Because It’s Halloween: The Deep, Dark Secrets Of A Horror Movie Writer

How do you scare people (who want to be scared)? It’s harder than it sounds because horror movie fans know horror movies the way evangelicals (think they) know the Bible. First confession: if you IMDb me, the impression you’d get from my credits is that I’m purely a horror/sci-fi guy: “Freddy’s Nightmares” (the Nightmare On Elm Street TV series)… “Children Of The Corn 2”“Tales From The Crypt” (5 seasons on HBO)… “Demon Knight”“Bordello of Blood” (oy!)… “Outer Limits”… And then nothing for two decades (a whole other story)… But (here’s the confession), I’m not at all a “horror guy”. I’m not organically attuned to horror. I’m not organically attuned to science fiction either. Circumstance not choice dictated the direction my career went (and that is why I spent a decade and a half doing nothing (a whole other story itself — but, I digress). I had a career writing horror because I understood (as a storyteller) how to set it up and pay it off. Nuts meet bolts.

The reason horror endures has less to do with any particular horror character or story itself than with how successful horror stories as a whole work inside our heads. As important as the payoff is, the moment you spring it, it’s sprung. All the tension releases and either the story’s done or, if you want to build another moment to match it (and it better be bigger) you’re going to have to do it almost from scratch. That’s why the secret to great horror is all in the build up. It’s all about uncertainty and dread.

Haunted houses are built upon foundations of uncertainty and then filled to the studs with dread. If a writer understands that — as, say, a Steven King does — then they will convert their computer keyboard into a veritable cash machine their entire creative lives (and deservedly so). In The Shining, alcoholic writer Jack Torrance accepting the job of winter caretaker at the remote Overlook Hotel in Colorado is the story’s “spring” — the uncertainty about what could happen there. Jack’s son Danny’s psychic abilities plus the hotel’s nefarious past (plus the fact that the nefarious past is “alive” inside the hotel!) — that’s King slowly coiling the spring — the dread — as tightly as possible before releasing all its stored, terrifying energy at the book’s climax (ditto Kubrick’s adaptation).

Uncertainty overflowing with dread (think of the blood bursting from the elevators) — that’s the trick.

“The Shining”: Uncertainty plus dread equals horror

The first movie that ever scared me was “Wait Until Dark” (a psychological thriller, not a horror movie) — seen at Camp Skylemar in Naples, Maine (the sleepaway summer camp I went to) sometime in the late 1960’s.

Audrey Hepburn plays Suzy, a blind woman who lives with her husband (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) in a basement apartment in NYC. A doll with heroin inside it ends up at the blind woman’s apartment. The bulk of the action takes place as the vicious criminals the heroin belongs to try to get it back from the unsuspecting couple. In the end, there’s a kind of showdown between Audrey and the head criminal Roat (played by Alan Arkin). Suzi’s leveled the playing field by throwing a chemical at Roat’s face and by turning off the apartment’s power. Regardless — and like every great horror movie villain — Roat stalks her in the darkness regardless, a monster with an agenda with only one way to stop it. But Suzi has been stalking Roat, too, trying to use the (familiar to her) darkness to her advantage. Suddenly Roat leaps out at Suzi from behind the refrigerator door.

I have a distinct memory of the entire audience of campers (aged six to sixteen plus counselors) leaping to our feet, hands at our mouths. Whether or not we all really did suddenly leap to our feet, that’s how it felt. That’s how that manufactured moment impacted that audience. Stories don’t have to “be” horror to play by horror’s rules.

Second quick example (and it’s my favorite “horror movie that’s not a horror movie”) — Nic Roeg’s brilliant “Don’t Look Now”.

Donald Sutherland is art restorer John Baxter. Julie Christie is his wife Laura. As John begins a restoration project on a church in Venice, Italy, he and Laura are still mourning the recent drowning death of their young daughter Christine. At a restaurant, one night, two elderly sisters — one a blind psychic — approach Laura when she goes to the bathroom: the psychic sister insists she “saw” the Baxter’s dead daughter standing by them at the table — and wanted them to know she was happy. That (understandably) freaks Laura out. She wants to believe it. John is the cynic. He insists it’s all nonsense. Thus the spring and all its uncertainty is set up. Does the blind psychic woman really see Christine? Is Christine really trying to warn her parents — her cynical-about-the-sisters father especially? I won’t give away the ending, but the red coat Christine wore when she drowned plays a critical role in building the dread that the audience begins to feel about John. Water… the color red… grief and how it plays inside the grieving — it all builds to a truly breath-taking — and outright horrifying — crescendo.

And it’s not a horror movie.

Whether it’s the zombies of “Walking Dead” or “Train to Busan” or the cult in “Midsommar”, the uncertainty their threat poses to our heroes — that’s the spring. The longer the storyteller can hold the audience while coiling that spring, the better. And, if the coiled spring can resonate outside the story environment itself? Never mind turning your keyboard into a cash machine. You’ve just reinvented Bitcoin.

Maybe the best (smartest) recent vintage horror movie is Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”. The uncertainty/spring: Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris (he’s black) visits the home of his white girlfriend’s family to meet them for the first time but realizes that something body snatchers-like is happening to all the Black people in the community where they live. Chris’s slowly building dread is the spring being loaded. See? The simple formula works regardless of characters or story environment.

There ya have it: “how to write a horror movie”. I expect I’ll be hearing shortly from every other person who made a buck (or tried to) in the horror biz, pissed off at me for giving away trade secrets. I expect — being crazy to begin with — a few of them might actually begin to stalk me. What if one really got all Annie Wilkes (the hero of King’s “Misery“) on me? Geez — what kinda goddamned can of worms have I opened here?

Director Dick Donner Just Died; He Was A Lovely, Lovely Man And A Real Pleasure To Work For

Back in the 1990’s, my partner at the time (Gil Adler) and I were hired to take over HBO’s horror anthology “Tales From The Crypt“. That third season was supposed to be the show’s last but Gil and I managed to turn the ship around. We reinvigorated the show but — more importantly — we reinvigorated the Crypt Keeper. That resulted in Tales running for another four seasons (during which time we also produced two “Tales From The Crypt” feature films, “Demon Knight” and my own personal Waterloo, “Bordello Of Blood“. For that entire span of time, I had, in essence four bosses (five if we include HBO who are wonderful to work for because they let you do what they hired you to do!): Walter Hill, Joel Silver, Bob Zemeckis and Dick Donner. Dick died two days ago, aged 91. No cause of death was attributed but, hey — he was 91! And he had a helluva run across those 91 years.

Among the films Dick directed: the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, “Superman” with Christopher Reeve (the movie that revived that franchise seemingly forever) and “The Omen”.

Now, even though I’ve written a lot of horror and produced a fair amount of it too, I am not a horror fan. My idea of a great “horror movie” is Nic Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now”.

But, when I got to work with Dick, his movie “The Omen” had already become a classic horror movie. Dick had a theory as to why it succeeded so well. It starts with the fact that plenty of Americans have “family Bibles” that, while they prize them as possessions, they have never — EVER — cracked them so as to read them. Can anyone blame them? Yet that book (that they hadn’t read) had a perverse hold on them. For the three people who might not know, “The Omen” leans very heavily upon the most possible literal reading of the last book of the canonical NT “The Book Of Revelation”.

Revelation is an example of “apocalyptic literature”. It was not the only such text written; it was the only such text canonized however. The work’s author (he calls himself “John”) relies on all kinds of symbolism that meant certain things to certain people back then but mean nothing to us today — unless you fill those symbols with newer invented meaning. It’s still invented meaning. When most modern people read Revelation without the requisite context, they think they’re reading literal prophecy. What’s worse, they think “literal prophecy” is a thing.

Dick’s theory was a lot of people with unread Bibles in their houses went and saw the movie — and heard all those pointedly prophetic quotes which scared the crap out of them. Or the references to “666”. Then they went home and found those Bibles and opened them to The Book of Revelation — where they found those very same freaky Bible verses including 666 — right there in their own houses!

That, Dick believed, was why “The Omen” was such a smashing success.

Since We Have Time On Our Hands, Let's Talk About The Best Main Stream Movie Sex Scenes — Here's MY Top Three…

If you don’t know what The Decameron is, look it up. It’s 14th century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio‘s story of 10 Florentines quarantined during the Black Death at a luxurious villa (seven women, three men) who tell each other stories (100 in total) to fill the time. We’ll have a few Decamerons of our own when this is all done and said, no doubt.

Instead of a story, i’d like to compare notes with whoever reads this (if you have any notes you’d like to compare of course). Having written & produced a few film or TV sex scenes, I can tell you flat out — there’s nothing sexual about their production. It’s all choreographed.

For me, sex scenes will always be epitomized by the one I wrote/produced while doing Tale From The Crypt for HBO. Tobe Hooper directed the actors James Remar and Vanity in an episode called “Dead Wait”. Tobe imagined a cool sex scene to open the show (it runs while the opening credits run). The only problem — the shot was a “oner” — a single shot with no coverage (the other shots we use to put together a scene visually).

The shot depended on actor timing, camera timing and all sorts of hard to predict elements that made shooting it arduous. With 15 takes behind us and time running out, Tobe finally seemed to have the perfect take — and just as James Remar went to exit the frame — ending the shot — James Remar’s very erect pecker let up into the bottom of the shot, “ruining it”.

Nothing sexual had happened between the actors but it would have been super hard to be doing what those two actors had been doing — in the days before anyone thought about safe movie sex — and not get sexually aroused.

My list is short. As you can already see. Maybe it’s knowing what I know. I doubt that because these couple of sex scenes touch something that transcends the physicality of the love-making. They actually get to a place where, unfortunately, sex itself too rarely gets — the deeply human. The connection to both self and another that sex creates.

Number 1 (And There’s No Discussion To Be Had On The Subject): “Don’t Look Now”

For starters, Don’t Look Now is a great movie. It’s a great psychological thriller with an ending that — no spoilers here. It’s a gut punch and a great pay off.

Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie are a couple living in England with two young kids. He’s an art restorer about to begin a huge project in Venice, Italy, to repair a stained glass window in one of the city’s many basillicas when their 10 year old daughter dies, drowning in the pond on their property.

Picking up their story in Venice as the restoration to the stained glass window finally begins, we see them getting ready to go out to dinner one night, early in their stay. They’re still a couple in crisis, dealing with their own guilt. Director Nic Roeg (a director of photography by trade but an excellent “cutter” as well) intercuts the couple getting ready to go out for dinner that night (including brushing their teeth) with them making love, we get the feeling, for the very first time since “the accident”.

The intercutting of the mundane with the sex takes away all the glamour but leaves the emotional directness of it. The story has always been that Sutherland and Christie actually had sex on the set that day. Regardless of whether they actually did or didn’t, they achieved something harder actually — the feeling that they had. Call it acting. Call it filmmaking.

Call it “The Best Mainstream Movie Sex Scene Of Them All”.

What makes it even more astounding? It’s the only sex scene I can think of that features any level of intimacy between two married people.

Number 2 (And There’s Not Much Discussion Here Either): Desert Hearts (1985)

It’s 1959 and Vivien (the wonderful Helen Shaver — I’m biased; I’ve worked with her) has moved to a dude ranch outside of Reno, Nevada to establish residency. She wants a quickie divorce from her cheating husband. Cay (the equally wonderful Rebecca Charbonneau — I’m biased; I’ve worked with her, too) lives on the ranch. She’s a sexual free-spirit, bi-sexual but more inclined to women. She sets her sights on Vivien.

When they finally do consummate their affair, the more sexually comfortable Cay leads the way. The sex scene reflects both Cay’s wolfishness but also Vivien’s curiosity and uncertainty.

Director Donna Deitch, herself a gay woman, ” …raised the $1.5 million needed for the production budget with a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and sales of $15,000 shares to stock brokers and individual investors. The largest group of investors were lesbian and feminist women in several cities of the U.S., and the largest single investor was a gay man. She gave fundraising parties and published a regular newsletter to keep investors informed about the project’s development. Raising funds took almost four years. She eventually sold her house to cover completion costs.”

Deitch wanted to tell a mainstream story about characters that, up until then, rarely if ever got treated as “main stream”. She succeeds as do both actresses. The rest of the movie is just as good, by the way.

Number 3: There is No Number 3

You can Google “best movie sex scenes” and they’ll give you lists of 25… 50… 70. It’s filmed simulated sex — yes. But is it “good”? Let’s just say “it’s edible”. Consuming it won’t kill you. But it won’t make you happy either.

The reason these two films are on my list is because they both contain something elemental that is NOT on display in any other film that I’ve ever seen. But, hey — I’m here to be educated. And, turns out, I’ve got plenty of time.

Movies I Adore: “Don’t Look Now”

Every now and then you have to quit bitching and moaning and shout your love for something. Being a filmmaker, movies have always “spoken to me”. I adore it as a form of storytelling. It’s so easy to get wrong. Soooooo easy.

But when a movie is right. It lives inside your head. It’s the storytelling and the look and the characters and the dialogue and the music and the casting and even the greens and set dec — it’s all sublime. There are lots of “directors” but only a handful of artists. I’ve had the pleasure of working with an artist — Bob Zemeckis.

In a way, Bob’s an “artist of the impossible”.

Bob was one of my Executive Producers when I did Tales From The Crypt for HBO. I wrote most of the episodes he directed. For starters, he is an incredible collaborator. He truly knows how to get the very best out of everyone he works with. Which is where the “impossible” comes in. At some point, in a Zemeckis piece, there’s going to be at least one shot that — if you’re looking and realize you’re watching it — is impossible. Meaning — yeah, the shot’s there in the movie but how the hell did they get it? It’s impossible!

When I was a young buck, a terrific documentary filmmaker I had the honor to know — Greg Shuker — turned me on to Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” — a psychological thriller starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.

Don't Look NowI don’t want to give away a great ending but — that the ending works as effectively as it does, that it’s as memorable as it is — it’s a testament to the masterful work director Nic Roeg has done up till then.

Water plays heavily.  The color red, too.  Sutherland plays John, an art restorer preparing for a project he’s about to start in Venice, Italy.  He and Christie’s Laura own a farm out in the country where their two young children are playing on a rainy day.  Their young daughter drowns in the pond — something her father “senses”.  He rushes outside but too late.  He pulls her body — clad in its red mac — from the pond with a doleful wail.

It’s a few months later.  They’ve buried their child.  Their son is at boarding school as the restoration project in Venice begins.  On their first night, Laura and John make love (for the first time since their daughter died) then go out to dinner.  At the next table are two elderly English sisters.  One is blind.  They happen to be in the ladies’ room when Laura enters.

The blind sister is psychic.  She says she’s seen Laura and John’s daughter.  She was happy.  Laughing.  Laura is blown away.  She doesn’t know what to think.  But John — when Laura tells him — thinks it’s all nonsense and wishful thinking. 

And yet.  As the movie goes on, John begins to catch glimpses of a fleeing figure in red.  Is it the spirit of his daughter — or something else?

Roeg was a director of photography before sliding into the director’s chair.  His films look great.  He captures Venice’s wateriness — its dullness.  Its greyness and fog.  He captures the feeling one gets — being there — of wandering in circles — hopelessly lost.  But the Roeg’s real genius as a director was in how he cut.  He had a way of intercutting two scenes that no one else could touch.

An excellent example — the scene where John and Laura make love for that first time since their daughter’s death.  Roeg intercuts the sex — which is very intimate (there have always been stories that the sex between Christie and Sutherland was real) — with John and Laura, post-coital, get ready to go out for dinner.  You really get the feeling that they’re a couple — which makes the sex we keep intercutting back to feel more organic and real.

For my money, the sex scene in Don’t Look Now is one of the best 2 or 3 sex scenes in all of movie history (the caveat being that most sex scenes suck).  And — here’s the kicker — it’s between a married couple.  That’s a sex scene you never see — between married people.

Nic Roeg died a few months ago.  I still owe Greg Shuker — for introducing him to me.