Harvest of Fear and the Three Unities

1 - The unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots.
2 - The unity of place: a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place.
3 - The unity of time: the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours.

No one would be crazy enough to suggest that these rules should apply to all forms of fiction. They're simply a simple guideline to keep in mind when writing a play. By following them an author can be increase the chances that their play will be simple for the audience to keep up with and understand, and will avoid breaking their willing suspension of disbelief.

There's a reason that the main action of most slasher films takes place over no more than a few hours, or a day at most, and it's not because the filmmakers responsible for them have any particular love of those three unities. The fundamental reason behind this laser-like focus on time and place is a simple question of plausibility, that is to say: “Why don't they just leave?”

There are two key elements explaining why the characters don't just leave in slasher films. The first is that, with very few exceptions, most of the characters who are murdered have no idea that there's a killer running around until it's their turn to die. The last few characters always figure it out, but by then it's too late to do anything. This is because of the second element: an isolated location. The location can be anything from a deserted island to an abandoned campground to suburban sprawl, so long as help isn't readily available.

Consider the Scream franchise - movies that violate the standard contained format of the slasher genre. Each movie takes place over three days, in relatively populous locations, and is full of characters who know from the outset that they're potential targets for a psychopatic killer.

While in the first film this was a daring, chilling choice, the law of diminishing returns was clearly in effect when it came to Scream 2 and 3. The party in the first film is the perfect setting for this twist on tropes - it's a crowded location that seems profoundly safe, but that comfort is turned against the characters in terrifying ways.

The second film's climax is far more problematic, as there's no reason on Earth for Neve Campbell to walk into that theatre, and the filmmakers, seeing no way to write themselves out of a bind, just hoped we wouldn't notice the fundamental flaw in their story.

Scream 3 is a flat-out disaster - at any point in the movie any character could have simply left town to protect themselves while letting one of the largest police forces in the world sort it out. Yet no one does, for no reason whatsoever.

I offer this extended preamble as a way of demonstrating that the slasher film is a primarily small endeavor because next time I'll be discussing a film that breaks that rule in what can only be described as a spectacular fashion. The 'why don't they just leave' question is one that's incredibly hard to answer if all of your characters aren't stranded in a decrepit ghost town by a flat tire, or trapped inside a crumbling hotel by a ring of supernatural darkness. You need to be a brilliant writer if you want to subvert that particular genre trope, capable of coming up with characters rich enough that their motivations for acting against common sense and self-interest can seem believable or even understandable.

Which brings me to Harvest of Fear, a film that profoundly lacked the firm, confident pen of a skilled author. I first rented this movie years ago, before really conceiving of Castle Vardulon as a place where I complained about things, and after I began writing about horror movies, I tried for years to track it down, but was hindered by my inability to remember what it was called. This past month I finally managed to string together enough keywords for a Google search to bear fruit, and my quest finally came to an end (thanks, eBay!). Now I own the movie that has haunted my dreams lo these many years.

Why does Harvest of Fear merit such care, thought, and coverage? Simply put, it contains one of the greatest examples of terrible writing I've ever encountered in a film. There's plenty of cases of stupid writing out there, in which filmmakers don't know or care enough to have their characters act in a way that resembles actual human behaviour - those films can be dismissed outright when they're not being laughed at. Harvest of Fear is a different animal entirely. The writer was clearly aware of the plausibility problems created by setting the movie over the course of a week.

Faced with this dilemma, the film's writer attempts to have his characters offer justification for why they would climb willingly into a metaphorical meat grinder, and proves himself profoundly not up to the task.

Oh, and everything else the movie does is awful, too.

So check back soon for my exhaustive review of Harvest of Fear - one of the films that inspired the existence of Castle Vardulon!

1 comment:

Dr Blood said...

Nice use of Aristotle there.