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How Not to Horror Addendum: Premises

In a previous piece here at Madness Heart Press (“How Not to Horror”), I pointed out a few pitfalls that a creative person embarking on a horror project should avoid. I suggested that people not trust the industry to have their best interests (or, indeed, those of readers/viewers) at heart. I also pointed out that a cool plot or good set location is not enough, on its own, to breathe life into a story. This week, I’d like to add another entry to my list of traps to avoid, this one the inverse, in a way, of my last one. It turns out that acting, directing, and even writing aren’t enough to save a story – a premise – that is just plain lame.

As evidence I submit to you the 2017 film Truth or Dare, a Syfy TV movie that is by turns gross and silly, but never very much fun. The plot – inasmuch as I could make sense of it – revolves around a group of college kids who are plagued by a demon that subjects them to a lethal game of truth or dare. If that sounds dumb, that’s because it is dumb. The cast are likeable enough and it’s a competently shot and edited movie. The writing isn’t terrible; at times, it’s even somewhat clever. But despite the serviceable craftsmanship, Truth or Dare can never escape the gravitational pull of its premise: “What if a bunch of kids played truth or dare…. BUT DEADLY!”

“Hang on a second,” you might say. “I thought that was the title, premise, and more or less the plot of a Blumhouse-produced film from 2018.” Twenty points to Slytherin! You’re right! Now, in fairness, I didn’t sit through the 2018 Truth or Dare (life is fleeting, after all, and while evil never sleeps, I’m a busy guy), so there’s every chance that it’s just fine. I’m skeptical, though, given the similarities in plot and general outline to the 2017 version. It’s a premise that’s possibly a poison pill; tired, trite, and terrible.

We have all seen a very talented artist take a concept that is slightly unwieldy and execute it so well that any misgivings about the story idea are forgotten. Stephen King’s early career is filled with examples of this. Christine is about a haunted car, for hell’s sake, but succeeds beautifully thanks to well-written characters and a fictional setting that vibrates with life. The Shining is, if you strip away the mazy, claustrophobic atmosphere that King invokes so chillingly, just a story about a haunted hotel – a premise almost as old as horror itself. Cujo can be seen as part of a tradition as old as The Call of the Wild and as new as The Grey, but by fixing the story so vividly in late 1970s / early 1980s America, King makes it stand out from the pack (so to speak).

My point, therefore, is not that a cracking good, absolutely original premise is necessary for a work to be a success. Indeed, some of the very best horror out there has at its heart an update, twist, or interesting variant on an already well-established horror trope or theme. No, the point is simply that some premises are stupid or objectionable enough that it’s almost impossible for a creator to overcome them. The trick, of course, is that this standard – like more or less all artistic standards – is completely subjective. As evidence of this fact, I submit to you the hideous Rorschach inkblot test that is The Human Centipede.

There are a great many people who simply cannot get past Human Centipede’s premise, which is completely understandable. I’m not one of them (I think it’s delightful, personally), but I understand that stance. While it’s far from the goriest or most violent horror movie ever made, there’s something about writer/director Tom Six’s vision – and, indeed Tom Six himself – that strikes a nerve in folks who are otherwise impossible to shock or creep out. Since that is without any doubt what the film’s intention was, I’d call it a success on its own terms. At some point, I’ll be devoting an entire post to my thoughts on Six’s Centipede trilogy, so feel free to look forward to – or dread – that.

I suppose one of the redeeming qualities of a bonkers premise is that it can spark outright loathing of one’s work, which isn’t the worst possible reaction from critics. I’d argue that indifference is more damning. A premise that is just lame, on the other hand, can sink a project outright. The trick is to thread the needle and avoid either outcome – otherwise, a story may face disaster before even one word is written or one second of film shot.

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