Two-Sentence Horror Stories

jackolanternHappy Halloween, everyone!

It’s a day of writing and scary movies for me, but to get you in the mood for this, the most awesome day of the year, I present some two-sentence horror stories submitted by friends and fans. I’ll begin with my two offerings, one straight and one silly (or maybe not so silly).

Brad decided that out of all his children, little Emily was his favorite. He took another bite.

“It’s eight PM, which means the polls have closed nationwide. Early results seem to indicate that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States.”

Now onto some of my favorite submissions…

Cliff A.: He truly hated his grandfather’s guts. But then he was reminded that there are children starving in other countries and ate what was on his plate.

James K.: Listening for the safety coffin bells is a minor part of a cemetery watchman’s job. Frank had never heard one before, let alone so many at once.

John G.: I never minded her binge watching CSI. What did bother me was the copious amounts of notes she would take during the show.

Rob I.: On the beach, his wife waved cheerfully back to him as she led their toddler into the surf for the first time. He tried to scream a warning then, but the breath was crushed from his lungs as the tentacles dragged him under.

Adolfo H.: She is so beautiful. I am so glad I took her out of her grave.

Ron B.: It was only just one bite. How the hell did I know it would turn me into this?

Chelsea C., from the “perhaps autobiographical wishful thinking” category: “Make me something!” her husband used to constantly ask, even though she had many sewing orders. She decided to finally make him something, as she pushed the iron over a piece of his flesh, squirting a bit of blood onto her wild grin.

Dave M.: As I stepped out of the shower to dry off, I heard a knock and my brother yell, “You almost done in there?” It was unnerving as I live alone now, and he had passed away 5 years ago.

Brian R.: When we posted our ‘Omg, Zombie Bites Cure Acne’ video, we never expected anyone to take it seriously. We never expected to be the YouTube video that drove humanity extinct.

Lara F.: The audience roared with approval as I finished my last magic trick. Once the curtain closed, I turned to my manager and told him to put out a call for a new assistant.

Alan W.: “Good night sweetie,” I said as I closed my son’s door. My wife covered my mouth and whispered “We don’t have a son!”

Mike P: Something was gnawing on my mind. Imagine my surprise when I took of my hat!

Heidi C.: I was done. I pulled on the roll and realized only the cardboard remained.

Lola H.: The elderly woman looked at the swollen belly of the pale young woman beside her and cooed, “How lovely, I can see the baby kicking from here!” The young woman stared straight ahead as she softly replied, “I’m not pregnant.”

And if this were a contest, this would be the winner, from Erin S.: After three minutes she looked again. It was positive.

Honorable mention goes to Paul S. for his one-sentence horror story:  If it’s just a pimple, why is it whispering to me?

Sharing The Love – The Halloween Series (Part Two)

I managed to sneak in some writing time Friday, which is noteworthy because my writing weekends are gone for a while (to attend a friend’s wedding and to work the Connecticut Renaissance Faire — in the Storied Threads tent for a couple days and as a street performer with my friend Scott).

The Strangers posterI picked up on my Halloween movie watching where I left off last week and started the day with The Strangers, one of my favorite modern horror movies. It’s the kind of movie that unnerves me despite repeated viewings, much like its spiritual kin Halloween. The Strangers also emulates Halloween in that it uses sound to superb effect, though in a different way. Whereas Halloween used its soundtrack to enhance the scares, The Stranger uses silence to ratchet up the tension. There are long stretches of near or total silence, punctuated by bursts of sound that are enough to make you jump.

One of the best moments in the movie requires a decent surround sound system to fully appreciate. One of the masked killers is walking around outside the house, and if you’re in the middle of a surround sound home theater system, you get to hear the footsteps circling around behind you — and trust me, if you’re alone in the house while watching that moment, it’s doubly creepy.

F13 Final ChapterI switched gears a little after that, moving from slow-burn horror on to masked killer mayhem (I like to keep my Halloween movie-fest thematically linked) in the form of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning.

It’s an interesting transition between the first three films in the series and the next three. The original trilogy, made between 1980 and 1984, held onto the horror film aesthetic of the 1970s. They had a more raw, gritty feel that made them more effective than the franchise’s later entries, which had a more vivid, slicker 1980s vibe. A New Beginning really suffers from this, and that’s one of the reasons it’s one of the weakest chapters in the series (I say this knowing full well none of the movies are truly great, or even good).

For fans of the slasher genre, the Friday the 13th series is all about the spectacular kill scenes, and A New Beginning falls down hard there; the kill scenes feel timid and restrained compared. Add to that some of the worst acting in the franchise, flat humor, and TV-movie cinematography, and you’ve got a total package that makes one wonder if this movie was cranked out by the studio simply to keep the franchise alive while they thought of something better to do with it.

Sharing The Love – The Halloween Series

It’s October! It’s officially Halloween season!

Friday the 13th posterHalloween is my favorite holiday, and every year I have my own little lead-up celebration in the form of a continual horror movie marathon. This is the time of year I pull out all the old classics, and I got an early jump on things when I stumbled across Friday the 13th on SyFy last weekend. The channel showed the first three movies and I happily let them run (even though I own the entire series on DVD).

I will be the first to admit that the Friday the 13th franchise really is not the best of film series. Some of the entries are downright terrible, trite, and more about gross-out kills than legit scares, but I have a soft spot for them. When I was a kid, the fondly remember Movie Loft on channel 38 (back when UHF was a thing) showed the original movie, mostly unedited for gore, and it freaked the hell out of me good…especially the final jump scare at the end.

Fun little side note here: years ago I wound up working a show with Taso Stavrakis, who aided and abetted Tom Savini on the make-up FX, and provided the hand that held down Kevin Bacon for his death scene — which puts me two degrees away from Kevin Bacon.

The next day, I decided to indulge in a “slow burn horror” run, movies that take their sweet time building up tension before going batshit at the end, and I started off with The Shining, mainly because I had just finished re-reading the book for the third time. I’ve had a strange obsession with this movie ever since I was little. I remember seeing ads for it on TV and thinking it looked like the best scary movie ever, after Halloween (more on that in a bit).

The Shining PosterOf course, none of my family would take me to see such a movie, so I had to settle for grabbing the novel…which, I would like to note, mysteriously disappeared before I could read it. Fortunately, our town library was well-stocked and didn’t blink at a 10-year-old checking out a Stephen King book.

I re-read it in high school, when I went on a hardcore horror novel binge, and again recently, and it wasn’t until the most recent re-reading that I fully appreciated the fact that if you were to remove all of the supernatural elements — entirely, or just play them as background rather than something that actually existed in the story — you still have a great horror tale about a man slowly losing his mind and wreaking havoc on his very trapped family.

I know King is no fan of the movie, but I absolutely love it. The atmosphere, the tension, the slow build toward the end…it still holds up for me.

As does my next selection, Alien, another movie that, as a kid, I knew mostly through TV ads, by reputation, and through other media (Alien: The Illustrated Story, which I read in a bookstore and lusted after for many years before finally snaring a copy of the reprint when it was released a couple of years ago).

Alien PosterThere are a few spots where the movie shows its age — Mother the computer, Yaphet Kotto wrestling with what is clearly a mannequin — but man, it holds together otherwise, and the chestburster scene remains an iconic moment in movie history. I recall reading some interviews with the creative team, which wanted to create a “haunted house in space” movie, and I think they nailed it pretty well. Re-watching it makes me lament all the more the missed opportunity that was Prometheus.

PS: Despite what the poster image I use here suggests, I watched the original cut of the movie. The director’s cut has some interesting changes, but it also has one of the ballsiest shots in the movie: in the scene in which Harry Dean Stanton goes looking for Jones the Cat, Ridley Scott adds in a POV shot looking up into the cuts of the ship, up at the jungle of swinging chains — and the xenomorph is HANGING RIGHT THERE and you’d never see it unless you knew it was there. Love it.

The day ended with my all-time favorite horror movie: Halloween. The original not the remake. God, no.

Halloween PosterOnce again, this is a movie that, as a kid, I fell in love with simply through the TV ads. The ads alone creeped the fuck out of me, and once again, when my family refused to take me to see it, I got my hands on a copy of the novelization (which, I’ve learned, is one of THE most sought-after out-of-print books out there. Who knew?).

A few years later, NBC showed Halloween on TV — heavily edited, which I find funny considering that it is such a bloodless movie — and I watched the entire thing from between my fingers. I was terrified of going outside at night for years — YEARS afterward, because I was convinced Michael Myers was out there somewhere.

As hinted above, I am no fan of the Rob Zombie remake. It’s everything the original isn’t: loud, gory, and legitimately scary, in part because Zombie makes what I consider a horrible mistake in trying to explain Michael and give him a backstory. In the original, he was a mysterious force of evil. He had no motive. He was the boogeyman…and he remains my favorite boogeyman.

Fun fact: studio heads saw an early cut of the film, before John Carpenter added the soundtrack, and they weren’t impressed. They changed their tune once Carpenter added the iconic soundtrack.

Spoiler Theater: Scream 4

The original Scream was a case of a movie being the right tonic delivered at the right time.

Released in 1996, Scream hit theaters as the slasher genre was reaching its nadir. The Friday the 13th franchise had hit its lowest point three years earlier with Jason Goes to Hell, the Halloween franchise came to a stumbling conclusion two years previous with Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, and two years earlier horror maven Wes Craven had what proved to be his final outing with Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

The slasher genre had been, pun intended, done to death by the time screenwriter Kevin Williamson came out of nowhere with his love letter/satirical critique of the horror films of his youth, a movie that embraced the genre’s well-worn and overly familiar tropes while simultaneously playing them against a jaded audience’s expectations. It was familiar but fresh, and Scream still boasts once of the best opening sequences of any movie, horror or otherwise.

In retrospect, Scream should have been a fond farewell for a sub-genre of horror that — like Schwarzeneggarian action films with their cartoonish violence, paper-thin characters, and witty kill lines — had overstayed its welcome. The day of scantily-clad teenagers getting massacred by unstoppable serial killers armed with an array of gardening tools was over.

What we got instead was a brief revival of sorts, wherein many of the same formulas and cliches remained in full effect, but were now ironic and self-referential. Even Scream fell into the trap, spawning two strained and progressively less effective sequels.

Fast forward through the 2000s, which heralded the arrival of “torture porn,” a sub-genre steeped in brutal and protracted violence against, in most instances, unlikable characters who spiral uncontrollably toward pessimistic endings; and then the remake explosion, when every classic horror movie was re-imagined as something slicker, bloodier, darker, louder, more cynical, and less fun.

The horror films of the past decade (not counting the handful of impressive low-budget first-person POV thrillers that have spawned their own sub-genre) are the thematic foundation of Scream 4, itself a re-invention of the original that tries — and fails — to be as relevant now as the first film was at its time.

WARNING! SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!

Ten years have passed since the events of Scream 3, both in real time and in movie time. Heroine/survivor Sidney (Neve Campbell) has returned to her hometown, the site of the original murders, in time for the tenth anniversary of the original, as part of a promotional tour for her newly published biography.

Long story short, Ghostface resurfaces to hack his way through the cast, and Sidney and her fellow survivors from the first trilogy, Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers-Riler (Courteney Cox) must uncover the killer’s true identity to save their own lives, and the lives of the cast of secondary characters — a group of teens who bear some striking resemblances to the original characters.

Therein lies the movie’s problem: everything is familiar — too familiar for its own good.

Structurally, Scream 4 closely mirrors that of Scream — a fact that is pointed out by the characters after they realize the killer is “remaking” the original murders for the remake generation. In fact, the characters spend a great deal of time pointing out all the similarities, and how things might be skewed to reflect modern horror film sensibilities, and in doing so they rob the entire movie of any surprises.

Scream worked because it got the audience to look in one direction so they wouldn’t see the curve ball coming from the other direction — and the audience didn’t need to be reminded at every turn how the game was supposed to be played because they already knew, intimately and instinctively. Scream 4 didn’t work because it told us (repeatedly) how things happened in the past and how they were likely to happen differently in the present, then did exactly what it said it would do, all while echoing the first film — right down to the conceit of two characters swapping off the Ghostface identity to throw everyone off.

The final twist, that Sidney’s own cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) is the mastermind behind the new murders, lacks any serious punch because the audience has been so thoroughly coached to expect the unexpected (and it doesn’t help that Jill’s motive is lame: she resented growing up in her survivor cousin’s shadow, so she decided to stage a new massacre and cast herself as the sole survivor, this assuring wordwide fame in the age of Internet-born insta-fame).

Maybe the movie was a doomed effort because the “new rules of horror” are not as clear-cut and/or ingrained in movie audiences as the old rules were. Classic slasher movies had The Sin Factor (virtuous characters live, everyone else is fodder) and The I’ll Be Right Back Death Sentence (anyone who says “I’ll be right back”, won’t), among others, but nowadays, the only thing audiences can take for granted are that the protagonists are going to be brutalized and that there is an excellent chance that none of them will make it out alive.

(Guess which one of these new rules was utterly ignored? That’s right: once again, Sidney, Dewey, and Gale all survive.)

Nevertheless, the concept might have worked had Williamson and Craven approached the story with a lighter touch and not felt compelled to telegraph their every move. Or, to give you an appropriate contextual metaphor: they took a chainsaw to the audience’s head when they should have slit their throats with a scalpel.

Scarily Bad Writing

Today is Halloween, my favorite holiday, so I suppose it’s appropriate I write about writing in horror movies.

Thanks to the miracle of streaming video, I now have access to a wealth of bad movies — my standard background noise when I write — and it never ceases to amaze me just how bottomless the pit of no-budget dreck is. There are many shortcomings to criticize here, everything from the acting and direction to the lighting and sound, but I’ll of course focus on the shoddy foundation of the script.

I go into this admitting that a successful horror movie relies more heavily on the quality of the production than of the script than other genres. My favorite scary movie of all time, Halloween, would not have been as great had it not been for John Carpenter’s skill at building suspense (and composing one of the eeriest, moodiest scores ever), and those are the kinds of things you just can’t write into a screenplay.

Horror classics like The Exorcist and modern greats like The Mist were very much dependent on quality stories to work as well as they did, but thoughtful horror I think tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

However, that’s no excuse for scriptwriters of low- and no-budget horror fare to fall down on the job so completely and with such regularity. I’ve picked up on a number of typical behaviors of Z-grade would-be horror auteurs in the scriptwriting phase, which I share now for your amusement as much as for your enlightenment.

MIKE’S TOP FIVE MISTAKES IN LOW-BUDGET HORROR SCRIPTS

1) Shamelessly rip off another, more successful movie

An easy target would be Paranormal Entity, a knock-off of Paranormal Activity from the nation’s foremost producer of low-budget mockbusters, The Asylum. But I’m going to pick on Methodic, a blatant rip-off of Halloween — which I picked up on even before I learned that the writer/director, Chris R. Notarile, originally wrote a script for a Halloween re-boot pitch. After Rob Zombie got the green light to do his version, Notarile made some changes to his script and filmed it as Methodic.

It’s impossible to watch the film without constantly thinking of the original. That’s a huge distraction, and an important element of successful horror is to keep the audience engrossed in the story. You can’t do that if your viewers are conducting an ongoing compare-and-contrast to a superior product.

2) Make every character completely unlikable

Rise of the Scarecrows is one of the most atrocious things I’ve ever watched, and that’s because every single character is vile, reprehensible, and completely unsympathetic. As the viewer, I wanted every single one of them to die and die horribly; I had no one to root for, and the conventional school of thought is that the audience wants the most likable characters to not just survive, but to defeat the threat. You can’t do that if every ostensible protagonist is an asshole.

George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead almost fails for that reason. The most sympathetic character in the film is Bub the zombie; there are maybe three human characters who are at all likable, and everyone else is repugnant, pathetic, annoying as hell, or such a non-entity it’s impossible to muster any feelings for them at all.

Yet many a former critic of the film has retracted their previous negative opinions and come to understand that these particular characters are people under the most relentlessly stressful situation imaginable, so of course they’re hair-triggered basket cases who spend most of their time screaming at each other. It makes sense.

And yet, Romero still had the presence of mind to give the audience a few truly sympathetic characters. He knew that without someone to root for, the movie would be intolerable.

It’s worth noting that some hardcore horror fans always root for the killer, and I wonder if some writers cater to this idea and intentionally craft a full menu of victims to be lined up and slaughtered for the audience’s entertainment, but frankly, that shtick gets really tired really fast.

3) Load the script with F-bombs

I am a big fan of profanity. I like it, I use it liberally in my speech and in my writing, and when used well it can be very effective — especially the word “fuck,” which is still a shocking word to more delicate sensibilities.

The problem is that many amateur writers rely on gratuitous profanity as a shortcut to inject their work with edginess and attitude, or because they think that’s how real people talk. I’ve known some people who rattle of fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck like a machine gun, but they aren’t that common, so it’s not only annoying to have an entire cast cursing like Marines, it’s unrealistic. Clunky dialog is a staple of bad horror, but relentless carpet F-bombing is a sure-fire way to draw the audience’s attention to weak dialog.

On that note…

4 ) Use this line at least once:

VICTIM (reacting to off-screen noise): Hello? Who’s there? Is someone out there? [CHARACTER] is that you? C’mon guys, you’re scaring me! This isn’t funny anymore!

Seriously, do you know how many times I’ve heard that line in a slasher film? It needs to be retired. Now.

5) End on a VERY down note

One big problem I have with modern horror, whether a studio-backed job or a no-budget backyard production, is how dark and nihilistic they tend to be. I’m not just talking about straight-up torture porn, but a lot of fright flicks are dedicated to bringing each and every character to a terrible, terrible end, and even when someone survives the experience, the writers and directors apparently can’t resist one last fuck-you to the audience by whipping out the last-minute surprise that makes it clear that no one got a happy ending.

Now, the downbeat ending can be done very well. The aforementioned The Mist is a great example of an effective down-note ending. You see it coming and when it happens you’re not surprised, but it’s still a huge emotional gut-punch — and that’s why it works. The main characters has suffered and fought to survive, and along the way you come to care about them (see rule #2), so when they meet with a terrible fate, it’s a more powerful experience.

Horror films from the 1970s and early 1980s often tempered a downbeat ending by injecting a shred of uncertainty or hope, or ended on a positive note tainted by a whiff of uncertainty: the original versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, the original Halloween and Friday the 13th, they all ended on mixed notes to great effect.