I have wasted more precious hours than the average citizen watching bad horror movies on Netflix and other “streaming platforms”, as the marketing verbiage goes. I have also made a bad horror movie at the age of 26, which was an enlightening and humbling experience. I figure it’s time I pass on my wisdom on what makes a bad horror movie, so that if you are inclined to make your own, you can skip the research phase and go straight to the script. Script, in this case, is a term I use very loosely.
The horror movie is attractive to the indie filmmaker, because it seems doable on the logistics level. Put backpacks on attractive couples in their early to mid twenties and send them off into the woods, where a random (spirit, ghost, serial killer, mythical figure, fill in the blank) dwells. Surely, we don’t need great dialogue, or great acting to scare the hell out of people, the neophyte filmmaker reasons. The Exorcist, which has both and great themes to boot, was simply an exception, these folks say to themselves. We will model ourselves after The Blair Witch Project which made a boatload of movie despite crappy camera work and pedestrian acting. Or The Evil Dead to name another indie horror breakthrough.
It’s worth remembering that those movies succeeded in spite of bad dialogue and mediocre acting. They were original in the way new horror movies of the indie variety rarely are.
Let’s examine the elements which make up the bad horror movie.
Plot: It is not necessary to be original. The plot should unravel in the great outdoors, as that will require no permits. A lake is helpful, so that you can have a character who doesn’t know how to swim. Or cliffs, so that another character can be scared of heights and add some sorely needed contrived drama.
There are two ways to go with plot: either you have an attractive couple on a hike, usually because their relationship is crumbling and (usually the man) wants to inject some adventure into it. The woman, true to stereotype, will not be “feeling it”, at least at the beginning. She’d rather be in a motel room with a functional hair dryer. If she hates the outdoors so much, why does she agree to go on a weekend outing without her hair dryer, you ask? Never mind those pesky questions of logic. The audience won’t either.
The other direction is to portray a group of hikers. They should conform to the indie horror movie clichés. That is to say, they should be attractive, but no too attractive, otherwise we, the ugly average viewer won’t be able to relate to them. It is crucial to observe the following breakdown:
The protagonist is the prettiest girl, who has a not-so-dark-secret. Maybe her sister died when she was young and she blames herself for not being able to get to the bathtub on time to save her from drowning (even though she was two at the time).
Or her family died in a horrible car crash and she has survivor’s guilt. In that case, you can benefit from another character tactlessly bringing up the accident, followed by a shot of the forlorn protagonist, followed by one of her boyfriend trying to smoothen things over.
Said boyfriend is usually of the sensitive type. He will never say black instead of “African American”. He will try to keep the insensitive joker (see next paragraph) from making fun of locals. And he’s the only one who cares about his girlfriend’s not-so-dark-secret, or baggage as the audience sees it.
The insensitive joker. This character, in the past, was white, but increasingly he is black, or African American as the protagonist’s boyfriend would say. This is to show that the latest generation of filmmakers is not prejudiced. This character makes fun of the legend, ghost, whatever it is that brought the troop to the scary place. This means he is also the first to die. Interesting side note: this character is usually single, in contrast to the others, who make up several configurations of the typical heterosexual couple.
Perhaps no one girl can tolerate his lack of sense of humor?
The sex-starved couple. They are constantly all over each other, while the audience waits for the plot to kick in. It helps to have the girl take off her bra at least once before she dies, so that the (male) audience temporarily forgets about the creaky plot. If they sneak off into the woods to have sex on a bed of pine needles, they will die. That’s a rule. The audience expects a knife to be thrust into the back of the man as he’s thrusting into the girl and you have no right to deny them that pleasure.
The protagonist-girl with the sensitive boyfriend, the insensitive joker, the sex-starved couple, this is the minimum number of players. You can add the neurotic book worm whose role is to give exposition about the scary place the group is heading to (and die when said exposition has been mentioned at least five times at which he or she has outlived usefulness).
If you’re going with the group setup, it is essential that you include the following scenes:
The group driving to the woods, cabin, whatever. Someone must mention that they are in the middle of nowhere, another character must check her cell phone to show us that there is no cell signal.
The group has to stop at a gas station/convenience store populated by colorful (racist) locals. The insensitive joker will piss off a local as he’s looking to buy a bag of chips. The sex-starved couple will fornicate in public, so that the locals can give disapproving glances (which foreshadow their death).
If you’re going with the one-couple scenario, the obligatory scenes are somewhat different. It helps to show the man glancing at an engagement ring, which he will give the girl at the right moment (on top of a mountain, for instance). This will not happen. He will die a horrible death. The function of the ring is for the girl to find it after the boyfriend is dead and have one last cry before she confronts her demons.
Enough said. The couple must have ‘issues’, which have to be easy to understand so they don’t take a toll on the viewer. This is important: don’t stress the audience with originality, or deeper themes. After all, you’re making a horror movie, not a drama. Some suggestions: the boyfriend was seen kissing a girl at a party and now the girl doubts his fidelity. Or, he wants to marry her, but for reasons she cannot articulate, she is not ready.
You get the idea. A few words about exposition. The skill of a writer can often be measured by how he or she handles exposition, or background stuff we need to know in order to understand the present situation. Good writers sparse it into dialogue as needed, great writers fold it in the way a baker folds ingredients into a cake. Neither approach is necessary, because subtlety is death to the bad horror movie. The girl-protagonist has to stop at one point, adjust her backpack and ask: Remind me why we’re a hundred miles in the middle of nowhere, when we should be at (home, college, etc.) To which the boyfriend responds: So that we can enjoy nature and reconnect, etc.
Bad dialogue should flow from characters’ mouths the same way colored Karo syrup will flow from their stab wounds.
I am skipping the buildup and climax session, because I don’t want to insult your intelligence. Suffice to say, the campers die one by one, killed by the (spirit, racist locals, myths, etc).
I do have to mention the ending, however. Our lone female protagonist has survived. She has confronted her not-so-dark-secret and has defeated the villain. At this point, it is essential that she be covered in blood and that her clothes hang on her sculpted body by the thinnest of threads. We must see her smooth abs, and arms. It helps if she has a limp and grunts as she makes her way out of the woods.
No need to get creative at this point. She can just collapse on the side of a road and a non-racist local in a pick up truck stops to help her. The End. Or she reaches a vista, where she can look out over the landscape. While the sun sets, she reflects on the crazy twists and turns of the bad screenplay which has led her here.
Some experts say that writing in the action and the horror genres is difficult, because the genre has been done to death. Don’t buy into this pessimistic view. The world can and will survive another bad horror movie. Otherwise, what would go under that category in Netflix? And what would twenty-somethings watch when they get home from the bars after closing time, once again finding themselves alone, but unable to sleep?
If you have the sudden urge to get creative and/or original, drop me a line so that I may steer you back on the well-worn path to a bad horror movie. It’s practically a rite of passage.