Friday, October 24, 2014

The 13 Days Of Halloween:
Freaks (1932)

Tod Browning was one of the most gifted silent directors, with films like THE UNHOLY THREE and THE UNKNOWN to his credit when he was hired to direct DRACULA - which became a massive hit. His follow up movie pretty much ended his career. FREAKS was his pet project, a story that takes place in a carnival freak show and starred actual freaks. Even though this was a pre-code movie (no censorship or ratings existed for films) the studio demanded that it be cut and cut and cut... and the version released was too disturbing for the audience at the time. The film was officially banned in England and unofficially banned in the United States (MGM locked it away) until the late 60s, early 70s when the legend of the film resulted in some prints and a midnight showings... and a new audience. I saw it sometime in the late 70s, and it was most disturbing.

A Fan Made Trailer...



The film is now part of our culture - the "Gobble-Gobble One Of Us" scene pops up in everything from SOUTH PARK to DePalma's SISTERS. Interesting that DePalma was inspired by the film for SISTERS because the story has some similarities to CARRIE which he would also direct...




The freak show for a travelling carnival are like a family - they all watch out for each other. The film shows you the every day life of the freaks - and it's fascinating. The Human Torso - a guy with no arms or legs - lights his own cigarette. Armless woman uses her feet as hands. The Siamese Twins date. When hot trapeeze artist Cleopatra learns that midget Hans is rich, she seduces him, marries him... and then slowly poisons him so that she can inherit his fortune and run away with the Strong Man. Only, what you do to one of the Freaks, you do to all... and they may seem harmless, but they get their revenge for being abused by Cleopatra and the Strong Man.

One of us...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9C4uTEEOJlM

Like CARRIE, the film is a slow build to a big finish when they get their revenge... but that end is the stuff of nightmares!

- Bill



Today's Amazon ranking:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The 13 Days Of Halloween:
Don't Look Now (1973)

Fridays With Hitchcock has included three films like REBECCA based on a novel by Daphne DuMaurier... and this film is also based on one of her stories (like THE BIRDS). And here we have another one of my favorite directors Nic Roeg - who began as a cinematographer on films like Richard Lester's brilliant PETULIA starring the always beautiful Julie Christie... who also stars in DON'T LOOK NOW along with Donald Sutherland. This is one of those creepy movies that gets under your skin - you may watch it and only be scared at the end and think it's not so bad... but days later it will flash back into your memory.



And memory is what the film is about - Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie lose their little girl in a tragic accident and it tears them apart. Sutherland takes a job in Venice, Italy - hoping that they can use the time away from home to put their marriage back together again. But everywhere he looks in Venice he keeps seeing his dead daughter... and the two strange women they meet in a restaurant have seen her, too. One is psychic - and has seen their daughter's ghost. Oh, and there is a serial killer on the loose in Venice as well - bodies popping up everywhere. All of these things are connected, but we don't understand the connection until the very end.




Roeg is an amazing stylist - he loves to connect elements by *image* instead of chronology. This gives the film a poetic feel. It's a beautiful horror film. Oh, and there's a famous sex scene that rumor has it was not staged but real. This is not a *scary* film, it's a *creepy* one.

- Bill

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The 13 Days Of Halloween:
Dead Of Night (1945)

James Wan who directed SAW has a thing about killer puppet movies, and I'll bet it can all be traced back to seeing this film as a kid on TV. I know *my* fear of killer puppets stems from this, and the knowledge that Grover on Sesame Street is really a serial killer. But all of the ventriloquist dummy movies like William Goldman's MAGIC come from this creepy film.

Dead Of Night (1945)
Directed by: Cavalcanti ("Christmas Party", "The Ventriloquist's Dummy"), Charles Crichton ("Golfing Story"), Basil Dearden ("Hearse Driver", "Linking Narrative"), Robert Hamer ("The Haunted Mirror")
Written by: John Baines & Angus MacPhail.
Starring: Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave, Roland Culver, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Googie Withers.

An architect arrives at a country estate and has a strange feeling of deja vu. The group of people at the estate each tell stories of terror... while the architect's deja vu increases. Has he been here before? He feels as if he has heard each story before... and feels like something terrible will happen when the last tale has been told. Each of the stories is frightening, but the ventriloquist and the dummy that controls him is the one most people remember...



The cast is worth noting, since most of them were in Hitchcock's LADY VANISHES. Not only do we get a variation on Caldecott & Charters, we get Bridesmaid Googie Withers and leading man Michael Redgrave! It's the whole gang! The cast is great, the film is spooky... yet realistic enough that you believe everything that happens no matter how crazy. The film was from Ealing Studios, famous for comedies... but this may be their most famous non-comedy film.




Five great stories of terror, with the "wrap" at the country house with our group. Directed by 4 different directors.
1) "Christmas Party" is about a girl at a Christmas Party who finds a hidden staircase that leads to...
2) "The Haunted Mirror" is about an newlywed couple - the wife buys a mirror that is... haunted.
3) "The Hearse Driver" is about a man who dreams a hearse drives by him and the driver says: "There's room for one more"... and then his dream seems to come true.
4) "Golfing Story" is about two golfers (Wayne & Radford) make a bet on the golf course - winner gets to marry the girl they both love, and the loser must die.
5) "The Ventriloquist" is the most frightening of all, about a ventriloquist who thinks his dummy is out to get him... and he is.
Often stories like this peter out at the end, but DEAD OF NIGHT has an ending that will give you nightmares!

"There's room for one more."

- Bill

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The 13 Days Of Halloween:
Black Christmas (1974)

Before there was John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN there was Bob Clark's BLACK CHRISTMAS - the original "We've traced the call... it's coming from INSIDE the house!" movie. I caught this at a drive in on a double bill with Larry Cohen's IT'S ALIVE - and IT'S ALIVE was the "A" feature! But this film really creeped me out, and also had me laughing outloud. Margot Kidder's phone number had me laughing for months - because this was a time when people didn't say things like that in the movies.



But the main thing about BLACK CHRISTMAS is that it's spooky and probably the first "kill a bunch of people in a house" movie. Okay, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was released the same year, so it may have technically been the second movie with that basic plot - but BLACK CHRISTMAS is the version of that basic plot that you can trace through HALLOWEEN to SCREAM. In fact, HALLOWEEN began as a sequel to BLACK CHRISTMAS.




The great thing about this film - other than the call coming from inside the house - is the way the characters turn against each other when the bodies begin to pop up. Also a great cast - Olivia Hussey who was Juliet in ROMEO & JULIET plays the lead, Keir Dullea from some damned Kubrick movie was her boyfriend, John Saxon plays the cop in a horror movie for the first time, Andrea Martin from SECOND CITY is one of the gals, Margot Kidder is *hot* as one of the other gals - she had already starred in Brian DePalma's SISTERS and the next year would play the female lead in THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER opposite some guy named Redford. SISTERS is coming up in a couple of days...

What the heck, I love Larry Cohen, so let's look at the trailer for the "A" film on the double bill many years ago...



What I love about Larry Cohen movies is that the guy always has a social or political message in his weirdass horror films. His films like THE STUFF are complete cult flicks, but underneath it all are about something important. Here we have mutant killer babies caused by prescription drug side effects - kind of the ultimate Thalidomide baby. By the time Cohen got to IT'S ALIVE 3: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE he was doing a cult horror film that dealt with AIDS babies (except they were the killer mutant babies in the series).




He's one of my favorite filmmakers and one of those prolific screenwriters who is hit and miss - but when he hits he knocks it out of the park. Still alive and kicking and making films. He wrote PHONE BOOTH and CELLULAR! His last screenwriting credit was a couple of years ago... but his first writing credit was 1958. Oh, and he created the TV show THE INVADERS.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: EVERY STORY ASKS A QUESTION - Is yours asking the *right* question?
Dinner: Chicken, potatos, corn at Boston Market.
Pages: Almost finished another chapter - but got sidetracked.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The 13 Days Of Halloween:
Night Of The Living Dead

One of the other films I first saw on Bob Wilkins' Creature Features was the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD – and it freaked me out! I think it freaked out everyone who saw it, and basically created the modern zombie film. Before that, Zombies were from Haiti and under the spell of a Voodoo Priest... after NOTLD zombies were flesh eating undead friends and relatives. The reason this works even today is because it takes regular people and turns them into the monsters. You can not trust *anyone*. The person sitting next to you in the cinema or on the sofa in your living room can turn into a flesh eating goul!



When I was a kid I used to scare the crap out of my little sister by saying “I am the monster!” - and the idea that someone you know and love can suddenly turn into a monster is at the heart of many horror films. In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Barbara and her brother go to visit their father's grave on the same day a satellite from Venus crashes in the country side and brings the dead back to life... a harmless old man puts the bite on her brother, killing him... Barbara eventually runs into her brother Johnny again - but now he's a mindless zombie with a taste for human flesh. The people who you love have lost their free will and have turned into monsters! "They're dead! They're all messed up!" Some of the other survivors in the farm house, Cooper and his wife, watch their cute little daughter slowly turning into a monster... then she attacks Cooper and eats him! When mom tries to stop her, she attacks and eats her, too. You can't reason with these zombies, all you can do is shoot them in the head or burn them. And if one bites you? You lose your free will and start thinking of your friends and loved ones as lunch. That's a scary core concept!




The other element of NOTLD is the gore factor – which was way beyond anything I had ever seen at that time... and is even pushing the envelope by today's standards. Of course, the guts they eat are animal parts – but even *that* is pretty sick! Though Romero has said the casting of Duane Jones as the lead was not intended to make a racial point, the timing was in the film's favor – it hit at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and showed a hick sheriff killing an innocent African American man – our hero!

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is the ultimate in friends turning against you. You can't trust anyone, because they may turn into a zombie. Kids attack and eat their own parents! Don't see it with someone you love... you'll wonder about them later.

- Bill
TODAY'S JACK-O-LANTERN:



IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: HIGH CONCEPT... OR HIGH STAKES? - Global or Personal stakes.
Dinner: Chicken Caesar Salad to make up for all of the junk I've been eating lately.
Pages: Finished a chapter on the Action Book!

Today's Amazon Rank:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The 13 Days Of Halloween:
The Creature From The Black Lagoon

When I was a kid, one of the most scary movies I had ever seen was THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. May have been on Bob Wilkins' Creature Features or on C3PM Theater on KCRA (Sacramento). The movie is really creepy, and uses the water to hide the monster the same way JAWS used the water to hide the shark. You never know when or where it will strike. This feeds right into our fear of the unknown, which is a basic element of horror. Anything that obscures the threat - water, darkness, fog, tall grass - builds our fear.  The film also has great music with some of the earliest use of "stings" - dant-dunt-da! The group of people, isolated, with a monster out there... somewhere... builds dread. Every time someone gets into the water because there's a tree or something in the way of the boat, you worry that the creature will attack. This was one of those movies I watched as a kid with hands covering my eyes - peeking between my fingers.



Not as scary as an adult, but still *fun* - it has some real suspense and real thrills and actually has an environmental message (great shot of a cigarette butt being thrown into the lagoon... camera dips underwater to show the Creature looking up at the butt and garbage floating in his pool). I didn't notice the environmental stuff when I was a kid, and I wonder if the audience in 1954 audience noticed it. It's *very* apparent when watching the film, now. Horror movies were great places to make a point or explore a theme because  they were usually made by the low budget division at the studio and they only cared that they made money. There are many horror films about scientists who fool with Mother Nature with terrifying results, but CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is different in that it focuses on an exploration party basically trashing the environment by throwing out their garbage and polluting the natural environment of a creature... who doesn't much like swimming in cigarette butts. There were two sequels that seemed to miss this point... the second film is watchable, the third seems to be mostly guys sitting around a table on a boat talking.

This is one of those films that people my age saw on TV as kids and remember - which is why Universal keeps trying to remake it (earlier this week they hired a screenwriter - David Kajganich who wrote the unwatchable remake of INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman). There have been dozens of previous attempts to remake it, one with Will Smith!



The cheese-fest ANACONDA owes just about everything to this film.

For a while there was a slot machine in Vegas based on BLACK LAGOON, and I always played it because it had clips from the film with some clever quips... and that sting.

I have no idea if kids today would find this scary, or just silly - there's no gore at all... but when people dangle their feet in the water and you know it's down there, that scared the heck out of me when I was young!

- Bill

TODAY'S JACK-O-LANTERN:




Friday, October 17, 2014

Trilogy Of Terror: Part 3.... Was Che A Vampire?

From 2006...

The last exhibit in our little gallery of gore might be called The Man Who Googled Himself... That’s not a very good title, this tale of terror really doesn’t have anything to do with Google - but my sister just sent me this new “game” where you Google the phrase “(Your first name) was arrested for” to find out about your sordid criminal past. You’d be surprised at all the criminal activities you’ve been involved in. You can only play this game once, so it isn’t as good as the Elephant Panty game, where you take two completely non-related words, throw quotes around them, and do a search. Then read all of the weird stuff on the hundred or so websites dedicated to “Sewer Golf” or “Television Trousers” or whatever you’ve looked up.

I Google myself every so often to find out if I’ve been linked to Paris Hilton or if they’ve finally discovered that I’m the father of the TomKat baby. I always run across something even more unbelievable. I might do a 2 hour class on Film Noir and quip that most of the characters in these films wear hats... Only to discover someone who took the class says on their website that “Martell says the main requirement in writing a film noir script is to make sure every character wears a hat” - and this person is *serious*. Out of the *one thousand* sentences in that class, they’ve latched on to *one* and decided that’s the key to writing a great script. This is some strange and misguided type of tunnel vision or selective hearing that leads to some really odd scripts. Pretty scary stuff!

I think how this happens is that the person already has some sort of odd hat fetish, and - like those dogs in Gary Larson cartoons who only hear “Blah, blah, blah, blah, Ginger, blah, blah, blah...” - these folks only hear what they want to hear. If it wasn’t about hats, they didn’t hear it. When I find something like this on a website or message board, I wonder what I can do to prevent it the next time I teach a class... but I’m not sure how. I welcome your suggestions.

A friend of mine is a young writer-director who sees everything as if it relates to the struggles of his ethnic minority. He would even look at the “Television Trousers” results of the Google search and come away with how it relates to his ethnic minority. This writer-director has found funding within in his community to make four very political films. All are dramas about the struggles of his people. His first film got a lot of press, played in some film festivals, but never got picked up by a distrib. I saw the film at a local festival, and it was more political than dramatic - lots of speeches. Haven’t see his other three films, but they’ve gotten less press and fewer festivals have shown them. None of them are on DVD - no distrib. Now his community funding sources are starting to dry up, so he decided to make a horror film, because horror films are hot right now.

When my friend told me about this, at first I was surprised. This is a guy who thinks Hollywood makes stupid movies for stupid people. Most of our conversations have been the great debate about selling out versus being true to your beliefs. If you’ve spent much time on my website you know that I advocate being subversive - making genre films with a message. The script I’m currently trying to finish rewriting before I fly to London is a sci-fi action story about an agent with the Federal Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Androids hunting down some renegade androids set on overthrowing the US Government... but it’s really about tolerance. I’ve taken a bunch of situations that deal with prejudice against minorities and turned the illegal immigrants and Gay marriage and sweat shop labor and National Anthem in Spanish and people smuggled over the border in metal containers into... androids. I can deal with all kinds of issues in a script that most people will think is just an action movie.

So I told him I thought it was a great idea. Minorities are under-represented in Hollywood films, and horror films like my friend Darin’s TALES FROM THE HOOD and Snoop’s BONES were good, solid money earners with some cross-over (big fat white guys like me even paid to see them). I gave him a copy of my Horror Class CD and the usual advice to rent a bunch of horror movies and study them - take them apart and find out what makes them tick, and use that information to write his screenplay. I also told him that just because it was a horror movie, doesn’t mean it has to be stupid. You can make a point within a genre film.

Some of you may be shocked that he had four previous films that didn’t get distribution even though they played at festivals. When people hear the phrase “didn’t get distribution”, they think that refers to *theatrical* distribution. I mean, they’ll put anything on DVD, right? You’ve seen some of the crap they put on DVD... maybe even one of my 36 Oscar Worthy Films Starring Tom Cruise. Hard to imagine a film not being good enough for DVD.

At a panel at VSDA (video software dealers association) the distribs said that about 27,000 independent feature films are submitted to them every year (you read that right)... and each distrib only buys a few of them. A company like Asylum makes 12 films a year and buys another 12. Even if there were 100 distribs buying that many films a year, it’s still only 1,200 films - that’s just over a fifth of the movies made every year. And I don’t think there are 100 big distribs out there... I’m not even sure there are as many as 30 distribs of any size. That means distribs can be really picky. And even the artsie distribs on the VSDA panel said it all comes down to what they think the public will buy or rent on DVD. Even artsie distribs have to pay their office rent and power bills.

I think the problem with my friend’s previous 4 films was that they had a target audience (his minority) but weren’t the most entertaining movies that targeted that audience. And that may even explain that crap that does get released on DVD - when you’ve spend 40 hours being abused by “The Man” for lower than average wages and having total strangers hate you for the color of your skin or the person you love or your wheelchair or your religion, do you really want to watch a movie about that? Wouldn’t you rather watch a lesbian vampire movie featuring members of your minority? Or a haunted house movie featuring members of your ethnic minority? Or a monster movie featuring members of your ethnic minority?

So the majority of the 27,000 films submitted to distribs every year get no form of distribution at all, because “The Man” can’t make a buck off them. So my friend is going to make a horror film, because “The Man” can make money on a horror film, and some of that money will trickle down to his investors and his community. Not a bad thing to make some money while showcasing the very talented people in his community.

The next time we have coffee, he’s telling me how his script is going - but all he talks about is the minority angle. It’s almost as if he’s talking out one of his other 4 films. I ask him if he’s had a chance to listen to my class, yet... he says he hasn’t gotten around to it. That’s okay, he’s writing. Always a good thing to be writing.

A few weeks later we bump into each other and I ask about the script. He tells me he’s almost done, and the good news is that his investors are really excited. They are going to give him more money than he had on his other 4 films, because this one is a winner. I ask about the story, and he gives me the capsule version - and it doesn’t sound like a horror story to me at all. In fact, it sounds like a love story! This is strange. I ask him about the horror scenes - and he describes a scene that doesn’t sound scary at all. It sounds *political*. I ask what horror movies he watched before writing the script. He tells me he started to watch NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET but turned it off after ten minutes because he thought it was garbage. He didn’t watch *any* horror movies. I ask if he’s ever seen a horror movie before. “Yeah, when I was a kid.” I ask him about that experience - he tells me he used to love movies like that, then he outgrew them. He’s opened his eyes to the world around him and has seen....

When I ask how he knows if he’s making something that even fits in the horror genre, he tells me it doesn’t matter because he’s writing from his heart and being heartfelt and honest is more important than selling out. Wow, we’re back to that.

I ask if anyone *dies* in his script, and the answer is “Of course!” But then he explains how a character who is prejudiced gets thrown in front of a bus and run over. The more he talks about his script, the more it sounds like the slightly more violent version of his other 4 films. But it doesn’t sound anything like a horror film at all (except for a big violent ending that could go either way).

I advise him that potential distributors are “The Man” and will care more about the commercial aspects than the social aspects of his film - so maybe he should grab some horror DVDs and watch them and maybe do a touch-up rewrite on his script (which probably needs a page one), just to fool distribs into buying his finished film. He says he might do that... but I didn’t think he would.

So, a couple of weeks ago I have coffee with him again - he has finished his script and begun pre-production. I ask him a few story questions - and it seems that the story has even less horror, now. The original ending he told me about, that was kind-of-horror, he changed into more love story. I am so confused by this, I ask him about the over-all story again... and it’s morphed into a social-political themed story where a couple of people get killed in ways that don’t sound scary at all. “But, weren’t you trying to make a horror movie?” “This is better.” “What about distribution?” “You can’t know what they want, so why even think about it? This is my best work so far. And, because it’s a horror movie, they’ll probably buy it.”

I would like to have said: But it isn’t a horror movie! though I didn’t. I wished him good luck. There’s a weird rule with friends - you have to be supportive. If this guy was a stranger on a message board I would have called him a moron and explained that he was continuing the same self-destructive patterns he was trying to break by making this film. But you have to wish a friend good luck and offer to crew for him if he needs you.

He didn’t need me. He had a nice budget.

That’s good, because I can’t imagine being on set for this film every day. It would be like watching someone try to kill themselves again and again. There’s this great scene at the end of Roman Polanski’s horror flick THE TENANT where the lead jumps out of the window of his apartment to stop the other tenants from trying to drive him crazy... he hits the pavement in front of the building... and lives! His landlord (who has bat wings) and his super (who has a lizard tongue) try to help him. They want to keep him alive and play with him some more. But he drags his battered body up the steps to jump again! That’s what working on that film would be like - watching someone keep trying to kill themselves over and over again until they got it right. I don’t have the stomach for that. When I see a *stranger* do something stupid like race across a busy street against the light to catch a bus or something, I worry about them. I want to stop them from their self-destructive behavior. I’m sure I would have spent every day on set hinting that maybe a scene with a guy in a hockey mask with a machete might be interesting at this location.

He’s filming right now. He managed to get a couple of known actors in his film - members of his minority group who are supporting the cause (not Snoop - he’s probably doing a *real* horror film). For all I know, this one may find a distrib... but I’m not holding my breath.

This brings our little trilogy of terror to a close. Hope you don’t have any nightmares. I said at the beginning that this was a fable, but I’m not going to tell you the moral to the story - I’ll let you figure that out on your own. You may come up with a different moral, or see these stories in ways that I could never imagine....

Maybe to you, it’s all about the hats.

- Bill

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Trilogy Of Terror: Part 2... I Was An Overpriced Zombie

From 2006...

Originally this was going to be one blog entry, but I decided to break it up into bite-sized pieces. Easier to digest, right? This painting in our gallery of gore starts with a director who made some forgettable low budget action films in the late 80s/early 90s and ended up directing syndicated TV shows. You remember all of those shows in the 90s that played on some non-network channel? Stuff like RISING SUN and COBRA and VIP? Well, they don’t make those shows anymore, so this director is out of work. But, like everyone else, he decided to make a horror movie because horror movies are hot right now. He assembles some private financing and a distribution deal – his budget is around a million bucks. I hint around that I would be willing to write a script for below my quote... and I even have a couple of horror scripts sitting around that could be made on that budget. He wants to develop his own project, and is going to work with a non-WGA writer (who he won’t pay until the film is completed) to save development money. Okay.

I suspect this is really a control issue. One of the strange things I’ve noticed in my career is that the more established you become, the fewer insecure people want to work with you. It’s the opposite of how it should be. If I have a script that went wide and got me 48 studio meetings, some people will refuse to read that script because they can’t easily dismiss it. A strange thing happens when directors or producers think your script may actually be good - it puts pressure on them not to screw it up. They can make a bad script better, but all they can do with a good script is screw it up... so they may be more interested in a flawed script than one that is ready to go. An actor in one of my films has a policy to *only* work with actors worse than he is, so that he always looks better. What makes no sense about this is - you should always be looking for the best elements. A good script, a good cast. If that actor surrounded himself with *better* actors, he wouldn’t look bad... he’d look like the star of a film with bigger names in supporting roles. Makes him look bigger than the other names! And with great supporting actors, the film becomes a better film. And when the supporting cast raises the bar, you’re more likely to step up and do better work... Unless you’re afraid that this will expose you as completely talentless. Then you want to work with people of lesser talent, and you end up with crappy films. That’s one of the reason B movies often suck. Even if they begin with a great script, they *need* to screw it up so that they retain their power.

So this director hires a writer with no credits... basically a typing monkey who will write whatever he says to write. He ends up with a script that he tells me is great (but will not show me) and starts pre-production. But in the small world of Hollywood, an actor friend of mine (not Jim) gets a copy of the script and passes it on to me after reading it. Why? Because this is a horror film completely without horror. It has a lot of action, some big stunts, a car chase, and several explosions... but no horror. It’s not scary. I think this director isn’t confident that he can make a scene scary, but he knows he can wrangle a car chase.

So he makes the film and his distrib releases it on DVD... and the horror fan magazines (like Fangoria) all mention the lack of actual thrills. One of the weird problems with this film is casting - he’s cast a female lead who has done horror films before, but everyone else is mostly unknown. All of my friends who have seen the film wonder where the budget went - not to the cast... but maybe the stunts were expensive. We later find out he paid himself his quote - the top $ he’s ever made - even though this made him the most expensive single element in the film. Money in his pocket, but not on screen.

The film ships okay, but it’s mostly a rental - few people buy it. The horror fans are not fans of this film, and the casting and story make it unappealing to the action fans. Not a flop, but not a hit. And everyone agrees that it stinks. The script is just awful. Obviously, this makes me angry for personal reasons - I could have done a much better job than this typing monkey did... Except I wouldn’t have been a typing monkey. The job was for a typing monkey, not a screenwriter.

And just to screw up any moral to this story... he’s just put together private financing of over a million dollar for another horror movie (even though he can’t find a distrib willing to take it before he’s made it). And this new project, with a different typing monkey (being a masochist - I hinted again that I had some horror scripts laying around and would take less than my quote - again he’s using a new, unsold writer), also seems light on horror and heavy on stunts. I wish I had a million bucks to make a horror movie!

Which brings me to that writer from blog entries past - the guy with the PR firm telling everybody how brilliant he is. Well, he’s managed to burn a bunch of bridges with late scripts that aren’t very good, and he’s finding it difficult to get hired for assignments. No one wants to buy his specs (the same old ones) and all of those stars who are attached in his mind aren’t attached in reality... making the projects not so hot. But, you know, what he’s always wanted to do is direct... and horror films are hot right now.

So he decides to make a horror film about two years ago. His theory is that the horror movies are easy to make, you just need some horror stuff in a script and all of those stupid horror fans will pay to see the movie. I mean, look at some of the crap that’s made money! So he throws together a script... and tells me the story one day. I don’t think it sounds like a horror story at all - even though it deals with zombies. It’s a zombie movie with only *one* zombie. And that zombie is part of government experiments - so it’s controlled. It’s a zombie in a lab. It never attacks anyone. It can't attack anyone. But some guys in the government lab poke it with sticks. Actually, the story sounds dull. I mention that it sounds kind of short on conflict, he dismisses this. He uses his press clippings to find financing. (Yes, the world is not fair.) He uses his agency, WMA, to help him with cast - a good mix of fading stars and up and comers. I’m actually impressed by the names he has *actually* attached. Part of his funding deal involves shooting out of state in New Mexico (tax incentives). He finishes the film and shows it to distribs... and they all turn it down. No horror. Part of the reason why they turn it down is because his asking price is so high - he wants to make a bunch of money from this movie. He wants a *guaranteed* theatrical deal. He wants the deal that matches the PR firm’s image of himself.

No one wants to give him that deal. The film is slow paced and not scary at all. Even with his cast, it’s a tough sell. Who wants to watch a not-scary horror film?

Last time I saw the guy, he told me that his film is great, and he’s going to have his PR firm take a stab at marketing it. This may mean it will be coming soon to a theater near you. Like I said, the world is not fair. You may soon be paying $10 to see a boring zombie flick with a pretty good cast - and that in itself is pretty scary stuff!

Episode number three is about a guy I know who makes political films about being a minority who decided to make a horror film... because horror is a hot genre right now. Some of you may not want to stay tuned, because you already know how this one’s going to come out.

- Bill

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Trilogy Of Terror: Part 1.... The Acting Dead!

From 2006...

Ready for some really scary stuff?

This is a fable, even though the stories are true and the names have been changed to protect... well they aren’t exactly innocent, are they? A fable is when a story has a larger meaning, but I’m going to let you figure out that meaning on your own and take away any lessons you want. Our little fable concerns four people who set out to make horror movies. Horror films are hot these days...

We’ll begin our tour of this gallery of gore with the actor. You don’t know his name, but you know his face. He’s mostly a TV actor, but he’s done a bunch of movies, too. If the movie is about a prosecutor, he plays the defense attorney’s 2nd chair. If the story is about a defense attorney, he plays the #2 prosecutor - the sounding board guy. He also plays corporate VPs and the detective in a buddy cop movie who isn’t one of the buddies and FBI Agents. Oh, and I’ve seen him play a gangster before - but he’s kind of too clean cut for that. Basically, he’s *one* step down from the important characters in the film - a guy who gets two dozen lines in the whole film. That makes him a character actor - but one who is almost always working. Problem is, he’d like to be a star. Wait, that’s not the fable part - it’s not about hubris.

So, several years ago he started making his own movies, starring himself (of course). He’d gather together some other character actor friends and make a serious drama... but the films have no story at all. They are like a collection of really great scenes. You haven’t seen any of these movies, because none have ever found distribution. One actually played out of competition at Sundance one year (probably because of all the names in the cast) but no distrib picked it up. You need more than just some good TV names in your film, the disrib needs to make money from the film... and these films don’t even have a *story*. They are “actor porn”.

For instance, one is about four guys in their 40s who play golf together every Tuesday morning. The film isn’t about the relationship between the four guys (though there was a little of that), most of the film is about each one of the guys in some big dramatic scene. The scenes aren’t thematic - it’s not about 4 guys and their love lives, or 4 guys dealing with growing older, or 4 guys learning to accept (or not) how their lives turned out. That would be some form of story. No, the film was just a collection of great scenes with these 4 guys... and, of course, my character actor acquaintance getting twice as many scenes as everyone else. Only fair - it was his money. One character may have a big blow up with his wife. Another character might have a great big dramatic scene with his boss. And there was a scene where a character has a melt-down at a fast food place. None of the scenes were connected in any way - except these 4 guys played golf together every Tuesday morning.

After I saw the film, I thought it was like one of those books they sell at Sam French, 25 GREAT SCENES FOR ACTORS, shot with the same 4 actors and a couple of scenes where they golf together.

Because I know this guy, I’ve tried to give him a little advice about story... all of which he’s argued with or completely ignored. “It’s all about the truth of the dramatic moment, not some contrived story”. Okay... Every time I do my class in Los Angeles, his name is on the comp list... and he never shows. But after the third film he has funded out of pocket wasn’t picked up by *any* distrib for *any* medium (not DVD, not TV, nothing)... and his wife was about to divorce him, he decided to make a horror film (because they’re hot right now, and he can make some quick cash and save his marriage).

So he asks me for a little advice. I *give him* some Blue Books and the Horror CD and advise him to watch 5 to 10 horror movies and *study them* - figure out how and why they work. Then apply that information to his script. Kind of my basic advice.

So he makes his film... Whenever I bump into him, I ask him about it... and he tells me it’s great. The best horror film ever made. That’s good, because his wife files for divorce. He also missed pilot season for the first time ever. In other words - everything is now riding on this horror film. Now *that’s* a dramatic situation!

There’s this strange and illogical phenomena where the more important something is to a person, the more important it should be to everyone else in the world. If it is important for you to sell your next script, your next script is the best work you’ve ever done. It has to be, because if it’s just your average script, you’re screwed. This makes no sense at all - the script is the script and it doesn’t get better or worse depending on how much you need a sale. But this is often the way we think. So the more that was riding on my friend’s film, the better that film became. Had to be great, or he was screwed. In reality, it’s just creating and believing your own BS. Jim’s a good actor - and he convinced himself that he made a great film.

He rents a screening room on Sunset, to show the film to distribs. And he’s managed to get all of the major players to show up. He rounds up some folks to fill all of the empty seats in the screening room - a “warm body” audience to laugh and scream. Because I’m not an actor the distribs might recognize, I get to fill a seat. See - I’m good for something! This will be the first time I’ve seen one of his films on the big screen... and without the words “For Screening Purposes Only” not fading in and out at the bottom of the screen. I take my seat, he does a little speech to the distribs, the light dim, and...

We get off to an okay start - a maniac escapes from a mental institution, grabs an ax, steals a car. He doesn’t kill anyone, yet, but it’s early. Then we get some hot teen actors going on vacation at a cabin in the woods... then Jim playing the Town Sheriff (he’s still trying to ride this film to stardom) who warns the kids about the escaped maniac. Then we get about 20 minutes of completely unrelated big dramatic scenes with the kids (plus two, count ‘em, two, with the overly educated Town Sheriff chewing scenery like crazy.) (Dude, you won the audition, take it easy!) None of these scenes are about the maniac. A handful of the distribs sneak out during these 20 minutes.

About 30 minutes in, one of the teens is *discovered* dead on the back deck of the cabin. Killed by an ax. There’s blood and a lot of it... but we didn’t see the character killed or chased or anything. The guy’s just dead. Some FX guy has done great job of creating gore - but it just sits there.

This leads to maybe another 20 minutes where the teens have big dramatic discussions... but they seem more interested in chewing scenery than being afraid of some maniac with an ax (or that one of their friends is chopped up on the back deck). All but one of the distribs sneaks out during these 20 minutes. To tell you the truth, I want to sneak out, too. And I almost do. But what am I going to tell Jim the next time I bump into him? So I stick it out.

Another kid is found murdered with an ax. We never see the kid killed, we just see him dead. No stalk, no slash... just a body. This, of course, leads to about 20 minutes of big dramatic scenes about the nature of life and responsibility and all kinds of other things that start a little laughter in the screening room.

It’s difficult not to laugh when people are wasting time with these big dramatic scenes while some maniac with an ax is killing them one by one offscreen. Why don’t they *do something*? Why don’t they shut up and try to stop the maniac? Or at least run for their lives? The last distrib sneaks out sometime during these scenes. Now the screening room is nothing but shills. The screening room is being rented by the hour, and maybe Jim can get a partial refund if he stops the movie right now... but he keeps the projectors running. Like some maniac with a movie, he traps us in that screening room and forces us to watch the whole film.

“Stop me before I screen again!”

And it doesn’t get better. Another teen is found dead, which leads to another 20 minutes of big dramatic scenes. Not only are the dramatic scenes kind of funny given the situation, they also make the film boring. It’s all talking heads. And because the big dramatic scenes often have little or nothing to do with maniacs and axes, it’s almost as if the scenes are at war with the story... and the scenes are winning. There is no stalk, no slash in the entire stalk & slash movie. No suspense. No dread. No violence. The closest we get to anything even resembling a horror film is the dead people who are discovered *after* the action. The best gore money can buy.

Of course, the film ends with a 30 second battle between the leading lady and the maniac with the ax - no chase, no struggle, she just kills the sucker - the end.

Afterwards Jim says there’s a celebration at the Standard Hotel (rooftop) bar - he’s buying the drinks. If he’s buying drinks, I’m going next door. I want to be paid for my time. He compares the film to *Oscar Winner* SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and I mention that SILENCE wasn’t just Hopkins and Foster having endless conversations. “Yes! My film is better than that because I minimized all of the chase bullshit and focused on the drama.” My only response was to agree with that.

Jim thinks the distribs will begin calling in the next few days. They don’t. A couple of months ago, he calls me to ask if he can sleep on my sofa for a while. SAG has screwed up on some residual checks and he’s broke. All of his money was tied up in the movie... and his divorce pretty much wiped him out. I really want to tell him that he should have just listened to me and made a real horror movie, instead of some actor’s showcase. But instead I tell him this isn’t a good time for me, and suggest another mutual acquaintance who would hate me, now... except SAG got Jim his residual check before he was evicted, and he just landed a recurring role on a new TV show. For a couple of weeks I was sure he would end up sleeping on my sofa. I’m too nice to say no to people who are really in trouble... but part of me wants to start a serious discussion about personal responsibility that will drag on for 20 minutes until someone finds me hacked to death on the patio.

The next segment of our Trilogy Of Terror deals with a director I know who decided to make a horror movie... because horror is a hot genre right now. And that screenwriter who hired the PR firm, who decided to write and direct a horror film... because horror is a hot genre right now. Stay tuned... the really scary stuff is yet to come!

- Bill

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Trailer Tuesday: Panic In The Streets (1950)

Ebola!

Directed by: Elia Kazan
Written by: Richard Murphy (BOOMERANG, COMPULSION), Daniel Fuchs (CRISS CROSS), based on a story by Edward & Edna Anhalt (SATAN BUG).
Starring: Richard Widmark, Barbara Bel Geddes, Paul Douglas, and the great Jack Palance and great Zero Mostel.


After seeing DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES sunday night, with it's opening montage showing us news footage of the plague that wipes out almost all human life on Earth, I thought it would be fun to look at a film from the past with a different look at the plague. 1950's PANIC IN THE STREETS stars Richard Widmark as a CDC doctor... not a crazed killer or a snarky hit man! He's the good guy in this one. The film takes place in New Orleans, and was shot on location (unusual for this time period) but was directed by Elia Kazan, the dude who took advantage of the new method style of acting and married it to a documentary style of cinema with great results. Kazan's *next* film was A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and a few films after that he directed ON THE WATERFRONT, and then EAST OF EDEN. Though most of his films dealt with a social issue, he was working in a time where the easiest way to do that was in crime films like this one.

Our story starts when a guy is murdered... but he would have died anyway because he had the plague. The plague! Now it's a race-against-time search for the killer (Jack Palance)... who also has the plague and is *spreading it* with every person he touches. Doctor Widmark and Detective Paul Douglas have 48 hours to find Palance before creates a city-wide epidemic. This is a great idea because "patient zero" is someone who does not want to be found (because he's a killer).


There are chase scenes and shoot outs and fight scenes and a plane chasing a plague ship and... well, it's danged exciting. It's a thriller. But it also really gets into police vs. doctors vs. city politics vs. freedom of the press vs. the public good. Because this crisis - the killer roaming the streets with the plague - requires all kinds of difficult decisions - and as they argue in a speeding car whether they should kill this guy (because he's a menace to society) or make sure they don't kill him (because they need to know everyone he came into contact with) we get to examine the way society works - and why our version may not work.

We get to look at what's right, what's wrong, what works and what doesn't work. Should they give the press the story to possibly save lives... even though that will force the killer underground and they won't capture him in time? Is freedom of the press more important than capturing a criminal? The film really digs into issues.

It also digs into character - Widmark is a low paid government doctor who hides in his work, causing problems with his wife Barbara Bel Geddes and their kid. There are some great family issues going on during the crisis, including Widmark's decision *not* to get his family out of town as they get closer and closer to the crisis point. (Some of the detectives gets their families out of the danger zone). The film works as a pursuit film, a gangster film, a cop film, a social issues film, and a drama... and *won* Best Screenplay that year. It manages to get everything right.


Plus there are a great pair of scenes between Widmark and Douglas, where Douglas completely takes responsibility for something Widmark did - to the point of endangering his future. Because it's what Widmark wanted, he doesn't notice the sacrifice. Later, when he realizes what Douglas has done, he kicks himself a bit... then later makes everything right by taking responsibility for something Douglas has done - that could really screw up Widmark's future.

The locations are amazing: coffee packing houses, ships, rooming houses, waterfront warehouses, and suburban homes. In a time where movies were shot in the back lot, this film explores New Orleans while avoiding anyplace you've ever seen in a tourist video. We get the places people live and work and avoid the tourist traps. It's a great, gritty look at the city. And there is an attention to detail that makes even the action set pieces very personal.

This is a really well written thriller, and when Widmark explains to the cops how Palance could hop a plane and spread the plague nation-wide within a day, it's really frightening. That's what could happen in the late-40s... imagine what could happen today?

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES!

Bill
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