Right now the greatest horror spec in the world would have a rough time at the studios. Drag Me To Hell’s box office performance didn’t help, but even before this summer the industry was down on horror, particularly original horror (remakes are still okay). This is a blow to the aspiring horror screenwriter. If you are an unknown trying to get repped or if you are repped but haven’t sold anything yet, I honestly can’t advise you to write a horror spec script. All my horror loving friends are currently working on action specs. But if you’re a stubborn cuss who just won’t give up the ghost (or the vampire, or the zombie, or the knife wielding maniac) then you should follow in the footsteps of these films, some of the few horror hits of the last decade.
Sixth Sense (1999)They still remember. You still hear it around town. “Best twist ending since Sixth Sense.” Horror may be out and M. Night may be trying to restart his career but the town still has undying love for his big breakthrough about a kid who sees dead people. The reason is simple, people who read scripts every single day want to be surprised. Throw in a good twist and you will get their attention regardless of genre. The problem a writer faces is when to use a twist. A manager friend of mine lamented this about a script he had just read. There’s a twist at the halfway mark that really makes the story. The thing is, if a twist occurs at the halfway mark, it’s really part of the story and should be included in the logline/story description. But that ruins the twist. So you either send out the script with a poor logline and preserve the twist, or write a complete log and give the twist away.
Sixth Sense was near perfect in this regard, its story was already compelling enough that it could have stood on its own without the twist ending. That’s the secret. Pull the audience in, entertain them, and then at the end pull off a gigantic trick that has them gasping. But there’s the rub too, it means you have to have a great concept and story to begin with. If you’re too dependent on the twist, then your story can’t get them interested in the first place. At least not without broadcasting that there is a twist coming.
Final Destination (2000) and Saw (2004)Yes Horror is in a down period but look what’s coming over the horizon, Final Destination 4. And just last summer we were subjected to Saw 5. In addition to being franchises they are also perfect examples of high concept horror. High concept is all about creating a set of expectations for the following story. In Final Destination, where Death itself is the stalker, the concept sets up the stylish death scenes later in the film. It provides the franchise with a unique premise and a unique look. Saw is equally high concept. While most of the attention goes to its squirm inducing booby traps, the idea behind Saw is that the killer is actually out to “help” his victims. Sort of like a demented Dr. Phil. The storylines in the Saw series always feature this aspect of self examination. Hollywood is still in love with the high concept and a good high concept will grab people’s attention regardless of genre.
So is your concept high enough? That’s not easy to judge. There’s no one set of criteria for what is truly High Concept as opposed to Middle or Low Concept. It’s something that is gained with experience. Basically High Concept is something that will make the people at the top of the producing heap sit up and take notice but isn’t so bizarre or unique that those same execs can’t envision how the story will play out. High Concept, like the logline, is such a huge and important idea that I’ll be devoted several blog posts just to them.
The Others (2001)If a company is looking for horror projects chances are they will use words like “classy” or “literate” to describe what they’re looking for. They are looking for the next Others. The Others was a hit in 2001 and ever since then studios have been clamoring for more horror projects in that vein. It’s easy to see why, instead of the usual slasher fare, The Others provided a strong lead role that helped garner Nicole Kidman and Oscar nod. This kind of project appeals to name actors yet still has an edge to it. So far no Others successors have been produced. That might be due to lack of material. It is very difficult to get into the right frame of mind. You want something classical in appearance but not too tight or slow moving. You want horror but not buckets of blood and gore. Above all you have to focus on creating strong roles that will appeal to serious actors.
Creating good characters is a part of good screenwriting and I assume that if you’re serious about screenwriting then you’ve already given a lot of time and thought to your character. However there is a difference between good characters in a typical horror film and an Others-like character. You’re no longer going for pop culture spewing teenagers, you want a true adult character with some history behind them. They don’t necessarily have to be historic, but they do have to have some weight to them. The drama must touch them in deeply personal ways. This person has a very compelling story ahead of them, it just so happens that it is resolved via supernatural means.
Underworld (2003)I hesitate to include this is a work of successful horror films. It’s not really a “horror” film although it has vampires and werewolves. The last installment may have tanked but its influence can’t be denied and if there is an unquestioned positive trend in the world of horror it’s in stories like this. Stylized action is the order of the day in the modern CGI dominated Hollywood. As we can see here , Hollywood is still looking for another 300. They want movies where they can envision the “holy crap!” trailer moments. Horror has an advantage here in that many of their troupes involve individuals with extraordinary abilities (vampires, werewolves, witches, ghouls, etc.) Any one of them is easy to re-imagine as a CGI enhanced warrior. As Daybreakers shows us, nowadays they want vampires firing machine guns or fighting with kung fu. The traditional vampire sneaking into the room of an unsuspecting victim is out. The only problem is that it is extremely easy and the offices are already flooded with similar stories. You’ll have to really work hard to make yours stand apart from the crowd. Also you won’t be doing a lot of actual “horror” writing. You’ll be action and fantasy writing. While these films are loaded with tension and action I don’t remember ANY moments of fear.
It just takes one surprise hit to change the industry. If Drag To Hell had made a 100 million, you can guarantee that call for horror specs would have gone out far and wide. But until the NEXT thing shows up, writers who are still breaking in should study the LAST thing. The industry still remembers the hits, including the those of the horror genre. If your script calls back to a previous success, your chances are improved.