Saturday, 8 March 2014

This Is Why Your Movie Sucks

Not too long ago I gave a short talk at Podcamp Toronto about crappy horror movies. I wasn't able to record the session, so here's my presentation script and slides. We had a great conversation afterward about terrible movies, which I'm unable to reproduce here. Trust me when I say you missed out on something fun ;P


I love horror movies. There's no other genre that's as expressive. Existing on the edge of legitimacy and acceptability, horror movies can push the envelope and explore themes and ideas that can be too riske for mainstream cinema. Or that's how it used to be, at any rate. But even if horror isn't the uniquely safe space it once was for edgy storytelling, it's still a place where people can explore and experience “negative” emotions, particularly fear.

There's this notion that horror is easy, and in a way it is. Slap some makeup on your buddy, film him chasing your friends and you've got a zombie movie. But in another way, horror is really very hard to do: you have to entertain and scare your audience, make them feel anxious, make them jump, make them care. And a lot of films, big budget and small, can't.



So you want to make a movie, but where do you begin? With story. Film is, for the most part, and especially for the no/low budget filmmaker, storytelling. So what's your story? If it's about a guy who kills people, I'm gonna stop you right there.  

That's not a story. It's an idea. And not much of one. Moreover, it puts the emphasis on the villain and when you do that, you immediately divest your film of tension and suspense. Slashers were never about the villain. Certainly Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers became the stars of their respective franchises, but they were never the main characters. The victims are the leads in horror because it's through them we experience fear. Noted film scholar Noel Carroll took pains to point out the audience takes its cues from the positive human characters in the movie they're watching; if the protagonist is afraid, so too is everyone in the theatre. But if the role of the victim is overshadowed by the role of the villain, then we the audience can't be afraid.

We can be startled by jump scares and grossed out by gore effects, but we'll never exeprience that rush of fear we get when Annie and Lori are being stalked and chased by their would-be killers.

But nobody seems to understand this anymore. Platinum Dunes' and Rob Zombie's remakes of beloved 70s and 80s horror franchises are proof that horror filmmaking, even at the mid-budget level, has no respect for its characters. We go to watch them die. We cheer for the bad guy as each kill is more elaborate and gorier than the last, and we know the victims' survival is meaningless because the killer will survive to kill again in the sequel.

Your movie sucks because these movies suck. You say you want to make a movie about a guy who kills people, and maybe you'll even attempt to explain why he does so. But again, you're misunderstanding something fundamental to the genre: it doesn't really matter why because this isn't his story.

Also, horror villains always kill for revenge OR because they're crazy. But mostly for revenge. So don't waste my time and yours fleshing out an elaborate backstory for your bad guy. What's more important is how he kills and is defeated. Because he has to die.


In mainstream horror, the movie ends without the bad guy being defeated outright, leaving it open for a sequel. It might make some kind of financial sense, but researchers in California found that movie audiences thought teaser endings were unrealistic and predictable. Audience members in the study preferred films with traditional endings in which the villain is killed, and if given the chance, would change teaser endings to more traditional ones.

When a villain dies at the end of a movie, he gets what he deserves. When he survives, audiences are less likely to enjoy the film and can find the whole movie-going experience to be rather dissatisfying. Again, mainstream horror doesn't seem to get it and neither do you, which is another reason why your movie sucks.

What all this is driving at is story. Your movie needs to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. If a bunch of people die horribly along the way, so much the better. But more important than body count and gore is logic. Does your story make sense?


Probably not because this is your first time doing this. That's fine. In fact, that's awesome. Just get someone else to read your script. Someone who'll be honest with you. I can't tell you how many movies I've seen with glaring plot holes and logic problems—no/low and studio productions alike.

Last October, Toronto After Dark screened Found, a no-budget movie made by a first-time director. This is the same festival that closed with Big Bad Wolves. It's kind of mind-blowing that a film like Found should be programmed together with We Are What We Are and Last Days on Mars but it also goes to show that a good story well told (with some fantastic gore effects thrown in) will resonate with audiences.  


Found is based on a book, which means that director Scott Shirmer already had a complete story—it just needed some adaptation. Shirmer also had access to makeup and effects artist who got her students involved in the production. Finally, Shirmer himself has taken some editing classes and has an education in film production. Found's a bit of a perfect storm, but it all stemmed from having a good story that was complete and free of plot holes.

So what about story? There's a multitude of books that will tell you how to write a story. Among them is Story by Robert McKee. In it, McKee addresses conflict. Recalling high school English, there are three types of conflict: man vs man, man vs nature, man vs self. McKee insists that conflict must exist in every scene in a movie script, which most writers interpret to mean man vs man.


This is wrong. I can't stress this enough. Not every scene needs conflict—story is not told through conflict alone—and ninety minutes of non-stop bickering is the worst kind of writing there is. There's no “right” way to write a movie but there is a wrong way and mistaking bitchiness for character conflict is very wrong.

Characters need to be likeable if we're to feel for them. Why invite a bunch of people you don't seem to like to your isolated cabin? Who goes on a road trip with enemies? No one. So why are you cramming your scenes full of bad people who do nothing but bitch at each other? Because you don't know any better. Because you've been led to believe this is the proper way to introduce conflict into your script. The conflict is the guy killing everyone, everything else takes a back seat to surviving the killer/zombie/force of evil that's running amok.

If the audience—and the movie itself—has no respect for the characters, then we're just waiting for them to die.

And die they will! In the grossest and most shocking ways possible. But what's unpleasant isn't necessarily scary and your movie sucks because you don't understand the difference between visceral reactions and true terror. Most no/low movies go for gore and jump scares because they're relatively easy to produce. Only found footage horror movies are capable of creating an atmosphere of suspense without really trying because of their narrow field of vision and immediacy. 909 Experiment and Area 407, which are among the worst found footage movies I've seen, still have their moments—they don't last very long but they're there. More traditional 3rd person-narrative movies have to work a little harder to build a tense atmosphere and most just go for gore.


Gore may be gross and hard to watch, the new Evil Dead was alarmingly gory, but it doesn't get the same emotional response as something that's truly scary. Scares derive from surprise and suspense. A good horror movie should provide both but most contemporary horror is heavy on jump scares and your movie probably sucks because you don't understand the different between what's temporarily shocking and what's truly frightening. But don't feel too badly about that. To quote Hitchcock, “There is a distinct difference between 'suspense' and 'surprise,' and yet many pictures continually confuse the two.”


He goes on to explain the effect of dramatic irony: if we know there's a bomb under the table but the diners don't we're held in suspense, waiting for the bang. But if we don't know there's a bomb, the bang is surprising. There's no build-up to a jump scare or startle effect, but there's a great deal of tension that's created when we know something bad's going to happen.

Suspense is emotionally demanding and can wear down an audience, making them susceptible to jump scares but just cramming your movie full of startle effects won't make it scary.


All of these things I've mentioned--bad characters, bad writing, reliance on jump scares--are common to no/low horror because they're present in mainstream genre movies. What I'm saying is sucky no/low movies are terrible because the films that serve as inspiration are terrible.

Garbage begets more garbage. There's nothing wrong with copying your favourite movies, Tarantino's built a career on that, but when you're duplicating bad movies you're guilty of making more bad movies, adding to a huge slush pile of rotten films of dubious merit.

So why are we even watching this crap? It exists because so long as people have had access to cameras they've been making movies. And that's great, but the Internet is the reason why we're now drowning under a tide of terrible no/low backyard horror movies. Before the Internet existed, you make your sucky film, you showed to your friends and that was the end of it. Today you have an opportunity to share your creation with the entire world.

Handycams gave more people greater opportunity to experiment with filmmaking; streaming and VOD gives more filmmakers greater opportunities to distribute their movies. Moreover, changes in the film distribution landscape mean filmmakers can be in charge of their own distribution without having to go through a middleman. And then there are companies like Echo Bridge, that welcome submissions and package a bunch of films together on DVD. They don't appear to be all that discerning, either.


Distributors can't be blamed for why your movie sucks, but ease of access to terrible films is part of the reason why you were able to see your film through to distribution—and why you're contemplating making another one (you left it open for a sequel).

To sum up, your movie sucks because the movies you watch are terrible. There are some truly fantastic horror movies out there but no one's watching and imitating them. People mimic what's trendy and popular, which goes a long way in explaining the critical mass of zombie and found footage movies. There's also a great deal of money to be made milking horror audience's nostalgia. Everyone's going to see a remake of Carrie—doesn't matter if it's any good.

Horror remakes exists because their titles have some recognition value, but remaking a beloved “classic” isn't the same as revisiting a theme. Scholar and author Kim Newman writes that remakes
[confirm] a movie's place in some pantheon while suggesting we really don't need to look at it anymore.”

As a no/low filmmaker, you can totally jump on the bandwagon, and riding popular sub-genres will net you viewers, but a good film needs more than just a cliched theme or style to give it legs. It needs a solid story, good characters, some atmosphere, and just a touch of originality. Right now you haven't got any of that, and this is why your movie sucks.







16 comments:

Andrew Barr said...

You forgot to mention your "movie sucks because it's got zombies in it. And it was made after 1996."
Has there been a good zombie movie since then?

DM said...

I liked Zombieland, and Dead and Breakfast was kinda fun. But that's about it.

Kev D. said...

Good zombie films after '96? TONS.

But yeah, great read man. So many movies suck so hard for exactly some of the reasons that you've laid out. Nice guide to why a movie is a turd.

busterggi said...

You make absolutely correct points but lucky for us, most filmmakers will not follow your advice even if they read it because they won't get it.

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Ahli Seo said...

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Best Regards,
Ahli Seo

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