How to Write (a bit of) a Horror Movie

As someone who dabbles with the written word and would one day like to write a screenplay that doesn’t suck, I’ve consumed a lot of screenwriting guides and they all seem to agree on one thing: your movie lives or dies by its first ten pages.

Therefore, if one page equates to a minute of screen time, you have approximately 10 minutes to win over your audience, or lose them forever.

However, knowing this wisdom doesn’t make it any easier to write those first ten pages and so, in an attempt to improve my own writing, I’ve decided to analyse the opening sequences of 3 horror movies I like (and one I don’t) to see if I can gain any insights.

SCANNERS (1981)

Famous for its sequence where a man’s head violently explodes via mind control, the first 2 minutes of Scanners is slightly more sedate but still effective.

We open in a mall food court. A vagrant in shabby clothes with large haunted eyes, wanders from table to table eating left over scraps. Nearby, two well dressed women watch him in disgust. One of the women ponders aloud why security would allow such a “creature” into the building and Cameron, our homeless food court scavenger, overhears her. He stares at the woman who begins to have a violent seizure. She drops to the floor, incapacitated, as she twitches and moans in pain a crowd gathers around her. A few feet away, Cameron clutches his skull in agony.

And that’s it. In two minutes, we’re presented with a mystery (what did Cameron do to the woman and what else is he capable of?) The movie has set its tone (this movie takes its subject matter seriously and wants the audience to as well.) And we’ve been introduced to the movie’s main threat.  Although the specifics of what Cameron can do and how he does it are unclear, it’s obvious he has the ability to seriously hurt, maybe even kill, someone without touching them.  

IT FOLLOWS (2015)

Revolving around a curse transmitted via sexual contact, It Follows opens with a terrified, scantily clad young woman in red high heels running from a middle-class suburban home. She stops in the middle of the street, frozen. She stares, with eyes wide with fear, at something just out of frame. The camera does a full revolution around her. Whatever is terrifying her, is invisible to us, the audience.

A neighbour notices her distress and asks if she’s okay. The young woman says she’s fine and as the neighbour returns to their business the young woman runs back into her house, re-emerging with her purse and car keys. Then she jumps in her car and speeds off.

When we see her again, she is sitting on a beach at night, alone. She is illuminated by the headlights of her car which is parked on the sand just a few feet away. Her back is to the ocean (perhaps so nothing can sneak up on her) and she is on the phone to her father telling him, tearfully, that she loves him.

Hard cut to sunrise, and the girl is dead. Her body grotesquely broken and twisted. The red high heels still on her feet.

Once again, we have mystery, tone and threat. All in under 5 minutes.

RINGU (1998)

As with the US remake, the Japanese version of The Ring opens in a teenage girl’s bedroom as two friends discuss the existence of a mysterious video tape that curses its viewer to death after 7 days.

During the discussion, one of the girls turns very sombre and admits she has seen the tape. She looks fragile and helpless, her eyes haunted.

Then she bursts out laughing, immediately breaking the tension. Her friend chides her and leaves the room but, now alone, her mischievous expression disappears – maybe it wasn’t a joke after all. Maybe she has seen the tape.

There’s a POV shot of someone or something approaching her from behind, she spins around and opens her mouth to scream and the image freezes. We don’t see the character killed or injured in the scene but we’re given enough visually to know that her fate is sealed.

In each of the three examples, the main threat of the movie is teased. This is important because it’s this threat that will be the driving force for the entire film. It’s what the main characters will run from, battle and, if they’re lucky, defeat. It’s also what the film’s major set pieces will be designed around, so it makes sense to give the audience just a brief taste of it in the opening scenes.

A surprising number of horror movies and thrillers do this: Halloween, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing, Jaws, Black Swan, Suspiria, Night of the Living Dead, Poltergeist to name a few.

Now let’s look at a film that tries but doesn’t quite pull it off:

Ah, yes the question mark. The most terrifying punctuation mark of all.

TRUTH OR DARE (2018):

Truth or Dare revolves around a cursed game of you guessed it:
Never Have I Ever.

We open on a dusty, desert road, a car screeches to a halt in front of a remote, ramshackle gas station. A young woman, (her identity obscured by the hood of her sweatshirt) enters the store. She passes a few shoppers browsing the basic grocery staples sitting on the shelves.

The young woman approaches the counter and buys cigarettes. We see her for the first time she looks pale and drawn. Dark circles under her eyes. A wound on her temple.

The phone behind the counter rings and she starts. The clerk croaks “truth or dare” at her and she trembles in fear. Grabbing a can of lighter fluid from a shelf she douses a nearby shopper in the liquid, then lights a match.

The unfortunate shopper realises what’s happening and begs for her life. The young woman responds with “I’m sorry, I don’t have a choice”, and sets her on fire.

This sequence certainly provides mystery. The “I’m sorry, I don’t have a choice” line is supposed to unnerve us, but it doesn’t, largely, I think, because it feels so disconnected from what’s happened in the moments before this.

Perhaps if the character was already at the gas station, lurking, watching people, scoping them out in an attempt to select someone “suitable” for her task, this might have had more impact.

Maybe if there were some ticking clock aspect to the scene, in which the audience has a sense that our mysterious young woman had to commit this atrocity before the clock struck one, the line may have worked better.

Also, we have a victim, but she’s not introduced in a way that allows the audience to connect with her before she is despatched, unlike in the first three examples in which the victims are seen clearly and shot in a way that allows the audience to witness their fear and pain before their fate catches up with them.

For me, this opening sequence raised too many questions and most weren’t about what would happen next, but instead were niggly little things like:

why did she pull up to a gas station in the middle of nowhere to buy cigarettes but not gas?

Why is she wearing a hoodie in what looks like 35 degree (celcius) heat?

What’s with the wound on her temple?

Why didn’t she immolate her victim with gasoline/petrol? I mean she’s at a gas station. It’s right there.

When compared with the first three examples, the opening of Truth or Dare feels muddled and over-stuffed. There’s just too much going on for it to be effective.

Oh, and it’s also a horror movie about a cursed game of Truth or Dare. So there’s that.

Still, I included this example because it really highlights the less-is-more quality of the first three opening scenes. It also shows how each one serves as an encapsulation of the entire film.

Now, that’s not to say every horror movie should start this way or does, but recognising this type of structure is incredibly helpful to the amateur writer because it provides a practical blue print or model that the writer can used to stay focused.

In my case, that means I know how to start my screenplay about a demonically possessed Easy Bake Oven.

2 pages down, 98 more to go.

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