Sunday, January 14, 2024

David J. Skal, R.I.P.


Several horror icons whom I admire have died these past several months. I just now learned that David J. Skal (1952 - 2024) died after being hit by a drunk driver in Los Angeles.

I first encountered Skal through his book, The Monster Show. A self-described "cultural history of horror," his book is informative, filled with original insights, and well written; a breezy, entertaining read, mercifully free of academic jargon. The prose is literate yet accessible to lay readers, the way film criticism should be always.

I later read his Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, as part of my research for a class I taught at The Learning Annex about Halloween haunted houses. It was great preparation for my lecture.

I only met Skal once, in the fall of 2001, at Burbank's Dark Delicacies horror bookstore. Several writers were there for a book-signing, including me and Skal. I had brought The Monster Show for him to sign, which he did. I still prize that book with his inscription.

To my surprise, he bought a copy of my book, Halloween Candy and asked me to sign it. I took it as his way of encouraging a fellow writer and fan who was hardly in his league.

Overall, Skal was a fine historian, a skilled writer, and a gracious man.



Monday, March 1, 2021

Stagefright Uses Editing to Disorient and Unnerve

The editing in Michael Soavi's Stagefright (1987) effectively disorients the audience, thus unnerving them and making them more susceptible to shocks and fear.


A mad slasher (wearing an owl mask) is stalking six people trapped in a theater. Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) runs into the shower room, where she finds Laurel (Mary Sellers) lying in the left stall, bloodied but still alive. Alicia hears the slasher approaching from the hallway.



Cut to the slasher in the hallway.


Cut to Alicia, having heard the slasher, closing back the curtain on Laurel in the left stall, then hiding in right stall.

Cut to Alicia in the right stall, pulling the curtain closed.


Cut to the slasher entering the shower room. Two curtained stalls before him. Laurel on left (behind the bloodied curtain). Alicia on the right.



Cut to Alicia in the stall.


Cut to the slasher's POV (point of view), coming toward the two shower stalls.



Cut to the slasher's silhouette across the curtain. He is drawing near.



Cut to Alicia's worried expression. Her eye line is directed at the curtain. Her acting and the eye line match implies that the silhouette is her POV. That the slasher is approaching her stall.


Cut to Alicia backing against the wall. Her staging reinforces the notion that the silhouette is against her curtain.



Cut to slasher drawing nearer to the curtain. Close enough that his owl mask is visible. Then in the same shot, he yanks aside the curtain.



Cut to a close up on Alicia. Her eye line is directed toward the slasher in the previous shot. She appears to be looking at him.



Cut to the slasher drawing nearer. The mask's eye line directed at Alicia in the previous shot.



Cut to Alicia's POV of the slasher looming over Laurel. In the same shot, he raises Laurel, who looks toward Alicia in the right stall.



Cut to Alicia looking back at Laural, eye line match to Laurel.

Thus Stagefright's editing has fooled us. The POV shots, eye line matches, acting, staging, and editing suggested that the slasher was approaching Alicia's stall. But it was Laurel's. He still doesn't know that Alicia is there. She is still safe.

For more examples of how editing can disorient an audience, see my posts on Vacancy and Galaxy of Terror.


For more information on editing in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Inconsistent Dialog in Death's Door (2015)

As I've discussed in recent posts, bad writers often have characters spout clichés and catchphrases that are inconsistent with their previous statements or behavior, because it's an easy way to fill up pages with dialog. Even good writers fall into this trap, because clichés and catchphrases come naturally to people. But good writers should delete these in subsequent rewrites. 

In Death's Door (2015), a group of young people trespass into a deceased magician's house for a night of partying. Naturally, the house traps them inside. Ghostly manifestations and grisly deaths ensue. The survivors search for clues as to what's happening, and how they might escape.



While some young folk search through boxes, perusing old scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, Suzanne (Danielle Lilley) says, "Maybe we shouldn't be doing this. This is all private stuff."


Suzanne trespassed into this house along with everyone else. The film had no scenes showing any hesitation on her part. Indeed, when we first meet Suzanne, it is she who is pressuring her more timid friend into coming along.

Thus it's out of character for Suzanne to now feel scruples about invading anyone's privacy. Nor do any previous scenes provide motivation for her to have "matured" morally. Indeed, the recent hauntings and killings in the house provide additional motivation in the opposite direction -- for Suzanne to search the boxes for clues to escape the house.

So why did Kennedy Goldsby write this line of dialog? Filler. Thoughtless filler. Goldsby has several of his nondescript characters in the bedroom, and he likely felt a need to give them each something to say. So he had Suzanne say, "Maybe we shouldn't be doing this. This is all private stuff." 

After all, it's what some people would say if they saw someone looking through someone else's private belongings.

Except that Suzanne is no longer just anyone. She has an inner life -- personality, emotions, habits, morals, motivations -- as established by the previous scenes. But Goldsby has forgotten his previous scenes. He seems to have focused solely on whatever scene he's currently writing. And he failed to notice Suzanne's inconsistency in subsequent rewrites.

Death's Door is a treasury of bad dialog: fillers, clichés, catchphrases, and inconsistencies. The characters are nondescript and interchangeable, lacking unique voices. Much of their dialog can be randomly redistributed among them, without changing the story. They shout and argue for no purpose other than to fill up time and try to create "suspense." But as their arguments lack proper motivation, their constant bickering is annoying rather than suspenseful or revealing.

Death's Door does have good make-up effects. It's an enjoyable film if you're in the right frame of mind; if you just want to see a random group of young people killed in gory fashion, and can do without a clever story or engaging characters.

For more examples of poorly motivated characters and inconsistent dialog, see my posts on The Dark, Lake Fear 3, Dark Floors, In Search of Lovecraft, Prometheus, and The Haunting of Marsten Manor.


For more information on writing in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Setting Up Twists in Twists of Terror

Low-budget horror films often spring arbitrary surprises on viewers. The slashers' identities in House of Death (1982, aka Death Screams) and Girls Nite Out (1982), are arbitrary surprises because there was no dramatic setup; no clues pointed in their direction. Some viewers might have guessed, but only due to their familiarity with genre conventions (i.e., He was too obviously innocent, or, She couldn't be the killer so naturally she probably is).

Mysteries must play fair with readers and viewers by providing clues before revealing the killer. That's the purpose of the genre: to present a solvable puzzle. But horror's primary purpose is to scare, and a dearth of clues can make an unknown killer more frightening. If you can't guess his identity, he can be anyone.

Yet all storytelling requires some logic, even if only a kind of surreal "dream logic." (Dario Argento and David Lynch are masters of dream logic.) So while horror is more flexible on logic than some other genres, there is a breaking point. Too many arbitrary surprises, and audiences will roll their eyes, and have difficulty in suspending their disbelief. On the other hand, the more entertaining a film, the more forgiving audiences are about any flaws, including plots holes, stupid characters, and arbitrary twists.

The Canadian TV movie Twists of Terror (1997) is aptly titled. Each tale in this horror anthology has a "surprise twist." While the twists are unoriginal and sometimes excessive in number, they are mostly well set up, and the film is entertaining enough so we can forgive the strains in logic.



In "The People You Meet," a young couple, Joe (Carl Marotte) and Amy (Jennifer Rubin), celebrate their honeymoon over dinner. They express love for each other, though there are intimations that all was not always well. Later, they suffer a car accident at night. Rednecks kidnap them, tying up Joe in a shed. He urges Amy to escape, which she does.

After she darts out of the shed, Joe berates the rednecks. Surprise! 

Turns out Joe hired the rednecks to stage the accident, and rape and kill Amy so he could collect on the insurance. Joe hates Amy. The rednecks leave the shed to hunt down, rape, and kill Amy.

They return with Amy, unharmed, who then mocks Joe. Surprise! 

Turns out Amy knew that Joe hated her, as she hates him -- and she was having an affair with the very same redneck Joe hired, so she knew about Joe's plans. The redneck now kills Joe.

This is a bit much. Screenwriter John Shirley did drop some clues about problems in the marriage over dinner, so we can believe Joe plotting against Amy. But Amy's affair with the redneck feels arbitrary (a second twist for its own sake) and ridiculous. Still, because "The People You Meet" is entertaining and energetic, we can overlook the silly double twist.



In "The Clinic," Mr. Rosetti (Nick Mancuso) is bitten by a dog at night. He stumbles upon a hospital and enters for emergency care. But the doctor, the nurse, the ambiance are strange and creepy. In the end Rosetti discovers that he's in an insane asylum -- and the lunatics have taken over. Surprise! 

Again, not unexpected. Both the ambiance (similar to that in X-Ray, aka Hospital Massacre, 1981), and genre conventions, promise a dark surprise. Nor is the specific surprise all the surprising. We've seen this same "twist ending" in Asylum (1972) and Don't Look in the Basement (1973).

But the surprise was logically set up by the atmosphere created by creepily soothing doctor, the hyper-sexualized nurse, the deserted hallways and hints of gore. And the story was entertaining.


In "Stolen Moments," Cindy (Francoise Robertson) is a sexually and emotionally repressed woman seeking romance. She has difficulty connecting with men. She instead lavishes her affections on her many pets. Then she meets Barry (Andrew Jackson), a yuppie in a singles bar, and agrees to meet him at an empty house later that night. Is Cindy in danger?

She meet Barry. They have passionate sex. Cindy thinks it's love. Then Barry brings out his male buddy. Barry wants them to gang bang Cindy. Surprise! 

Turns out Barry is a creep. But then he speaks tenderly to Cindy. Maybe he's not so sleazy? Cindy agrees to a threesome to please Barry. But afterward, Barry is cold to Cindy, saying it's time to go home. Surprise! 

Barry really is sleaze. As Barry is getting dressed, he hears a scream. He finds his friend's freshly killed corpse. Cindy looks terrified. Barry thinks there might be a prower. Then Cindy knocks Barry out with a hammer. Surprise! 

Turns out Cindy is the killer. Has she snapped because they used her? But when she goes home, she has an entire bulletin board with tokens from her past victims. Surprise! 

Turns out Cindy is a serial killer. As a newspaper headline confirms the next day.

None of this is surprising to those familiar with genre conventions, so these surprises are not arbitrary. Both Cindy and Barry emitted warning signals. Cindy was repressed, neurotic, with too many pets. A classic 1990s, neo-noir femme fatale in the body of a prude. And Barry was too smooth talking, sensitive, and handsome. A stereotypical blond yuppie sleazeball pretending to be Mr. Perfect. From the start, I knew it was 50/50 that Cindy was the villain.

Once again, an entertaining story. 


For more information on writing in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Inconsistent Dialog in The Dark

Bad writers often have a character spout clichés and catchphrases that are inconsistent with their personalities or previous statements, or pointless within the context of the story. Writers do this because clichés and catchphrases are an easy, thoughtless way to fill up a page. Such writers are too lazy or sloppy to write appropriate dialog, or to keep their story and characters in mind while writing. 

Even good writers can make this mistake, because clichés and catchphrases come naturally to people, writers included. But, while inappropriate clichés and catchphrases might infect a first draft screenplay, writers should be careful to delete them in subsequent rewrites.

The Dark (1979) is great fun, as I explain in my review. But for all its merits, it also provides an example of a character who contradicts herself with clichés and catchphrases. 

Zoe (Cathy Lee Crosby) is a TV reporter who covers fluff, but is eager to do hard news. She sees her potential big break when a serial killer (actually, a space alien) starts terrorizing Los Angeles.


In one scene, Zoe accuses Detective Mooney (Richard Jaeckel) of not doing enough to stop the killer. But moments later, when Mooney responds by talking tough, Zoe switches and accuses him of being too tough. "Thirty-two caliber justice?" she accuses.

So, is Zoe a tough-on-crime crusader? Or a bleeding heart liberal? She takes both sides in less than a minute. Why? Perhaps the writer wanted Zoe to sound strong and spunky, and thus was mindlessly filling Zoe's mouth with zingers, however inconsistent.

Of course, it's possible that Zoe is spouting inconsistent zingers because she's a disingenuous, yellow journalist who'll say anything to make a splash. In which case, that's her character. She is motivated not by any philosophy, but by her ambition. She'll say anything to embarrass Mooney, consistency be damned. In that case, the character is consistent (even if her lines are not) and the script is fine.

But that is not the case. Zoe is clearly a heroine we are meant to admire, so the scene is poorly written.

Zoe is supposed to be smart, but she's not very. She pontificates on TV that it's "ironic" that the daughter of horror novelist Roy Warner (William Devane), who writes gore, was killed in a gory fashion. Warner later accuses Zoe of implying that it was "poetic justice." Zoe insists that she meant ironic, but that's because she's illiterate. Irony requires incongruity, so it would have been ironic if Warner's books had promoted peace.

Zoe is supposed to be smart and idealistic, yet as written, she sounds illiterate and ego-driven.

I won't blame screenwriter Stanford Whitmore. After I wrote my initial review of The Dark, Whitmore emailed me [on August 13, 2004]:


"I wrote [The Dark] on spec as a piece that my friend, DP Bill Butler, would use to get his foot in the directing door. My script was an experiment meant to take advantage of Bill's camera, which would render the repeatedly gathering dark remindful of the score for Jaws. An initial deal was made with Dick Clark's company, and when that fell out, some thief stepped up to single-handedly take over the script, fire Tobe Hooper, and invent a monster shooting death rays. The upshot was the WGA bringing suit on my behalf for monies owed, whereupon said producer skipped town, putting a cherry on top."


For more examples of poorly motivated characters and inconsistent dialog, see my posts on Lake Fear 3, Dark Floors, In Search of Lovecraft, Prometheus, and The Haunting of Marsten Manor.


For more information on writing in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Poorly Motivated Characters and Inconsistent Dialog in Lake Fear 3

Acting guru Konstantin Stanislavski taught that characters have inner lives that motivate their behavior at every point in a story. A character's actions should be consistent with his desires, goals, personality, and changing situation throughout a novel, play, or film. It's how an actor should approach a role. It's how a writer should write a character.

For every scene, the writer must ask, If I want this character to do X, how can I motivate the character to do X? If no believable motivation can be created, the character should not do X.

Some reasons for poorly motivated characters:

1. Writers treat characters like puppets on a string, serving the interests of the plot, even when the character's actions contradict their previously established inner lives. 

2. Writers fill a character's mouth with clichés and catchphrases, because the writer is too lazy, thoughtless, or untalented to construct sharp yet believable lines. 

Poorly written stories are full of characters who simply "decide" to do this or that. Slasher films are famous for characters who decide to go for a walk alone in the dark woods, after everyone else has mysteriously disappeared. The character might even have been afraid to go out 20 minutes earlier, when the writer wanted the character to stay indoors. But now that the writer wants the character to be killed, the character changes his mind and decides to go for a walk.

This is the puppet on a string, devoid of an inner life. Audiences, sensing that something is off about the character, that the character is ridiculous, have difficulty suspending their disbelief and empathizing with the character. Instead, they simply laugh when the puppet is killed onscreen.

Poorly motivated characters often spout self-contradictory dialog.



In Lake Fear 3 (a bad film on many levels), Revel (Shanon Snedden) is seeking her missing sister. Her friend Chloe (KateLynn E. Newberry) thinks it's a lost cause. So she hires TV psychic Vincent (Devi Khajishvili) to put Revel's mind to rest about her sister.

Chloe's request is itself an astonishingly poor piece of writing. She instructs the psychic, "She (Revel) needs closure. Just make something up for all I care. She needs this." 

Really? Just make something up? So Vincent can claim that Revel's sister is alive in Toronto, married to a millionaire, or that she was tortured to death in Chicago -- doesn't matter.

But writer Gerald Crum is determined to make his bad script worse. Sitting down with Revel and Chloe, Vincent asks about the sister, "So, ah, how did she go missing?" 

Chloe snarkily interjects, "Isn't that your job?" 

Meaning, Vincent is supposed to be psychic. He should know how the sister went missing.

But wait a minute. Chloe knows Vincent is a fraud. She hired Vincent to lie to Revel. Chloe's motivation is to give Revel closure. So why is Chloe undermining Revel's faith in Vincent's psychic abilities? Chloe paid good money for Vincent to lie, and now Chloe is sabotaging his ability to lie.

My guess is that writer Crum was focused on the scene, in making Chloe sexily snarky, and forgot about the previous scene. He was treating Chloe like a puppet, having her serve the current scene (here is where you "decide" to be sexily snarky), and he forget about Chloe's inner life and motivations as established in previous scenes.

Also, Crum might have thought that Chloe's putdown of Vincent's psychic abilities was a funny bit of dialog. Crum's focus was on the scene and the line, not on Chloe's character -- her inner life and motivations.

Lake Fear 3 is full of bad dialog, poor characterization, and awful acting. (The makeup effects are good.) An especially egregious example of bad dialog occurs after demons attack the trio and Revel is killed. Chloe and Vincent find themselves with Remington (Joshua Winch), who knows about demons. Crum thinks this is good time for his characters to engage in an argument.

Bad writers often have characters engage in poorly motivated arguments, because they think it's a good way to create tension, suspense, and drama. And during this pointless argument ...

Chloe snaps at Vincent, "Like you're one to talk. You're just a fraud." 

Vincent replies, "Oh my God. That's called being an actor." 

Chloe says, "Okay, yeah. Well, if you would have told me and my friend that you were just an actor, we'd be hundreds of miles away by now. But no. You needed your fifty dollars." 

Huh? Chloe knew Vincent was a fraud. She hired him to "Just make something up." She even admits to paying him $50. So why is she in the same breath saying "if you would have told me and friend you were just actor, we'd be hundreds of miles away by now."

Apparently, writer Crum isn't paying attention to anything he'd previously wrote. His focus is always on his current scene, ignoring whatever came before. And he's filling up every scene with whatever lines sound snarky, cool, funny, or dramatic -- to hell with the context of the story, or consistency of character.

Viewers who are still paying attention at this point are rolling their eyes.

For more examples of poorly motivated characters, see my posts on Dark Floors, In Search of Lovecraft, Prometheus, and The Haunting of Marsten Manor.


For more information on writing in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Pragmatic Aesthetics of Primer

In Horror Film Aesthetics, I devote much space to discussing what I call "pragmatic aesthetics." This is when a filmmaker puts his financial shortcomings to aesthetic use. For instance, perhaps unable to cast first rate actors for his film, he writes a script about bad actors preparing for an upcoming play (e.g., Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things).

Primer (2004) is a low-budget science fiction film about quantum physics. The film is noteworthy partially because it inspired a later cycle of sci-fi thrillers about quantum physics (e.g., I'll Follow You Down, Singularity Principle, Third Contact, Paradox [two films with that title, both released in 2016], Anti-Matter, Soft Matter, Collider, and Expulsion).



Primer is also an example of pragmatic aesthetics. This was brought to my attention by an IMDB film review written by "flat6":


The reason to love [Primer] is that it's utterly defiant of the expectations of the traditional movie experience.

* It can't resort to a beautiful cast, shiny special effects, gorgeous scenery. Indeed, the cast is wooden in its acting, which turns out to work because that's how normal scientists and engineers (and people in general) are, flawed communicators.

* The settings are drab, out of focus, rushed and cheap, which turns out to work because that's what being efficient with your resources means for an inventor.

It doesn't matter if the makers of Primer were forced into this style by their budget (as opposed to consciously "pulling off" this look and feel). All that matters is that in the end, it turns out to work beautifully with the plot and the story.


Although he doesn't use the term, flat6 makes a pretty good case that Primer makes use of pragmatic aesthetics.


For more information on pragmatic aesthetics in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.