Horror (done right) greatly resembles romance (in general nature).
The story begins with flirtation, with “hints of what could be” and the question of “what else is going to happen right now,” but it’s almost always a tease, almost always “not yet time.”
There’s also a sense of someone “setting things up” for the recipient (but in both cases it’s less of a gift or flirtation and more of a threat or impending doom).
Then there’s the whirlwind “romance” of action and danger realized, of “follow through” on threats, attacks, close calls, pain, loss, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, they do (just like in a romance where that perfect date “can’t get any better, and then it does”).
And finally, there’s “will we consummate this relationship, and if so, how?” Will the characters die, or be scarred forever, or will it be a “might have been” relationship, will the characters “choose” to not consummate in that final sense, will the stars not align for such a “perfect conclusion” to the whirlwind.
And while “Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City” certainly has its problems, I feel like it demonstrates this pattern of “romance” very well. (Vague Spoilers Ahead)
Reviewing Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City
Please note, I am writing this outline from memory (after seeing the film once), so I may get a few segments a little “out of order.”
The film’s initial opening is more of a prologue than a true beginning. It establishes a little of “the past” for the two main characters (a brother and sister), and creates a question for the audience in the form of “what’s happened between this flashback childhood and the current adult version of the characters.”
The flashback scene also establishes that “even back then” something was not right with Racoon City (which makes it more believable that things could be “as bad as they are” when the character returns to Racoon City in the present).
The “strange character” that’s introduced established some nice suspense early on, which (I think) helps to establish “that tone” as part of the overall film, and there is a callback to that character later, but (as others have said elsewhere) I feel like the character themselves is a little unnecessary. I like their inclusion. I like the tragic element that they add to the story, but in terms of the main characters’ overall progression, this character’s contribution could easily be omitted.
On the Road Again
We cut to the adult female protagonist, waking from a dream (classic way to transition from a flashback), as the truck driver who’s giving her a lift also gives her an earful about Racoon City (a little heavy-handed, but not entirely unrealistic).
The moment is abruptly (and appropriately) broken by a figure in the middle of the road (another classic horror cliché), who gets to hitch a ride on the hood of the car (just long enough to pretty much guarantee this person is dead). But (of course), this is a Resident Evil movie, so that figure is soon twitching, moaning, and getting up.
I will admit, the fact that the two people (including the truck driver, who is at least partially facing the figure) “don’t notice this figure ‘get up’ or ‘shuffle off” seems a little absurd, but in narrative terms it makes sense. It’s too soon for things to be “clearly known.”
Realizing the figure is gone, the two debate what to do, while the driver’s dog quietly laps up some of the blood (nice setup). There’s a moment where the female main character debates staying behind to try and find the victim, as the camera lingers on the surrounding woods (a beautifully foreboding shot that feels a bit like horror foreplay).
The next scene cuts against the tension (a necessary reset, but not terribly engaging). We are introduced to a “rookie” who’s going to be the butt of most of the jokes, and a trio of characters who are a little “rough and tumble” (perhaps foreshadowing that they’re going to survive longer than most).
Then the story shifts back to foreshadowing, with one minor character already “showing signs,” and an animal that’s clearly “not okay”
Overall nothing terribly remarkable, but a good horror needs those “palette cleansers” to ensure that the next “scare” has potency (and if we don’t get to know the characters before the horror, how can we care about them when they’re struggling to survive).
Cut back to the female protagonist, who gets out of that truck just in time, as another “misfortune” sets the stage for later troubles (good foreshadowing there).
The scene continues with a slow, drawn out scene. The protagonist knocks on the door of a house, and while checking the windows, she sees a sickly child looking at her from inside another home. Soon the child’s mother (also clearly sick) closes the curtains.
The protagonist makes her way inside the house, looking over items and photos on the shelf, including a few images of other characters (nice nonverbal backstory right there).
There’s a slight tone of tension (it’s clear that things are quietly building in this town), but the scene quickly shifts to some rushed relationship (and backstory) building as the young woman reunites with her estranged brother. The dialogue is a little heavy-handed (more focused on providing additional backstory for the audience than actually sounding like two siblings who already know this stuff).
The sister insists on showing her brother a video of someone she “met on the internet” who seems to know something about “what’s happening in Racoon City” (and be the motive behind her sudden return). And yet, in spite of clearly “knowing something,” this “informant” says very little of consequence (nothing that couldn’t already be inferred from what the film has already shown the audience). Considering the character appears again later with more concrete and specific references (granted, they’re so brief that they don’t really add anything), it’s strange that in this “video message” the character would be so vague.
Soon the scene transitions to another character.
A word from our sponsor
The story abruptly cuts to another young girl who’s “afraid of the monsters,” only to be quickly comforted by her parents.
I admit, at first I was confused, thinking this might be another flashback for the female protagonist, but it turns out this is yet another character, the daughter of a scientist we met in the prologue (who mostly exists so that the scientist isn’t silently acting out their scenes alone).
This scene feels mechanically necessary. It establishes someone who “knows what’s going on” and is proactively “doing something” with that knowledge (though what they are doing is not revealed for some time). But in terms of the narrative, this scientist (and their family) feel largely forgotten until very late in the story.
Granted, I feel that “late in the story” the character of this scientist is needed, but I think it would have been better if their story was more consistently “threaded into” the story of one or more of the other characters, similar to how (over time) the various characters get consolidated into “the ones at the mansion” and “the ones at the police station.”
In any case, the scientist gets a mysterious phone call and declares (in no uncertain terms) that they are leaving, now.
This transitions nicely into the next scene.
Saved By the Bell
Alarms sound, along with a voice instructing people to “stay in their homes” and “await further instructions,” saving the audience from any more heavy-handed dialogue between siblings.
I do like the juxtaposition of these two scenes because it contrasts “the one person who clearly knows what’s going on” (and is choosing to immediately leave town) with the many who “don’t know what’s going on” and are being told to “stay where you are.” Just that contrast (to me) suggests that “staying where you are” is actually a very bad idea, and the fact that “most are going to stay where they are” is probably actually going to make things a lot worse (which is bad for the characters, but great for horror).
The siblings trade a few last remarks, driving home the idea that “these two do not get along,” before the brother does the responsible thing and heads off to “report for duty” during this crisis, leaving his sister to once again consider the ominous atmosphere and “disturbing neighbors.”
We get a nice shot of the adult neighbor writing disturbing messages on the glass, and soon after someone else sneaks inside the house and hides under the table.
This feels like a nice bit of suspense (What’s under the table? What’s going to happen?) but (as is often the case) it feels a bit rushed. All too soon the question of “What’s going to happen?” is answered, and what was (seemingly) a slow, passive threat, suddenly escalates to a very “high energy” and “fast moving” threat, which ultimately proves less “threatening” and more just “frantic and confused.”
The character quickly gets away (scared but otherwise unharmed), and what (at first) seemed to be an actual threat is revealed to be nothing more than “another warning of things to come.” But because this “warning” seems to shift and escalate to “full threat,” it feels a bit lacking. The female protagonist is clearly attacked, and yet the attack itself is quickly revealed to “not actually be an attack” but an appeal for help, and (since the protagonist literally gets away unharmed and without any loss of resources), it mostly feels like a rushed method of “convincing the character that they need to get moving.”
A few quick cutaways help to establish that “various story threads ‘are continuing to progress,” and then it’s on to the next “real” scene.
Initially this scene at the police station feels like another palette cleanser, and it feels a little repetitive that it’s the same group of characters who (once again) are mostly unaware of the looming threat (and goofing off because of it).
Additional characters are introduced (again, very heavy-handed), and the story briefly flirts with “providing us more info” in the form of one character literally saying “Well if you’d stop and listen,” but that’s soon revealed to be a false promise. The character literally follows it up with “I don’t know what’s going on,” and then proceeds to rehash something that the audience already knows (that two minor characters went up to “the old mansion” to investigate a body).
This is another point where I feel the story struggles to justify what’s happening (within the narrative). There’s an unknown crisis brewing in town, and the chief of police chooses to send five out of seven on duty officers “into the mountains” to investigate two missing officers?
This is also where one character gets a secret message, and the important warning that in a matter of hours the city of Racoon City will be destroyed (now we have a deadline).
Watch where you’re going
The roads of Racoon City are empty (except for one car, carrying our scientist and his family). The two adults briefly exchange emotional remarks (nothing terribly revealing but fairly authentic). The scientist almost gets into an accident with the female protagonist (what are the odds?). The two share a brief stare-down (why) before the scientist swerves around and continues on their way.
Overall this feels like another “we can’t go too long without engaging ‘these characters” but otherwise it doesn’t feel like it adds much. This character is clearly not facing any real obstacles (probably because they know more than anyone else), and they’re not engaging any of the other characters, so (at least for the time being) they feel completely disconnected from the rest of the story. Granted, in real life things like that happen, but in a good story most audiences expect a bit more artfulness.
Fortunately the story quickly shifts to “The Mansion,” which has artfulness in abundance.
The early shots of the mansion are beautiful, the atmosphere is vague and unnerving (why are there lights on at this “old mansion?”), and there’s an immediate sense that “something is waiting to happen here.” Granted, that’s almost entirely (at this point) because the story has clearly established itself as a horror story, and any horror story worth its salt knows what to do with an elegant, (seemingly) abandoned old mansion.
The characters immediately decide to split up, which is perfect for a horror story, but (again) makes very little sense in a narrative.
Similarly, the next few scenes feature the characters moving through unlit corridors, their flashlights briefly illuminating various objects that only serve to add to the strange mystery that is this mansion. And, once again, this is a prime example of something that works great as a horror film device, but makes no sense from a narrative standpoint. If the main entrance is so well lit (clearly the place has electricity), why are some rooms and hallways in the dark.
Two of the characters advance one of the secondary plot threads (as if there wasn’t enough going on), but the story quickly cuts away before any troublesome questions get answered (cause it’s not yet time).
The story returns to one of the sideplots, uniting it with the Police Department thread in a way that’s both threatening and also oddly comical. The rookie gets a rude awakening to the reality of “how bad things are,” and the chief of police shows a calm that implies that he already knows what’s going on (something the story doesn’t follow through on), before abruptly telling the rookie “what to do” (so that they don’t die too quickly) and then departing.
A last shot of the front of the Police Station foreshadows what’s coming, and then cut away.
Mansion-The Silence is Broken
The brother (and his partner) continue to explore the mansion. The quickly encounter an iconic moment from the Resident Evil franchise (their first zombie). This quickly leads to the inevitable “the halls are alive with the sound of zombies,” as it suddenly seems like every room has one or more shambling figures eager to attack.
In and of itself I have no issue with zombies suddenly “waking up,” but this transition seems to very abruptly show zombies “already up and about,” and for some reason they were always “somewhere else,” but now they are suddenly “everywhere.” It just feels tacky (to me).
Cut away to the other team, calmly exploring another part of the mansion (conveniently zombie free). One character is revealed to “have a secret,” and just as quickly establishes that their motives are “not admirable.”
The conflict is abruptly interrupted by a fiery crash (reminding everyone that zombies aren’t the only thing that can kill in this movie).
Backup & Get Out
The Police Chief (on the road) attempts to make his way out of the city, only to find it blocked by soldiers (who respond to any criticism with extreme prejudice). The Police Chief heads back to the station, while the camera lingers on the menacing soldiers (another beautiful shot).
The Police Chief almost dies to a zombie dog (cause it’s a Resident Evil movie, and zombie dogs are required by law), but is abruptly saved by the sister, who establishes herself as top of that pecking order rather quickly.
The scene itself has some nice suspense, but ultimately mostly serves to “use up bullets” and further reiterate the need to “get ready.” So they visit the police armory, a convenient way to bring characters close enough to the jail cells to hear one of the inmates calling out.
The rookie gets to investigate (one of the first times in the film that this character gets to take center stage). He encounters a familiar face (the sister’s online informant) in a prison cell. The two quickly begin a heated argument, with the rookie wary of the informant, while the informant “really doesn’t care” and regards the rookie as an ignorant fool who has no idea what’s going on. (Granted, the informant is sharing a prison cell with a slowly transforming zombie, so their impatience is understandable.)
The informant drops a few keywords that veterans of the Resident Evil games will recognize, but (still) doesn’t offer anything of real substance before dying to their zombie cell mate. The rookie tries to be a badass, but still needs saving (once again) by the sister, who briefly mourns the loss of her online friend.
The duo reunite with the police chief, and as a group they take stock of their situation (the growing hoard outside the front gate), and conclude that the only way to survive is via the helicopter (currently in the mountains investigating the old mansion). But (conveniently) the police chief knows “another way,” and the two make a hasty retreat (as zombies begin slowly overrunning the police station).
So, at the end of the day, the scene with the dog helped introduce and establish the sister as “more competent than the two police officers on site,” and created a fresh need/reminder that “we should get more bullets, and more guns.”
Getting said bullets and guns justified suddenly being close enough to hear the person in the jail cell calling for help, which (in turn) resolved one of the forgettable subplot threads, but ultimately everything that follows the police chief’s return to (and the sister’s arrival at) the police station just feels like “killing time” before the characters realize that “we can’t stay here” and move on.
Part of me understands. Having the police chief and the sister “arrive to the police station” only to immediately say “we should leave” would feel a bit “off,” but at the same time “nothing terribly interesting (or consequential) happens between their arrival and departure.
It does make sense for the sister to go there (looking for her brother), but the police chief has already established that he wants to “get out of the city,” and if he already knows about the “secret passage” into the mountains, why stop at the police station (unless he believes that he can’t make it on his own). And, if the police chief does “know” about the dangers that surround the next location, why not warn the others?
Revisiting the Past
The trio head to the old orphanage where the sister (and her brother) grew up. This feels like an odd place for a “secret passage,” (especially when you see how it’s hidden), but okay.
Inside they reunite with an old character, and face a new threat.
The threat feels particularly “out of left field.” The “old character” quickly establishes that she “knows about the threat,” and (in her own way) she attempts to warn them about it. But (in my mind) that only adds to the confusion.
Without giving too much away, the “threat” the characters encounter is not a simple zombie, it’s a full blown monster, and the way they encounter it suggests that this “monster” has been loose and “hunting” in the orphanage for some time. But if that’s the case, where did this monster come from (the secret tunnel could be the answer but there’s no evidence of such a creature using that method), and if the monster has “been loose for some time,” why did it choose to stay in an abandoned orphanage?
And then there’s how the monster itself is handled. It’s clearly established as a powerful threat (too powerful, it seems, for the characters), so (of course) it gets promptly resolved (by something else) before it can do anything of consequence.
This (to me) is where the story really falters. An old character is reintroduced just in time to resolve an immediate threat (one that is introduced at the same time), provide a key detail, and then promptly disappear. If the entire scene was removed the only issue would be “how do the characters reach the tunnel?”
Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy this “tragic character,” but I feel the way the character is handled is too self-contained.
In the aftermath, the rookie and the sister find a few documents that (mostly) confirm what the character (and audiences) already suspected, that the villains were using this location for nefarious purposes. It’s not bad, but it definitely feels like a missed opportunity to not “add to what’s already been established” (perhaps by visually implying through equipment, instead of lists and records).
One Last Round of Zombies
The brother is (somehow) still alive and fighting off zombies.
In an inspired moment, the story adopts a very clever technique, only providing flashes of illumination as the character fires their gun at the zombies, creating a very real sense of “You only know where the monsters were (a moment ago), not where they are (now).” And then they compound it by forcing the character to rely on a lighter (which not only provides very little light, but keeps going out on them).
It doesn’t advance the plot, but it definitely feels like one of the closest things to “immediately scary” that this film manages.
In the aftermath, the brother reunites with a surviving member of their team, and together the two follow the traitor into a hidden underground facility.
Everyone Comes Together
The various characters (gradually) unite, and the story slips into a very predictable conclusion.
The scientist is revealed to be gathering up some very important materials (the heart of what’s been going on in the background all these years). In the background a dissected zombie quietly stirs on a table (strapped down and clearly in pain).
Members of the police force are staggered in, creating a series of short-lived standoffs, as characters fight over the prize, and over “what is ‘right.”
The scene briefly sets up the next “big threat” (the last promise of the film), as the surviving characters band together and start making their way to the last escape route. The characters enjoy the brief reprieve that is “the false resolution” (another common tradition of horror films), before the “final threat” returns.
The deadline arrives, and “the big cataclysm” strikes, halting the characters in their advance, and resolving the larger issue of “Racoon City is overrun.” And (since that’s not enough) the promised threat returns, leading to a somewhat underwhelming confrontation.
Once again the characters find themselves confronted by a threat that’s too strong for them to resolve on their own, and (once again) it’s quickly resolved by an equally convenient “reveal” that just so happens to coincide with “the big threat.”
The dust settles (literally and figuratively) as the surviving characters walk out, safe (at least for now). An official report by “the powerful but distant antagonists” establish that “officially, no one survived,” implying that if (and when) the antagonists learn of the five survivors, they will be in danger once again.
Overall, I didn’t find Resident Evil Welcome to Racoon City terribly “scary” as such. But I do feel like it did one thing well, promise (or foreshadowing) and follow-through.
Time and time again, it set up various “ominous things” that either “vaguely hinted” or rather clearly “promised” what was to come:
- The “character” in the prologue
- The “hit and run” figure
- The “waitress”
- The bird
- The dog and the driver
- The neighbors
And what’s more, most of those “promises” were fulfilled. The waitress, the driver, the dog, the neighbors, all of those “promises” came back around. Very few things seemed “disconnected” or “irrelevant,” and the ones that felt lacking could easily be cut out without additional revisions.
The film definitely had some visually striking images, and strong setting and atmosphere.
Where I think the film struggled was in functioning as a full narrative (in contrast with the kind of implied partial narrative that one might see in a photograph, soundtrack, or nonverbal performance). Many stories were “hinted at,” many glimpses into the stories that surrounded specific characters, but as a whole the film didn’t have time to explore all of them sufficiently, and seemed unwilling to consolidate and focus on “a few.”
As with many stories that are “based on a pre-existing property,” I think this one struggled to “find their own way.” They wanted to take advantage of the rich source material without becoming a literal translation of “what came before” into the film medium. They wanted to “tell their own version of the story” while simultaneously “not straying too far from the source,” and in that delicate balance I feel they erred too much on the side of “homage.”
Granted, I feel that this attempt at a video game adaptation into film is an improvement over prior attempts. The story felt more reminiscent of Resident Evil (to me) than prior films had, and I feel like the “callbacks” to the source material were “less blatant” and more “blended into the narrative,” but I think the narrative itself was a bit too rushed, the material covered too dense.
I think the film did a very admirable job “trying to unite so many disparate threads” as much as it did. I think, within the limits of “how many threads were included” and “the total runtime the film was allotted,” they did an admirable job.
If the film had been longer (perhaps an hour longer) I feel like they could have done more to explore and segment the story, perhaps have all the characters initially try to “make a stand” in Racoon City, and then (as a group) choose to retreat to the mansion in the mountains, thinking that would be a more isolated (and therefore safe) location (perhaps with greater resources). Then the characters could suffer a sharp “out of the frying pan, into the fire” experience, as they both realize that “things are worse around the mansion” and “they are now trapped in an unfamiliar place (with additional hidden dangers).”
But yeah, for what it was, I felt that both the cast and crew did an admirable job with a story that had some problematic structural choices, and may not have been given sufficient run time to “do everything that the script set out to do.”
Overall, not as strong as I had hoped, but I definitely think this is an improvement on video game to film adaptations.
Some may have noticed I have not posted in some time, I do apologize. The past few years have been rough (as I imagine they have been for many). I am in the process of taking care of some things that I need to resolve before I resume posting, but I am planning to resume posting more consistently.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this review, and prior posts.
One thought on “Horror is like Romance (A Reflection on Resident Evil Welcome to Racoon City)”
Happy to see this post. Glad to hear you will be back.