The Problem with Horror – a Critique of Fortitude

 

I have never been a fan of the Horror genre, but, as a writer and in the spirit of learning more about my craft (i.e., read everything, even the stuff you hate), I have read Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, David Wellington, and I’ve watched a handful of Horror movies and TV shows. I watched Fringe (and thoroughly enjoyed it, because it’s more Sci Fi than Horror), and I sat through The X-Files with growing annoyance.

And then I watched Fortitude. And everything clicked in my brain. The perfect example of why the addition of Horror utterly destroys good—or even potentially great—fiction.

To understand what went wrong with a show with a really great premise and set-up, we need to go through it in fine detail – so here be complete spoilers for Season 1 of Fortitude. You have been warned. Here is a spoiler-free alternative post.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Stanley Tucci, Sofie Gråbøl in Fortitude

Stanley Tucci, Sofie Gråbøl in Fortitude

As an aside, I first need to comment on the casting. This was my introduction to the actor Stanley Tucci (and I was underwhelmed, but such was the poor guy’s role), but apparently he’s a big name in the US. The reviewer at the AV Club seemed to firmly believe that Tucci’s inclusion meant that his character was the protagonist, which, of course, he was not. Michael Gambon’s character stood a greater chance of being the protagonist because the show opened with his actions in a prelude (the mercy-killing of the victim of a polar bear attack). But as the first episodes unfold, it is apparent that this is a true ensemble. There is no main protagonist, unless you consider it the town itself.

Fortitude is a town of around 700 residents situated on a tiny island in the Arctic. It’s residents are a hodge-podge of nationalities: Norwegian is pre-dominate, but there are also a number of Irish, English, Swede, Lap, to name a few. Fortitude is administered by Governor Hildur Odergard (Sofie Grabol) and it appears to be mainly a mining town. Besides the female governor (who is also required to fill the role of Chief of Police, and is the only lawyer in town), another refreshing element is a lack of crime apparently maintained by a rule that everyone resident must have a home and a job. The peace is kept by a force of four police officers. Yup, four. Versus 700, armed with hunting rifles. And 3000 polar bears. (You can see where this might be leading, but it doesn’t eventuate. Because: Horror.) Two out of the four police officers are female – the delightful Petra (Alexandra Moen) and Ingrid (Mia Jexen), who get to do lots of cool stuff, but whose characters are never fully developed due to a lack of time (because that time is spent showing graphic violence and loads of gore). I mean, Police Officer Petra is also the town’s SOCO and ME (and chief flame thrower when mammoths need torching) – how does she not get character development beyond it being clearly, definitively, unequivocally established that she is heterosexual (despite her fabulous chemistry with Ingrid)?

So, back to what would be Chapter 1 were this a book, we have another refreshing element: a ten-year-old girl with a hunting rifle slung over her back leads a boy across a glacier.

And our Outsider arrives in this close-knit quirky town. And, no, it’s not Stanley Tucci. It’s Luke Treadaway as Vincent Rattray. In a book he would be our first point-of-view character. As an expert biologist, he’s there to offer insight into cannibalism in apex predators; as a character he’s there so that other characters can deliver exposition to explain how Fortitude works. And he’s there to discover the body.

The Body belongs to Professor Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston), and our buddy Vincent loses his POV status when he is arrested for the crime of standing over the viciously hacked up professor. (And here’s another breath of fresh air: the (first) murder victim was not a teen girl. Woo!)

Enter a new Outsider to provide the audience with a POV: the body is barely cold before DCI Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci) touches down in Fortitude. And Fortitude-the-show reverts to the first annoying cliché: Sheriff Dan Anderssen takes an immediate dislike to this intrusion into his investigation and the two posture and circle alpha-male-like for far too many episodes. (Yawn.)

[Suggestion: Once, just once, I’d like to see the alpha-male character acknowledge what must surely be welcome assistance and additional expertise. Dan Anderssen is down to a staff of TWO police officers to deal with a serial killer (after PC Eric Odergard, husband to the Governor, steps in a bear trap). If you have something to hide, wouldn’t it be better to “befriend” the new detective and keep him close, rather than making yourself look highly suspicious?]

But, instead of Morton being some Sherlock-Holmesian super-detective who solves at least part of the mystery the moment he confirms that the professor’s house does, indeed, have wind chimes out front (yup, and that went precisely nowhere), our Brit-with-an-American-accent gate-crashes Petra’s post-mortem examination of Stoddart, botches his theorising, and embarrasses himself in front of Petra and Dan. (“We’re looking at three killers! And some sort of ritualistic attack! With a triangular weapon!” “Nah, dude. Potato peeler.”) Seriously, what is the point of him? If you’re going to bring in an outsider as the detective, he has to actually solve something. By the time Morton manages to put even one and one together, it’s too late. The time wasted on involving “big-name” Stanley Tucci could have been given to developing Petra and Ingrid as they unravelled the mystery, while Dan and Eric fell apart (because men can’t love/be obsessed with women without losing it completely - YAWN).

Here’s what Fortitude had going for it before a plague of prehistoric parasitic wasps descended on the town and turned selected residents into homicidal lunatics:

1. A female governor who actually had authority and commanded respect, but who wasn’t all that “strong”, and might even have been corrupt. She was normal – an ordinary woman in a job that had all the prestige of being high-powered, but which was really fairly undemanding (700 residents who all behave themselves, zero unemployment). Thrust this character into an emergency: a suspected case of polio requires that she quarantine the town. And then the possibility of a serial killer on the loose. How is she going to handle this?

--- Margaret Allardyce, the town’s GP, calls Hildy out on the fact that she is not doing her job properly when Hildy refuses to discipline Dan for using excessive violence in arresting Frank Sutter. Before this interesting angle can develop into anything beyond Hildy swearing at Margaret, the good doctor becomes bug-breakfast.
--- Let’s just look at this again: There are four police officers. One is injured. One has just gone insane and almost killed a suspect. There’s a suspected serial killer on the loose. You can’t get a better set-up than that.

2. Margaret Allardyce has soul-searching of her own to do. It turns out when Shirley and her creepy feeder boyfriend Markus are talking about tricking Shirley’s mother into eating whale, that the mother in question is none other than Doc Allardyce. There’s a lot going on in this dynamic – between Shirley and Margaret; Shirley and Markus; and the animosity between Markus and Margaret. So much drama to work through... oh, nevermind, there’s only one character left kneeling here.

--- The show would have been stronger if Margaret and Shirley had remained alive to confront each other and Markus. Sure, have Shirley go insane and attack someone (preferably Markus, actually), but switch the horror for drama. Say she leaves Margaret unconscious (perhaps merely bitten and infected by wasp egg-filled saliva – we can have Sci Fi here, or even true science), and disappears. Markus takes the rap for the time being. Then Shirley is found, alive. Cue deep recovery conversations between the three of them. Seriously, Markus’s profound monologue about consequences and responsibility no matter what the intent should have been delivered to Shirley, not two stranger scientists who are all, “Whatev’ dude. Bugs to kill. L8r.”

3. One of the more tense and fascinating storylines was that of fugitive Ronnie Morgan on the run with his ten-year-old daughter Carrie (the aforementioned girl-with-a-rifle from one of the opening scenes of the pilot). There is a lot of drama that actually does get explored in their thread, but Ronnie (and the system that still manages to let him down despite the job-and-home-for-all concept) never gets a chance to own his mistakes, face the consequences, and make anything right by his daughter. Because: Horror. The community never get a chance to show this pair that they care – from Ingrid who tries her level best to talk Ronnie down with compassion and reassurances to Elena who drops everything to take care of Carrie. Elena herself shifts from her self-centeredness in that moment and grows as a character, only to devolve into the monster she supposedly once was. Because: Horror.

--- This storyline remained the most pure drama for the longest, and there was plenty there to drive it: the danger of polar bears, frost bite, exposure, the danger of Ronnie potentially snapping. All that was required was to follow this thread through to its conclusion with both Carrie and Ronnie returning (together or separately) to face the music.

And here’s the WTF: Fortitude edition:

4. DCI Morton learns The Truth only to cark it a few minutes later. Seriously, what was the point of him? The audience already knew, so he wasn’t even our substitute in that scene. Weak storytelling.

--- Aside from the fact that Morton should have been written as a far more useful and savvy character, his survival would have been an ideal opportunity for a relationship to develop between him and Dan Anderson. Is he going to keep the secret of the man who chose to save his life despite what he knows?

5. Speaking of Elena and The Truth – the less said about the Pettigrew rubbish the better. Was the whole “man-the-worst-monster-of-them-all” theme really necessary? What a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time.

--- Instead of resorting to flashbacks and clichéd backstory, ditch Pettigrew entirely and assign the mammoth graveyard discovery to Max in the present, giving a more interesting character a bigger part in the story.
--- No Pettigrew, no need for Morton.
--- And preferably no tupilaq-creation for Henry.

6. In a town of 700 people, there appear to be no homosexually-oriented citizens, despite the pseudo-progressive stance towards sexuality. (Hint: It’s progressive only when it is someone else doing it to another someone else of the opposite sex and it doesn’t come too close to home (pun intended).) The show goes to some lengths to hit the audience over the head with the awareness that all four of the nubile female characters are completely and totally heterosexual and also open to a little playful promiscuity. This despite the fact that the sexual chemistry between two of these women was through the roof.

--- The friendship between Petra and Ingrid would have been an excellent thread to explore, whether or not it developed beyond the platonic. They are the only two women in a traditionally-male job, but they also make up half the police force (or more than half if you count the “Chief of Police”). They are both struggling with the increased pressure the murders have put on their tiny force – exhaustion, fear, nerves, nauseating discoveries.

7. Finally, a point not confined to just the Horror genre: dishonest and lazy storytelling does your project (and your future projects) no favours. Don’t be tempted to use truncated flashbacks to show just enough to create a sense of mystery, and then deliver the rest of the flashback later to explain everything (a.k.a., directorial sleight-of-hand). And the omniscient flashback and/or preface is the worst culprit, and the most overused. In Fortitude I’m particularly talking about showing just the scene of Liam waking up with frostbite, THEN flashing back to show him killing Charlie, THEN re-flashing back to show that Frank had come home much earlier than the story seemed to suggest and knew that Liam had been outside and was covered in blood. Keeping your reader/audience out of the loop means that you cheat them of the satisfaction of “calling it” or (if you’re clever enough to hide the real clues really well) robbing them of the facepalm moment when they realise they should have guessed the truth well before they did. Clues are meant to be found and assessed by the reader/audience, not kept up the author’s sleeve for a rainy day reveal.

--- The simplest solution to the Liam reveal would have been to give the police access to some convenient CCTV footage that showed Liam walking through the snow towards Charlie Stoddard’s house, and then leaving some time later covered in blood. Only four officers, remember – this would have taken time for them to view given the other emergencies they had to deal with, and there need not have been more than a blink-and-you-miss it glimpse of Liam from a corner camera. This would have given the audience real-time clues to follow along with the police, and a greater investment in solving the mystery. It could even have been shown only to the audience, with a shot lingering on the view screen while the police officer is walking away/taking a phone call/otherwise distracted at the crucial moment on the CCTV footage.

Far from Horror being a means of studying human nature and holding a mirror to our worst sides, as a genre it distances us from potential self-awareness and soul-searching, safely masking the choices to commit terrible atrocities as the acts of “monsters”, “aliens”, or the “supernatural”. Drama allows for the development of multi-faceted characters who might make horrific choices and then have to deal with the consequences. I’m not interested in unredeemable characters; I know I would rather see a story where a character lives with unbearable regret than one where a monster is fed to a polar bear for his sins. By all means go dark, but don’t go clichéd, and don’t pile on the gore to hide your plot holes.

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Elle Carter Neal

Elle Carter Neal is the author of the picture book I Own All the Blue and the teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, holding childhood slumber-party audiences entranced until the early hours of the morning. Elle decided to be an author the day she discovered that real people wrote books and that writing books was a real job. Join Elle on her new publishing adventure.

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