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Posted in Film, Writing

How to Be Ambitious in Your Horror Writing

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — A Cure for Wellness (2017)

Movies like A Cure for Wellness quite simply don’t get made anymore, and for good reason: the film, budgeted at 40 million (which doesn’t include the millions in marketing costs), made about 10 million at the US box office. This early 2017 mega-flop is further proof for studios not to take chances on daring, exciting, original projects, ones not based on any novels or video games or old TV shows, nothing to guarantee a prospective audience member’s interest. It has an awkward title, it’s rated R, it features no movie stars, and it’s rotten on Rotten Tomatoes.

But you know what? This movie is amazing. I’ll say it again, and I’ll put it in caps: AMAZING. A few of the reviews have pointed out that A Cure for Wellness marks the increasingly rare instance of a filmmaker getting loads and loads of money to create a unique, divisive, at times extremely bizarre motion picture, and I would go further to say that it’s a goddamned miracle this movie even exists. I sat through almost the entire thing completely and utterly bewildered as to how it got made. As to who the hell funded this thing. As to what needed to happen to get this project on the screen. A Cure for Wellness is certainly flawed, and at 146 minutes, it’s about twenty minutes too long. But I’m not joking when I say this gothic horror film is something special.

Of course director Gore Verbinski has some clout in the industry, and his participation in the project is probably the biggest reason why the movie got made. His Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy was a huge moneymaker, and his animated film Rango was a hit both with audiences and with critics (although his previous film, The Lone Ranger, was a big flop). Nothing he’s done since 2002’s The Ring has really stood out to me though, so watching him get the chance to play in a weird original property like A Cure for Wellness was a great pleasure from beginning to end. He gives the film a dynamic visual style that grabs you and never lets go. As long and as occasionally talky the film is, the pacing is super effective, the stakes always rising, the suspense never dissipating even in the quiet moments.

The film stars the perfectly cast Dane DeHaan (Kill Your Darlings, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) as Lockhart, a young executive who travels to a remote wellness center in the Swiss Alps to retrieve his company’s missing CEO, but after suffering a minor accident he wakes up to find himself the center’s newest patient. It’s a struggle for Lockhart to find his way out, but even worse, there are secrets to the wellness center that might cost him his life. Screenwriter Justin Haythe, who wrote the script to Verbinski’s messy The Lone Ranger but also penned the underrated surburban drama Revolutionary Road, does a great job slowly revealing the sordid, creepy mysteries of the place that’s supposed to be curing Lockhart of his ailments.

I’ve always had a fascination with mental hospitals, with large idyllic institutions that behind the scenes offer sickness and madness. Therefore I was immediately roped in by this narrative, showing a place that seems to be perfect, with well-qualified doctors and nurses, but then proves to be anything but. Jason Isaacs plays Dr. Volmer, the wellness center’s director, who is attentive to Lockhart at first but of course isn’t who he seems to be. And then there’s a mysterious girl named Hannah (Mia Goth), a patient who has been there much longer than Lockhart could ever imagine.

This movie is fantastic because it never sets out do only one thing. Every scene builds, offering great tension at times, other times offering emotionally resonant backstory (particularly in the case of Lockhart and the tragedy concerning his father). And the entire time we are treated to tremendous art direction — the scenes that take Lockhart underneath the center are especially lovely and terrifying to behold — as well as terrific performances, a haunting musical score, and an endless fascinating narrative.

I know I’m in the minority on this one, and for many, A Cure for Wellness will be a film quickly forgotten by the time the next superhero movie hits the nation’s theater screens. These days most mainstream movies are all about delivering the expected, giving audience members something they’ve had for dinner a hundred nights in a row but just different enough so that they won’t go home feeling cheated. There can be comfort in watching something like the live-action Beauty and the Beast, there can be comfort watching the latest sequel to something we like. But there’s also a necessity to seek out the unusual, the misfits, the films that don’t open at number one and get quickly lost in the sea of content.

A Cure for Wellness is a tremendous surprise, a genre film that delivers on scares and the gross-out but also on ideas, on substance, on the eeriest of atmospheres. And that last shot. That last shot. I haven’t stopped thinking about this movie in the week since I saw it, and I can’t wait to check it out it again.

Watching Like a Writer

I’ve written four horror novels, all of which play it it kind of safe, offering plots that are fun and scary and entertaining, but not much more than that. Watching A Cure for Wellness gave me the inspiration to someday soon write another horror novel that is much more ambitious, in its ideas, in its scale, in its unwillingness to go the safe route. If I have one takeaway as a writer from this movie, it’s to go big or go home.

Exercise!

What kind of ambitious horror story could you see yourself telling? Pitch me your one-sentence log-line.

Posted in Books

The Oz Books #7: The Patchwork Girl of Oz

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In 1910, L. Frank Baum put a firm, decisive end to his Oz series, with The Emerald City of Oz, the sixth installment, by cutting off the land of Oz from the rest of the world… for good! Three years passed, and no Oz books. Of course we all know that Baum would go on to write a whopping eight more. So what happened? From Wikipedia: “He was forced to restart the series with this book due to financial hardships.” So essentially The Patchwork Girl of Oz exists because Baum needed the money, and for me, this kind of approach to the material, not of passion or want, but necessity, is apparent all through the pages.

This is not only the longest Oz book so far, at 350 pages (Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz was 220), but it’s also the weakest in terms of originality and excitement. When the title character having a romance with the Scarecrow is the most interesting plot development in the book, you know something’s not quite right.

Of course the book is entertaining enough to please readers out there, young and old, and Baum even stated once that this was one of the two best books he ever wrote. His reasoning for being able to revisit the land of Oz is a clever one. One of the many readers who pined for more books suggested to Baum that he should correspond with Princess Dorothy through wireless telegraph, and by golly, it worked! These books were so popular that it seems surprising it took Baum three years to write the next one, but the main question I have is, did we need more?

Maybe my problem at this point is that the books are becoming just a little too routine for my taste. They always start with characters finding themselves with a crisis, a need to have something fixed, and then the characters begin their journey to the Emerald City to find the help they need. In this case we have a slate of new characters, like Ojo, a munchkin boy; Scraps, the patchwork girl, and Bungle, a Glass Cat. Ojo’s Unc Nunkie accidentally gets petrified into a marble statute, and Ojo has to set on a quest to return him to his normal state. The first big chunk of the book completely revolves around new characters.

Along the way the group meets all the beloved characters we’ve come to know over the last six books, and in the end, the Wizard of Oz ultimately saves the day. It’s fun to see all these characters again, but at some point, even though I know these are children’s books, I want some stakes, some horror, something to throw the series for a loop. It’d be like if the seventh Harry Potter novel was just Rowling introducing a couple new wizards, have them have fun with Harry and Ron and Hermione for a few days, then go home.

Of course kids will probably have a fun time with The Patchwork Girl of Oz, and all the previous entries of the series. While the original Wizard of Oz is still my favorite of the series, two sequels have exceeded my expectations — Ozma of Oz and The Emerald City of Oz. These were two sequels where Baum raised the stakes a little and gave us some real terror spread out among the more casual nature of the characters’ journeys. While this one disappointed me a little, I’m confident he’ll have some tricks up his sleeves for the remaining books. The last one as a child that I ever owned and perused over was Tik-Tok of Oz, the eighth installment, and I know absolutely zip about Books 9–14. Here’s hoping for a nice surprise!

Posted in Film

What are the five best Halloween films?

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The original Halloween is arguably the finest horror film ever made, but its sequels range from the good to the very-much-not-so-good. Among horror franchises, the Halloween series also has to be considered the most jumbled both in quality and in continuation. While, for example, the first eight installments of the Friday the 13th series have more or less the same kind of stories, pacing, and gore, as well as the same studio — Paramount — almost all of the Halloween movies are handled in different decades by different directors and different studios with different story-lines. It’s a tricky series to wade through, but there are definitely some gems in the mix. Here are the five best…

5. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers: The Producer’s Cut (1995)

This one’s probably the most problematic and cluttered of all the Halloween films. Made six years after the previous installment by a new studio with a director who clearly didn’t understand how to tell a good horror tale, let alone a good Michael Myers tale, Halloween 6 is worth checking out for the die hards. But later, an alternate cut was released through bootlegs, and then it was released officially in 2014 on Blu Ray. This Producer’s Cut is still a mess, but a more focused mess, with a payoff that stays more true to what’s come before. This was Donald Pleasance’s final appearance as Dr. Loomis (as well as his last film ever), and it was the film debut for none other than Paul Rudd.

4. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Halloween 5 is a clunky bore that is by far the most pedestrian of all the movies, and it’s a shame that it doesn’t follow through with the eerie cliffhanger ending of the previous film. But Halloween 4, released a whopping seven years after its previous installment that left Michael Myers blind and burning to death in a hospital hallway (and not just burning, like, disintegrating into skull and ash), is possibly the best sequel of all in terms of its consistency. It lacks the continuation factor of Halloween II and the triumphant return of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween: H20, but it’s moody and atmospheric, with a crazy good performance by the returning Donald Pleasance.

3. Halloween II (1981)

Boy, this sequel is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it’s a pure joy to watch a sequel that picks up only seconds following the original classic. This is the only sequel that still in some respect had the collaboration of both Debra Hill and John Carpenter, as well as the brief re-teaming of Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s also the only other installment to feature cinematography by the great Dean Cundey, who lended a classy, rich texture to the first two installments of the series. On the other hand, this film falters in more ways the one. Most of the lovable characters in the first film have been replaced here by a bland set of disposable bores. Curtis is given almost nothing to do, and the hospital setting doesn’t invite a whole lot of terror. Worst of all, the gore is amped to the max, obviously done in 1981 for the film to stay relevant among all the gory slasher flicks that had come out after the original’s success. It’s a worthwhile sequel, one that is definitely good enough to stand on its own, but in comparison to the original, it’s a sprawling mess.

2. Halloween: H20 (1998)

If only Donald Pleasance had lived a few more years to be a part of this film, who knows what the result might have been? He’s sorely missed in this installment, but the returning scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis makes up for his absence. Has this kind of movie ever been made before or since? A now famous actress returning twenty or more years later to the role that started her career, turning that former vulnerable protagonist into a kick-ass super heroine (well, sure, in 2018’s Halloween!)? While as a movie H20 is only decent — there are plenty of lulls and extraneous characters in the far too short eighty-minute run time, and it does feel very much today like the product of that post-Scream horror era — the final twenty minutes are the most powerful of any Halloween sequel. Of course Resurrection took a crap on the triumphant ending of this film, but that’s besides the point. It’s great to see Curtis back to kick Michael Myers’ ass.

1. Halloween (1978)

The one. The only. It’s almost ridiculous to include this magnificent piece of cinema history in a list that includes these other four lesser motion pictures, but here goes. It’s been studied and analyzed and discussed almost as much as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and it’s truly a film that never gets old. It’s one of those rare timeless classics — even though it’s shot and set in 1978, it still feels like a film for today. The movie wasn’t following any film trends or rehashing the same styles of previous horror movies. It was made by a group of young, hungry filmmakers, who, with little money and few resources, used what they could at the time to tell the best scary story possible. There will never be another movie like Halloween — never. It’s a brilliant, haunting, mesmerizing product of its time, so simple and classy and genuinely terrifying that it is judged by many as the best horror movie ever made. It launched the careers of John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Jamie Lee Curtis, made an icon out of Donald Pleasance, and started an onslaught of slasher films that wouldn’t ebb until the early 1990’s. It’s seasonal. It’s beautiful. It’s perfection. It’s Halloween.

Posted in Fiction

Q&A: A Horror Short Story

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Q&A

By Brian Rowe

Theo Hauser sat in a stalled limousine, his left hand wrapped around a cold glass of bourbon, his right hand pressing his phone against his ear. He looked up at the theatre marquee to see his name in big, bright letters. Thirty years ago, this sight may have excited him, even astounded him. Today it made him want to slam his fist against a wall.

“Val, I’ve already told you,” he said. “The script isn’t working. We can’t make this movie if I don’t have a third act, do you understand that?”

Theo heard a loud roar from inside the theatre. Either the murderer had finally received his grisly death by chainsaw, or the end credits had begun. Either way, Theo’s time in the limo was limited.

“I’m aware I haven’t made a movie in ten years. You think I don’t know that? You think it doesn’t haunt me every single day?” He sighed and finished his drink in one large gulp. “I don’t know. I just… I can’t finish it. Maybe what they say is true. Maybe Chainsaw Murders was always meant to be my legacy. Maybe there’s nothing else I have to say.”

The limo door opened, revealing his driver, a man even older than he, his face covered in a thick Santa Claus beard. “Mr. Hauser? They’re ready for you.”

Theo set his drink down on the seat next to him. “Already? We just got here.”

“The credits are rolling. They’re asking for you to come inside.”

Theo sighed and waved his driver away. He shoved his phone up against his ear again and said, “Listen, I’ve got to get going, they’re calling me into the screening. I’d ask you for one more month but I understand if you can’t wait that long. I want to make my next film with you, I do — but I just can’t make any promises — ”

“Mr. Hauser?” The driver tapped his fingers loudly against the top of the limo. “It’s time.”

Theo nodded to his driver, then said into the phone, “I’ll talk to you later, OK?”

He slipped his phone into his pocket and stepped out under the blinding lights of the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. He readjusted his sports coat and tie and glanced at his reflection in the vehicle window; his goatee was uneven, and his face was noticeably gaunt. He looked up at the marquee to see not his name this time but the title of his movie. He had been so proud of those three words for so many years, but lately they had turned into a slow-acting poison clouding up his creative mind. He was grateful for the film’s legacy, but he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to step out of its shadow.

Theo shook his head and walked to the theatre’s side entrance. He only had to take five steps forward for the thunderous cheers to begin. The fans in the front waved their memorabilia up into the air, and nearly half of the crowd leaped to their feet to give him an overjoyed standing ovation.

The horror director waved to the crowd, shook the young moderator’s hand, and took a seat on the large, sticky stage. The freezing auditorium was at full capacity.

He crossed his right leg over his left and settled in for another night with fans remembering his 1977 slasher classic, the only film on his resume that was still being shown anywhere in the new century. It was his third Q&A of the month, following his appearances in Hollywood and Century City. It was a busy time for Theo Hauser. It was October, after all.

The moderator for the evening wasn’t a significant film director or personality; the kid before him looked more suited to be working the concession stand.

“Mr. Hauser,” the moderator began, “we are so happy to welcome you to our screening tonight, and to give the audience an opportunity to meet one of their favorite filmmakers. How does it feel to be here talking about a motion picture you made thirty-five years ago?”

The director laughed and scratched his bald head. “You really want to know? It makes me feel old.”

Most of the audience laughed. The crowd was a mix of all ages, from ten-year-olds to centenarians.

“No, honestly, it’s a joy and a privilege,” the director said. “When we made The Chainsaw Murders back in ’76, we shot it in sixteen days. We had no money, no experience. The enthusiasm got us through.”

“And the film took a while to catch on with audiences, is that correct? It wasn’t a success right away?”

“Yes,” the director continued. “It took a few years for the film to develop a cult following. It wasn’t until it played in drive-ins did people start discovering it, and it wasn’t until critics began praising it in the early eighties did people start approaching me about it…”

And on and on they went, the director trying not to bore himself with the same old stories, jokes, and life lessons concerning his ancient horror masterpiece. He went on to make five more movies after The Chainsaw Murders, but nothing had made a dent at the box office, or in viewers’ imaginations. When his controversial 2002 feature about the Columbine massacre went straight-to-DVD, only to be pulled from shelves days later due to customer complaints, he knew his days as a horror director were numbered. The older he became, the more he wondered if he’d ever be able to get another film off the ground. He had been working on a new screenplay on and off for nearly three years, with promise of funding from a fledgling New York-based distributor. But he’d struggled to finish it. He didn’t know if he’d ever finish it.

And so Theo Hauser spent the latter part of his career traveling the country attending horror conventions, film festivals, and small town screenings. And everywhere he went, nobody ever wanted to talk about his other movies. They all wanted to talk about Chainsaw Murders. Sometimes he felt like a one-trick pony, a creative visionary who once had a shot at a memorable career but failed miserably.

But then he remembered that it could have been worse.

Better one classic than nothing, he thought.

“All right,” the moderator said. “Now we’re going to open up the floor to questions. If anyone with a question for Mr. Hauser would just raise their hand.”

At least twenty hands shot up in the air. Theo took a deep breath and settled into his chair.

“Yes,” the moderator said, pointing to the center of the crowd. “You, with the orange shirt.”

The young, obese man, wearing a Chainsaw Murders t-shirt, sat in the second row. “Yes, hi, Mr. Hauser, this is a real honor,” he said. “I’m sure you get this question a lot, but I was curious if you’re ever going to make a sequel to The Chainsaw Murders.”

The director had been posed this question so many times that he had exhausted his toolbox of answers. Sometimes he responded with something funny and witty; other times, cold and bitter. Occasionally he delved into a long story regarding the years he spent writing a second installment that in the end proved to have too high a budget for any studio head to sign off on.

“Not a chance,” was all Theo said.

The second question concerned the casting of the supporting roles, the third concentrated on his use of synthesized music, and the fourth dealt with his rumored romantic relationship with the film’s leading lady.

“It wasn’t much of a relationship,” the director said. “We slept together once. But that was it.”

Some mild laughter scattered throughout the audience.

“OK, fine, twice. She was hot. What can I say?”

A lot of the younger men in the audience applauded. Even the moderator shared in their enthusiasm.

“Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. Hauser,” he said, then gazed back out into the crowd. “Another question?”

A few timid hands popped up, but it was a man sitting in an aisle seat who raised his hand highest of all.

“Yes, you,” the moderator said. “With the black jacket.”

The man nodded and rose to his feet. He had short black hair and a pale, pedestrian face. He flaunted a prominent smile that would’ve been more noticeable if it weren’t for the tears in his eyes.

“Mr. Hauser, I just wanted to thank you so much for gracing us with your remarkable presence this evening, and I wanted to congratulate you on this, the thirty-fifth anniversary of not just one of the finest horror films ever made, but one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.”

The fan had a weird voice and an even weirder rhythm to his speaking. He enunciated specific words and phrases, giving the room an instant aura of awkwardness, so much so that the director wanted to immediately bolt for the emergency exit.

“I have seen this film well over two hundred times, and each time I find myself totally captivated, by every scene, every shot, every moment, that resulted from that incomparable, creative wonderland that is your brain.”

The guy wasn’t stopping. Worse, there didn’t seem to be a question in sight.

The director glanced briefly at the moderator, who seemed at a loss for what to do.

“And you are so well-regarded for The Chainsaw Murders,” the man continued,that many neglect your other truly terrific films that include Row Boat, The Millennium Killers, Evil Has A Name, and Columbine: A Day in History, the latter of which may be one of the most underrated films of the last decade.”

“Question!” a young woman coughed behind the man.

“Ask a goddamn question!” an older guy screamed from the back of the theatre.

The moderator forced a smile and turned to his left. “All right, let’s open the floor to someone else — ”

“And in conclusion,” the man said, “I think I speak for everyone in this room in saying that we could not have been treated tonight to a more talented, more giving, more spectacular filmmaker than our very own Theo Hauser, a man who will forever be remembered in the centuries to come as the ultimate icon of horror cinema. Mr. Hauser, I would like to take this opportunity to consider you… my friend. Thank you.”

The man finally took a seat, making for much applause in the room.

“He’s making me sound like I’m already dead,” Theo said to the moderator, but he didn’t hear him. The moderator immediately took the next available question.

Somebody else in the audience started talking, but the director stayed focused on the strange pale figure. The guy had a brown briefcase resting on his knees, as well as what looked to be a guitar case on the aisle next to his seat. The director wondered if this bizarre individual expressed his brand of irrational behavior with lots of directors at a multitude of venues, or just with him.

“Mr. Hauser? Did you get that?”

The director glanced at the moderator. “I’m sorry?”

“This young woman to your left just asked if you had any projects in development.”

He looked down to see a pretty girl no older than twenty waving at him.

“Oh, yes, hi there,” the director said, trying to blink himself out of his daze. “Nothing concrete at the moment. But I am working on a script.”

“So we could potentially be seeing a new film of yours soon?” the girl asked in a genuinely hopeful tone.

“Honey, as soon as I can find my ending.”

Laughter erupted throughout the audience, clearly from many jaded L.A. screenwriters.

“Well, on that note,” the moderator said, “I wanted to thank you all for coming out tonight for this special thirty-fifth anniversary screening of The Chainsaw Murders!”

Everyone started clapping, and the director stood up from his chair, nodding and waving at everyone.

“And I especially want to thank Mr. Hauser for making his way out to Santa Monica tonight,” the moderator concluded. “Sir, this was a real treat.”

The director shook the moderator’s sweaty hand and darted his eyes to the side exit where his limousine awaited him. He was halfway to the door when a group of fans charged up to him with so much enthusiasm that he momentarily feared for his life.

“One at a time, please,” the director said. “I’ll get to all of you. Don’t push, don’t push.”

Fans shoved items at him to sign that were, as expected, mostly related to The Chainsaw Murders, but a VHS of Row Boat happily surprised him and one of the masks from The Millennium Killers made him smile.

After ten minutes, the group in front of him finally receded. He was almost done.

“Mr. Hauser, sir.”

Somebody pushed an old laserdisc box set of Chainsaw Murders against the director’s chest. He did a double take.

“Oh, wow,” the director said. “The three-disc set. I didn’t think any of these were in existence anymore. Where did you find this — ”

He looked up to see the pale man with the briefcase. The figure stood completely still, a dopey grin on his face, his eyes staring into the director’s like a puppy in love. “I’ve had it for years, Mr. Hauser. Still in its original wrapping. I’ve never allowed myself to open it.”

“Oh,” the director said. “I see.” He glanced behind the man to see that he was the last of the autograph hounds.

Theo signed his name in the center of the box, nodded with a polite smile, and started making his way to the exit.

“Oh, Mr. Hauser! Can you sign another?”

Theo didn’t stop walking. “No, I’d like to,” he said, not making eye contact with the fan, “but I’m late for another function. I hope you’ll understand.”

“Pleeeeeeease?” The man rushed past him and stuck his arm out, blocking Theo’s exit to the limo.

The director sighed and tried not to call out this aggressive fan for what he was: a whiny child. “OK, OK. For Christ’s sake. But only one more.”

The man opened up his briefcase and handed the director a screenplay. But it wasn’t just any screenplay.

“You have got to be joking,” the director said, flipping through the eighty-eight pages, which were covered in mostly ineligible writing. “This is my script.”

“Yes, sir. That’s your personal screenplay from the 1976 shoot. Some guy in New York auctioned it off in the late nineties. I paid top dollar for it.”

The director nodded and signed his name above the title on the script’s cover. He appreciated the guy’s enthusiasm but couldn’t ignore the creepiness factor. “Well, thanks again for the support.”

He brushed past the man’s arm and walked out under the night sky.

“But wait,” the man said. “I just have one more thing.”

The director turned the corner to find his limo driver enjoying a cigarette. “Please get in the vehicle,” he said, pushing past him. “I need to get out of here.”

“Sure thing.”

The driver hurried to the left side of the limo. The director pulled on the door handle, but the door was locked.

“Mr. Hauser! Wait!”

The man with the briefcase charged up to the director, holding up his guitar case. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

“I’m sorry,” the director said. “I have to go.”

“I just have one more thing for you to sign, I promise.”

He put his briefcase down and pulled up the guitar case. He started to click it open when the side door of the limo unlocked.

“Goodbye,” the director said.

He opened and shut his door before the man could stop him.

“No! Not yet — ”

“Go!” the director shouted at his driver. “Go, go, go!”

As the limousine pulled forward, the man started chasing after it. He pressed the palm of his left hand against the side window and dragged his heavy guitar case with the fingers of his right. He lost his grip when the limousine made a right on busy San Vicente Boulevard and started speeding down the center lane.

The director closed his eyes and didn’t open them again until he was back on the freeway and out of Santa Monica, heading toward his home in the San Fernando Valley.

Another crazy fan evaded, he thought.

The director arrived at his upscale Studio City home a half hour later to find it dark and abandoned. He tipped the driver and walked up the winding driveway, hoping by some miracle that when he entered he’d have his family there to greet him — but he didn’t want to get lost in wishful thinking.

Theo headed straight for the kitchen. Some whiskey on the rocks helped ease his pain. His third wife had left him barely a month ago, and his only child was grown up and married and teaching chemistry across the country. He was alone in his big house for the first time in twenty years. He didn’t mind the quiet, but nothing had prepared him for the loneliness.

He finished his drink and grabbed the bottle of whiskey. He wanted to pour himself another. He held the bottle over his glass, watching as a small amount dripped out and splashed against the ice. But then he looked past the glass, and past the kitchen, to the adjacent family room, where a giant poster of The Chainsaw Murders was framed above the fireplace.

Theo set the bottle down and extended his middle finger.

Enough,” he said, and raced out of the kitchen.

Theo entered his study and sat down on his comfy blue chair. He turned on his laptop screen and clicked open his screenplay. The words stopped on page 77.

He tapped his fingers on his desk and rested his thumb against his chin. He pursed his lips. He studied the monitor.

“Come on,” he said. “Come on, you fucking hack. Think.”

His screenplay was about a serial killer picking off members of a popular Houston-based band one by one. He was almost done. But he hadn’t been able to pin down the killer’s identity.

Theo closed his eyes. He thought of tonight’s Q&A.

“Oh my God,” he whispered. “How could I be so stupid?” His eyes opened so wide he thought a blood vessel might have burst. “The killer should be their biggest fan!”

He didn’t even take the time to sort through all his thoughts. His fingers just started typing. Theo sat there for more than an hour, stopping his typing only once to scratch his back. He reached page 109 and typed in big, bold letters: THE END.

The director sat back and grinned. “Thanks, creep. You just saved my career.” He hit PRINT, grabbed his cell phone, and sped out of the room.

Theo walked to the kitchen and brought his phone up to his ear. Now was the time for that second drink. Now was truly the time to celebrate.

The call went to voice-mail. “Val, it’s done. I don’t know what just came over me, but… I did it. I’m printing out the pages and will have it to you first thing in the morning. Oh my God, I can’t believe it. I think it’s actually good.” Theo poured himself more whiskey, enjoyed a savory sip, and wiped an unexpected tear from his left cheek. “Call me when you can, OK? Thanks.”

He slipped the phone into his pocket, then brought the glass back up to his lips. He took another sip. He heard the pages printing in his study. He set the glass down and rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

He stopped the rubbing when he noticed the strange sight on the kitchen island, on the opposite side of the room.

He stepped forward and peered down, confused to see, of all things, an open guitar case.

“What the hell — ”

An earth-shattering noise roared to life behind him. Before he could turn around, a shooting pain struck his back.

The director started screaming.

What is it what is it what is it!

A running chainsaw smashed all the way through his stomach and protruded out the place where his belly button was supposed to be. The director looked down, horrified, before belting out another succession of violent screams.

As his blood and guts spilled against the kitchen floor, the chainsaw turned off. Theo remained standing, still conscious but fading.

“Mr. Hauser, here’s my pen.”

His body shaking, his mouth filled with blood, his vision turning to a fuzzy blackness, the director looked to his left to see his own biggest fan.

“As I was trying to tell you at the theatre, I have in my possession the last known chainsaw used in your film. It appears at the end when the sadistic killer finally meets his match. Can you believe, Mr. Hauser, that the chainsaw still works after all these years?”

The director slumped down to the ground, and as he faded into nothing, his final glimpse was of the man putting a black sharpie in his hand and assisting him with his signature.

“Just here.”

Theo finished signing his name at the top of the chainsaw’s blade, and as he released his final breath, the chainsaw roared to life again, this time moving up from his intestines toward his throat, ripping through his brain and out the top of his head.

Posted in Writing

Finish Your Novel by Remembering the Magic

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style… but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.

It can be difficult to forget the magic part when you’re deep into a writing project, when you’re in the weeds of the ninth draft or struggling with the end of a scene halfway through the first draft or re-reading the closing scene for the forty-seventh time.

So much of writing is indeed about tools and carpentry, about words and style. You can’t write a book without them. And the more you understand how to utilize the tools as your disposal, the more you experiment with your words and style, the better your work will be in the long run. You have to master the basics. You have to fail, and fail often. You have to try new styles, new genres, kinds of characters and stories.

And you have to never, never, forget the magic.

I have tough days when I’m writing. Endless moments of self doubt. After years and years of writing multiple novels, you’d think I sit down at the computer now filled with confidence, knowing exactly how to do this. I have more experience now than I did in my twenties, I’ve written way more novels than I ever imagined I could.

Yet every time I sit down to write, whether it’s new prose or a current revision, there’s always a little bit of fear. That I’ll mess up the scene. That I won’t get the images in my head down on paper exactly as I’d like. That the scene actually worked better in the sixth draft and now in the tenth draft I’m making it worse.

Writing a novel is an extremely difficult and arduous process. It’s not enough to just write a first draft, maybe do a polish or two, and be done with it. If you’re serious about writing, you have to not only commit to completing a first draft but then spend many months or even years to revise it to the point where everything works — the story, the characters, the pacing, the surprises. Sometimes you nail it fast. Sometimes it takes awhile. And sometimes you step away from the computer feeling less than, feeling like if had just a little more talent you could make the manuscript work.

For the last 18 months I’ve been working primarily on two novels. One went through more than a dozen drafts before it went out on submission. The other is currently in its ninth draft, with probably another two or three more to go. Nothing has ever been as hard as the work I’ve done for the last year and a half. I’ve used everything I know, everything I’ve ever learned, in trying to make these two projects soar. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve smiled, and I’ve cried, and I’m put my blood, sweat, and tears into every page of these two projects. I love both stories so much, and I’ve used the tools at my disposal, the words that feel right, to craft books I know in my heart are the best they can be.

What’s kept me going? The possibility of being traditionally published, yes, of course. The possibility that readers all around the world might one day get to discover these characters I adore, these narratives that I’ve tried to make unique and compelling.

But what’s kept me going the most… is the magic. The pure magic of storytelling. The way, with just words, you can create an entire world and live there for the longest time. The magic I felt as a kid when I read my first books sometimes gets a little lost when I’m working hard on the latest draft of my new book. But when it comes back, when I remember that magic in all its forms, the work stops being work, and the joy of writing comes through in ways I never expect.

Writing is hard. Really, really, really hard.

But as long as you keep the magic alive, there’s no telling what you’ll be able to achieve. Embrace the magic, and you’ll find the joy. Every time.

Posted in Film, Writing

Why Not Showing the Monster is Always Scarier

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review— Paranormal Activity Series

Film successes like Paranormal Activity rarely happen. Especially in this day and age, with the excess of movie-watching options like Netflix, Redbox, and On Demand, there’s seems to be less initiative for some to run to the theater to see anything but the newest blockbuster. It’s so difficult for smaller indie films to find a place in the giant theatrical market, and it’s typically looked at with positive marks with a smaller movie manages to break through the mold with five million or more.

Paranormal Activity’s history is so fascinating that the story behind the film is worthy of a documentary. An Israeli-born director Oren Peli got the idea to make a horror film for dirt cheap by hiring non-union actors and shooting in his very own home in San Diego, California. For fifteen thousand dollars, he shot Paranormal Activity over the course of just six days in September of 2006. He spent a year editing the film, which made its premiere in Fall 2007 at Screamfest Film Festival in Los Angeles.

The movie got some notice there, but it wasn’t until it landed into the hands of Steven Spielberg that the train started pushing forward. The film scared Spielberg so much that he returned it to his offices in a plastic bag. It was assumed Dreamworks would green-light a bigger-budget remake of the haunted house story, but one single screening of the original film convinced executives to just release the movie as is. But what would be the process to get the word out? How would people get interested in seeing such a small no-frills production?

Word started building in 2009 that a new horror film outside of the Saw universe, one that was legitimately terrifying, could be released in October, but the general public had to demand it. The trailer released in September of 2009 was ingenious, showing a large audience of college students screaming and shaking as they watched the movie. Everybody loves to be scared. And everybody wanted an alternative from Saw that Halloween to see something different, and something that would actually frighten them.

The movie opened at the end of September in a few select college towns, playing only at Midnight. When each and every screening in these towns sold out, Paramount started expanding the film across the country. For the October 9 weekend, the movie made eight million dollars, making it the fourth highest grossing movie in the country, but only playing on 160 screens. They claimed if the movie got one million demands on the web site, they would go nationwide. They finally did on October 23, where the movie took first place at the box office and brought in over twenty-one million dollars.

All in all, Paranormal Activity grossed 108 million dollars off of a fifteen thousand dollar budget — how’s that for a return on your investment. The film was the first to officially mark the beginning of the end of the Saw franchise, and no eyebrows were raised when a sequel for 2010 was swiftly announced soon after the film’s gargantuan success.

If there was any sequel that could’ve been a hack rush job with little to no thought behind it, Paranormal Activity was it. Made for 11,000 dollars back in 2006, Paranormal Activity was slowly unraveled onto moviegoers last October who were looking for an alternative to the Saw franchise and wanted something legitimately scary. Paranormal Activity was that perfect second option, a throwback to low-budget scary faux-documentaries like The Blair Witch Project. The concept was ingenious, the acting was above average, and the scares were genuinely effective. The movie grossed over a hundred million dollars and guaranteed an instant sequel.

All Paramount really needed to do was shoot another group of people in a house screaming and running from a scary noise and release it as Paranormal Activity 2. They could’ve spent just another couple hundred thousand, slapped a movie together in a matter of weeks, and unleashed it on the unsuspecting public. People would’ve been pissed, but come October 2011, they would’ve happily taken the trip to see Part 3. Of course that weird Blair Witch 2 came out a year after the original, bombed, and guaranteed no more sequels to that potential franchise. So who knows? Maybe it would be more effective for Paramount to gather a talented new cast and crew and put together a worthwhile sequel to Paranormal Activity.

And they’ve done just that. While it’s a flawed movie for sure, without some of the elements that made the original so successful, it has a handful of huge scares, a genuine sense of dread throughout the second half, and a great ending that leaves room for another sequel.

The smartest choice here was to present most of the events in this film as a prequel to the events of the original. Katie Featherston might’ve said so in the original, but she has a sister, and the two of them have been fighting off bad dreams and premonitions about a demon that has been following them since they were eight years old. It’s August 2006 and we follow Katie’s sister Kristi and her family as they start to notice strange happenings in their house. This home’s just as big, if not more so, than the one in the original, and it’s disconcerting to find such menace in what appears to be just one of those everyday upper class houses.

First, the good. Tod Williams takes the directing reigns from Oren Peli for this follow-up, and instead of going big and dumb, he keeps the proceedings quiet, allowing the suspense to build throughout. The scares are few and far between, making the moments way more jolting than if there was a ‘boo’ moment every two minutes. And it’s astounding to think possibly the most effective scare in the whole movie takes place in the day time, involving a group of kitchen cabinets. The set-up of the original isn’t neglected but added upon, with Katie and even Micah showing their faces throughout this movie, most before the events of the original movie. Nice touch! Plus there’s actually a good reason for the baby to be in this film, which makes his inclusion make more sense than him just being a random addition to the sequel mix.

Second, the not so good. There are two main elements in Paranormal Activity 2 that keep it from being a great horror film. First, the characters in this one just aren’t nearly as interesting as Katie and Micah in the original. Katie’s sister Kristi is the most tolerable of the bunch, but the teen stepdaughter Ali gets really grating at times, especially with all her annoying camerawork. When there are those safe daytime scenes in the original, the film remains interesting because we want to know what Katie and Micah will do and say next. In this sequel, you keep secretly praying for the movie to go back to nighttime scenes, with most of the daytime material feels more like padding than anything else. Second, there’s not the genuine sense in this sequel that there’s a demon anywhere in the house. While Oren Peli took the time in the first to really make the audience believe there’s an ominous force in that house, director Williams tends to rely more on eye trickery and loud scares than simple footstep noises that make the house feel truly haunted.

Overall Paranormal Activity 2 is a worthy sequel, one that expands on the story of the original and takes it to a whole new level, with a creepy ending that promises more places for this franchise to go. But will there really be seven Paranormals like Saw? Honestly the aesthetic of these films really only warrants maybe one more, and that’s it. Anything past a Part 3 will feel repetitive. There will definitely be another one — this sequel just opened with over forty million dollars, the highest grossing opening of a horror movie ever — but here’s hoping this doesn’t become another Saw franchise. It would be unfortunate and really cheapen that creative breakthrough original. But for now, Paranormal Activity 2 is definitely worth checking out. Just know you might not be able to turn out the light when you go to bed.

Watching Like a Writer

What I love so much about horror is that more often than not it’s just you don’t see on the page or don’t see in the film that is truly frightening. We are at a place now where anything you can think of can be visualized in a movie; therefore, directors will often use the tools at their disposal to shove tons of scary images across the frame. However, it’s those select directors and writers who use restraint in their work that makes the horror really shine through. When the Paranormal Activity series was at its best (the first three, I would argue), the terror came from what you didn’t see but what you imagined you saw or what you imagined could be happening in the next room over. This trait carries over to writing too because while while you can describe every gory detail of your freak creature villain, what will be more satisfying for your reader will be a shadow of that villain, an ominous cry in the dark from that villain. Your reader will always think of something creepier than what is actually delivered. So use restraint in your horror fiction. Don’t show us everything, let us use our imaginations, and the writing will soar every step of the way.

Exercise!

Write a short scene describing a creepy villain in detail, then write the scene again where the creature is in shadow and can only be heard. Which version is better?

Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #38: Infamous (2006)

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The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

When Sandra walked onstage at the 85th Annual Academy Awards in 2013, stunning in a black Elie Saab cap-sleeve gown, she was introduced, as, how else, “Oscar winner Sandra Bullock.” For too many years Sandra kept picking the wrong projects, kept working with the wrong directors, and we fans hoped an opportunity would come along that would finally showcase her true talent. She had her moments in Hope Floats and 28 Days, but the first dramatic film that really opened up directors’ eyes to what she could do dramatically was Crash, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. In 2010, just four years after Crash’s big win, she finally received her first Oscar nomination and award, for The Blind Side. But is The Blind Side Sandra’s golden achievement? Is Crash? No.

Until Gravity, Sandra’s best dramatic performance on film was in the little-seen and mostly ignored 2006 film Infamous, in which she stars as the famed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee. Why was this film ignored to the extent it was? It had nothing to do with the quality of this film; it is truly an outstanding, expertly crafted picture about Truman Capote’s writing of his most famous book, In Cold Blood. No — Infamous was ignored because the film Capote, about the exact same subject matter, was released a year before to great critical acclaim, multiple Oscar nominations, and an Oscar win for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

When Infamous opened just six months after that year’s Oscar telecast (the same one in which Crash had its big victory), nobody cared. While people saw both Deep Impact and Armageddon, and both Antz and A Bug’s Life, they embraced Capote, yet pretended like Infamous didn’t exist. It’s a shame because while Infamous treads on the same territory, it approaches the subject matter with a different angle, bringing in more of Truman’s life in New York and allowing room for humor. It boasts a tremendous cast that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Daniels, and Daniel Craig, pre-James Bond. Most of all, Toby Jones’ performance as Truman Capote is astounding, just as good as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s and possibly even better, since he closer resembles the real Capote in his physicality. If Infamous had been released a year before Capote, Jones would have been guaranteed an Oscar nomination, no doubt, and even Sandra herself might have been up for her first nomination as well. She’s that good in this film.

Catherine Keener was nominated for an Academy Award for playing Harper Lee in Capote, but does anyone remember that performance? Sandra makes a much more memorable impression in Infamous, with her subtle, natural turn as the famed literary giant — she also, if you check out old photos of the To Kill a Mockingbird author, looks almost exactly like her. Truman Capote surrounded himself with New York’s richest socialites, but he also remained close with one childhood friend — Ms. Lee. In the film Truman is so intrigued by the story of a deadly shooting in middle-of-nowhere Holcomb, Kansas, that he enlists his friend Harper to accompany him to the town to investigate the story for a potential long-form article, which of course became the acclaimed book, In Cold Blood. It is this riveting section of the movie that Sandra has the most screen time.

Jones and Sandra don’t make for an on-screen duo that would necessarily scream great chemistry, but they are terrific together, radiating a warm, natural friendship that really does feel like it goes back decades. There is an interesting dynamic between the two, Sandra with her mousy hair and lack of make-up and reserved behavior, and Jones with his spot-on voice and crazy outfits and showy demeanor. There are plenty of scenes of Sandra in the first third of the film where she doesn’t say a word but simply listens, to Jones, to stories, to the characters she meets in the small town. It’s a fascinating change of pace for an actress who normally is the center focus of the narrative.

Does she have a big “Oscar” scene in the movie? The film integrates interviews with its characters throughout, and Sandra gets not one but two great moments to tell stories about Truman. But it’s one of her final scenes in Kansas, when she confronts Truman for using his ways of fiction to tell the dark true story of the brutal murders, that gives her the best chance to shine. With her perfected Alabama accent, a cigarette between her fingers, and obvious disdain for what Truman is trying to accomplish, she nails this hard-to-watch argument between two old friends, with both sides offering views that make sense. It’s a scene like this one that Sandra shows just the kind of actress she can be, when she’s met with the right script, director, and character.

For Sandra fans, Infamous is one of those movies of hers that might have fallen through the cracks. She’s not the lead, it’s not a comedy, it didn’t receive any acclaim or awards consideration. But all these years later, not having the former 2005 film Capote to consider, it’s much easier to admire Infamous for the magnificent film that it is. Writer/director Douglas McGrath, whose previous credits include Emma and co-writing the script to Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, made wise choices with his ensemble cast, but especially with Sandra, who rarely plays a role this tender, this observant. As her career finally started taking a sharp turn for the better, with meatier roles and more complex dramatic fare, this film provided Sandra her most interesting role on screen to date. She may have won the Academy Award for The Blind Side, but she’s just as good, if not better, in Infamous.

Best Scene: Sandra and Jones argue over the direction he’s taking his supposed “non-fiction” novel.

Best Line: “You shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing!”

Fun Facts

Sandra won the 2006 Hollywood Film Festival award for Best Supporting Actress for this film.

Infamous reunited Sandra with her Speed co-star Jeff Daniels.

Samantha Morton was originally cast as Harper Lee.

The film’s original title alternated between Have You Heard? and Every Word is True.

Sandra did not personally meet Harper Lee, but she did extensive research, including listening to her voice in audio clips and studying her handwriting on microfiche at the New York Public Library.