Monday, February 22, 2010

Movies by hacks about people who get hacked (up)

I've read more than a few slasher flicks lately and most of them have unfortunately been crap. I enjoy a good horror film as much as the next guy, but the problem with a lot of horror specs is that they get so formulaic when they involve a slasher killer. Here are a few of the more common tropes that pop up in the first acts of the weaker, more generic specs.

A disposable kill to start the film - Usually the writers in question are sharp enough to know that a good horror film has to start with a bang. The problem is that this early kill - which serves the purpose of establishing for the audience that there's a madman on the loose - rarely exhibits much imagination on the part of the writer. Most of the time it involves a cannon fodder character wandering around in the film's main setting. (For example: If we're dealing with one of those films where the killer stalks a bunch of campers in the woods, then the first scene has our walking target walking through the woods before getting killed.)

The most common mistake made in amateur scripts is that usually this victim has little to no connection to any of the other characters, and in bad scripts, this death isn't integral to the plot at all. It's just there to tell the audience "Killer on the loose." It's always better if you can make this scene motivate the story, and somehow set the plot into motion. For instance, Scream avoids this problem by using Drew Barrymore's murder as the catalyst for the police questioning everyone at school, establishing how Drew's character and her boyfriend are connected to the main cast, and setting up the motif of the killer. (In bad scripts, the slasher merely jumps out of the shadows and kills.)

20 pages of boredom - The hack writer assumes that since they've spent the first 5 pages setting up the killer, that they can spend the next 20 pages slowly introducing their large cast of characters as they go about their mundane lives before setting up the next kill around page 30. The worst script I read recently had one group of four teens killed while skinny dipping on the first ten pages. Then they introduced another group of six teens heading out for another camping trip. This involved five pages of the teens assembling for their trip. Ten pages of them on their road trip, which mostly consisted of smoking pot and arguing over pop culture, and then ten pages of them setting up camp - seven of which were preoccupied with the girls stripping down and skinny-dipping.

How much of that turned out to be essential to the story? None. Zero. Zilch. The only point that had any significance was that Prude Girl hadn't yet slept with Nice Guy and that neither of them were sure it was a good idea to do it on this trip. Naturally Slutty Girl and Tool Guy were advocating this hookup, while Soon-to-be-Topless Girl and Dead Guy #1 (spoiler alert) don't understand why they just didn't do it in the Jeep on the way out to the woods.

I know... I'm bored too. Just imagine twenty pages of this drivel.

Anyway, my point is that the movie could have just as easily started with Dead Guy #1's death rather than Anonymous Cannon Fodder's death and the impact on the script would have been zero, save for the fact that it would now be twenty pages shorter.

So take this lesson. Act One's are not the place to kill time. The story starts on p. 1 - not on p. 30


  1. So in theory, the second set-up WOULD have been ok if there had been actual character development rather than irrelevant dialogue?

    I'm particularly curious because a film like "The Descent" almost requires a long period of time before any action because the characters must first reach the locale.

  2. david - Exactly. Tarantino-esque conversations about "Who would you rather do? Princess Leia or Queen Amadala?" do not character development make. If I can rip the first 25 pages out of the script and not lose anything relevent to the characters, then you're doing something wrong.

    Having said that, I find THE DESCENT to be a bit overrated. I really, really liked the sense of claustrophobia it had though.

  3. Awesome.

    As a follow-up of sorts, if the first act or so of a "horror" script is dedicated to character development, does it then dictate the need for some kind of set piece/bookend at the beginning to temporarily slake audiences' thirsts?

  4. (as long as it's marginally related to exposition, not purely "disposable")

  5. Don't the hacker hacks ever just copy the structure of something that did work? Like maybe Halloween?

    With all the sad attempts at derivativization (that's a cool word), it seems like some would accidentally get the structure close to right.

  6. I so agree with you about the dreadful, boring 20 minutes of boredom after a killing happens. Usually, it'll lead me to fast forward a film or I lose complete interest and I shut off the DVD player.

  7. david - Usually. If for no other reason than that something like that is needed to establish the tone and the genre of the script early on.

    windmill - I've read more than a few Halloween ripoffs, and there the problem tends to be that the writer fails to add anything new to the mix.

  8. What kind of horror would you love to read? What would you find really different or interesting in a horror?

  9. Interesting insight, "Zuul." Thanks!

  10. Thanks for the post bitter. Perfect timing too. I'm pretty far along with my ghost/horror spec, and reading this makes me feel that I'm on the right track with the pacing and keeping everything connected in my story.

    I've been using a draft of Poltergeist as a guide, even though very mainstream Spielberg 80s style, it definitely keeps the scares paced out nicely, and nothing is meaningless.

  11. Thanks, you singlehandedly ended a 2-month stalemate between me and my terrible first act.