Strongarm & Lightfoot – Kindle Release Day!

Final cover art for "The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot - Scratching a Lich." Art and Copyright Patricia Lupien.
Art and Copyright Patricia Lupien.

All right, folks, if you’ve been holding out on buying The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot – Scratching a Lich on Kindle until it was released, wait no more! As of today the book is now available for the Kindle (and Kindle apps) and in print.

I’d like to take a minute to thank my advance preview readers who have already posted their reviews: Amanda Sullivan, Michael Brown, Rich Maclone, Kendall Jung, and Ralph Davis. As I’ve said here on several occasions, reader reviews are one of the most important promotional tools an independent author has, so thanks for getting me off to a strong start, guys and gals!

I’d also like to send some love to fellow authors Brian LeTendre and Jolene Haley, who also have a book coming out today: Harrowed – The Woodsview Murders, a YA horror story (last time I checked the Amazon product page still wasn’t up, so you might have to go searching for it yourself).

I met Brian at Hartford ComicCon and we talked at length about writing in general, the challenges of writing young adult fiction, and how we’re not terribly comfortable promotion ourselves. It’s always cool to meet another indie author who enjoys talking about the craft.

I also grabbed a copy of his book Courting the King in Yellow, which I will hopefully get to read before…oh, 2016. Seems like I don’t have as much reading time as I used to. Going to have to fix that. Anyway, click on the cover image below to go check out the book’s entry on Amazon and maybe grab a copy for yourself.

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.

Spoiler Theater: Undead or Alive

The inspiration for this post is my need to vent about an example of what I view as an absolutely tragic choice by a writer. What follows is an analysis of that choice, which reveals the end of the movie, so if for some odd reason you’re keen on checking out a horror-comedy entitled Undead or Alive: A Zombedy, stop reading now.

So, last night I fired up the topic of my discussion on Netflix for some background noise, as is my practice. The concept is simple: zombies in the Old West. Okay, I can get behind this. And it was co-written by Glasgow Phillps, a former staff writer for South Park, which gave me hope this might actually be funny.

Not so much, but my gripe isn’t with the forced, flat, and sometimes too-juvenile-for-its-own-good humor, but with the climax of the film.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!

In this setting, the zombie plague is the result of a curse placed on the white man by Geronimo (just roll with it), and the only way to negate the curse is to have to cursed individual consume the flesh of the man who cast the curse — or, lacking that person, a blood relative.

At the end of the movie two of the heroes, Elmer (James Denton) and Luke (Chris Kattan), become infected and turn into zombies, then go after the third protagonist, Susan (Navi Rawat), to satisfy their unholy hunger. They face off. Sue, armed with a cavalry saber and resigned that her former friends are now the undead, charges in, ready to fight.

What’s important to note here is that Sue is Geronimo’s niece.

Take a guess what happens.

If you guessed that the movie jump-cuts to our heroes Elmer and Luke, no longer zombies, sitting atop their horses and lamenting in a very cavalier and off-handed way that it was a shame they had to eat Sue, you’d be right.

Up until this point, the story played out very much like any other mismatched buddy adventure with the standard romantic attraction subplot thrown in (between Luke and Sue in this case). Sue was portrayed as far smarter and more competent than her male counterparts, and her motivation was stronger: she was out for vengeance against the Army regiment that slaughtered her people. On the other hand, Elmer was an Army deserter and thief, and Luke was a jilted suitor who threw in with Elmer after the two of them broke out of jail and assaulted the local sheriff.

In other words, Sue was a better, more likable, more sympathetic character than the de facto heroes who, in the end, killed and ate her and afterwards acted like it they’d just gotten take-out at McDonald’s. They were even debating good-naturedly what the aftertaste of her flesh reminded them of before literally riding off into the sunset.

It was a scene shockingly devoid of emotion. Yes, it was a comedy — and because it was a horror-comedy hybrid, it’s something of a dark comedy by default — but to so callously dispose of a main character like that was a terrible call by Phillips and his co-writer Scott Pourroy.

They had many other viable options. Elmer had been infected first, during the obligatory final battle with the zombie horde (a mix of the Army regiment Elmer left and random bad guys) and he had an opportunity to go out a hero. The plan was to blow up the fort and the zombies along with it, and Elmer could have stayed behind to set off the explosives after Luke and Sue escaped.

This ending would have brought the character arcs to logical and satisfying conclusions. Elmer, who left the Army because he found its practice of indiscriminately slaughtering Native Americans repugnant, would have enacted revenge against the Army on Sue’s behalf and atoned for his own sins. The milquetoast Luke, who really wanted nothing more than to find love and happiness, would have found it in Sue, who would have laid to rest her all-consuming hatred of the white man.

Instead, the writers opted to force a ridiculous and, on many levels, repulsive twist ending, and for what? One last cheap gag that fell on its face?

One of the greatest sins any writer can commit is the abandonment of characterization for the sake of forwarding the story, and that sin is amplified when characters who have behaved consistently throughout a story do an abrupt 180 for the sake of a joke. This offense is particularly great in Luke, who wept like a girl whenever he suffered even a mild emotional blow but apparently was very comfortable with cannibalizing a woman he was in love with.

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.