Sunday, October 23, 2022

The End? Narrative Incompleteness in the Age of Intellectual Property

The ending of the original The Blob 

I have a distinct memory of watching the original The Blob on a Saturday afternoon movie. I watched a lot of Saturday afternoon movies, Godzilla, all of the Universal monsters, and various giant ants, crabs, and praying mantises. The Blob stood out because it was actually frightening in a way that a giant monster crushing a city was not. It could be anywhere and could get past anything. It is also memorable because its ending, in which the image of  frozen blob dropped someplace north of the Arctic Circle was followed by a giant question mark hovering over the sky. This image lingered in my mind long after everything else was forgotten. At the time it seemed like the perfect way to end a horror movie, with the horror still intact. I must admit as well that Steve McQueen's last line, "As long as the Arctic stays cold," sounds much more ominous in these days of global warming.


It is perhaps because of this fondness for the original that I rewatched the eighties remake as part of the Criterion Channel's 80s Horror collection (parenthetically I want to throw out a few words of praise for the Criterion Channel in general and for their ability to do a great job with Halloween programing. While the collection only has a few horror movies, including, for some reason, the original Blob, the channel has branched out to include some classics, like Wolfen, some forgotten gems, like The Hidden, and some oddballs that would not show up anyplace else). The remake is uneven, but not terrible. Perhaps its best innovation is to update the original film's social conflict. The original was framed in the conflict between the small town authority figures and the kids, a generational conflict. (who were portrayed by actors well into their twenties when the film was made). This is preserved in the figure of Kevin Dillon, who, for some reason, wears the "Puffy shirt" that Seinfeld would make famous. 

The remake expands the social conflict to include a government agency whose attempt to contain the blob is couched in cold war paranoia in which every alien is a potential bioweapon. Its real improvement, however, in how it updates the question mark that lingers over the original with a scene featuring the town's preacher. He has witnessed the blob's attack on the small town and concludes that it is a harbinger of the apocalypse, that he sees himself tasked to complete. 

Upon rewatching I realized that what I liked about this ending is its fundamental incompleteness. There was no sequel to this particular version of the blob. The ending just hovers as a question mark. I wish more films were allowed to end on the question. The original Halloween has one of the best endings of modern horror. Its ending makes the film feel like one of the stories told around a campfire about "escaped lunatics." When I was growing up "escaped lunatic" stories were what we told camping, not ghost stories, and they always ended with some twist about the scratching of a car roof, or who was licking a hand, all guaranteed to make it hard to sleep. Halloween's ending, "he looked over the balcony and the body wasn't there" always seemed to be one such ending, which is why the film almost feels more like a rendition of a kind of urban legend or folk tale than a slasher film. Of course this ending has been turned into multiple sequels that have expanded on Michael Myers ability to survive bullets, fire, stabbings, etc., As I watched the most recent film in the long line of sequels, Halloween Ends I kept thinking that it would be better if the whole series had ended with just the shot of the imprint in the shape of the body in grass (or gone in the direction Carpenter wanted, with a different Halloween film each year, as in the underrated Season of the Witch).

All of the original movies of the eighties and seventies that were serialized into sequels, reboots, and, in the language of the new Scream film, requels (reboot and sequel, like the new Halloween films that simultaneously follow existing films and restart the sequence, often cutting films out of the canon), Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, ended on a question mark, on a scene in which the seemingly dead killer or monster comes back in one last jump scare. In the parlance of the times, they left it open for a sequel, but now, everything is open for a sequel. Any character that does not die can return, and even those who do can return, somehow. 

The endings of the originals almost function as frightening short films in their own right, albeit, ones dominated by jump scares. It is worth noting how much they "hold up" even as many of the sequels and prequels they gave rise to fade into well deserved obscurity. 

All of those sequels, which expand upon and then reduce the mythology of the characters, add up to so much less than endings which made them possible. The question mark, incompleteness, is as much a part of the narrative as what we see on the screen. Contemporary intellectual property driven film production, however, abhors a vacuum. Everything that is not explicitly resolved must be made and remade until there is nothing left to extract from the original narrative. A lot of the frustration and boredom that many people feel about contemporary film and television stems from the tension between narrative, which demands closure as well as incompleteness, and the extraction of value which works against both. It is not enough to see that a character lives, the sequel must be made, just like it is not enough to learn that spies found the plans for the Death Star, we must see their story, and their back story. Narratives are finite by definition, but commodity production is a bad infinity. 

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