Keeping Pace

Let me get this out of the way first: screw the Super Bowl. Couldn’t care less.

Instead of non-stop football bullshit, I’m puttering around the house today, doing some light cleaning while my usual background noise of bad horror movies drones on. My current viewing is Deadfall Trail, a tale of three men who go on your standard trip into the woods that goes awry, and it took maybe 15 minutes to make a common but crucial mistake of jumping the gun on the pacing of the story.

(Warning: spoilers ahead!)

Particularly with horror films and thrillers, the strongest stories build over time, starting off slow and quiet and ratcheting up the conflict and tension in increments. It would be easy to cite The Exorcist as a great example of this, but as I’m in a low-budget frame of mind, I’ll instead mention Grave Encounters, a “found footage” deal in which a team of ghost hunters enter an abandoned mental hospital and, well, bad stuff happens…but not for a good long while, and the worst of it doesn’t happen within the first act.

In Deadfall Trail, however, the characters are resorting to drinking their own urine to stave off death by thirst halfway through act one, declaring with teeth-gritting determination that they’re doing what they need to to survive. Drinking your own piss, fresh from the tap, is third-act desperation. Nothing feels quite as drastic after that. In harrowing tales of survival, the drama derives from watching the characters struggle on in the face of ever-worsening conditions, hitting a breakdown point, and then rebuilding themselves and fighting for their lives with renewed ferocity. When the characters break down after the first 15 minutes, you’d better have some industrial-strength shitstorm on the horizon or you’re just wasting the rest of the movie.

(Just ask the producers of 24, who in season six set off a nuke in the fourth episode and had nowhere to go for the next 20.)

Hillside Cannibals, The Asylum‘s knock-off of The Hills Have Eyes remake, makes the same mistake. A half-dozen victim characters head into the desert and are attacked by a clan of inbred cannibals — and 15 minutes after the opening credits four of them are dead, one is captured, and the other is on the run. The rest of the movie is pure tedium as the two survivors are tortured and pursued, and occasionally a random group of new victims wanders in to be unceremoniously slaughtered minutes after they show up.

In news writing, the standard model is the “inverted pyramid,” where you start with the most important stuff first and work your way down to the trivial details. I’d say that in fiction storytelling the pyramid should* be inverted to its normal pyramidal** position so you start small and work your way up to the good stuff, building conflict and tension — therefore, the readers’/viewers’ anticipation — over time. The payoff is the reward for making it to the end, not the reward for starting the story in the first place.

* There are always exceptions to any rule, but if you don’t fully understand the rule, you shouldn’t be breaking it.

** The spellchecker isn’t registering “pyramidal” as a non-word. And here I am, thinking I’m making a contribution to the English vocabulary.

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.