Predator: Why the franchise needs to strip back and embrace the horror.
1987 was the height of the action boom in America. That year alone saw the release of Lethal Weapon, RoboCop, and The Running Man. Audiences were primed and ready to see heroes with body-builder physiques blow stuff up, shoot guns, and making witty remarks while doing it. 1987, of course, also happened to be sitting at the tail end of the slasher trend. The Lost Boys had been unleashed in all their 80s excess, while Freddy Krueger was busy taking on some Dream Warriors and Pinhead had just had his first taste of pleasure and pain.
The action genre and the horror genre in 80s American cinema sat close together. Sure, one was preoccupied with huge explosions and muscular men and the other final girls and camp counselors, but there are striking similarities in approach. Both genres have a love of excess, of over the top, illogical set pieces that demand an audience suspend their belief, and both have an affinity for gory practical effects. Perhaps most obviously, though, both genres seem eager to throw an ever-increasing body count at the screen. The more deaths the better! And let’s not forget that the likes of Freddy Krueger and Chucky – who would make his first appearance the following year in 1988 – have a tendency to quip as much as any action superstar might.
The similarity between these two genres is something director John McTiernan plays up in his first studio movie, Predator. Featuring a cast of big, testosterone fueled men of action, Predator begins by leaning heavily into its action origins. There are fist fights, explosions, Arnie lifts a car, and we’ve even got ourselves some one-liners (“stick around”). In fact, the premise of the movie up to this point is so flimsily men-on-a-mission as to almost be non-existent, and it wouldn’t have been difficult for the film to continue on this trajectory and become just one of the dozens over over-the-top action movies of the era.
Of course, as we all know, that isn’t what happens. Instead, the movie slows, with the action taking a backseat and the horror being brough to the fore. As these impossibly strong heroes find themselves face-to-face with a monster who is not only every bit their equal, but more advanced and more dangerous.
McTiernan leans away from the action and into the horror, as the titualar villain stalks its prey, and in doing so he toys with the audience expectations. We know these guys from their escapades in other action outings, but here they aren’t the indestructible men of steel we have come to expect from them. It is in this fact that Predator is able to build that sense of tension and dread, and because of that it ceases to be an action movie any longer, movie itself over into something that more closely resembles a slasher movie.
Predator may look and sound like an action film, but it sits firmly in the horror genre. It’s just that the formula has been tweaked slightly. Our villain is still a mostly silent, unstoppable, masked killer, but he also happens to be an alien, while our final girl is a massive guy with muscles as big as your head.
Predator 2, released in that most confusing of times, the early 90s, seems to recognize this. As a film, Predator 2 leans even further into the horror angle, with its shadow, smoke filled future city and gory, violent kills, it almost throws the action elements out entirely. Danny Glover may have appeared in the Lethal Weapon films, for example, but he hardly casts the imposing muscle-bound figure of someone like Schwarzenegger.
Despite its initial reception, which was overwhelmingly negative, Predator 2 has since come to be recognized as an underrated cult classic. But Predator 2 also seems to be the last time the franchise, at least on screen, would really understand the importance the horror genre plays in the story’s success.
See, action and horror may have been strange but ultimately close bed-fellows in the late 80s, but by the time we reach 2010, and we get our next big screen outing in the world of Predator, things have taken a very different turn. Gone is the gleeful excess of 80s action and horror, and in its place sits… ugh… “gritty realism”.
The Bournification of both Bond and Batman left the cinematic landscape scrambling to keep up, and in 2010 we’ve got Nolan doing his thing trying to ground outlandish concepts like entering someone’s dream with Inception, while Angelina Jolie is busy trying to make her own Bourne with Salt. Tom Cruise is out there having a big of fun, but Knight and Day is so woefully forgettable I’m pretty sure even Cruise forgot he was in it. Iron Man 2 has just been dropped, but Marvel’s humor-over-drama approach is yet to fully take hold.
Predators, produced by Robert Rodruigez and directed by Nimród Antal, is the “gritty realism” approach to a franchise that was built out from anything but.
That’s not to say that Predators doesn’t have some interesting ideas. As a concept it’s extremely interesting, and the cast are all pretty good, it’s just that as a movie it seems to get so preoccupied with the idea of being “gritty” and “real” that it forgets where it’s come from. It forgets to lean into the horror. It forgets to have fun.
Of course, forgetting to have fun is not an issue that can be claimed by 2018’s attempt at kickstarting the franchise, Shane Black’s The Predator, in fact, it goes almost too far the other way. In the eight years since Predators was released, that Marvel shaped shadow is cast across all of Hollywood, and light and breezy is the order of the day.
The problem here, though, is that Predator isn’t supposed to be light and breezy. If Predators (2010) was the dour, miserable, gritty take on the franchise, the The Predator (2018) is what happens when you forget this is a horror movie and steamroll straight for that Marvel fandom. There is no sense of danger or tension here, instead what we have got is a child friendly take on a movie villain that skinned its victims alive and removed their spines! And, well… that just doesn’t work.
The Marvel influence on The Predator is almost undeniable, but why is it that every take on the character since the original (and to a lesser extent the sequel) has fallen flat? What are these versions missing?
And the answer is simple. They’re missing the horror.
Both Predators and The Predator are so preoccupied with aping the trends of contemporary action cinema that they seem to have forgotten that Predator, as a character, is supposed to be scary and violent and imposing.
The strangest thing about all of this, perhaps, is that as a franchise Predator would arguably benefit from a more slasher-style approach. Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street – these guys all quickly gave up their heroes and their ongoing story arcs in favour of standalone tales, and Predator would thrive in this environment. Predator fights knights, or Vikings, or Cowboys. It just seems to work. Perhaps an anthology series is the way to go? Give the concept over to various genre filmmakers and let them go nuts for an hour. That would be something I’d be keen to see!
Rather than continue to push for Predator as big-budget action, strip it back and let it loose in the horror sandbox. But if the character is to survive beyond this, then it needs to be dragged back into the violent, gory depths of its roots. The action genre is a different game these days, but there’s always room for excess in the horror genre.