I’ve always been a big fan of old action, science fiction, horror and (as rare as they may be) fantasy films. Partially this was a case of going to college in California, where being a film buff is someone expected – partially its due to a shared passion with my dad. At the risk of sounding too pretentious, or like a terminally old soul, it’s also because I find that genre films today tend to be disappointing to me. While we’ve certainly got slicker special effects (not actually something I care about, but the charm of practical effects is another essay entirely!) and many talented actors, directors and cinematographers, I find that the writing leaves much to be desired. While there are those who will always turn their noses up at scripts written for horror, sci-fi and fantasy, I’m not arguing over the quality of those scripts compared to anything else – rather I’m simply making a statement about the quality of the old compared to the new. I think what I miss most about older genre films is the simplicity. So many of those stories are based on the extrapolations of a very simple “What If?” premise. What if people were trapped with a predatory alien on a spaceship? What if soldiers from a future war tried to alter the past to secure victory? What if a whole city were made into a prison? Even if the characters and concepts are not wholly original, they can be given an original spin. What if we mixed old serials with WWII and samurai films? What if someone is out for revenge on characters we know and love?
Many newer films, conversely, seem to have no central conceit or concept, instead being a strange mess of references, ironic self-awareness, plot holes, unfinished concepts, non- conflicts, false starts, hand waves, and mandatory advertisements for other films by the same studio, all editing in such a way to hopefully make you lose your train of thought in trying to string all of this together. In short, it seems fairly obvious that writing by committee is in vogue.
There are many more essayists and podcast preachers who can do a better job than I of dissecting the issues that plague modern writing. One odd, and slightly worrying trend I often see, however, is the assumption that one of the most significant factors in the deterioration of writing quality is the desire to make films more “politically correct” – that the inclusion of a more diverse cast is as significant a factor as the issues I laid about above. Many take it into the realm of paranoia (not really surprising given the times) and assume secretive political messages. While I do understand that sometimes the push for inclusion manages to stumble over its own feet and become a push for exclusion (or a push for the ridiculous) this seems to be a bizarrely out of place complaint for the reason that I feel that older films often handled more diverse casts better than we do today. Often times, a studio attempting to make a “diverse” movie ends up looking preachy or buffoonish – just look at the marketing for a film like Captain Marvel to see how absurd this can get. (Of course, this isn’t an issue with all modern films. Sadly eclipsed by the aforementioned film was a wonderfully charming, if imperfect, adaptation of Battle Angel Alita, with a fantastic female lead character.)
This contrasts heavily with how effortlessly older films often pushed the boundaries of what was expected in the genre. Few female lead characters manage to capture the imagination like Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor. Heck, the lead for Night of the Living Dead, the definitive zombie flick, was black. One of the best action films of the 70s, Assault on Precinct 13, starred a black police officer and a female secretary. The only white male lead in that film was a death row convict – not exactly conventional.
Once again, before I start rattling off too many examples, I should point out many people have covered this topic much better and more extensively than I have. The actual thought I have had is an addendum of sorts to the ones above, inspired by a news article that caught my eye on the topic of diversity in film. The article in question (the source of which I cannot recall), was bemoaning the fact that while casting has begun to be more inclusive, it has left behind a large segment of the population – the disabled.
This instantly made me think that, once again, the classics had already been there and done it better. While there’s a few examples I could bring up, the film that instantly popped to mind was Silver Bullet. It’s a film that’s not very widely known outside of horror circles, which makes some sense. It is an adaptation of a Stephen King story collection based around a werewolf killing every full moon for a year (originally the stories were going to be paired with horror art for a calendar). The film can be a bit odd in its mixing of drama with the intentionally campy, but this gives it what I feel is a wonderfully hysterical tone. Never has a film made me burst out laughing at a hard cut to a funeral before.
However, what makes it rare among movies in general, not just in the horror genre, is the fact that its main character, the young Marty (played by Corey Haim), is paraplegic. On the one hand, Marty’s disability is never ignored by the script. Getting around is shown to be a chore. And yet despite this, or perhaps because of this, Marty is one of the most determined and likeable horror movie protagonists I can think of.
Marty never takes too much time to worry about his lack of ability to walk. Not that the script ignores it, as some of the more ignorant adults around the comment on the fact. However, Marty traverses the town in a truly amazing motorized wheelchair made by his uncle (portrayed hilariously by Gary Busey), shows great upper body strength in climbing, and when finally confronted with the werewolf, shoots out its eye with a firecracker. In a show of assertiveness that is almost comical, after identifying who the werewolf is around town, he sends the monster cut-out letters firmly requesting that he off himself to stop the killings. And in an exciting finale, Marty pulls off a win against evil worthy of any horror movie star.
Silver Bullet rides a line between comedic and creepy that might not click with everyone, particularly today, but I think its worth a look for horror fans. While I can think of a few science fiction, action and horror films with disabled protagonists, they are often more niche. (Ask someone to name a Romero movie and they’ll never say Monkey Shines first, for example). I’m curious now if we might get an underrated film with such a protagonist coming out soon. Hopefully it will be done well, and hopefully we’ll give it more than just a second glance.