiction because it can only take a few sentences to put you directly into the mind of the character, or give the reader information about someone that would be more clumsily delivered via film. But you certainly don’t need an internal monologue or even dialogue to elevate people in a short film from mere participants to characters.

I’m probably cheating for my positive example of character work in a short film here, since the clip below is a game trailer, but it works perfectly as a short film nonetheless, and eschews dialogue in favor of other tools available to filmmakers to make us feel for the people caught up in the horror that surrounds them. Even though the action is presented in reverse, and I know how it must end, by the end of the video, I still find myself pulling for these characters to make it somehow.

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I’m Just Gonna Leave This Here

When discussing horror stories, very few things (if any) irk me more than people being so scared of (or having such disdain for) the dreaded “h-word” that they try to re-categorize a successful horror story. The wild financial success of It has put it in the crosshairs of horror-haters who apparently want to christen it a thriller or even a drama so as not to give credit to any movie associated with that damn h-word. Brian Collins at Birth.Movies.Death rails against this as well as I ever could, so I’m gonna go ahead and leave a link to his article here. Suffice to say, I couldn’t agree more with everything he has to say.

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The Best of IMDb’s Beloved Foreign Posters for Horror Movies

Recently, IMDb shared their favorite foreign posters for horror movies. Even people with a casual interest in movie posters are probably aware that the foreign version of a movie poster are, if nothing else, often weirder and more curious than what we end up with stateside. I wouldn’t say that the Hungarian poster for Star Wars is better than the classic original, for instance, but it’s certainly memorable in its own very different way.

While IMDb’s list is fun and interesting, I’m pretty sure that the number of posters selected is entirely arbitrary. There are plenty of great choices here, but the list could probably stand some trimming. Some of the posters are almost identical to the original Hollywood poster, with the biggest difference being the language for the title, tagline and credits. Some are pretty good, but just didn’t stand out to me, or just didn’t strike me as terribly effective horror movie posters. And while the syntactically ambiguous “Foreign Horror Movie Posters We Love” title leaves the IMDb list open to include posters for foreign-horror movies, I think it’s more interesting (or at least consistent) to just look at the foreign-version of posters for “non-foreign” (aka, U.S. and English) horror flicks.

As a poster / cover-art dilettante and unknown horror author who very infrequently blogs about the subject of horror, I’m surely the ideal person to undertake the aforementioned trimming. Below you will find one man’s subjective list of what’s best from an already subjective larger list of what’s best. 2

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Simple Mistakes Afflicting Too Many Short Horror Films: All Premise, No Story

I am always eager to enjoy every short horror film that catches my interest. Whether the title grabs me, or the short description of the story, or the endorsement of a website or reviewer or friend whose tastes I generally trust, or a recognizable name behind or in front of the camera, if a short film gets me to click the “play” button, it has me ready to meet it halfway toward thinking it was pretty good.

Despite this, too many short horror movies lose me by the ending. Sometimes well before, despite the abbreviated run time.

I feel I must emphasize that I’m saying “too many.” Not most. I haven’t watched all short horror films there are in the world, so I wouldn’t be able to accurately make a statement about “most” of them even if I wanted to. I’m not even saying “many,” merely “too many,” which is, of course, subjective and relative. For instance, one punch connecting with my chin would be, from my perspective, one too many, whereas a dozen total punches landing in a twelve-round boxing match between two other people wouldn’t strike me as very many at all. Too few, in fact.

With that in mind, when I say “too many” horror shorts are afflicted with the problems I’ll be diving into, I’m saying that these problems are popping up in enough of these flicks to begin to drain my enthusiasm for short horror movies. Because instead of clicking play and solely being eager to enjoy what I’m about to watch, there’s a small part of me preoccupied with anticipating the pitfalls I’ve seen time and time and time again.

Let’s begin with probably the most fundamental element of storytelling, having a story to tell.

All Premise, No Story

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”

So goes the infamous “shortest horror story ever written,” Frederic Brown’s “Knock”. Except that’s not really the entirety of Brown’s story, just the most famous lines, which happen to bookend the tale. Many people do consider those two sentences a complete flash-fiction story on their own though, and while I’ve never been sold on it completely, I won’t go so far as to disagree. It has a protagonist (last person on Earth, survivor in the post-apocalypse, likely resourceful, probably very lonely), it has a setting (the room which has a closed door and is likely the man’s sanctuary, at least in the moment), it hints at a background (whatever reduced the global population to one), and at least suggests a potential conflict, drama, or development courtesy of the knock on the door (coming from, presumably, an unexpected fellow survivor, or the thing responsible for killing every other person). It does probably leave many readers wondering, “And then what?”, but that’s a question that could be asked of virtually any modern story of any length ever told, regardless of how satisfying and complete its ending may be. That’s why some old fairy tales used to end with, “And they lived happily ever after,” to try to kill off that question.

It’s possible, then–though difficult–to tell an ultra-succinct story that’s barely more than a premise and leaves your audience wondering, “And then what?” But if you tell an ultra-succinct story that’s barely more than a premise and leaves your audience thinking, “Why, and how, and what, and where and who?”, there’s a chance you didn’t actually tell a story. You shared a formative premise. You’ve filmed a the beginnings of an idea.

Here’s a small test: ask yourself if your short film would pass for a satisfactory story if told to a bunch of elementary school kids around a campfire? Or would it, instead, come off like so: “There was a woman who lived in a house. And then one day, she saw a ghost. But when she looked away, the ghost wasn’t there. But when she looked again, the ghost was there again! But closer! But when she looked away, the ghost was gone again. But when she looked back, it was right in her face! And then I think she died! The end.”

In short horror films, this is often the tale that gets spun. Undistinguished person X encounters some sort of inexplicable ghostly phenomenon, experiences an escalation of the threat posed by said phenomenon, then succumbs to said phenomenon. Cue credits. Often this unknown person has all of this happen to them suddenly in their home, which shows no signs of a recent move or anything else that would hint at the cause of a spirit or demon or what have you just randomly appearing in the house. Instead, the way it’s presented in the film, it just looks like this person’s been living here years with no problems, and then out of nowhere, “Oh shit, there’s something scary in the kitchen!”

I’ve stated elsewhere on this site that I’m a fan of ambiguity in horror fiction, but there’s a significant difference between a story that leaves some things unexplained, and a “story” that feels like the unfinished notes that should precede a first draft.

Granted, this is a challenge intrinsic to the short film format. Even the most anemically plotted feature-length film is all but forced to tell an actual story due to its length, even if it does so poorly. Short literature, meanwhile, can more easily bypass the “show, don’t tell” rule (which isn’t really a rule) of fiction. See the above story, “Knock.” Try to picture a film trying to match its brevity without resorting to narration.

Now, I’m not fond of bashing someone else’s work, particularly the work of aspiring artists who are behind most short films. So instead of singling out and sharing what I think is an example of bad storytelling in short film horror, I’m going to share what I think is an example of good, complete storytelling, The Maiden.

Again, in case someone’s mostly skimming through this and might have missed it in the preceding paragraph, the short film below is an example of good horror storytelling in a short film.

It’s not perfect, but it is a complete story, despite the questions deliberately left unanswered. There are some ultra-short horror films that would have cut off at the 45-second mark because they only exist to show off the cool effect that the director just found out he can pull off. Here, it is properly prologue. Because it tells a full story, it has room for more than one scare, and thus isn’t simply an impatient exercise in trying to execute one big payoff. It even has room for humor and actual character motivation, the latter of which I’ll be spending more time on in a future post.

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My Favorite Horror Movie Trailers: GHOST STORY

The film adaptation of Peter Straub’s novel is unsurprisingly simplified in comparison to its source material. While it has its moments, including a fairly well executed and suitably gruesome climactic reveal, and Alice Krige is pretty magnificent in it, it also has more than its share of corny scenes doomed by bad shot selection, or oversold acting, or questionable (even unnecessary) dialogue. There’s an opening scene featuring a man plummeting to his death that’s laughable even by 1981’s “We’re still sketchy on how best to execute believable falling scenes” standards. A later scene of someone falling off a bridge ends with the same clumsy impact seen when a character takes a dive in Les Miserables thirty-one years later. Apparently, in this one very, very specific area, we haven’t collectively learned much in the past three decades.

All of that out of the way, I’ve nonetheless always liked the trailer for Ghost Story. From the opening micro-monologue (which is one of the few elements that is even more effective in the movie than it is in the trailer), to every glimpse and hint it gives us of something horrific waiting to be seen, to the effectively mysterious tagline, it does a good job of selling the film.

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I am With the “Proud Mary” Trailer and REALLY with its Poster

Not too much to say beyond what’s in the title of the post. I’m glad to see (or hear, rather) that this trailer didn’t use some slowed town, sobered up, somber, twisted, chopped-&-screwed, or otherwise tortured cover version of the song “Proud Mary.” If you’re not too good to use the name, you’re not too good to use the song, and the trailer’s creators recognize this, so bravo to them for that. Beyond that, the trailer is edited well (including a nice bit using diegetic sounds to replace Tina Turner’s vocals) and is solid enough for an action movie trailer.

The poster, though? It’s just lovely. I might love it a little too much, the way a famished person might oversell how tasty a reasonably good sandwich actually is. I hate to think I’m merely giving this poster credit for not being some clumsily Photoshopped garbage.

Quality official movie posters for major releases should not be the anomalies they sometimes seem to be. There are amateurs who crank out fine looking movie posters for free. Why, then, do so many modern, professionally made posters look like crappy afterthoughts cranked out 30-minutes before they were due to go to print?

Micro-rant over: this poster looks great. It sets the tone, it pops visually, it isn’t concerned with selling the face of the star to its potential audience at the expense of selling the character. It’s simple, but effective. The tagline is a little corny, but that’s a nitpick. This poster plays, and I’m all in on Proud Mary.

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One of the Keys to Keeping “Unlikable” Characters Tolerable

The recent box-office disappointment Rough Night drew obvious comparisons to the movie Very Bad Things given the shared premise of “accidental killing of stripper/sex worker leads to cover-up and further criminal behavior.” In speaking of Very Bad Things, several of the film’s detractors have pointed to just how vile and insufferable the characters were. Sure, it’s a dark comedy/thriller, so at least some of its characters are expected to be criminals. And it’s far, far, far from being the first or only movie whose primary characters are unsympathetic, selfish and even murderous assholes. And while there are certain people who are just never going to be on board with watching or reading a story featuring “unlikable” unsympathetic characters, there are many others (like me) who find such stories interesting, provided that the story is, well, interesting, and provided that the unlikable characters aren’t utterly insufferable.

So what is it about the characters in a movie like Very Bad Things that pushes their vileness over the top? Are their actions simply that deplorable? Does the story just fail them to such an extreme degree that they can’t be redeemed? In my opinion, the answer to the last two questions is “no.” The problem with most of the characters in Very Bad Things is that they don’t show the capacity to care for anyone at all other than themselves. The simple solution, then, is to give them at least the smallest sign that they are capable of caring. They can still be horrible, mostly hateful people, but showing that they have even an ounce of compassion for at least one other person can go a long way toward making them more palatable.

Examples of this can be found in more stories than I can hope to count. Pulp Fiction primarily follows the happenings of two homicidal hitmen who are very casual about killing innocent people, but they also seem to have a genuine friendship even early on in the movie. It makes them easier to get along with from an audience perspective, because even though they may argue, they generally get along with each other. Sticking with Tarantino, Mr. Pink and Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs develop a bond that carries them through a botched robbery, mortal injury, distrust and conflict and betrayals, right up until the final emotional revelation.

Branching out into other crime stories starring villainous protagonists, the main trio of violent asshole gangsters in Goodfellas start off with a strong bond, and the deterioration of the bond due to greed, impulsive behavior and drug abuse is a core element of the story. O-Dog in Menace II Society is a monstrous, murderous lunatic, but he legitimately cares about his friend Cain. Scarface, of course, is focused on the rise and fall of an ambitious madman, but he does love his sister (albeit to an unhealthy and potentially unsavory degree) and his friend Manny. He even has compassion for strangers, given his personal code of not killing women or children. His care for other people and his emotional immaturity related to that caring are crucial components to his eventual downfall. Harold Shand, the bulldog bastard of a crime boss in The Long Good Friday, is a cruel, vicious hothead, but manages to muster some affection and even a sincere apology for his lady, Victoria. Going back farther, even the psychotic Cody Jarrett from White Heat loved the hell out of his mother.

But those are all dramatic films. What of a dark comedy, like Very Bad Things? The best contemporary example I can think of is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a television show centered on a group of awful people being consistently awful to one another and to anyone else unfortunate enough to cross their paths. Granted, humor is subjective, and part of Sunny‘s success hinges on whether or not you find the show funny, but even with that in mind, the show’s writers and creators are aware of the importance of showing that even despicable people need show signs of caring for others once every blue moon. Sunny has multiple examples throughout its long run of the gang rallying to actually do something nice or to be there for one their own (“Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats”, “Dee Gives Birth”) or simply enjoying each other’s company (“A Very Sunny Christmas”, “Mac and Charlie: White Trash”).  To be sure, they are still all manipulative, selfish, horrible assholes who are frighteningly proficient at ruining lives, and none of the examples of them being temporarily decent human beings redeems them in any way, but it does make them tolerable and show that they at least have the capacity–however limited–to be selfless and, dare I say, even loving.

All of this to make one simple point: if your protagonist is a horrible person, they needn’t be thoroughly horrible. And perhaps the easiest way to keep an unlikable character from being too intolerably irritating to bother with is to simply show that there’s at least one person in their world that they care about as much as they care about themselves.

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Perfect Rivals: Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo – TOMBSTONE

Some rivalries are built and strengthened by the opponents being perfect opposites, but others are memorable because the enemies reflect each other a little too closely for comfort. Doc Holliday spells it out for us during the famous first encounter he has with Johnny Ringo in Tombstone; here is a man who reminds him of himself, and for that reason alone, a drunken Holliday decides to despise him. When Ringo exhibits a knowledge of Latin that matches Holliday’s, Doc declares, “Now I really hate him.”

The men are very similar and it shows up on screen. Sometimes we’re simply told that two characters are or were similar in some fashion, but we’re given scant evidence of it. In Carlito’s Way, for example, one character scolds the older Carlito that brash, upstart Bennie Blanco (from the Bronx) is just a younger version of Carlito, to which the more seasoned gangster responds, “Never me.” It’s an example of how sometimes telling isn’t always necessarily worse than showing (a flashback would be cumbersome and disrupt the movie’s momentum), but it’s still something that we never get to visualize. Not so with Tombstone. The confrontation in the video above efficiently illustrates how Ringo and Holliday mirror one another. It also shows us where they differ.

One reason why Val Kilmer is rightly praised for his magnetic turn as Holliday is that he makes a murderous, borderline-psychopathic asshole likable. He almost certainly cheats at cards (“twelve hands in a row”? Ike’s right, nobody’s that lucky), taunts you for losing your money to his cheating ways, baits you into reacting and shivs you for it, nonchalantly robs the place his way out, then skips town with his lady (who prepared for their getaway ahead of time). He’s a scoundrel at best, a bloodthirsty, opportunistic murderer at worst. “Bloodthirsty murderer” is also an apt description of Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo. But Doc is also charming and witty, and he’s friends with the hero, so we like him. He’s also more confident, so he doesn’t have to posture aggressively the same way Ringo does (you can take “posture aggressively” literally in the scene above, where Ringo stands ready to draw, and Holliday remains calm with a drink in his hand).

Doc is a casual gardener of trouble, sowing it and inviting it to grow just to give himself something to do. Johnny Ringo is a compulsive carpenter of trouble. If he’s not building it, he feels lost.

Holliday also has a twisted sense of humor, whereas Ringo has none at all. Kilmer’s Holliday appears to see life and death as a bit of a joke. He knows he’s quick and great with a gun, and that his skills still won’t help him combat the brutal illness that’s consuming his life day by day. So he’s carefree about life-and-death matters in a way other men aren’t. He’s willing to “play for blood” in a shootout with a thoroughly drunken Ringo, but he doesn’t care about playing fair; he already has his gun drawn and hidden behind his back. Not only does he cheat at cards, he cheats at duels when he sees fit. Notice Doc’s slight grin as he tries to lure Ringo into a rash decision and hasty death.

Johnny Ringo lacks Holliday’s self-awareness. When Holliday says that a man like Ringo is “has got a great big hole right in the middle of him,” he’s speaking of himself as well. Granted, we spend more time with Holliday, but we get enough time with Ringo to understand that he doesn’t understand himself, doesn’t grasp what makes him so miserable and prone to violence. Holliday, conversely, knows and speaks of his own hypocrisy, he knows that Kate is using him and may be “the Antichrist,” and, in a heartbreaking, wonderful moment, he knows that he frankly hasn’t led a life that’s won him many friends.

Ringo is equally loyal to his few friends, even though he isn’t emotionally capable of articulating it the way Doc is. In the scene where he calls for the blood and souls of the Earps, he’s drunk for the only time in the movie. It’s no coincidence that this is on the heels of his friends in the Cowboys gang dying during the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. At no other time in the film is Johnny up for the Cowboys’ drunken debauchery. In fact, Ringo abstains from any vices besides killing. He’ll shoot a priest dead, to the shock of his fellow Cowboys, but he never chases women, doesn’t play cards and almost never drinks. Only when his friends have been killed–when he wasn’t there to use his expertise to help them–does Ringo seek solace in liquor.

The “hole” in Ringo’s life isn’t that much bigger than Holliday’s, Doc just realizes something is missing and therefore does something about it. While Ringo “can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain” to fill that space, Doc can at least partially quell his emptiness through booze, gambling, women, gunslinging, and an undying devotion to his one true friend. Ringo, intelligent but ignorant of himself and utterly joyless, avoids pleasure and seeks only death, but even that can’t come close to evening him out.

Ringo is also too reliant on having others see him as a man who’s too dangerous to be stood up to. Even Wyatt, brave as he is, conceded to Doc that he couldn’t beat Ringo in a gunfight, which is what prompted Doc to intervene. When Doc–a man who does not see Ringo as a Reaper, but just as a dead man walking, same as himself–shows up and says he wants to finish their game of “playing for blood,” Ringo says he was only joking.

“I wasn’t,” Doc says. And Ringo’s face turns from stone to this…

 

 

He’s afraid and confused. While Ringo chases death and wants “revenge [for] being born,” he doesn’t really want to die, and he really doesn’t want to be in this situation that he cannot control. Holliday, meanwhile, sports the same relaxed grin prior to their duel that he was wearing when telling Wyatt he was “rolling” with success, or observing that Kate wasn’t wearing a bustle, or when he proudly proclaimed to Ringo in their first meeting that he is in his prime.

When Holliday lands the fatal shot in their duel, he goads Ringo into getting a shot off of his own, and you get the sense that he’s sincere. Doc’s illness has condemned him to an early grave regardless of how he lives, and he’s well aware of this. When he senses his time is coming, he’s only distressed at the thought of Wyatt watching him pass. When Wyatt leaves the room, Holliday makes a final, calm comment observing that he’s dying with his boots off, and then he dies without much stress.

In the end, the result of this rivalry–predictable as it may be for a crowd-pleasing Western–is foreshadowed by that first confrontation. There is Doc Holliday, the casual gardener, and Johnny Ringo, the compulsive carpenter. The cool improviser, and the impulsive controller. Two men with similar talents and a similar blood lust, but a few crucial difference. Ringo instigates trouble because he must be in control–or at least feel that he is in control–and must keep up appearances as the baddest man in the room. He needs others to see him a certain way. Doc invites trouble and simply takes things as they come, and doesn’t much care what most others think of him. Ringo shows off his (probably rehearsed) gun-twirling tricks for the crowd to show everyone he’s a bad, bad man, and Doc makes a joke of it, because he’s savvy and wants to deescalate the situation for the sake of his friends, but also because he doesn’t care if anyone else thinks he’s a bad, bad man. He knows who and what he is.

And when the insecure man who must control trouble is confronted by an uncontrollable variable he wasn’t prepared for–Doc showing up for a duel before Wyatt could arrive–well, his fear is so apparent that his rival can see the ghost in him, and truthfully tells him that he looks as though someone’s walked over his soon-to-be-dug grave.

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