HBO’s most popular series ever just concluded its fourth season on June 15 and the season finale of “Games of Thrones” did not disappoint. Its potent mix of action, political maneuvering and pathos continues to make it must-see TV. And the show, based on George R. R. Martin’s elaborate books, truly knows how to create some of the most horrific scenes anywhere too. In fact, big screen horror could learn a lot from what the show does right with similar genre conventions.
(WARNING: Spoilers await, so if you haven’t caught up to the last episode, well, you know…)
Man makes for the vilest monsters
Whether it’s Mary Shelley or John Carpenter, the best horrormeisters know that man is the most dangerous animal of all. Even if there’s a ghost or ghoul around, it’s man who invites their danger or enhances such evil through selfish human acts. “Game of Thrones” knows this and makes their human characters scarier than any White Walkers or Wights. (Wights are those skeletal creatures so beautifully brought to ‘life’ in the season finale. Ray Harryhausen would’ve been proud.) After all, whose reign of terror chills the blood more? Daenerys’ dragons or King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson)?
A little blood and guts goes a long way
“Game of Thrones” may be the most violent show on television these days, but it’s still on television. And despite the beheadings, slit throats and dozens of vanquished characters, there is surprising little blood shown. The FCC wouldn’t allow it anyway, and the makers of “Game of Thrones” know how to do without the excess. Sunday's battle between The Hound and Brienne over Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) was brutal, but most of it was action, not gore. Even when Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) strangled his estranged lover Shae (Sibel Kekelli) to death, the makers of “Game of Thrones” wisely focused on the agony of Tyrion as he committed murder, not on the twisted face of his victim. More horror movies should realize that violence is horrendous no matter what, without having to add insult to injury by glorifying the carnage.
CGI is not an end in itself
Too often horror movies deliver a great CGI ghost or monster and are content with its realism. The ginormous lizards in the recent “Godzilla” looked amazing but didn’t seem to have much dimension or motivation. (Why was Godzilla man’s savior? And why was he dormant for so long? Just a few questions that remained unanswered by the stultifying remake http://bit.ly/1iCNk9r) There are plenty of supernatural baddies strewn throughout “Game of Thrones”, like those Wights, but they are active participants with strategy, skills and a true reason to be there. Oh, and they look utterly real too.
Dread makes horror palpable
There is always going to be death in horror movies. God knows it’s true on “Game of Thrones” too. However, the tension created by worrying about eminent doom is what gives both scary movies and a frightening show like “Game of Thrones” their juice. Worrying about the fate of Ned Stark in season one made his unfortunate demise even starker. And stressing over Tyrion’s fate this season made his escape all the more gratifying to the obsessed viewer. Fear of potential danger is, more often than not, just as palpable as real danger in genre pieces. And that sort of tension is what makes the best horror movies and “Thrones” the edge-of-your-seat entertainments they are.
Animals shouldn’t just be victims
On "Game of Thrones", the thirst for power has led to the death of many of the ‘pet’ direwolves of the family Stark over the past four seasons. But this season, Jon Snow’s white wolf Ghost had a large role and helped him fight to secure the Wall in the second-to-last episode. Same with Brandon Stark’s direwolf Summer who helped dispatch some of the Wights in their wintry battle. They are real characters, with a lot of dimension.
Too often animals in genre entertainments are there merely to be easy victims, but not on “Game of Thrones”. Granted, Robb Stark’s direwolf Grey Wind was another unfortunate casualty of the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ last season, but he was a character that helped his master many times prior to his demise (http://bit.ly/1ybD2qD). When they’re done right, animal characters can be as moving as any human one. Just look at how heartbreaking it was when Daenerys had to chain up her dragons in Sunday’s episode. They’re family, even if they are a different species.
2014 has been a very good year for horror so far with standouts like “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “Occulus” making great cinematic impressions. And other horror entries could be their equal if they didn’t condescend to audiences. There’s a lot to learn from the better genre works like those mentioned and the terrific and terrifying HBO series “Game of Thrones”. Horror may be visceral, but it doesn’t have to be mindless.