Great Horror Needs Great Heroes

A man in his 60s with a chainsaw for a hand has just cut the head off a demon, bathing him and his two co-workers in blood. They stand alongside him, stunned by his sudden heroics.

“It’s good to see you, Jefe.” one says.

The man looks at his bloodsoaked chainsaw arm and responds “It’s good to be back.”

“So how does it feel?” the young lady next to him asks.

The man, one Ashley J. Williams looks to the audience and says his immortal line.

“Groovy.”

Halloween 2015 marked the return of The Evil Dead, a franchise that is as beloved as it is bizarre. Ultra violent and filled with frantic energy, The Evil Dead is somewhat of an oddity amongst horror for one reason. The hero is the most recognizable thing about it.

Horror is a very interesting genre. What horror seeks to do is to tap into our fears so that hopefully it makes the real world not quite so scary anymore. More often then not, its protagonist will be someone who is alone and terrified, with no guarantee of success or survival. That protagonist is supposed to feel what we feel, so there is a thought that it would be counterintuitive to have a protagonist in a horror story be more heroic. But would that hinder the horror, or enhance it?

When it comes to heroes in horror, one of the earliest and best examples I can think of is Dr. Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

It is almost impossible to have Dracula without having his nemesis come into play. Appearing in everything from the official adaptations of the book, to spinoffs like The Monster Squad and even appearing in his standalone film, Van Helsing may not be the first hero in horror, maybe not even the first to become iconic, but that he has had such a prolific career is impressive, even if he isn’t as iconic as Dracula. Still, you can do a Dracula story without Van Helsing and it will work just fine. Freddy Krueger wasn’t so lucky.

Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street remains one of the most iconic horror villains of this era or any other. The highly successful series features seven films in its original run, a remake, and even a crossover with Friday the 13th. But looking at which entries in the series are stronger or weaker is very telling about what made the original special, and that was the war between Nancy and Freddy.

Nancy Thompson is the protagonist in the original film. After her friends are brutally killed by Krueger, Nancy doesn’t cower and wait for her turn. Instead, she fights back. She booby traps her house, pulls him out of her dream, hits him with a sledge hammer, throws him down two flights of stairs, hurts him with shrapnel, smashes a chair over his head and even sets him on fire. And that is just in the first movie.

Nancy would later appear in the third film, Dream Warriors. This film featured Nancy as a doctor, where she traces Krueger to a mental ward where he is haunting the nightmares of children. Nancy trains the children to use their own imaginations to give themselves powers in their dreams, leveling the playing field when Freddy comes for them. She is able to save some of them, and even impales Freddy on his own glove in the film’s conclusion. Sadly, Nancy is mortally wounded and dies.

The films that followed were decidedly weak. Though Dream Master was the highest grossing in the series, it did not enjoy the reputation of the 3rd film. After two more duds New Line sought to end the series on a high note. They brought back creator Wes Craven to write and direct the movie. Wes agreed on one condition. He wanted Nancy back.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is regarded by many to be one of the best in the Elm Street saga. This film takes place in the real world, with Freddy actually leaving the movie and tormenting the star of the original film, Heather Langenkamp. Upon meeting with Wes Craven, Langenkamp discovers that the only way to beat Freddy is to become Nancy one last time. She puts on her costume from the original film, follows Freddy into the nightmare world, and the two have their final showdown.

Though Nancyless Nightmare on Elm Street movies are decidedly weaker, people still don’t talk about her as much as the villainous Krueger. She certainly is one of the things that made the series great, but like Van Helsing, did not quite achieve the iconic status of the villain. That duty would be left to Ellen Ripley from the stellar Alien films.

Ellen Ripley is a working woman trying to support herself (and her child if you go by the director’s cut) when her ship sets down on a remote planet and picks up a savage alien creature that picks off her crew one by one. After the death of the ship’s captain, Ripley unexpectedly takes command and tries to save the remainder of her crew mates. As the bodycount rises, she is the only one left. Well, her and the ship’s cat.

Even as a newcomer, Ripley created quite a splash. Her terrified face made the cover of Newsweek the summer that Alien was released, and the role propelled Sigourney Weaver to stardom. But that splash paled in comparison to what followed, a film that would, unbelievably, make her even more iconic.

Aliens is a rare sequel that is indistinguishable from the original in terms of quality. Upon its release it was just as big a box office hit, was just as successful with critics and audiences, and its legacy is just as large as the original classic. In this film, Ripley accompanies a squad of highly trained marines back to the planet where she and her crew first encountered the titular monster, a planet that has since been colonized. Upon their arrival, they find the colony has been overrun by hundreds of the creatures from the original film. Ripley has no choice but to lock and load, and face the demons from her past.

The image of the pulse rifle wielding Ripley has become a staple of popular culture, with just as much attention given to Sigourney Weaver’s performance as the titular monsters. Weaver was even able to net an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. For a science fiction horror film, that is unheard of. Ripley appeared in every one of Alien’s direct sequels, even reprising the role for the widely acclaimed video game Alien Isolation. Weaver is set to reprise the role one final time in Neil Blomkamp’s Alien 5, coming out in 2017. Ripley became just as memorable as the monsters she fought, and may well be the most iconic character here. Still, the reasons she is not at the top of this editorial is she didn’t quite manage what the next character did. They stole the show from the villains.

Ash Williams of the Evil Dead series has a clearly defined arc, and through the series, you slowly see him wrestle the spotlight away from his tormenters. In the first film Ash, played by Bruce Campbell, is an awkward but good natured geek, traveling up to the mountains with his friends for a quiet weekend. When the group finds the Necronomicon however, things take a turn for the worst. One by one, Ash’s loved ones are possessed by malevolent spirits, forcing him to destroy them in decidedly juicy ways. The first film ends with Ash himself falling victim to the spirits, which is where the fun really begins.

Evil Dead 2 picks up with Ash barely able to fight the demon out of his body. He soon runs into a new group of people, and together they most fight off the still active spirits in the forest. In one of the most iconic scenes in the series, Ash’s own hand is possessed, and he is forced to cut it off with a chainsaw. In order to better fight his enemies, he is forced to make what is quite possibly the coolest prosthetic of all time.

Ash replaces his severed hand with the very chainsaw he used to cut it off. Nuff said. Evil Dead 2 is considered by many to be better than the first film, and with the upward stride of the series, a third film was inevitable.

Army of Darkness broke every single rule established in the first two films. It zapped the hero to medieval times, took on a much more comedic tone, and the titular Evil Dead were hardly present, instead Ash facing up against an army of wise cracking skeletons that were more like something out of a Tim Burton movie. Even more surprising is the movie doesn’t suck. In fact, it rules.

By this point, the Evil Dead were not the draw to the series anymore. When people came to see the movie, they came to see Ash, and they got plenty of him. The film features many highlights for the character, including such lines as “Hail to the king, baby.” which would later be stolen by Duke Nukem. Army of Darkness became a classic, and the character of Ash became a pop culture icon, the nerd who became a demon slayer.

Talks and rumors of Evil Dead 4 circulated for over twenty years, with the pressure building on actor Bruce Campbell and director Sam Rami to continue the saga of everyone’s favorite S Mart Employee. They finally gave in, crafting the television series Ash vs. Evil Dead. That the series has already achieved such success is a testament to the popularity of the character.

Ellen Ripley, Nancy Thompson, Ash Williams, Van Helsing, and several more that are not named here. Great heroes in horror stories is not done nearly as much as it should be. There are good arguments as to why it isn’t. It won’t be as scary. But the purpose of horror is to give the audience a good scare so that the regular anxieties of life don’t seem so bad. Given this, maybe horror stories need more heroes, to teach us what to do when life gets us down, stand tall, puff up our chests and boast “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”

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