This piece contains spoilers
Three days ago, I succumbed to twenty-first century viewing habits and signed up to Netflix, where I was promised a Morian mine of cinematic and televisual wonders. Two days ago, I cancelled my subscription, mainly because, despite Gimli’s protestations, the mine had become a tomb. Or rather, it was always a tomb, for there is no entertainment to be had within its cyberwalls. And ain’t nobody gon’ pay £5.99 a month for that.
Despite being free from my tithe, my access to all of the non-films available does not run out until the end of the month. This proved to be a huzzah moment when, in a discussion about Kathy Bates’ portrayal as Gertrude Stein (yah) in Midnight In Paris (yah), I was asked whether I had seen her most famous film, Misery (yah?).
From cinema lore I was aware of all things leg-breaky about Misery, but I had actually never seen it. Lovely, yummy Netflix proved to be my saving grace on this one occasion, and now I know everything about Misery. I may even be its number one fan.
Misery is an astonishingly simple and chilling horror which tells of Annie Wilkes, a crazed superfan who holds her favourite writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) hostage as she tends to the wounds he received in a car accident (could she even have caused the accident herself?). Bates plays Wilkes with a stubborn childishness that gives her odd relevance for today, as we are becoming more and more accustomed to the aggressive, frightening young fans in the Twittersphere who would no doubt kidnap Messrs Styles and Bieber if they had the chance.
Throughout the film, the Sheriff of the sleepy Colorado town in which Sheldon has gone missing tries to piece together the clues of the mystery. This even leads him to read all of Sheldon’s work, and in a sense he must become a superfan to catch the superfan. Eventually, thanks to the foolproof mystery-solving technique of heading to your local library (having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card) and trawling through local newspaper cuttings, Sheriff Buster heads to Chez Wilkes to find out more. You don’t need to be Kim Newman to know that he doesn’t make it out alive, and this got me thinking about a particular trope that often appears in horror (and elsewhere), which I have named the ‘Anti-Cavalry’.
The premise is simple: throughout a film that centres on some kind of mystery or conspiracy, one character will be trying to work it all out himself, sometimes with the aid of the principal character. While it seems as though they will end up saving the day, they ultimately find out too much too soon, and pay the price for this. The price is usually death. Tom Cruise is told in Minority Report that if you dig around too much, ‘all you get is dirty’, and the Anti-Cavalry trope encapsulates this idea.
This is, I imagine, so much a recognisable trope in horror because of the thrills and spills that it offers. That feeling of being so close and yet so far creates oodles of suspense. It also gives opportunities for dramatic irony, as it is in the climaxes (or anticlimaxes) of the Anti-Cavalry trope that we get the finest “He’s behind you!” moments. What is more, a layer of emotional density is added: in the moment before the anti-cavalry meets his maker, our protagonist (and often the audience) is at his most hopeful; this turns to utter despair when both parties realise that help is not at hand. In Misery, this manifests itself when Buster leaves the Wilkes house, satisfied that nothing is amiss. Sheldon, trapped in the basement (the only place that the Sheriff does not search) manages to make enough noise to tempt the Sheriff back in, and this time the lawman does look downstairs. He has barely had time to register that it is Sheldon who is being held prisoner before his innards are blown out with a shotgun by Annie who is, you guessed it, behind him. It is an obvious payoff, which makes the anti-cavalry trope even more curious. Sheriff Buster is never going to save the day, but are his efforts more significant than merely for cheap shocks?
Before I pose an answer to this question, let us look at some other famous examples of the anti-cavalry trope. I am sure that there are hundreds of these throughout cinema history, but one of the earliest iterations I can think of comes in the greatest horror film ever made, Psycho. Our anti-cavalry embodiment here is Private Detective Arbogast, whose job is to snoop around any fishy business. Arbogast tracks Marion Crane, recently doused in chocolate syrup in the shower, to the Bates motel, and is not convinced by proprietor Norman’s soft-spoken shiftiness. He decides to do a little bit more digging (although not, oddly, in the creepy swamp where Marion is buried) and finds himself climbing the stairs of the Bates household, where he is attacked and killed by
Norman Bates in a dress and wig Mrs Bates.
Despite being a snooper who digs too deep for his own good, Arbogast does not precisely fit the anti-cavalry mould. For starters, he does not really find anything out; he is tumbling down the stairs before he can say ‘weirdo transvestite psychopath’. Furthermore, his failure at discovering the truth does not leave a protagonist in despair (if indeed Psycho has a protagonist, which is debatable). Shortly after Arbogast’s murder, hunky Sam and Marion’s sister Lila are on the case, and they eventually have more luck than the PI.
In this instance the semi-anti-cavalry moment increases Norman’s crimes and gives Hitchcock a jumpy moment or two, but it lacks the emotional punch seen in Misery. Perhaps a closer example comes fifteen years later in The Omen, where diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is trying to convince anyone who will listen that he has accidentally adopted the Antichrist. Fortunately, Thorn is approached by photographer Keith Jennings, who is a bit like Peter Parker, but with a shit name and a mullet. Jennings has been piecing together clues about little darling Damien, including snaps of those who have died mysteriously in the devil child’s company. Jennings is an odd version of the anti-cavalry, because we know quite early on in the film that this saviour figure will not see the end credits. A self-portrait of Jennings shows a big black line through his neck, proof that he will shortly be doing his best impression of John the Baptist.
Sure enough, Jennings cops it in a decapitation spectacle that would not go amiss in the Final Destination franchise accompanied by ten-pin-bowling sound effects, but not before helping Thorn work out how to kill his adopted son. The photographer is integral to the development of the plot, and is able to give Thorn courage in what is frankly a terrifying mission. But of course, he is the anti-cavalry, and it would be too easy for Thorn to complete his task with a sidekick. In order for the audience to feel the emotional weight of his quest, Thorn must act alone, ultimately saving himself from the horrors that surround him and becoming the hero that he is intended to be.
For what is, selon moi, the complete example of the anti-cavalry in cinema, we must return to Stephen King, although this iteration of the trope is not a creation of the writer, but of the director. King’s novel The Shining ends with kerazy Jack Torrance getting blown up by the boiler of the Overlook Hotel, leaving wife Wendy and son Danny to live happily ever after with chef Dick Hallorann. Stanley Kubrick, clearly a fan of all things anti-cavalry, takes a very different path in his masterpiece adaptation.
Jack still dies (frozen in a maze), while Wendy and Danny make it out alive with nothing but a few scars and decades of future therapy bills. However, also on the kill-list is Hallorann, here imagined as a superstitious African American whose apartment is kitted out with erotic tribal art. Hallorann’s story is one of the most famous examples of the anti-cavalry trope because, for much of the film, he appears to be the Torrances’ only hope. Not only does he possess the Shining, a kind of telepathy, but he knows the Overlook’s secrets and the effect it can have on its caretakers. He is even willing to drive through the iciest roads since Mario Kart Wii to come to the aid of the family. It seems certain that Hallorann WILL be the cavalry, if not for his dogged determination, then for his amount of screen time.
In the final act of the film, Hallorann makes it to the Overlook, and has barely had time to admire the Native American style rugs before he is axed in the back by Jack. And that’s it. Old Dick was so close, but he did not make it to the live shows. Wendy and Danny’s biggest help dissolves in an instant, and instead they must find their own way out of their nightmare. This is the crucial part of the anti-cavalry trope. While the murder of Hallorann provides one of the few shocks of The Shining, it is the despair felt by the audience which is most powerful. For the remainder of the film we are gripped as Wendy and Danny, no more than a panicked housewife and a child, must find a way to escape from their psychotic family member. This is an exercise that is all work and no play for both character and viewer.
The fact that Wendy and Danny are weak, tired, and completely outmatched by Jack is the significant aftermath of the anti-cavalry trope. As Robert Thorn cannot kill his son with the aid of Jennings, the sane Torrances must defeat Jack without outside help. This is the final test for the horror protagonist. The structure of these films prevents them from being saved by others. In a cinematic landscape filled with superheroes and people with special abilities, we are very used to concepts of salvation, but we are not so comfortable with weakness. If Batman is up against it (as he very much is in The Dark Knight Rises) we can be safe in the knowledge that his resources and know-how will find a way out. Hell, he can walk from the desert to Gotham if he wants. But the horror protagonist is different; truly weakened. Paul Sheldon does not have full use of his limbs; Robert Thorn must face the murder of his own child; Wendy Torrance is exhausted. These characters wait to be saved, but must, in the end, be their own unanticipated cavalry.