In most movies, facing a moral dilemma is the lynchpin of the plot: does our main character choose greed over charity, self-preservation over sacrifice, paper over plastic? But in horror and thriller films, that dilemma is often sharpened to a razor point, and the wrong choice by a protagonist usually sets the mayhem loose and the blood flowing. The consequences also tend to be slightly different between straight drama and genre fare: in drama, the choice might be whether to face your wife with the truth after she discovers your secret love affair; in horror, the choice might be whether to blow your wife’s face off after you discover she’s turned into a flesh-eating zombie. Decisions, decisions…
The new movie The Box (in theaters this Friday, Nov 6th) fits in the latter category. The film is based on the classic short story Button, Button by genre legend and Twilight Zone icon Richard Matheson, and offers a fairly stark choice between greed versus humanity that cuts right to the bone. A sinister man arrives at the door of a money-strapped couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), gives them a box-like device with a large red button and tells them if they push the button, they get a million dollars no questions asked...oh yeah, and someone they don’t know will die. Do they take the money and let a potentially innocent person be killed? Or do they sacrifice their own dreams and welfare to spare a life of a stranger?
Decisions, decisions. This got us thinking about some of our other favorite genre films and TV shows that offer equally grueling choices.
The Devil's Advocate (1997)
This long but well-made satanic thriller probably comes closest to the greed versus humanity question posed by The Box. Except this time, the temptation is offered by the number one tempter himself, Lucifer, personified in full blooded grandeur by an electrifying Al Pacino. It’s also a sly comment on our tendency to equate consumer pleasure and big income with a fulfilling life. Even funnier is the revelation of what makes Lucifer so effective: he’s a lawyer who runs the most powerful law firm on Earth. It’s up to Keanu Reeve’s young hot shot attorney to decide whether to take the money and continue in the title role, or give up the glory for the sake of his wife, friends, and humanity at large.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
This return to Evil Dead form for Spiderman director Sam Raimi is fast, fun and awesomely gross. It too presents an equally perplexing dilemma regarding greed, this time right at the top of the film. Does an ambitious loan officer (Alison Lohman) deny a mortgage extension to an old gypsy woman in order to improve her chances for promotion, or does she show a little humanity (and probably lose the raise) by offering the old gal another chance? Unfortunately for our pretty young heroine, this particular old lady’s got a powerful bag of curses at her disposal. And once the loan is turned down, the roller coaster ride to Hell begins.
Moral dilemmas present themselves without the aid of Satan as well, at least not Satan personified.
Plain old cowardice sets all sorts of mayhem in motion, and eventually leads to world wide destruction in 28 Weeks Later (2007), the sequel to the pseudo-zombie thriller 28 Days Later. This time, the cowardice of Robert Carlyle’s family man, who abandons his wife to a horde of “the infected” to save his own hide, starts a chain of events that turns the tide from total victory over the “rage” virus, to certain annihilation of humanity. There are actually several opportunities during the course of the film to make the tough choice and correct the initial mistake, but in each instance the character involved chooses wrongly, including a disastrous decision near the end to spare the lives of two children who might be carriers.
Cowardice again rears its ugly head in the recent indie thriller Right at Your Door (2006). One morning, an unemployed husband learns that several dirty bombs have been detonated around Los Angeles, and authorities are instructing everyone to seal up their homes up tight and don’t open the door. So when his wife arrives back at their home after a harrowing journey from her workplace, he refuses to let her in. Is she infected? We’re not sure. Will opening the door doom the husband and everyone taking shelter inside his home? Not sure about that either. Nothing is really confirmed, so his choices are based purely on fear, and reveal some very unappetizing aspects about the state of mankind.
Then there are the SAW films (2004 – present). These massively popular films purport to be about putting a little morality back into society by forcing random citizens to endure torturous punishments to make up for bad moral choices and unfulfilled lives. But these grievances are for the most part not genuine, just perceived injustices created by mysterious killer Jigsaw’s warped sense of reality. Then again, all the talk about correcting society’s ills is really a red herring; these films work because we get to enjoy the harrowing ride of every day folks trying to escape the clutches of a diabolical serial killer, often by having to chose whether to allow someone else to suffer in their place.
On the other side of the coin, some movie characters do choose self sacrifice over pleasure, wealth, or even life in order to save the day. A most recent example is portrayed in 30 Days of Night (2007), when Josh Hartnett’s sheriff realizes the only way to beat a band of murderous vampires that have besieged his town is to literally join them. That means mainlining some vampire blood in order to gain their supernatural powers, and hopefully wipe them out before he himself turns into a bloodthirsty savage.
Genre television has also been a mainstay when it comes to illustrating the moral dilemmas people face, and no show did that better than Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone (1959-1964), the touchstone series for dark fantasy where choices made out of fear, hatred, greed and power led to surprising and often ironic results (stellar examples of this include I Shot An Arrow Into The Air and The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street). Many of these type of tales were penned by the aforementioned Richard Matheson, which brings us back to The Box. Although never produced in Serling’s day, it turns out that Button, Button was filmed quite effectively for the mid-1980’s revival of the show.
However, possibly the best example of bravely facing up to a true moral dilemma comes from The Twilight Zone’s fellow anthology series The Outer Limits (1963-1965). This series tended more to hard science fiction, and stories were often about choosing silent sacrifice in order to save Earth or humanity from a threat it didn’t even know existed. This idea was best personified in the classic episode A Feasibility Study, where a six block section of an American suburb is literally plucked off the Earth and placed onto an alien planet for experimentation in prep for invasion. The unlucky earthlings face a terrible choice: if they submit to the experiments they will remain unharmed and unchanged, but prove their worth to the aliens as slave labor. Or they can make the ultimate sacrifice and expose themselves to an alien virus which will horribly mutate them into blob-like creatures, but make them, and the rest of unsuspecting humanity, unsuitable for enslavement.