The Ineffective Modern Horror Hero


Storytelling has had antagonists and protagonists going back, in the literal tradition, for centuries and in the oral tradition as far back as anyone told stories.  Some stories make clear that the choices between hero and villain are choices between good and evil while others make the hero himself an anti-hero, someone compelling and likable whose actions cross the boundaries of good and evil on both sides of the border.   Movies have been no different and often the most arresting characters are the ones whose motivations are both far from admirable and yet eminently sympathetic at the same time.  But no genre presents the viewer with as endless a succession of weak, ineffective heroes as modern-day horror.   Horror, from the sixties on, so consistently provides the viewer with a hero so doomed to failure it seems almost perverse to call him a hero in the first place.

Ineffective Hero 01

Horror wasn’t always the place to go for utter hopelessness and despair.  There was a time when the hero often won.  Dracula was defeated, the wolfman stopped and Norman Bates wrestled to the ground.  Somewhere around the late sixties, though, the hero began to lose quite often.  In 1968, George Romero thrust Night of the Living Dead onto the movie audiences of the world and gave them an ending as bleak and hopeless as they come, except that it wasn’t bleak and hopeless in the big picture, just the small personal one.  The zombies appear to have been subdued but our hero, Ben (Duane Jones), lays dead, shot by those killing the zombies, mistaking him for one of them.  What’s so devastating is that it didn’t even need to happen.  The movie could have very easily ended with Ben calling out for help and the authorities recognizing him as a normal human and not a zombie.  There’s an intentional nihilism in the ending that seems almost cruel.  Ben is mistaken by those who would side with him for that which he (and they) fights against.  It’s a sad, poetic ending that signaled a developing trend in horror, one that continues to this day.

Even when the hero won, as in The Exorcist, he won only by killing himself.  Father Karras (Jason Miller) is indeed a hero, and a self-sacrificing one at that, but his victory is devastating, not uplifting.  The other hero of the piece, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) dies of a heart attack in the face of a challenge with a demonic spirit (which is what spurs Karras to his ultimate sacrificial triumph).  These two may ultimately get the job done but they’re not exactly the cavalry riding to the rescue.

That same year, The Wicker Man took its hero, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), and did the extraordinary: It revealed, only at the end, that he was no hero at all because the missing girl he thought he was saving had never been missing or needed saving.  The victim, he discovers to his horror, isn’t her, it’s him!  In one masterful stroke, the hero and the victim become the same character.

Four years later, one of Hollywood’s most beloved paternal figures, Gregory Peck, lost as badly as any pathetic, weak and ineffective horror hero has ever lost.   In The Omen, he loses everything in a spectacularly futile effort.  After seeing his wife killed, a crazed priest impaled, a photographer cohort beheaded and his own child’s nanny nearly kill him as well, finally realizes his boy is the Anti-Christ and moves to take action.  This involves a race with police to (ahem) get him to the church on time and then, for all his troubles, gets shot on the altar before he can do a damned thing (or is it undamned thing?).

Ineffective Hero 02

The seventies also took the phenomenon of the Final Girl and created a whole new way to marginalize the hero.  Now, the male hero was even more relegated to the wings but still just as ineffective.  No more John Gavin running in to subdue Norman Bates, now movies like Black Christmas ended with the male heroes standing around while evil descended the stairs ready to take another victim, in this case, the Final Girl herself.

In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, our Final Girl escapes but the killer doesn’t die or get punished in any way at all.  He’s left dancing around with a chainsaw, in one of the strangest and most compelling images to end a horror movie (or any movie) in any decade.

And in Halloween, Final Girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) avoids death but so does her would-be killer, Michael Myers (Tony Moran).  Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence), the would-be hero, comes in with guns blazing but does little to stop the menace of Myers.  But Halloween did more than just continue the now blossoming horror trend of the ineffective hero, it made the killer the focus of the film.  That is to say, with its shots from the killer’s point of view, it made the killer himself the “narrator” of the story.  While it could be interpreted as condoning the killer or giving the audience the okay to cheer him on (and certainly later slasher movies did, indeed, make the body count into a cartoonish game), it really was more of a narrative device, a way to signal before the climax that the hero and Final Girl will lose because they’re not the ones telling this particular tale.

At the start of the next decade, Carpenter took the idea of the ineffective hero one step further by remaking a classic horror/sci-fi film in which the heroes had won and turned it on its head.  The Thing, remade from The Thing from Another World, ends with everyone dead except the hero, MacReady (Kurt Russell), and Childs (Keith David).   In the original, the heroes decisively win, electrocuting the alien to a charred veggie burger and living to tell the tale.  In the remake, however, it’s unclear whether MacReady has won at all.  He and Childs sit and wait to see what happens when the alien can no longer hide and the movie ends.  (a quick aside: some theories abound that MacReady’s breath is clearly visible while Childs’ is not and therefore that signals that Childs is, indeed, the alien.  However, MacReady is backlit making his breath more easily visible while Childs is not.  However, if you look closely, you can see Childs’ breath as well, it’s just not as prominent – click here)

Ineffective Hero 03

By the eighties on, slasher movies took on such a dominant role that the hero wasn’t just ineffective but non-existent.  The killers themselves, from Jason to Freddy, became the heroes, racking up corpses and new fans with each outing.  And that’s when that type of horror lost me.  Once the hero was completely excised from the story, it became an exercise in make-up and special effects shots, with no emotional connection between viewer and character.  And, of course, there were and are still plenty of horror movies where the hero wins, male or female, outside authority or Final Girl.  Alien’s Ripley defeats the beast that killed her shipmates and Dracula, even updated, still got killed in the end.  But something changed and has never fully gone back.  Much of it is for the better, some of it is for the worse.  Through it all, though, I can’t help but think if Psycho had been made for the first time in 1980 instead of 1960, the movie would have ended shortly after Arbogast’s disastrous descent down the stairs.  He would have knocked off Sam and Lila as well and then turned to the camera in wig and dress, revealing to the audience that it was him all along.  The camera would pull back to outside the house as we heard the voice-over, in Norman’s mother voice, “after all, a boy’s best friend is his mother.”  And, honestly, I don’t think that would have been such a bad thing.

13 Responses The Ineffective Modern Horror Hero
Posted By jojo : October 27, 2013 4:15 pm

Late sixties? The earliest example of the failing horror hero that I can think of was “Fall of the House of Usher” which was the early ’40s. Eighteen-forties.

I understand you’re saying it became prevalent to horror films in the late sixties, but “downer” endings became prevalent in every type of movie starting then, not just horror. When looking at horror in of itself, I personally always thought the ineffectual hero was intrinsic to the genre since the genre was given a name.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 27, 2013 4:47 pm

I think it is indicative of horror as a genre to have weak or ineffectual protagonists, going all the way back before film. During the Golden Age, you might find some exceptions, because the Production Code disliked weak male leads, so there were compromises there. But, when I teach horror, I actually list weak protagonists as a convention of the genre. The monsters are generally the stronger, more memorable characters, even if they are vanquished. I just showed I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and the male leads are a philosophizing do-nothing pessimist and a drunk.

Posted By Tom S : October 28, 2013 1:56 am

“What’s so devastating is that it didn’t even need to happen. The movie could have very easily ended with Ben calling out for help and the authorities recognizing him as a normal human and not a zombie. There’s an intentional nihilism in the ending that seems almost cruel. Ben is mistaken by those who would side with him for that which he (and they) fights against”

Not to be too explicit about something subtextual, but uh the people who kill Ben are like the epitome of good ole boy types and Ben is a strong, take-control black guy; I think part of the idea is that those guys were not necessarily inclined to be on his side in the first place. I mean, it is a totally nihilistic ending, but part of what informs the ending is that the people in the movie are totally incapable of banding together in the face of the threat- they fall apart through catatonic fear, incompetence, or outright dickishness. When eventually we do see a well organized response to the threat, it’s important that there’s a signifier of further internecine conflict, and I think the race thing is a big deal there.

Which doesn’t really disagree with the thesis of this piece at all- NotLD is very much a different breed than The Thing from Another World and a forerunner of The Thing as a result of the pessimism that goes far beyond a single traitor in our midst and into doubt that we can band together at all, for any reason.

Posted By doug : October 28, 2013 2:14 am

I sometimes identify more with the ‘weak’ hero in that if I were in the same position, facing the same evil, I would probably fail, too. Harder to relate to the perfect hero who wins no matter what, impervious to doom, master of every situation.
Finally saw “The Conjuring” yesterday and it is the best ‘new’ film that I’ve seen in months. The heroes are not weak or strong, merely human. A great movie.

Posted By gregferrara : October 28, 2013 2:37 am

It’s true, the weak hero did become prevalent in many genres starting in the sixties but with horror it became truly dominant. But it was definitely there before. I considered using Frankenstein (the book) in the piece but I didn’t want to needlessly complicate things. However, in the comments here, why not? It’s an amazing example of a hero who’s not a hero at all and a villain who’s not a villain. They change places, do awful things and no one accomplishes anything good in the end. Same with Dracula. No one really comes off as a shining example of hero-dom in that story either.

Suzi, I think you’re absolutely right that weak male leads are a convention of the genre. I think it’s also true that the style and acceptable mores in movie making in the golden era gave pause to the weak hero until, by the sixties, he could be unleashed and unchallenged.

Posted By gregferrara : October 28, 2013 2:42 am

Tom, that’s always an interesting conversation to have. I’ve heard George Romero say, more than once, that race had nothing to do with it. He knew Duane Jones and gave him the part and didn’t change anything in the script as a result. Nonetheless, I agree with you that it still has an effect, especially those chilling closing stills, that really do like something out of a hate-crime nightmare. Sometimes artists add subtext without even knowing it. The addition of Jones to the cast, whether or not Romero changed nothing in the script, adds subtext, like it or not.

Posted By gregferrara : October 28, 2013 2:43 am

Still haven’t seen The Conjuring but looking forword to it. Heard a lot of great things about it.

Posted By Tom S : October 28, 2013 2:52 am

Yeah, I’m not too concerned with Romero’s intent- casting Jones based solely on his acting ability makes sense, as he’s easily the strongest performer in the cast, but the movie we have isn’t necessarily limited to what Romero intended it to be.

I think that a key issue with something like The Thing (or NotLD) is that the heroes aren’t weak in the sense of being layabouts who can’t be bothered to think or try to cope with a threat, which is sometimes a way lazy horror filmmakers keep conflict active past all reasonable character motivation- they’re terrifically resourceful and smart, but they’re in a fight that may be totally unwinnable. Which connects nicely to the paranoid thriller genre of the 70s, and things like the Parallax View- it’s a cliche to connect such things to Watergate and Vietnam, but certainly the thought of utter corruption that can’t be rooted out, or an unwinnable conflict, or the breakdown of trust and solidarity within society fits in with both of those narratives (and the post-WWII malaise narrative generally.)

A movie in which some jerk dies because he’s too dumb to know what to do is frustrating, but a movie in which someone fights with every tool at hand and does everything the audience can think of and still loses is a chilling experience, one where we’re fully horrified by the threat and which can make us reflect about how trapped we may or may not be in our own lives.

Posted By Marjorie Birch : October 28, 2013 5:07 pm

Another Val Lewton movie that had a weak and uncomprehending male lead — The Cat People — I never could see why Irene fell in love with Oliver (Kent Smith) who seemed like such a passive wimp. And Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) was a smarmy seducer.

Posted By tdraicer : October 28, 2013 5:25 pm

It is also the case that stories where the good are punished and evil succeeds are generally considered more “serious” than where good triumphs (which are viewed as “sentimental”). I think an (entirely understandable) rebellion against this explains in part why superheros have come to play such a major role in pop culture (though in their more sophisticated form, as with Joss Whedon, good only triumphs after paying a major price).

Posted By Murphy’s Law : November 1, 2013 1:51 am

It’s hard to have horror with a strong male lead – the movie either turns into action (Charlton Heston in “The Omega Man”) or the movie struggles to build tension (George C. Scott in “The Changeling”).

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 3, 2013 3:36 pm

“… the male leads are a philosophizing do-nothing pessimist and a drunk.”

Hey, I represent that remark!

But seriously, folks. One of the things I love about horror movies is that they help us recalibrate our thinking about what victory or even happiness is. The deaths of the priests in THE EXORCIST are really only an extension of the sacrifice of Dr. Roney in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, the death of a wonderful human being so that other, less well-defined characters may survive. It’s meant to devastate us and give us hope at the same time but I don’t think we’re meant to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of these movies. We’re meant to walk away revived or at least relieved but wounded.

Posted By robbushblog : November 4, 2013 8:24 pm

The first time I saw Night of the Living Dead it totally struck me how Duane Jones, as the black male lead, was killed by the rescuers. I think Tom is right about that. It may not have occurred to Romero, but it certainly has come to be seen that way, like the whole “Red Scare” undertones of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That was not planned or thought out that way at all by the filmmakers, but we later viewers can’t help but think it was all planned to “say something” about the time in which it was made.

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