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.

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.