As a reader and scary movie fanatic, I love a well-told story. A few weekends ago, I sat down one evening and had a marathon of, IMO, some of the most well-written horror/suspense films in my film library. As I was taking notes on what made these movies so damn good, certain storytelling elements stood out more than others; elements that I could use in my own writing. That translated into tighter edits on my own original work, and better writing in general. It can work for you, too! Here’s a basic rundown of what I do:
- I sit in front of my laptop with a pack of Red Vines and bask in the glow of the screen, reveling in the thrill of a good scare. When I find a movie that hits the right note for me, I make a note of it.
- If you are watching any of these movies for the first time, I’d recommend doing that first, without any note-taking. Just enjoy the film. On the second and third viewings, you know what’s going to happen and that’s when the magnifying glass can come out.
- A few days later, I’ll watch it again, this time with my trusty notebook and a pen in hand. I try to view the movie through a storyteller’s eye.
- I write down things like: characters that stand out, non-jump scare moments that really built dread, dialogue that affected me, etc. Really, anything that comes to mind, like I’m live-tweeting the film.
- After the credits start running, I’ll look over my notes and examine why the things I wrote down had such an impact and how I could incorporate them into my own original work.
Now that you’ve got an idea of what to do, here’s a short list of dark films that, in one way or another, will provide plenty of fodder for your writer’s notebook.
Note: I acknowledge that these films may not be for everyone. I chose these films for specific reasons that were helpful to my own writing, reasons that I’ve laid out below. I also grant that the reasons I list below are not the only thing that make these films effective. I can’t say with a straight face that sound design didn’t play heavily into They Look Like People, or that the synth-heavy scores didn’t affect my experience watching The Thing or It Follows. However, I tried to focus on things that could cross mediums, into writing.
1. They Look Like People – A mentally troubled man suspects that people around him are transforming into evil shapeshifting creatures that are preparing for global war. He has to decide whether to protect his only friend from the war, or from himself. This film has on-point dialog and character-building; a lot of our insight into the characters is given, not through what is said, but what is not said. Stellar writing (in print as well as on screen) walks the finest of lines: that which lies between a character’s words, and the character’s intent. This movie walks that line with ease, and to great effect. When the horror in your story relies on the strength of friendship and vulnerability of your protagonist, the audience needs to know your characters intimately. We don’t just need to root for the good guy, we need to empathize with his goals and feel his pain when he suffers a setback. Whether you cared for the ending or not, you can’t argue that these characters weren’t incredibly human and incredibly vulnerable, which made it easy to fear for them. As of this posting, They Look Like People is currently streaming on Netflix.
2. It Follows – This 2015 critical hit is still talked about in horror circles, and with good reason. Watching this film with a storyteller’s eye should give you a good idea of what solid pacing looks like. The plot moved along in a mesmerizingly slow amble, mirroring the creeping nature of the “monster” in the film. Like any scary story worth its salt, It Follows preys on your fear of the unknown. In fact, you only know that “It” can take anyone’s shape as it stalks you on foot, that you die once it gets to you, and that it will never, ever stop. With these rules established, the audience is held captive as the plot pot slowly simmers and boils over. This story utilizes the ticking time bomb to create tension, and does it well. Keep an eye out for expository scenes and lulls in the action; there’s tension-building present, even in the quiet moments.
3. John Carpenter’s The Thing – This movie provides a textbook example of creating distinctive characters. Each character’s words and actions could only come from them, through subtle characterization that creates fertile anticipation for The Thing’s arrival. The American team members are simplisticly crafted, yet defined in such a manner as to avoid any warm empathy, only cold observation that is fitting, given the barren, frozen setting. It wasn’t until the latest time I watched The Thing that I realized that there is no backstory for any of the crewmembers. None. Yet they were multidimensional and I was paranoid of them and for them. You want to prevent the characters in your siege story from being horror film cliches? Give this movie another look-see.
4. Hard Candy – Many of our favorite novels, while unique, are often a re-hashing of an older story or, in this case, a classic fairy tale. Anything from Star Wars to The Shining can be boiled down to basic fairy tale structure, and it can make plotting much easier once you’ve figured it out. What’s hard to figure out, however, is how to tell that story without doing the same thing a hundred other writers have done to death. Enter Hard Candy. This intense movie does an outstanding job at bringing a fresh take on an old classic. Little Red Riding Hood has long been a warning to little girls everywhere, and this story takes the old cautionary tale and subverts the gender tropes, making the female “protagonist”, Hayley, the one to watch out for. This film is also worth watching to note how to make the reader (or audience) shift sympathies. While watching Hayley go to town on her victim, it’s hard to remember what a horrid human being Jeff was when we met him at the beginning of the film.
5. Bug – This genre-straddling film, based on the play by Tracy Letts, takes place largely in a single location. An unstable war veteran, Peter, barricades himself in a seedy motel room with a Agnes, a lonely woman. Things begin to happen. Lots of psychological horror in here, as well as a bit of body horror here and there. In contrast to John Carpenter’s The Thing, Bug is a master class on maximizing backstory to its full potential. Not only are Agnes and Peter’s pasts incredibly relevant to their current actions and relationship, screenwriter Tracy Letts only reveals what is absolutely necessary, and always at the most opportune moment. I cannot emphasize enough how underrated this movie is.
So when it comes down to it, film is another medium of storytelling. Good storytellers can extract lessons and inspiration from anywhere. What say you? What dark films have helped you with your writing? Let us know below.