7 DEADLY SINS OF HORROR MOVIES — written by SA Guest Blogger, TIM GRANT, author of the horror movie blog Post Mortem Depression
Message from Tawnya: I’m thrilled to have Tim as a guest blogger on Script Anatomy. What I love about Tim, aside from the fact that he’s an all around lovely guy who knows his way around the kitchen, is that he’s a very talented screenwriter who KNOWS his genre. He watches everything. Tim lives it and breathes the horror world of movies and brings his expertise to the craft. So let’s see what he has to say about the…
7 DEADLY SINS OF HORROR MOVIES
I love horror movies. I love watching them. I love writing them. But after watching hundreds of hours of possessions, tortures, slashings, hauntings, alien abductions and hostile zombie takeovers … well … I’ve got one nagging question …
Why do so many horror movies suck so badly?!
So I developed a list of the seven deadly sins of horror movies — common storytelling gaffes that time and time again turn potentially frightening, interesting ideas into huge piles of suck. For each sin, I have plucked a film (or scene) from the horror cannon as an example of the saints and sinners of the genre.
So grab your holy water and rosaries as we get started with …
SIN #1: YOUR CHARACTERS ARE MORONS.
I know that a lot of your characters are going to end up on the business end of power tools. All of these chumps can’t be MENSA members. But please, for the love of all things unholy, try to have them react with some semblance of conscious thought.
Remember, when characters on screen react like we would, then we identify with them and their plight. Instead of pointing at the screen and yelling “idiot!”, we will be quietly thinking: “Hey, that could … be … me.”
Sinner – Dead Silence (2007):
Quiz time: Let’s say someone sends you a ventriloquist dummy in the mail and then said dummy kills your spouse in a violent and heinous manner. What is the one object you will NOT take with you when you return to your home town for her funeral?
OK, pencils down. If you said the homicidal evil ventriloquist dummy that killed your spouse in a violent and heinous manner, then consider yourself smarter than this dipshit …
Who’s the bigger dummy?
… who spends most of the movie carting the killer doll all over creation as he tries to figure out how to get the dummy to stop killing everyone around him.
Here’s a thought Skippy: Throw it in the fire. Wood burns.
Saint – Prom Night (1980) [Scene – Wendy’s death]:
Wendy finds herself in the unfortunate situation of being a mouthy, bossy, slutty pot-smoking babe in a slasher movie made in 1980 starring Jamie Lee Curtis.
Alas, she was created to die.
However, Wendy does something quite unheard of for a female character not played by Jamie Lee Curtis in an 80s slasher film. She runs and fights like … well … any living mammal with a hypothalamus that was confronted by an ax-wielding glitter-ski-masked maniac. She isn’t the final girl, but she doesn’t act as if she already knows that. She’s smart, resourceful, and puts up one hell of a fight. You’re sad to see her go.
SIN #2: YOUR PLOT MAKES NO SENSE.
Sure lots of horror classics stretch believability to its limits. In Suspiria, why doesn’t Suzy just leave the dance school and alert the police instead of taking on an entire coven by herself? In The Ring, how did Tamara make that killer videotape being … you know … dead and in the bottom of a well?
But somehow those classics invented a nightmare reality that allowed audiences to overlook these flaws and suspend their disbelief as they lured us along toward their unnerving conclusions. Things have to make sense in your world, not necessarily any real world that exists. It’s when you violate your own rules of logic that you start to sink into the suck.
Sinner – High Tension (2003) [Scene – The Ending]:
I felt cheated by the ending of this otherwise superb French chiller. The final twist could have been set up in a clever way that repeated viewings would reinforce, but (SPOILER ALERT) you just can’t have a car chase with yourself. Not even if you are an otherwise kick-ass French lesbian. You just can’t!
Saint – Sixth Sense (1999):
This movie does so many things right on so many levels that when the final major plot twist hits, it’s a big “AHA” … not a “WTF?!” All of the setups pay off in a very satisfying way.
SIN #3: YOUR MONSTERS AREN’T LINKED TO THE HERO(INE)’S INNER-DEMONS.
The villain should always be the embodiment of the main character’s psychological demons. They are their worst fears made flesh. When the battle on the outside lines up with the battle on the inside, you will have your audience hook, line, and sinker.
Sinner – Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003):
Quiz Time Again: Who is Erin? Sure, she’s the final girl of this misguided remake, but what makes her tick? What is her worst fear and/or childhood trauma? How will her battle against the homicidal Hewitt family make her revisit and conquer her core weakness?
Pencils Down. Drawing a blank? Apparently so did the screenwriter. But I guess they figured if Erin looks like Jessica Biel …
… nobody will really notice or care.
Saint – Silence of the Lambs (1990):
Hannibal Lecter is a shadowy father figure who forces Clarice Starling to confront the psychological damage caused by her actual father’s death. Lecter may be the devil made flesh, but he is also a dark guide to the trouble spots of Clarice’s own psyche.
And Clarice has another monster in her life. Serial killer Buffalo Bill skins women to make a dress to become a woman. He is a dark inverted representation of her own struggle with her gender identity as a woman in the largely male and chauvinistic world of the FBI. Bill may want to put on a woman suit, but Clarice struggles daily with the need to put on her man pants when dealing with her macho peers and the bad guys.
SIN #4: YOU’VE EMPHASIZED KILLS OVER SUSPENSE.
Sure, when you go home from a horror film, it’s the inventive kills that you remember. But those scenes only work if the filmmaker builds up to those kills with chills and suspense. Horror movies are like sex … you don’t win points by rushing to the climax.
Sinner – Friday the 13th Part 5 (1985):
This could probably apply to any part greater than 2, but nowhere is it more egregious than in Part 5. Watching this one is like watching cows being herded into a kill chute. You know these dumb animals are going to get it, so it simply becomes a tedious waiting game. Mooooo.
Saint – Exorcist III (1990) [Scene – Nurse Station Scene]:
This is by no means a great movie, but director/screenwriter William Peter Blatty creates one absolutely pitch perfect scene of suspense and payoff. Study it and learn, if you dare:
SIN #5: YOUR MAIN CHARACTER IS A DOUCHEBAG.
I don’t care how many Freddy Krueger lunchboxes you had as a kid, if you watch a horror movie and you are rooting for the homicidal maniac to succeed, either the writer has failed or your anti-psych meds have. Make your main character somewhat relatable, three-dimensional and likable and the audience is likely to feel every ounce of their terror and cheer them on when they battle the bad guy.
Sinner – Severance (2007):
I like director Christoper Smith a lot and consider his film Triangle to be a work of genius. But in Severance, once the killing is underway and our “heroes” emerge, we are left with a dilemma. Are we supposed to be rooting for the drugged-out sex addict or the ruthless selfish businesswoman who left her colleague to die?
Saint – Halloween (1978):
Oh my dearest Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). So good. So innocent. And, therefore, so destined to be plunged into the darkest depths of slasher movie hell.
John Carpenter and Debra Hill‘s script spends almost one third of the movie setting up Laurie and her world. We know that she is shy, has a crush on Ben Tramer, and has two friends, Linda and Annie, who are more sexually experienced and adventurous. By taking the time to properly set up Laurie as a flesh and blood teenager with fears and hopes, the audience is invested in her survival when the mortal battle begins.
SIN #6: ALL OF YOUR CHARACTERS ARE DOUCHEBAGS.
I separated this one out as a separate sin because there are some movies who go above and beyond the call of duty in making us hate all of the potential victim characters. Not just the protagonists. ALL OF THEM.
Sinner – Friday the 13th (2009):
This “re-imagining” really commits all of the seven sins, but #6 is its most unforgivable. Lets review our potential heroes, shall we?
How about slutty blonde chick? How about slutty blonde dude? Stoned one-note Asian guy? Wisecracking masturbating black guy? How about the other four who leave their dying friend outside with the killer because … hey … better the wisecracking masturbating black guy then them … right? (And seconds after making that dubious decision, they split up – see Sin #1). DIE ALREADY!
Saint – Wolf Creek (2005):
Wolf Creek has a flawed, but relatable young threesome. They are young, fun 20-nothing Aussies who just want to party at the coast, then travel across the outback, getting in a little adventure before their lives becomes calcified by the obligation and routine of adulthood. If you weren’t these kids when you were their age, you wanted to be.
Not surprisingly, there is a love triangle. But, because these girls are not one-dimensional catty soap-opera stereotypes, they don’t become enemies. They remain friends. They love each other and work it out like likable people do. By spending almost the first half of the movie setting up this affable trio, director Greg McLean lulls you into thinking you might not be watching a horror movie after all. Then he reminds you … in the most sinister way possible.
SIN #7: WE SEE TOO MUCH OF THE KILLER TOO SOON.
I know you spent a lot of time creating the best killer ever. He’s funnier than Freddy. Stronger than Jason. More viscous than Michael Myers. He skins his victims, then rolls them in push pins, while wearing a haz-mat suit and speaking in Aramaic. He even leaves clever riddles at the murder scene.
Great! Now get his, her, or its ugly mug out of Act 1 and most of Act 2. The thing you can’t see in the dark is always scarier than some CGI mutant or rubber suited Alien. Darkness is your friend in horror. It’s also a cheap special effect, so use it.
Sinner – Descent Part 2 (2010):
The caves in Part 2 are so well lit it looks like a Sid and Marty Krofft production. The crawlers are not only highly visible and, therefore, not at all scary, but they look like the sleestaks from Land of the Lost. You are left wondering when Will, Holly and Cha-Ka are going to appear.
Saint – Alien (1979):
In the original, the Alien is never revealed until the very last scene. Up until then, it exists only in the shadows with flashes of a drooling jaw, or an unfurling tail.
James Cameron knew better than to try to play this trick twice, so he wisely switched genres from horror to action and brought us hundreds more Aliens in the sequel.
So do you have to avoid all of the seven sins to create a spec horror script that will set Hollywood on fire and become the next Saw or Final Destination? Obviously not. All of the sinners above were produced screenplays. Not only that, some of them made lots of money.
But if you want to create a horror film that has some staying power. Like The Exorcist, Halloween, Psycho, or Microwave Massacre (just seeing if you were paying attention), then heed the seven sins. Repent if you must (and by that I mean re-write).
There are enough bad horror movies in the world.
And I end up watching most of them.
If there’s a Deadly Sin of Horror Movies that grates on your ever-loving-last-nerve that isn’t included here, please feel free to use the comment section below to add them. Love to hear from you.
Guest blogger, TIM GRANT is a screenwriter and lover of horror movies “…because they plumb the depths of the dark side of the human psyche … which I think everyone should do with the help of a good therapist…” Tim’s latest horror/dark comedy screenplay was optioned and a director attached. He is repped by UTA and currently at work on his next project. For more of Tim’s musings on the horror genre visit his blog: http://postmortemdepression.blogspot.com/