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Seven Things I Don’t Want to See in Another Low-budget Movie


Ouija boards

Seriously, who plays with Ouija boards? No-one, that’s who. In my time, I’ve known all sorts of people: young and old, intellectuals and idiots, sceptics and believers in the supernatural. I have never met anyone ever who has tried to summon spirits with an Ouija board, whether in earnest or for a laugh. It just doesn’t happen outside of cheap horror movies. But within cheap horror movies, boy does it ever happen.

      A few years ago, I wrote a script for someone featuring a scene where a character finds an Ouija board and suggests using it, whereupon everyone else makes their excuses and leaves because it’s such a stupid, pointless thing to do. I was quite proud of that scene. I don’t know what ‘the kids’ do for kicks nowadays. In my day, you sprayed some graffiti on a telephone box or smashed a shop window. A later generation just sat around the War Memorial drinking alcopops and smoking. Today’s kids are so dull that their idea of living dangerously is probably using a fake name in Starbucks. But none of us, ever, have used Ouija boards. No matter how drunk, stoned, bored or curious we were, it’s just something that doesn’t happen. So low-budget film-makers, please, stop putting it in your low-budget films.

Kickboxing

In a similar vein, nobody kickboxes. Actually, let me clarify that. I have known a number of people over the years who did kickboxing but, without exception, they were all involved in the production of low-budget films. Maybe that’s why people who make low-budget films include kickboxing – they see it happening around them and assume that it’s a thing. Trust me, it isn’t. Karate is a thing. Kung fu is, or at least was, a thing. Kickboxing is just what people do in low-budget movies that can’t afford a proper fight scene. Apparently people even kickboxed hundreds of years ago. I recall being hugely impressed with Christophe Gans’s sumptuous (and extremely French) action/horror romp Brotherhood of the Wolf, but the one thing that let it down was Mark Dacoscos as a Native American name Mani. I could accept a Native American in 18th century France, but I was slightly suspicious when it came to the fight scenes and he started kickboxing his opponents.

      Another anecdote from my mountain of unproduced screenplays. I worked on a feature called Human Residue in which I mentioned, in passing, as a sort of Chekhov’s gun, that a character’s exploits at school had included being on the judo team. Near the end, when she faced off against one of the subhuman threats (it was a fairly blatant 28 Days Later knock-off), I gave her the line: 'You’re bigger than me. You’re stronger than me. You’re faster than me. … You’re not smarter than me'. Then, as the thing hurled itself at her, she drew on her memories of judo to use the creature’s own weight and momentum against itself. In the subsequent draft, by another writer, the reference to judo was changed to kickboxing and she consequently beat the creature by actually being stronger and faster than it. Which I kind of felt maybe wasn’t so satisfying…

Vampires with torsos made of mashed potato

I covered this a couple of years ago when I wrote one of these blogs about vampires, and it still bugs me. The human chest is a fairly solid wall of muscle (sometimes with an overlaying layer of fat). No matter how sharp your stake is, you need some serious force to get through that muscle, especially as behind it is the sternum, a particularly solid bone whose principle function is to protect the heart from anything sharp and forceful enough to get through the chest wall. This is why Father Sandor waits until a vampire is lying down then uses a bloody great mallet to whack his stakes in.

      Now, okay, maybe vampires are less substantial than ordinary humans. They can after all do that whole non-corporeal schtick where they dissipate into a cloud of spooky smoke which then seeps in around the door-frame or window-frame. They can also turn into a bat, which would only be possible if they could magically control their mass (otherwise you would have a ten-stone bat, and that baby ain’t fluttering anywhere). So perhaps you could argue that the chest wall of a vampire is less substantial than that of a human. But that seems a bit unlikely, doesn’t it? That’s not what I would call a sound evolutionary adaptation.

      One of my favourite gags is in James Eaves’s The Witches Hammer, which features a large lady vampire whose bust is so extensive that it effectively makes her invulnerable to stakes. Ironically, breast tissue is a lot softer than chest muscle and probably would yield to a well-aimed, sharp bit of wood, but the average stake simply isn’t long enough to reach all the way through this lady’s décolletage.

Clean walls behind bullet-to-the-head kills

Pay attention, class. A bullet passing through a head creates an entry wound and an exit wound. The entry wound is a small, neat hole not much bigger than the diameter of the bullet itself. This is because the bullet is travelling at high velocity and barely notices the skin and bone. POW! – it’s through. A small amount of blood will subsequently dribble out of this hole.

      However, as the bullet passes through the squidgy grey stuff you call a brain, it slows down. It’s still moving pretty damn fast - it will be too fast to see when it emerges - but it will have slowed down somewhat and that’s because part of its energy has been dissipated into the surrounding cerebellum. This energy ripples speedily through the brain alongside the bullet and when it all reaches the other side of the head – SPLOMF! A whole chunk of the skull is blasted away, smashed into little bone smithereens. Blood and skin and bone and brain splatters out of the large exit wound in all directions.

      This is why, when someone is shot in the front of the head, their head jerks forwards, towards the shooter. The bullet entering the forehead imparts little forward force because it’s in there so quickly. But all that gubbins bursting out the back of the head pushes the head forward because of Newton’s Third Law. Come on, you should have covered this in physics. (I once saw Penn and Teller demonstrate this on TV, using watermelons wrapped in clingfilm as ersatz heads, to prove what a knob Oliver Stone was.)

      The upshot of all this is that if somebody is standing near a wall when they are shot then (a) the actor should jerk their head forwards, and (b) that wall should be absolutely peppered with bloody bits of brain and skull. If you can’t afford to create that effect, or to clean up that effect afterwards (the perils of filming in your mum’s house), then please rewrite your script so that the character gets shot outside. Or stabbed. Or something.

Shooting the lock off

The idea of ‘shooting the lock off’ came from old westerns. In the Wild West, doors were made of wood. And everyone carried a gun. If somebody was locked up behind a wooden door, they – or a friend on the other side of the door – could shoot their Colt 45 several times at fairy close range AROUND the lock, causing the wood to splinter and break. One good tug or shove on the door would then cause that weakened wood to break completely, leaving the lock where it was while the door swung open. And with one bound, he was free etc.

      This is the one and only situation and method whereby a projectile fire-arm can overcome a locked door. You cannot do this with metal doors and you certainly can’t do anything if you fire directly at the lock. Any bullet that hits a lock buggers up that lock so that it can now not be opened at all, even if you have the key. It actually makes the place harder to escape from. This applies to all locks: Yale locks, padlocks, everything. Any lock that can be destroyed using a bullet is made of plastic and therefore pretty easy to break already and frankly utterly ineffectual as a lock.

Main characters whose names we don’t know

I have lost track of the number of low-budget films I’ve watched where, at the end, I don’t know the names of all the main characters. Frequently, when a movie concerns a group of friends who go somewhere they shouldn’t be and do something stupid, I actually reach the credits without even knowing how many there were in the gang. Any group of more than six is difficult for an audience to grasp when we only meet these people for 82 minutes (and some of them less than that, depending on the order in which they die). The Descent got it right: we were introduced to three characters in the prologue and, once we were familiar with them, and their names, and their relationships, we moved into the main story and met three more.

      This situation becomes particularly problematic when, as so often happens, the ensemble of characters are all basically the same age, with the same dress-sense, the same way of talking and the same level of intelligence. Sometimes I’ve watched a film where I can only identify a character as ‘the one with a hat’. When I check the IMDb in order to note interesting other credits in my film reviews, often I have no idea who played what because I never learned the characters’ names and have to just lump all the main cast together in one paragraph. Whereas ironically I can tell who played descriptive minor roles like ‘Policeman’ or ‘Passer-by’. I was seriously considering including TBGs in this list (Token Black Guy/Girl) but frankly the wise-cracking, hiphop-loving TBG is often the only character with any character, however stereotypical.  And that’s not a good thing.

And finally: Video cameras that go BZZZT!

This is my current pet peeve, as it has popped up in at least three films which I have watched this year. There was a time, long ago, when radio communication was intermittent and unreliable. Short wave signals bouncing off the ionosphere were easily distorted. 'Help us, we’re – BZZZT! – the ocean. Our position is – BZZZT! degrees, 56 minutes East, lati - BZZZT! – minutes South. Is anybody receiving this? BZZZT! – body out there?' Thus was set up many an exciting film or TV adventure.

      Long before two-way video communication became a reality, this same static and interference was introduced to video messages in sci-fi movies. Instead of a ship at BZZZT! degrees, 56 minutes East, lati - BZZZT! – minutes South, there was a spaceship orbiting the planet BZZZT! on the outskirts of the BZZZT! quadrant. As well as scratching the soundtrack, fancy new Quantel effects enabled the picture to distort and break up, like an nth generation video recording.

      And for some reason, people who make low-budget films have never gotten past this idea, this artificial interference with video and audio. Now, when so many films are shown either partly or wholly through supposed ‘found footage’, when so much of what we see in these movies is nominally the POV of a video camera, sometimes even with a little red dot in the corner, we still have this ridiculous Quantel effect breaking up the images and a soundtrack that goes BZZZT! How is it that people who spend so much of their waking lives looking through, or at footage recorded by, digital video cameras have not noticed that this sort of thing doesn’t happen? Not when you switch it on, not when you switch it off, not when some paranormal entity wanders across the field of view. Or, looked at in another way, if your camera does do the whole BZZZT! thing then it’s fucked and you should probably invest in a new one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.