Ode to the Cast-Elimination Film

Sunday, June 4, 2017
By Phil Elmore

One of the most enjoyable and interesting things about writing is finding the common themes, methods, and mechanisms employed by writers across a culture or category. In screenwriting, for example, there are only so many tropes that can be employed, only so many plot devices that can be invoked. Emphasizing the finite nature of this pool of ideas is the fact that human beings prefer to watch the same thing over and over. The Save the Cat formula perfectly illustrates this: The Force Awakens is the same screenplay as A New Hope. Yojimbo is The Warrior and the Sorceress is Fistful of Dollars is Bruce Willis’ Last Man Standing.

I was hooked on this concept the moment my father announced, during a cable showing of Sean Connery’s Outland (a movie that is itself High Noon in space), “Watch, that guy will be dead already.” Sure enough, when Connery enters the holding cell area, the suspect he wants to interrogate has been murdered. I thought my father had seen the movie before, but he hadn’t. I wondered if he might be some kind of wizard. The truth was simply that he had seen movies before. I have been fascinated by the commonality of writing design since that moment.

Recently I watched the film Life, a very typical entry in the survival-horror and science fiction categories. The movie perfectly exemplifies everything that happens in a movie about dying in space, a movie about humans pitted against a Big Bad (be it a monster, a murderer, or a force of nature) and — most importantly — a movie about characters being eliminated one by one. It is therefore what I have for years referred to as a cast-elimination movie.

life

You’ve seen countless cast-elimination films. Some of the classics of the genre are Alien (or Aliens), The Thing, and every zombie movie. But don’t think that a cast-elimination film is always about monsters, or that the genre is limited to science fiction and horror. Clue is a cast-elimination murder mystery in which victims are wiped out one by one. Thirteen Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill (original and remake alike) are supernatural or pseudo-supernatural versions of the idea. The Magnificent Seven is a cast-elimination Western. Even Star Wars: Rogue One is a cast-elimination film, as are many other war movies. (You could argue that Rogue One and Magnificent Seven are almost the same movie. We could call the sub-genre a Rally Team Cast-Elimination film, in which a group of assembled heroes loses most of their number while fighting for some cause.)

The framework of a cast-elimination movie can be placed over many types of screenwriting. The Hateful Eight is, to some extent, a cast-elimination film, and also a “bubble” screenplay in which all the action takes place in one location. (I like bubble scripts because they put the action on the writing, not on set pieces or action sequences.) The science fiction film Cube (we’ll ignore its increasingly bad sequels) was both a bubble script (because the set was self-contained, standing in for multiple different chambers) and a cast-elimination movie. The point of the film was seeing which characters died — and when.

What is eliminating the cast is not important except insofar as plot mechanics go. The Big Bad is a plot driver and need not even be personified. In The Grey, wolves are the Big Bad.  In Deep Blue Sea, it’s sharks. In movies like Pitch BlackLife, Alien, and The Thing, alien monsters are the Big Bad. But in The Poseidon Adventure and its remake — all disaster films are essentially cast-elimination films, although some put more emphasis on taking out characters than others — the Big Bad is an external force that puts the characters in peril. Whether your cruise ship is sinking, your San Andreas fault just faulted, or your towering tower is inferno-ing, some mortal peril is driving the plot to get characters from where they start to some goal or goals. The Big Bad exists to eliminate the characters one by one during the trek.

Cast elimination movies aren’t always serious. Cabin in the Woods sends up the genre and is both a parody of it and an entry in it. We’ve mentioned Clue, which is a comedy. There is no one tone, no one approach, that defines cast-elimination films. What they all have in common is that they ask the audience to wonder — to hope, even — who will survive the movie.

Some cast-elimination films have what I call the “F–k you, movie!” ending, in which everyone dies and you’re left wondering why you bothered. They quite literally make you want to swear at the movie for wasting your time. In some cases, a movie franchise waits until a sequel to shout “F–k you!” at the viewer, such as in Alien 3 (where the little girl saved by Ripley in Aliens has been killed off screen). Most of the time, though, it hits you right at the conclusion of the movie, sometimes as a deliberate plot twist, and other times because the writers simply didn’t know what to do. One of the worst examples of a “F–k you, movie!” ending is probably found in Thomas Jane’s The Mist, an ending altered from Stephen King’s novella (and which King stupidly praised, saying he wished he’d thought of it first).

For our purposes, then, we define any cast-elimination film as one in which the point of the movie is to see who will survive (and how they will do so). The subset of cast-elimination movies, called “F–k you, movie!” movies, are those in which nobody survives, or in which survival becomes a Pyrrhic victory.

Cast-elimination movies play on our desire, our basic instinct, to survive. We cannot help but project ourselves into the scenario and ask ourselves what we would do — how we would perform. Zombie movies especially invite the viewer to picture how he or she would fight back and go on to live. The Saw films ask this question in a more gory, even philosophical way. It’s easy for a cast-elimination movie to devolve into torture-porn or virtual snuff-film territory if the writing is crudely executed — something with which so many cast-elimination sequels flirt.

So, how do we judge a cast-elimination film? There’s no universal standard. My basic formula is that most of these movies boil down to the Alpha Male and the Alpha Female. There’s a preference for women to survive over men, so if only one may live, it will typically be the Alpha Female. Characters with tear-jerking backstories, like devoted parents fighting to get back to kids or hard-worn veterans close to retirement, almost always die. Children and cute animals almost always survive such a movie, so if you find yourself in one, stay close to the kids or their adorable pet dog. Comic relief characters have about a fifty-fifty shot. Some survive, while others die. (If that character is LL Cool J, his chances drop to about one third.) Characters guilty of moral offenses, or who admit to having done things that are morally wrong, typically die as a way of making penance for their sins. (This is Movie Law.)

To me, the best cast-elimination films are those that disrupt this formula and become totally unpredictable. They’re rare, but they happen. Deep Blue Sea is probably one of the best examples of this, but there are others. If you can find films like this, you’ll be adding true gems to your catalog of seen movies… and that’s what makes cast-elimination films so much fun. Many are predictable, but even lots of those are fun to watch.

It’s always about being able to predict who’s going to die and who’s going to live. As Joe Bob Briggs said, a horror movie is one in which “anyone can die at any time.” The best cast-elimination movies take this dictum to heart.

 

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