Saving the Cat (and the Dog) in Horror Movies
Many thanks to our guest blogger, Jeff York, a screenwriter, caricaturist, and the horror movie critic for the Chicago Examiner online. Jeff blogs about all kinds of movies @ his own website, The Establishing Shot. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two cats that they saved.
My name is Jeff York and I am a screenwriter, movie critic, and film blogger. I’m also a longtime fan of Blake Snyder. A big fan. I have all three of his books and they have helped my screenwriting immensely. I love Save the Cat!®, Save the Cat!® Goes to the Movies, and Save the Cat!® Strikes Back so much that I buy them as gifts for Christmas. Anyone who is a fan of film, whether they’re screenwriters or not, can learn so much from Blake’s informative take on the industry.
My favorite chapter from Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies is where Blake breaks down the structure of horror movies. And I love that he doesn’t call them horror movies but instead calls them “Monster in the House” movies. That term is really more inclusive as it covers everything from Jaws (1975) to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) to Paranormal Activity (2007).
The way Blake described it, a Monster in the House movie (or MITH) starts with “a powerful creature intent on eating the cast; an enclosed community into which the beast is let loose to apply his trade; and a third element: sin.” Blake went on to describe how the protagonist always invites the beast in through some sort of sinful act. In Fatal Attraction (1987), Michael Douglas’ sin is cheating on his wife with the “monster” man-eater played by Glenn Close. In Alien (1979), the greed of the corporation trying to transport the alien creature back to earth causes all the havoc. And in The Ring (2002), Naomi Watts is a “career first’ woman rather than an attentive mother — and that is what unwittingly invites danger into her family’s home.
Blake also got the name of his books from Sigourney Weaver’s intrepid Ripley character that saves the cat at the end of Alien. Blake suggested that a selfless act like this strengthens the hero in any movie. After all, who wouldn’t love a good guy who concerns himself/herself with a defenseless animal? And yet more and more MITH’s don’t follow Blake’s salient advice. If they had, we’d be experiencing better movies in the genre than we are at the moment. The MITH genre has grown awfully tired and clichéd partly because they have not heeded Blake’s advice to “save the cat.”
In fact, the killing of the family pet has unfortunately become so commonplace in MITH movies that it has become as unwelcome as the excesses of torture porn. Just look at the rampant pet killing on display in MITH’s these days: In this year’s remake of Straw Dogs, the movie’s redneck villains kill the couple’s innocent cat. In Fear (1996), psychotic boyfriend Mark Wahlberg and his thug friends cut the head off of Reese Witherspoon’s dog and shove it through the doggy door. In the remake of Willard (2003), a pet cat is attacked and eaten by the villainous pack of rats. In the remake of The Hills Have Eyes (2006), the family German shepherd is the mountain brood’s first victim. Even in a decent chiller like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009), we still have to endure the heroine killing off her pet kitten as part of a voodoo ritual.
Blake Snyder knew, and so do you if you’re a pet owner, that pets are members of the family. They are loving, innocent creatures and the loss of the family cat or a dog is devastating. Too devastating for a MITH to ever truly recover from. But this fact seems lost on the filmmakers in Hollywood who think a pet’s death is nothing more than a practice kill for their villain. More and more, such events are stopping a film cold. It takes you out of a movie because of its awfulness. And none of the movies guilty of such egregious killings that I listed were big box-office hits.
Obviously the audiences are telling Hollywood something. And that something is save the cat.