Thursday, January 17, 2013

Horror Movie Writing

                Writing A Good Horror Film

    There is a pattern that has developed over the past few years at the box office. Horror films open up at number one and then the bottom drops out of their box office.

    Hollywood is a hype machine and they have become expert at hyping horror movies. The problem is that they pick really bad movies in an effort to steal a few quick bucks. Most of these movies fall into three categories. Terrible originals, terrible remakes and terrible redone versions of foreign horror films.

    Let Me In vs. Let The Right One In.

    The Chainsaw Massacre 3D vs. The Chainsaw Massacre.

    Some of this is the quest for money. Some of this is the directors fault and some of this is poor writing. In the case of Let Me In it is the director’s fault because the original has an almost perfect script.

    This post needed to be written for the simple fact that many of the micro to no budget scripts that will be written will be horror screenplays.

There are actual rules to writing a good one and I guess that it is about time someone wrote them down and reminded the screenwriting world of them.

    The rule that is broken most often and usually in the first five minutes. The rule that once broken the story has a huge mountain to climb before it can reach the level of watchable. The rules that you must keep in mind at all cost is,


    Your script must establish the real world before it can or should introduce the supernatural world.

    “But I want to start my script with a bang. I want to jump right into the story.”

    Seriously? If you want to write a great film that will be remembered over time then do not break this one rule.

    The movies that followed this rule as if it is religious doctrine are the following:

    The Sixth Sense. Wife, husband, home, normal world, violence, and then mom and boy, street, church and now the supernatural begins to creep in.

    The Exorcist, old Priest, dig in holy lands, people working, heart problems, a hint at something bizarre or supernatural. Jump to a city in America, a Mother and daughter, a home, a ordinary world that is rocked by something supernatural almost 30 pages later. The recipe for the greatest horror film of all time.

    The Descent, a rafting trip with friends, a drive home, a fatal car accident, friends gather at hospital, friends unite a year later for another group outing, they worry about the one who almost lost her life and did lose her family, they go cave diving in an un-explored cave because one of them is a risk taker and they end up in a life and death struggle with flesh eating cave dwellers.  Released at the end of a summer movie season, totally untouched by the Hollywood hype machine, barely lasted in theaters for three weeks and has gone on to be considered a modern horror classic.  (Note, I was lucky enough to see The Descent at a film festival where it won best after dark film. The house was sold out and the place rocked from almost beginning to end. There is nothing like seeing a really good horror film.)

    The Original Chainsaw Massacre watches like a documentary at times. The opening scenes of that movie establishes reality and then goes on to create what feels like a darker level of reality.
    The same could be said for the original The Hills Have Eyes.

    They all became classics by establishing reality first and then subverting it.

    The next Rule has been written about before at this blog and I must go over it again.
    Rule 2,


    The audience will believe in a killer shark.

    They will believe in a possessed child.

    They will believe that a massive undersea creature is rampaging through New York, Cloverfield.

    They will believe in Vampires.

    They will believe in any one thing, but not two things. Two or more things is comedy and not horror.

    Child’s Play 1 and 2 are horror movies. Once you get to Bride of Chucky you are into comedy.
    A Killer Shark is Jaws, a Killer Shark that can swim under the sand is Sand Shark, it is a sci-fi channel film and it stinks.

    No matter what that second thing is do not include it in your screenplay. Do not make the argument that M. Night does it all the time. A twist ending is not the same as a second thing that they must believe. Hey I do not like the ending of The Village any more than the rest of you guys, but it was fair and he did not ask you to believe more than one thing. We were just fooled by what the story really was about.

    The movie that broke this rule and completely lost me and many of those who had high hopes for it is the movie Grave Encounters. Great premise. Solid Act I and part of Act II. This movie promises an experience like the Shining and out of no where jumps to Rose Red and a second rate episode of the Outer Limits. Spoiler Alert!  For those of you who have seen the movie the ghost hunting team arrives at the building and get locked inside. At this point we have a time limit given to us where around 6 AM the doors will be opened. Survive until then and all is well. Then the building starts changing shapes. Really? Then time does not run the way that it does in the rest of the known universe. Really?

Too much to believe. I think the movie falls apart when these things are introduced and never recovers. I will offer a slight defense and maybe a reason why this happened. The script was written by a writing team.  That could explain the introduction of these unnecessary elements.

    Find a horror film that disappointed you and ask yourself if it asked you to believe in more than one thing. I would bet that almost all of them did.

    There are a few more rules, but at the end of the day these rules are the most important. If you break any of them then you are probably writing a bad horror movie.

    How to write a really good horror film is going to be another post and I will try to be as helpful in this area as possible, but no one has perfected a formula for this yet. The greatest screen writers of all time are hit and miss.

    Okay that is it for today. I have added social marking tabs on the post so could you please share this and any other post you like and tell a friend about this site.

    Last note, I am working on doing an Anthology contest this year. Unlike most of the recent anthologies that have been released this one must have a common theme and the theme is still being discussed. It will be suspense/horror and it will need something to tie it together. Watch Trilogy of Terror (find it on Youtube) as an example of what we will be aiming for. 1 FREE Audiobook RISK-FREE from Audible


  1. Thanks, I'll be using some if you're insight.

  2. I'm writing a low budget horror at the minute. I have some actual ghostly things going on but there are a number of grizzly murders which we're led to believe might be supernatural but are in fact very human.
    The ghosts are there but they are largely harmless and are related to the reason behind the killings.
    Do you think this is breaking the "two things" rule - namely believe in ghosts and that a serial killer is on the loose?


    1. I do not believe that you are breaking the rule. The movie the Devils Backbone is almost a perfect horror film and it features both strong supernatural elements and a very human killer. As long as the ghost or supernatural element behaves in a logical manor then it should not damage the internal reality of your script. It is a foreign language horror film, but I would suggest watching the Devil's Backbone to see what I am talking about. The killer in that film is responsible for the ghost that is trying to stop him from doing more killing.