The other day the good people at LoveFilm posted Kevin Smith’s newest film Red State through my door. A huge fan of all his other work I had heard this was a bit of a way off from Clerks and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Little did I know that this film would scare the absolute proverbial out of me and make me a nervous wreck for the rest of the night. Now, I am not a man who gets scared so easily; I did my university dissertation on the Video Nasties, I can watch any number of zombie films without flinching and I am the first to lambast the predictability of Hollywood horror at the moment, even finding Paranormal activity, the rather tame, although I liked the idea.
But this film did something different to the myriad of recent torture porn and splatter fest films. The film follows three boys, hoping to get lucky with an escort from the internet, but instead of getting laid are tricked into the church of extremist Christians in the South with ultra views and rituals. It doesn’t sound like the template for a film that will keep you up half the night, but believe me it is and it is because of how smartly it is executed. This is my definitive list of how to make a scary film in the mould of Red State:
Make it Real: With Red State it felt sometimes like it was being shot by a documentarian. The camera spends long amount of times within the church, sitting and listening to the sermons of the Preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) before acting as a camera in a war report. Not only the camera is real though, the frightening thing is that these Christians are very real. They have groups of fundamentalist Christians protesting homosexual funerals and condemning people to hell, believing that their services to God will see them spend their days in eternal bliss. As Louis Theroux’s documentary, ‘The Most Hated Family In America’ showed, these people are very real and the inability to reason with them coupled with their strong beliefs make them a more evil villain than most.
Make Everybody Expendable: It has become a huge shame in Hollywood cinema that anyone with the basic grasp of narrative knows who will survive by the end of the movie. Even if this isn’t the case most people know it is whoever is garnering the biggest pay check. In The Expendables, none of the actors wanted to die, and none of them did, rendering the title obsolete and creating a relatively boring movie. If only more films had the audacity to kills off their main characters and make the story more unpredictable then the horror and action genre would stay fresh. Here, there is no knowing, and it is done so ruthlessly and quickly that your mind does not immediately grasp who’s been killed or why or by whom.
Give your main villain no weaknesses: Abin Cooper is one of the most terrifying creations on screen ever, his quiet, calculating demeanour allow him to seem harmless but he is full of passive anger and evil. He has no weakness like villains past because he is answering to God, therefore nobody is safe. The fact that you cannot reason with this man is somewhat terrifying. His sheer hatred for the decadence of humankind develops an unreasonable abuse of his holy powers resulting in him murdering everybody whose actions do not coincide with the word of the Lord.
Don’t make it glamorous: Many horror films make the fundamental mistake of having their lead teenagers look beautiful, even after being chased by a crazed killer and dragged through fields, they can maintain their perfect hair and escape with only a scratch to the forehead. Here however, everyone is bloody, no one’s really wearing any make up. Everyone looks normal, like they were just going to have a normal night before the film’s chain of events began. The verisimilitude creates an unnerving, unpredictable atmosphere, perfect for the film.
Finally, make a crazy alternative ending which is totally out the blue and sounds terrifying: This is the final part that really shook me up. After the film I decided to do some research about it on the internet and found an alternate ending that did not make it, possibly due to a lack of funds. If you intend to see the film I’d suggest skipping the next two paragraphs.
Ok, the film results in a huge gun battle between the Fundamentalists and some ATF Agents who have discovered that the church is dabbling with terrorism. Many of the main characters are killed off throughout the firefight before a sound of thundering horns is heard. Abin Cooper leads the remainder of his procession out into the front of the house declaring it to be the apocalypse and their salvation. Instead in the film it is merely some eco warriors playing a prank before cutting to Agent Keenan (John Goodman) explaining what happened to some government officials before cutting to Cooper in prison.
Now, in the original this was truly the apocalypse, beginning with Cooper’s chest exploding before the rest of his family’s. The ground starts to open as Keenan covers his ears and eyes in fear. The final chest explosion reveals the an angel wielding a sword before putting a finger to his lips and saying ‘shhhh’ to Keenan before flying off as the film concludes with The Horseman of the Apocalypse descending. Now, that seems terrifying just for how random and different it is. No film would do an ending like that and leave the viewer stranded at the end of the world with no sense of closure, but they could of and probably for all intensive purposes should of. It would have shown what you could do with a horror film these days.
However it ended, the film was great and frightening in equal measure. It really puts a boost into the genre and hopefully more Hollywood movies try harder to try to escape the banality of narrative in a lot of mainstream cinema. It is just a shame that not every Red State is going to be made and it its purely economical which films do. There are going to be many, interesting films that will never see the light of day and that is merely down to funding, while Jack and Jill, recent recipient of the record ten Razzie awards will be shown in every cinema in the world.