Friday, October 5, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 5 -- Strangers in a Bottle

ModifierStrangers in a Bottle

Stories of this sub-genre involve a group of strangers who find themselves trapped together in a location and are usually forced to work together to gain their freedom.  I have been unable to find an official term for this type of material, so I've been forced to coin my own terminology; the "strangers" portion is self-explanatory, while the "bottle" portion is a reference to the TV production term "bottle episode," which, despite having a broader definition, generally refers to an episode of a series where the characters are confined to a single location.

Often, Strangers in a Bottle stories have the main characters trapped together by an outside force which often wants them together for a mysterious purpose, although sometimes the strangers are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The force could be a person (Nine Dead, Saw), an organization (Breathing Room, Persons Unknown), supernatural entity (Devil), or pure bad luck (Elevator); sometimes there is an unknown connection between the characters that is eventually revealed (Nine Dead, Saw II), but other times they turn out to have been selected randomly. There is also typically an element of danger present in the situation:  from the person or thing responsible for gathering/trapping the strangers; from one of the strangers themselves; or a combination of the two. The setting can be a variety of locations:  an enclosed space (Elevator, Devil); a single room (Breathing Room, Nine Dead, Saw); a house (House of 9, Saw II, Vile); or a larger complex (Cube, Identity, Persons Unknown).  The strangers might be given a concrete goal they have to accomplish in order to be set free (House of 9, Nine Dead, Saw, Vile), although sometimes that goal turns out to be a set-up ([films redacted for spoiler-free reading]). 

I most definitely have a soft spot for this subgenre. One of the things that draws me to these stories is that a plot built around a disparate range of personalities trying to interact with each other for the first time lends itself well to becoming a character study. The stories also often include some sort of puzzle element related either to the tasks needed for the stranger to win their freedom or determining their hidden connections, which appeals to me. Plus, the "nobody knows anyone else" element helps create some paranoia-driven tension to propel the plot forward.

One of the downsides of the sub-genre is that at time the paranoid aspect is played up a bit too much, resulting in characters who are so overly-suspicious and antagonistic towards one another that their behavior borders on cartoonish; it doesn't help that the overly-aggressive-and-overtly-violent stranger is never the real danger in the group.  If the writer and director don't reign that aspect in, one or more characters can become so shrill and obnoxious that it makes it difficult to enjoy. 

Another downside is that the sub-genre lends itself well to doubling as Torture Porn, with the social and psychological interplay between the strangers becoming secondary to the physical tortures they're being forced to endure; when the strangers become nothing more than targets for gruesome fates, my interest begins to wane.

That being said, if I come across a story that fits into this sub-genre, it moves immediately into my "must watch/read" queue. 

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