SPOILERS! So genre movies are what's-what at the moment: it's apparently what audiences want, so it's what prodcos want. Yet so many specs out there have no genre to speak of; yes they have generic elements but they're not a GENRE FILM in the classic sense. They pay little attention to convention or classic characterisation; they have no set pieces to speak of, nor do they give us something that's the same....But different.
Speaking to writers, it would appear the notion of the genre film gets the thumbs down, big style: some writers seem to think of them as formulaic, ticking the boxes, even stupid. Writers have insisted to me that dramas have more heart, that the genre film sells out; they've said that the genre film has nothing to say, is unchallenging, [insert another negative here]. I think I've heard every possible argument AGAINST the genre film and why spec writers should not bother writing them for artistic reasons.
But the genre film sells. Whilst I would never advocate writing the genre film that simply recycles what has gone before it, I WOULD argue that taking note of trends does help your writing and thus your own saleability. 'Cos let's face it: none of us are doing this *just* for fun. We want recognition. We want an option. We want our specs sold, made and in the top ten movies of the year. Not one of us is writing simply to leave the fruits of our labour on the desktop for no one to see.
Well, if that's what you want, then a drama is not going to cut it. Not because dramas aren't good, but because drama does not sell like the genre film. It's just a fact of (screenwriting) life. And who says the genre film cannot have something to say? Who says the genre film has to be stupid? Granted, lots of genre films have nothing to say and are stupid, but that's not the point. Tarring all films with the same brush is not a great idea if you want to get ahead.
Everyone has a natural bias and as everyone knows, mine is horror. I love horror. I want to write horror. Blood and guts do it for me in a way that love and romance don't. I like to be scared and I like to be grossed out. It's just the way that it goes. Later in the series I will examine what I believe goes into a successful rom-com, supernatural thrillers, comedy and so on (get your requests in now people), but for now, somewhat inevitably, I'm going to start with my beloved horror.
First off, it might be an idea to start with defining those categories of horror - there will always be crossover, but I think I've narrowed it down to five "main" types:
- Supernatural # 1 : including vampires, some ghost activity (ie. soothsayers, non-homicidal), werewolves, special powers ie. telekinesis as in Carrie)
- Supernatural # 2: Devils and other religious motifs, arthouse elements (like in Dust Devil, Angel Heart), Asian Tartan Extreme, Adult Anime etc
- Serial Killer: Some Asian Tartan Extreme and low budget indie European film; including torture and slasher
- Creature: Space and some supernatural "out of the ordinary" creatures that set their own rules, ie. homicidal ghosts with their own backstory (like in Thirteen Ghosts) and demon-style figures like Pinhead
- Revenge: including uber-horror like I Spit On Your Grave through to supernatural revenge like The Crow
I racked my brains for more, yet couldn't come up with any. Genre should be such broad strokes though I think; it's up to the writer to join the dots. This is why the genre film needn't be stupid nor have nothing to say. You, the writer, can utilise genre as the vehicle that gives your voice volume, if you like. The genre-megaphone! I'm going off at a tangent... Moving on.
Next: because we're using genre, there are certain elements your audience (and thus your reader) expects. This doesn't mean you just roll these elements out at certain intervals. That would be dull. A good genre film involves its audience, makes them INVEST in the story, takes them on a journey. This is ultimately why 30 Days of Night did not work for me in the same way the first Resident Evil did. I couldn't invest in Eben's journey in the same way I could Alice's as she remembered her involvement with the evil Umbrella corp. Yes there were Zombies, but there was also betrayal, ooooooooh, nice. In 30 Days however it seemed to be more along the lines of: the lights go out - vampires! Argh! (I am aware the photo below is of Alice in Resident Evil: Extinction btw).
So what of those elements? Let's take a look:
Women are strong, men are weak: but supernatural men are always hardcore. Alice is the strong one in Resident Evil thanks to what I call the Ripley legacy: ever since we saw her duffing up first Ash, then Burke, then 85 in the original trilogy, women in horror are usually not only excellent fighters, they're on the moral high ground too. It's usually a man who is in league with the beast or ensuring everyone dies so he can keep all the money or whatnot: Resident Evil borrowed this notion with Alice's husband being responsible for releasing the T-Virus in the first place. Boooooo! Men suck! Women are the best! Yay! ; ) Compare this then to the likes of Riddick - a man who can see in the dark, supernatural for sure - or Eric Draven, who is dead. In comparison to their *more human* counterparts and suddenly we can see a massive division, lending the belief that if a man is to be COOL in horror, he needs to have some kind of interesting talent or attribute to still be standing at the end.
You always have another problem besides the monster. As above and it's usually the man's fault these days. A boring genre film pits the group against JUST the monster. A good genre film ties the group up in knots WHILST fighting the monster. This might just be most of the group against one or two people (as in Alien) or it might be the entire group turning itself inside out (as in Pitch Black).
Monsters might be out to get you but they can’t hate you as much as you hate yourself. Ever noticed that protagonists in horror films nearly always seem to have self esteem issues? This is usually down to some kind of traumatic event in their childhood (like Celine's witnessing of her family's death in Underworld), the loss of a loved one they couldn't save or moment they have to repent for, such as Fry's wish to sacrifice the rest of the crew to save her own life.
Death is not always the end and sometimes the solution. Sometimes characters in horrors are reborn, like Eric Draven in The Crow: unable to save himself or his girlfriend in life, he exacts bloody revenge in death. The detective in Angel Heart decides to never die so he might never have to surrender his soul to the devil - but in doing so, must kill the young soldier and switch bodies and ultimately memories by accident. In monster movies, sometimes people will sacrifice themselves - or at least suggest it, like in Alien Vs. Predator - so as to ensure the monster does not take over the world.
It can always get worse. One of the main gripes I have in the horror I read is the fact that there is no build up: it all comes at once (oo er). I think the reason for this is because "they" say you need a strong hook or ninciting incident - but you can hit the ground running without giving it to us ALL AT ONCE. Build up the suspense, build up to the horror, give it impact. And remember to throw those obstacles at us, one after another: your characters think they've hit rock bottom? Not yet they haven't! Be the worse kind of sadist, but do it on drip feed.
Comedy quips make life worth living – even when you’re about to die horribly. Horror and comedy mix incredibly well, Brits are known for it: think Shaun of the Dead here or Severance. And a spec doesn't have to be laugh-out-loud funny to include this element (though it helps if you're brilliant at this). A well positioned quip can bring in the laughs, even if it's a cheesy one-liner, as a kind of "antidote" to the horror that came before or after it. Don't be afraid of using this element. What may not work as true comedy can work in horror on the basis of contrast alone: I mean, Arnie's line "stick around" to the guy he stabs in Predator? Puh-lease, positively stilton! Yet I did laugh when I first saw it y'honour, guilty as charged...
There’s a thin line between bad taste... And REALLY bad taste. there are always lines to cross with horror, no matter what you think about the whole "everything's been done" idea. There are reasons we don't see certain elements (like in-depth rape scenes!) and it's because no one wants to see that bar a sicko minority. Pushing boundaries is great, indulging yourself is not. Also, it's worth remembering that whilst sensationalism is popular for a few moments (ie. so-called "torture porn"), classic terror can last decades, even become timeless. Which would you prefer?
There’s always a new way to do it...But what? And this is the hard bit. Horror can get a bad press when we see the same movie over and over again, but believe it or not, new horror can be conceived of; it's just waiting, in someone's mind - a new, gross way of seeing the creature, the serial killer, the supernatural. The problem is, it can't be SO new no one understands it. If you're going to present us with a new way of seeing vampires, or a new way of seeing the monstrous other like Michael Myers, then we need to have something *similar* about it for that comparison, else you will mystify readers about what you're going on about.
Any other thoughts?
NEXT IN THIS SERIES: Just for contrast, The Romantic Comedy