Occasionally one of the production companies I work for will ask me to give notes on a script, to make it better. Usually its something in development, and I like the work, because it's one of the few times that I feel like I'm actually contributing to something that might become a movie. Plus it pays a little extra, and I don't have to do a damn synopsis. On the downside, there are usually reasons why they are turning to me for notes; the scripts need real help, and everyone there (including the janitor) has probably put their two cents in already.
So last year, one of the companies I work for asked for notes on a horror script. It was pretty bad, a generic horror tale with a plotline that had a ridiculous number of basic logic holes -- the premise didn't even make any sense (and no, I'm not going to tell you the title, though I'm not sure exactly what the title even is now -- but it will be rattling around somewhere in your multiplex in the next few months).
(And no, it isn't The Exorcism of Emily Rose, though how shameless is that, to namecheck the movie you are ripping off in the title of the movie? It's like actually calling Under Seige "Die Hard on a Boat". Or The Dukes of Hazzard "Smokey and the Bandit with Brothers".)
So, over the course of several drafts, I gave them a blizzard of notes, many of which were incorporated (by a bevy of new writers, including one A-list guy who cruised in at the end). And the screenplay they wound up shooting is world's better than that first draft I read.
Unfortunately, it's still a terrible horror movie (I haven't seen it, but current online buzz is pretty bad). It's yet another generic tale of young people getting chased around by a killer, who butchers most of them in graphic ways before the attractive-but-nice female character who you know is going to kill the evil thing and survive, kills the evil thing and survives.
And I had a hand in the damn thing. Yet I don't feel like I could have steered them anywhere different. Because that's just the movie they wanted all along.
Because as long as audiences keep on going to see generic horror movies in which young people get butchered by an evil man/creature/force/alien/puppet, Hollywood doesn't have to bother making them good.
Now I read bad horror scripts all the time, but I have to admit that I have missed all the horror movies that have actually come out in the past few years (it's a side effect of being married). So I turned to the best expert I know, my friend Danny, who goes out and see every single bad horror movie on the weekends they open (Danny would be perfect for Movie Night). The rant he sent me is so dead-on, I'm sticking it in in it's entirety:
What's wrong with horror today?
It's not personal.
No one (it seems, judging by the fear flicks that get made) is writing what *personally* scares them. It all goes back to the whole thing about writers not investing enough of themselves in their work - they're writing what they think people want to see, instead of what genuinely crawls under their skin and wiggles.
Think about it:
What if you absolutely *couldn't* go to sleep? What if you knew for certain that if you did, you would die? And not only would you die, but you would get slashed to pieces by some burned guy with knives for fingers?
What if your 12-year-old daughter got very, very sick, and couldn't get well again? And not only was she very, very sick, but she was speaking in strange tongues and claiming she was possessed by the devil?
What if your son turned out to be someone else's kid? And not only that, but everyone close to him started dying? And not only that, but there is more and more evidence (backed up by genuine biblical passages) that he is the antichrist?
What if you got stranded in the middle of nowhere? What if the house you went to for help contained cannibals? What if one started chasing you with a chainsaw, and you had absolutely nowhere to run?
What if you went camping, and got lost and couldn't find a way out of the forest? What if your food supply slowly ran out? And what if, on top of all that, mysterious figures were chasing you at night?
And on and on and on. I think writers need to focus on what is truly terrifying, what really keeps them up at night. I mean, look at the current situation in New Orleans: what if your entire town flooded? What if the government promised help, but none came? What if your food and water supply was slowly being exhausted?
I think too many movies are focused on "way cool death scenes", as opposed to what is really scary: the *threat* of dying. I think that when people are talking about "atmosphere", they're really referring to the *imminent threat of death* - whatever the protagonist is doing in their current sotuation to avoid dying. This is where fear lies: not in death, but in the circumstances surrounding death. Death is really the boring end result - terror lies in the gradually and slowly-accelerating issues confronting the protagonist. And this is where most horror wusses out: it's just not personal.
Thanks, Danny (he's sort of like my 50 Cent, hopefully throwing in a guest rap now and then).
I'd like to add that the problem with most horror movies is that they are only fake-scary. Gross stuff is going on, but there is too much of a comfort level too, because it's pretty easy to tell early on who is going to live or die, and then everything just sort of plays out.
I know there have been exceptions, and a lot of times the exceptions work pretty well. The Blair Witch Project is a good example, despite its flaws (like an ending that is too vaguely unsatisfying to really be perfectly scary), because it does a good job keeping the audience off-balance. They have no idea of what might happen, or who might die.
The scary movies I want to see are ones that achieve this sense of unease more aggressively. Freak out your audience not with gore, but with the sheer power of being kept off-balance, by not giving them genre conventions to anchor themselves to. Give the sense that any character can die at any time -- kill off the WB star 30 minutes into the movie. Keep the audience disoriented and fearful, with the sense that they don't know what could happen next. And hang this all on a story that makes sense, something that taps into primal fears without feeling derivative, with interesting characters whose lives spin more and more out of control.
I'm not saying this is easy, and that's the problem; too many horror writers/producers/directors take the easy way out, trying to come up with different setpieces to chop people up with, rather than trying to come up with different stories. But there are signs that people are starting to get tired of this; there seem to be more underperforming horror movies now, and too few break-out ones. (And an aside - what's with PG-13 horror movies, like The Cave? If there is something in your movie with teeth, it needs to be an R-rated movie).
Figure out what scares you; odds are that it will scare other people too. Work harder to bend the boundaries of what makes a scary movie, because its still a very-viable genre to sell a script in, and people want to be scared. And they want to be scared well.