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  • A New Wave of Horror

    November 11th, 2015

    By Danny Manus

    Halloween is over, but that doesn’t mean horror films aren’t still selling. But there has been a substantial shift in the types of horror films that are driving the market in the last two decades. There are a number of reasons for this, including oversaturation of the market in the 80s and 90s, and the new low budget mindset of horror producers. But also what scares us in our core has changed.

    When the serial killers of the 60s, 70s and 80s were at the height of their popularity, the film business exploited that and that’s why slashers did so well. But today, people aren’t scared of the crazy masked serial killer who breaks out of the mental ward – they’re scared of the mentally ill neighbor who one day forgets her meds and just snaps without warning. We like our horror to have an element of escapism and fantasy, but also be grounded enough to scare us in our souls. The reason horror films do well overseas is because fear is universal, and the things that shake us to our core or give us the shivers or nightmares is something everyone can connect with.

    While producers are looking for the next great franchise, now that Saw and Paranormal Activity are done and Insidious has completed a trilogy, launching a new slasher franchise has proved all but impossible the last decade and torture porn is a trend that met its maker. In fact there have been a number of trends that have come and gone in the last 15 years…

    Asian horror remakes certainly had its heyday (The Ring, The Grudge, Cure, Audition), Zombie films like 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead launched a horror movement still enjoyed today though usually with a more humorous slant (Pride & Prejudice with Zombies and Scout’s Guide to Zombie Apocalypse are about to be released), then it was haunted houses that made a comeback (The Haunting, House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts), then demons and exorcism knock-offs were all the rage (Devil Inside, The Rite, Deliver Us From Evil, The Last Exorcism, Annabelle), evil children movies tried to remind us why having kids is not always the right choice (Orphan, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Cooties, Insidious), socially conscious horror movies tried to make a splash (The Crazies), and of course there’s the found footage film trend, which is still bankable depending on the story and what you do with this style of storytelling (like in Unfriended).

    But in the last few years, it has been the more cerebral, paranormal, comedic, and even true stories that have been driving the domestic horror film market. And personally, I think we will see more horror anthology films like V/H/S in the near future as more “scary story” books from the 80s get optioned and developed.

    There have been a number of great horror films that are redefining the genre. So, I wanted to compile a quick list of 25 great horror flicks from just the last decade that you need to see if you want to compete in this market. They aren’t all blockbusters, but a few of them have ended up on my personal list of best films from their year (The Babadook, The Conjuring, Cabin in the Woods), and they all deliver upon a horrific premise, have great scares and suspense, set a great tone, and have a specific hook that makes them original. They are ELEVATING the genre, and that’s exactly what you should be trying to do if you want your horror films to stand out.

    In no particular order….

    It Follows
    Cabin in the Woods
    The Babadook
    The Descent
    Let the Right One In
    The Conjuring
    Drag Me to Hell
    Under the Skin
    Insidious (the first one)
    V/H/S
    Evil Dead (Remake)
    Unfriended
    Kill List
    Green Inferno
    Warm Bodies
    The Woman in Black (the first one)
    Zombieland
    I Spit On Your Grave
    The Crazies
    The Strangers
    Human Centipede (the first one)
    The Final Girls
    Paranormal Activity (1 and 3)
    Martyrs
    The Mist

  • My Top 10 Films of 2014: A Breakdown

    February 11th, 2015

    2014 was a very interesting year for film. It was a grab-bag of wonderful cinematic experiences, powerful true stories, big comic book blockbusters, British invasions, and some movies that perhaps never should have been. And with the Oscars right around the corner, I figure it’s time I break down my personal Top Ten Films of 2014, and what screenwriters can learn from each.

    I want to preface this list by saying there are about a dozen high profile films I (shamefully) still have not seen including Inherent Vice, Interstellar, Big Eyes, Fury, Snowpiercer, Jennifer Aniston’s Cake, Maze Runner, Obvious Child, Unbroken, and Edge of Tomorrow. So I reserve the right to change this list slightly in the future. But, I don’t I will. Here we go….

    10. The Babadook – The best horror movie I’ve seen since The Conjuring. It does what possession films have been trying to do for years and very seldom succeed at. Besides a performance by star Essie Davis that could rival most of the Best Actress nominees, this is a great movie to watch if you’re writing horror/thriller and want to learn how to create tone, build suspense, employ frightening visuals, and how directing can really make a difference. I’m not sure I loved the last 10 minutes, but it is a scary film reminiscent of The Shining and Bug.

    9. Wild – While I think it is the directing and acting that make this film more than the script, it’s a great example of how to bring a powerful emotional journey to screen in a satisfying way. Though it’s a small, personal story, the writer creates moments of tension, fear and raises the stakes even when there’s no actual threat.

    8. The LEGO Movie – For me, the biggest snub of the year and while based on the well-known toys, its writing is beyond original and clever and takes characters we know and love and gives them a whole new spin. It exemplifies animation that is just as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids. And it will only give you half an epileptic fit. The voice casting was pitch perfect, and it had a powerful, relatable theme driving the story. In Lego Movie, everything is awesome.

    7. The Imitation Game – The first British invasion film on my list, and one of the fascinating true stories this year. It’s a great example of creating characters that should never be sellable on film, and making them compelling. It’s also a great example of how to make every character, no matter how small a role, matter and add to the whole of the plot.  Trying to craft strong supporting characters? Check this one out.

    6. Captain America: Winter Soldier – My favorite of the comic book movies this year. It’s a complete film with magnificent action, huge visual, exciting set pieces, strong chemistry and levity from the characters, and it doesn’t feel longer than it needs to be (I’m looking at you, Dark Knight Rises and Avengers). I liked it even better than the first Captain America.

    5. Boyhood – I saw this movie long after everyone else did, so I guess I was expecting a little bit more. But I still really enjoyed it. As a filmmaking gimmick, it’s brilliant. It’s original, it’s compelling even though very little is actually happening in many scenes. There are only a few real “movie moments,” but it’s theme and gimmick and Patricia Arquette’s realness make it enjoyable and Linklatter is a great storyteller.

    4. Theory of Everything – Another true story British film about a character that doesn’t sound like one who would make for a watchable film. But is. What could have been a 90 minute montage of a movie as time passes, instead became a thoughtful and moving love story. It’s damn near impossible to make an audience invest in a love story in a way where viewers are still happy even after they divorce and still root for each of them to be happy with other people. This is a great example of how a writer took a three-prong approach to the theme and story, and wove all three elements of the plot together in a masterful way. And Eddie Redmayne’s performance is simply perfect.

    3. Gone Girl – A controversial film that many of my friends HATED, but I thoroughly enjoyed. Besides some great performances and being beautifully shot, I was riveted by the story (and never read the book). This a great example of how to create morally bankrupt characters and keep them compelling while creating a strong mysterious tone that makes you constantly question everything. If you’re looking for an example of how to incorporate twists and turns and how to structure a mystery, read this script. The fact that she was not nominated is a damn shame.

    3. Whiplash – Yes, fine, it was a tie. I couldn’t decide. Another small story, well-told and well-acted. It’s compelling, powerful and sometimes cringe-worthy in a good way. If you want to know how to write roles that attract actors while still writing low budget, this is one to watch – and read. Could there have been other subplots or more depth to the female character? Yeah, maybe. But this story is about two relationship dynamics – student and teacher, and music and musician – and their consequences.

    2. Birdman – What can I say about Birdman that hasn’t already been said? Its filmmaking gimmick wasn’t as well-publicized as Boyhood’s, its characters were fascinating in their unlikablity, and its ending is purposefully open to interpretation. But it is captivating filmmaking, acting, and a premise told in an original way. Would this movie be as good without Michael Keaton? Fortunately, we never have to find out. If you like movies that think outside the box while still connecting to those inside the box, this is your movie.

    1. Nightcrawler – Yup, this is my #1 choice. A script that broke all the rules because it could (the writer, Dan Gilroy, also directed). It is a perfect example of how to create tone, how setting can impact a story, and how to craft an anti-hero in a whole new way. It’s a great example of how to tell a story where the protagonist is not only the antagonist, but also has no arc. Gilroy has said that he thinks character arcs are fallacies, and while I may not totally agree with that, I love how he brought that to screen in this film. It walks the most perfect line between satire and psychotic and its view on society is gripping. If you haven’t seen it and read it – you should!

    Okay, those are my picks! What say you? And before you start to rebel in outrage or question the voracity of some of my snubs…read this –

    *Almost made the list – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could have made the list if the human characters weren’t drawn, written, and tracked so poorly. American Sniper probably would’ve made the list if I had seen the movie before all the social media attention and true life details of Chris Kyle were brought to light. And I still liked last year’s Lone Survivor much better. Ditto for Selma, which is a very good film and Ava and David should’ve been nominated, but I think the (social) media outrage set up expectations for me that it didn’t QUITE live up to. I was expecting the greatest movie ever snubbed, and it’s just a good movie. Chef – another good movie, but the plot and goals were too easily achieved.

    *Movies I Thought Were Overrated – Foxcatcher, Guardians of the Galaxy, Grand Budapest Hotel, Into the Woods. I liked Guardians – it was a ton of fun – but there were issues. The rest just didn’t do it for me.

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