WHY KILLING THE SHIT OUT OF INTERESTING PEOPLE IS CLEARLY THE WAY TO GOColumns,John Skipp's Nightmare Royale (On Making Horror Better) John Skipp
Well, the Oscars came and went once again: mainstream Hollywood’s annual jillion-dollar celebration of itself. Like the Super Bowl and the Presidential election, it’s something we’re all supposed to care about deeply.
As to we whether we do or not, that’s a purely personal thing.
I’m always torn, when it comes to awards. And the Oscars are top of the line for that. I love movies almost more than life itself, but my favorites are rarely in the running (I’m lookin’ at YOU, LOOPER and THE CABIN IN THE WOODS). And when they are, they rarely win (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD was my actual 2012 fave, and I’m thrilled it was up there, but it didn’t stand a chance).
So I had the festivities playing downstairs, in the kitchen, and found myself wandering in and out towards the end, while feeding the dogs and waiting for THE WALKING DEAD.
But I gotta tell ya: I’m really glad I was there when Quentin Fucking Tarantino picked up Best Original Screenplay.
Not just because I loved DJANGO UNCHAINED, and its positively Lucio Fulci-esque quadruple-packed squibs of gore-spray, every time a bullet hit. (The FANGO Seal of Approval!)
And not just because he noted that this was an extraordinary year for writers who actually wrote their asses off – backed by producers who let them — thereby bringing us a legendary year in quality filmmaking, across the board.
And not even just because he pointed out that writing great film means writing great roles for great actors to utterly inhabit, delivering characters we’ll never forget.
But that one comes the closest to the point I wanna make here, for the horror crowd. Both as creatives and consumers.
And that point is this:
If you want your crazy-ass film to actually penetrate the mainstream, and be beloved by more than just hardcore genre fans…
1) YOU NEED TO KILL MORE INTERESTING PEOPLE.
2) KILLING THEM NEEDS TO MATTER SOMEHOW.
Let’s take a quick look at the history of horror films that have actually cracked the high-end Oscar categories and won Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor or Actress.
DR. JECKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931)
THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960)
ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
THE EXORCIST (1973)
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
It’s a quick look because it’s only eight movies long. If you don’t count GHOST and GASLIGHT, we’re down to six. And the only one to win Best Film or Best Director (it took both) was THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
I mean, the Academy is so hardass – and so disinclined toward our genre – that THE SHINING didn’t get nominated for ANYTHING! NO Kubrick. No Nicholson. No nothin’.
Now I’m not trying to suggest that the next hundred remakes of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE should aim for Oscar bait, with Daniel Day-Lewis as Choptop. (Although that would be something to see.)
What I’m saying is that most horror films don’t come anywhere close to that mark because – once you get past the cool villain or monster – everyone else in the movie is pretty disposable. They’re not people. They’re types. They’re the cute teenager and the cop and the scientist and what have you.
In short, these are characters that only get interesting when their blood hits the ceiling, or they give birth to mutant babies.
This is because most horror screenplays don’t bother with the niceties (and not-so-niceties) of rich, thoughtful, nuanced human interaction. They’re too busy racing toward the next violent set piece or freaky special effect. And their quality is largely gauged by the effectiveness of those big scenes.
In most cases, the result is an okay movie with some cool shit in it.
Which brings me back to Tarantino.
No, DJANGO UNCHAINED isn’t a horror movie, even though it did give us some of the most horrific imagery of the year (slave torn apart by dogs, slaves fighting to the death Mandingo-style, the staggering shoot-out ¾ of the way in).
But have ye no doubt: he was OUR GUY up there, with a blacksploitation spaghetti western that transcended itself at every turn, taking genres the Academy has been snootily poo-pooing for decades and turning them into Oscar gold.
And how did he do this incredible thing?
First and foremost? Through great fucking writing.
Tarantino is great because he takes the time to make his people come alive, even if they’re only onscreen for a minute. The least of his characters is more fun to watch than the leads of 90% of the horror films I’ve seen in the last fifty years.
You can credit his excellent taste in actors. But the only reason he GOT those actors is because they felt the personality flying off of the page, and went, “Shit! I WANNA PLAY THAT PART!”
The other element of great writing is telling a great story that adds up to more than the sum of its twists. And he’s good at that, too. But his stories are pretty straight-up, no matter how much he gussies them with novelistic time-splicing technique (as in PULP FICTION, which announced its slyly subversive intent with its title).
His stories are great because his characters are great. And his characters are great because he put in the hard work and devotion it takes to make them memorably live and breathe.
This is something horror needs to do more often.
At this point, you may be inclined to throw out a dozen examples of horror movies that rise to that challenge. “What about Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING? Ridley Scott’s ALIEN? Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD? Cronenberg’s THE FLY? Carpenter’s THE THING? Lucky McKee’s MAY? What about JACOB’S LADDER and SHAUN OF THE DEAD?”
To which I say, “Yes! Exactly!” Because these are all crown jewels in the horror hierarchy. They stand out from the crowd because their people are believable and engaging. We’re interested in them even before they horribly die.
And when they die, it counts for something past “I like how their skull bisected.”
William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST – as directed by William Friedkin – is the most flat-out horrorific motion picture ever to gain an Oscar nod. It won Best Adapted Screenplay, from the book that Blatty also wrote. (Friedkin totally got hosed.)
In the nearly 40 years since, there have been a ton of demon possession films. None of them have even come close to topping that sonofabitch. And it isn’t for a lack of awesome special effects.
It’s in the writing, boys and girls.
And that is my message to you tonight.
If you want to be respected by more than just the core horror audience – and if you want that core audience to respect you for more than your squishiest 30-second disembowelment tour de force – then you gotta write harder, and aim higher.
And for fuck’s sake, KILL MORE INTERESTING PEOPLE!
You’ll be glad you did.
Yer pal in the trenches,
P.S. — For the berserk banner atop this column, I decided that I wanted a brain with teeth eating a screaming hamburger. You know why? ME, NEITHER! (I’ve instructed my next-of-kin that my tombstone’s epitath should read, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!”)
Several artists responded with insane visualizations, and I thank them all like crazy. But I had to give my brain and burger to Lou Rusconi, a superbly psychotic southern California stylist introduced to me by Bill Shafer and Brian Bubonic of L.A.’s great Hyaena Gallery. One of the freakiest, coolest venues in town.
Lou burned this down for me in one night of clear dementia. Please note the upraised pinkies, which give it a touch of class. The tears. The terror. The drooling eyeball stalks and tooth decay. The slabs of delicious bacon. I’m tellin’ ya, this baby’s got it all!
What I need from you is to HELP ME NAME my two new mascots. Who IS that brain? Who IS that burger? By what names will they live on in infamy?
If you pick a name better than any of the crazy shit I’m thinking of, you win a signed copy of my giant anthology Psychos, featuring fiction by Thomas Harris, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch (the guy who wrote Psycho), and a ton of the finest writers old and new ever to capture true madness on the printed page.
Second-place winners get a signed copy of my own crazed screenplay collection, Sick Chick Flicks.
Everybody else gets their entries listed, so the rest of us can boggle at the crazy shit you sent. Hilarity will ensue.
THANKS! And great to meet you!
Stay tuned to the monthly column JOHN’S SKIPP’S NIGHTMARE ROYALE (ON MAKING HORROR BETTER) by bookmarking the column page HERE!