Thursday, November 29, 2007

Seven Screenwriting Tricks From Horror Films

by Jason Davis

Spoilers await for those that haven't seen the films, so don't say we didn't warn you!

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Screenplay by Richard Matheson
Based on his novel The Incredible Shrinking Man

The Lesson: Even the mundane can be extraordinary when attacked from a new angle.

Writer Richard Matheson (Somewhere in Time) often jokes that the word "incredible" isn't really necessary in a title like The Shrinking Man. The redundancy of the adjective speaks to the inherent magic of the premise in which Scott Carey (Grant Williams) passes through a radioactive cloud and begins to shrink. The drama, which centers on Carey's changing relationship with his family on an emotional level and the world itself on a practical level, epitomizes the importance of point of view in storytelling. As his size dwindles, the ordinary becomes bizarre and dangerous as Carey must battle first the family cat and later a house spider. His odyssey does what Matheson and novelist Stephen King excel at -- creating horror amidst the commonplace. Few of us are likely to wander through a cursed burial ground or a haunted house, but each of us face Scott Carey's nemeses on a daily basis. It only takes a shift in perception to make them the stuff of big-screen excitement.

The Haunting(1963)
Screenplay by Nelson Gidding
Based on the novel by Shirley Jackson

The Lesson: Let the viewer do the heavy lifting.

Like so many films, The Incredible Shrinking Man requires its audience to suspend their disbelief. Matheson's screenplay makes it easy by rooting the story in such mundane surroundings, but Nelson Gidding's (The Andromeda Strain) screen treatment of Shirley Jackson's seminal novella, The Haunting of Hill House, takes the movie's reliance on the viewer one step further than most. In the movie, four individuals -- each with their own personal demons -- conduct an investigation into the paranormal phenomena plaguing a notorious haunted mansion. Contrary to the special-effects-laden 1999 remake, the original adaptation of The Haunting places much of the onus on the audience to imagine what causes the disturbing phenomena within the house. Combined with the hysterical behavior of the characters, the viewer's own imagination conjures far more disturbing manifestations of the house's metaphysical malaise than director Robert Wise's $1.1 million dollar budget could ever hope to. The viewers' imaginations are left to fill in the blanks -- as with the minimal use of the shark in Jaws -- creating a far more satisfying experience than could be managed on screen.

Psycho (1960)
Screenplay by Joseph Stefano
Based on the novel by Robert Bloch

The Lesson: Never let the audience take anything for granted.

Like the supernatural menace of The Haunting, the alleged villain of Psycho only makes her post-mortem appearance after it's revealed that her son is responsible for the film's atrocities. Based on the novel by Robert Bloch -- who was himself inspired by the exploits of serial killer Ed Gein -- Psycho chronicles the escape of embezzler Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to a remote motel, where she's promptly murdered by the psychotic manager, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). "So what?" you may ask if you didn't realize that the foregoing all happens in the first act of the film, and that Leigh was billed as the movie's star only to meet her iconic end well before the movie's halfway point. The bold dispatch of the film's supposed star so early in the narrative assured viewers that any character in Joe Stefano's (The Outer Limits) screenplay was fair game and created an atmosphere of tension that eludes most movies where the protagonist is assured a happy ending.

Scream (1996)
Written by Kevin Williamson

The Lesson: Confound the viewer's expectations.

Writer Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek) and director Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) took a cue from Psycho when crafting the freshman installment of the Scream trilogy for Dimension Films. They off Drew Barrymore in the opening moments of the movie, before properly introducing their audience to the world of Woodsboro, California, a town plagued by a series of serial killings. As the body count rises, protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and the audience become increasingly confounded as no single suspect among the movie's ensemble cast could possibly have perpetrated all the murders. As Sherlock Holmes remarked in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet," "It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Such is the case with Scream, where it's eventually revealed that two similarly costumed killers are committing the murders in tandem, confounding attempts to unravel the mystery.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Screenplay by Ted Tally
Based on the novel by Thomas Harris

The Lesson: Respect your antagonist.

The villains of Scream prove their ingenuity with their dual-pronged reign of terror, but they are amateurs when compared to the psychotic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Too often, movies set up an unbeatable bad guy who seems invulnerable until the hero needs to defeat them in time for a happy ending. Not so for The Silence of the Lambs. Though serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is brought to justice via Smith and Wesson, a much deadlier antagonist eludes the law in the form of the diabolical Dr. Lecter. Ted Tally's (All the Pretty Horses) screenplay, adapted from the second Lecter novel by Thomas Harris, creates the ultimate villain -- a man so intuitive that he can crawl into FBI Agent Clarice Starling's (Jodie Foster) mind and awaken her greatest childhood fears. Throughout the film, Lecter plays a subtle game of chess with the authorities. He offers Starling insights into Bill while advancing his own campaign to create an opportunity for escape. The viewer may never know what Lecter is thinking at any given moment, but they know he is thinking, and that makes for an effective and charismatic villain.

Don't Look Now(1973)
Screenplay by Alan Scott and Chris Bryant
Based on the story by Daphne Du Maurier

The Lesson: An iconic image is worth pages of dialogue.

The Silence of the Lambs is rife with memorable images -- the moth pulled from the mouth of Bill's victim and Lecter's exquisite face mask to name a few -- but a sure way to imprint ideas into an audience's mind is to marry the notion to an image so potent that it calls back the circumstances of its initial use with every recurrence. Don't Look Now, adapted by Alan Scott (D.A.R.Y.L.) and Chris Bryant (The Awakening) from the short story by Daphne Du Maurier, tells the tale of architectural restorer John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife, Laura (Julie Christie), who travel to Venice after the death of their daughter (Sharon Williams). The film opens with the little girl drowning in a lake near the family home while wearing a bright red coat. Throughout his time in Venice, John Baxter repeatedly glimpses a small figure in the very same iconic coat, and the nauseating memory of a dying child returns to both the father and the viewer as John tries to unravel the meaning of what has he believes to be a psychic experience. In the end, the figure is revealed to be something quite unexpected, and the revelation carries with it the impact of the death at the top of the film coupled with shock created by a sudden change in the red coat's meaning within the story.

The Exorcist(1973)
Screenplay by William Peter Blatty
Based on his novel

The Lesson: Always play for the biggest stakes.

The loss of a child is a powerful idea that pervades Don't Look Now and provides an anchor to director Nicholas Roeg's (Bad Timing) eccentric narrative, but William Peter Blatty's adaptation of his own novel, The Exorcist, for director William Friedkin (The French Connection) uses the life of a child to even greater effect. In the film, as well as the book, young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is possessed by a demon named Pazuzu, and Father Lancester Merrin (Max Von Sydow) is summoned to save the child's soul from the evil intruder. Blatty's script demonstrates a profound understanding of stakes by balancing the story on both the life of an innocent child and the more metaphysical war between good and evil. Employing the dictate of Psycho, Father Merrin is unequal to the task and meets his maker, leaving the troubled Damien Karras (Jason Miller) to finish the fight against darkness. Like Matheson's work, the story hits us where we live, unfolding in a suburban home as a small girl becomes something terrifying. The supernatural entity likewise fulfills the role of a superlative adversary in a film that defines the horror genre while serving as a benchmark for powerful storytelling.

Jason Davis has been the DVD Manager for CS Weekly, a contributing editor for Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and has written for,, and created the TV series Studio 13, which ran on Lorne Michaels' Burly TV network. He lives in the small space left over by his ever-expanding library of books, movies, and music.


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