Crash Reports: What I’ve Learned from Watching 1,500 Horror Movies – and it ain’t Pretty

My 1,500th horror movie is 1964’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, starring Vincent Price –      727698_skeletonman_poster review forthcoming (it was a double feature disc with 1962’s PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! and that review is on its way as well). But before I could begin to write anything about either movie, I caught the abysmal television feature SKELETON MAN (2004) with “The Walking Dead” star, Michael Rooker, and “what the hell happened to my career,” Casper Van Dien.

Out of these 1,500 horror movies, roughly 85 are amazing, 100 more or so are worthwhile, and the rest is pure, unadulterated shit. Whether low budget or big budget, the bulk of horrors are trash, and only add to the typical refrain that the genre is a low-brow joke for the masses.

As a writer, my main concern when finishing a project, whether a short story, novel, or screenplay is that my work is garbage. I want to tell a good story inhabited by interesting characters, and I want to entertain. I want to avoid cliché, hyperbole, and beating the audience over the head with theme. But before I send anything out to contests, producers, and publishers, I call upon people I love, trust, and admire – solid storytellers in their own right – who won’t sling bullshit and pat me on the head. I want unabashed criticism. I want to know what doesn’t work, what I missed, and what I need to change. After all, when one writes, that person is in a vacuum of their own making, and sometimes, we simply can’t see problems and plot holes.

I’ve been a long-standing member of the New Jersey Screenwriter’s Group (my greatest commitment to anything, in fact), and have enjoyed table reads of many scripts. The feedback has been invaluable, has helped me improve as a writer, and thanks to the group’s recommendations, I have won several contests, or came in as a top finisher. This has led to interest from Hollywood studios as well as independent producers. Yes, that validation is as amazing as it is reassuring, but I still want to make certain that the story I’ve loved writing is worth showing to others. Otherwise, why write at all.

Thankfully, I usually know when a story sucks. In my youth, I hadn’t a clue, but as I learned more about craft, I improved when it came to self-story-analysis. Yet when considering all the godawful movies I’ve seen, I wonder how these poorly constructed tales, with bad acting, bad directing, bad lighting – and bad everything – came to fruition.

Although the name of the movie escapes me, because it was completely forgettable, a writer/director took a second mortgage on his home to bring his project to light. Talk about a waste of money, time, and effort. Sure, I salute the man for making his own movie, and almost giving up everything in the process. To do so takes money and commitment like few artistic projects, especially due to the intense amount of collaboration, equipment, insurance, and what have you. A movie, like Napoleon’s army, moves on its stomach. Cast and crew need to be professional to nail down each scene, even though we know it doesn’t always work out that way. And many more need to make certain the miracle of film comes to screen, or goes direct to video at least.

So, I’ll pick on SKELETON MAN, instead of mentioning the other dreadful pieces of trash that deserve to be consigned to oblivion (that will be a future post). Hell, I’ve seen shit that makes an Ed Wood movie look like genius. I’m serious. Anyway, here’s what happened in this poorly directed monstrosity from Johnny Martin, who should stick to what he does best: stunt work – and he’s damned good at it. The movie is based on a Frederick Bailey script about a hodge-podge military group (comprised of the anti-terrorist unit, Delta Force), as they track a skeleton man on horseback, like a poor man’s grim reaper, who can materialize out of thin air and kill with abandon. Why? Who cares. There’s minor gore and explosions – lots of explosions – and enough slow motion footage to make you want to flay your own flesh. Some of the acting’s bad, some of it’s decent, but you can tell that Casper just wanted to kill himself to escape the catastrophe. In fact, I can’t recall what happened to his character – he may have walked, or run, off the set. (Get a better agent, Casper. Please!)

It seems like the script was written in three days, with virtually no character development or feasible storyline. Anyone who has been in boot camp for a week would know that these idiot characters wouldn’t rate as canon fodder. For military professionals, they have no tactical abilities or strategies. Even the sniper expert can’t hit the side of a continent, and she uses a submachine gun instead of an actual sniper rifle. The unit is ill-prepared, poorly skilled, and couldn’t capture a child on crutches let alone a supernatural bloodthirsty lunatic. (Bring in Private Cooper and company from 2002’s DOG SOLDIERS (UK), and this nightmare would’ve been wrapped up in fifteen minutes). The camera work is bad, the editing sloppy at times, the costumes are hit and miss, and the skeleton man’s duds look like they were rented from a Party City bin of leftovers.

What a piece of shit.

So how the hell on Earth did this thing get made? Maybe a producer had an idea, an available crew, and did give Bailey a few days to “come up with something.” Who knows. But it’s done. And people’s real names are on it. Some probably said with pride, “Hey, look what I did! I’m in a movie!” and never thought of the consequences from a horrendous stinker. Maybe this is why Martin has never directed another thing.

But I hate when independent filmmakers make a movie and are so damn delusional about the end result. Few have the wherewithal of Eduardo Sanchez (THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and ALTERED), Lance Weiler (THE LAST BROADCAST and HEAD TRAUMA), Oren Peli (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY), Paul Solet (GRACE), and Tony Brownrigg (RED VICTORIA) to pull off a quality film with little cash and resources.

In the same vein, as a writer, I have seen many other scribes who have absolutely no clue that they can’t write at all. None. Hell, I’ve met “writers” I wouldn’t trust to write a grocery list. And before you think I’m arrogant, please note that I wonder about this of me as well. Many write, share, and submit with a smile, never knowing that their “work” should be burned, buried, and blanked out for eternity. I have boxes full of failed attempts at storytelling. But these so-called writers crank out shit like mad, and to them it’s always pure gold. Always. It’s as if they’ve never read a book before. They haven’t got a damned hint of how much they are embarrassing themselves.

I see many filmmakers do the same thing. And I often wonder if some of these third-rate people at the helm have ever watched a damned movie, especially a quality film.

At the New Jersey Film School, owner/instructor Chris Messineo has written thirteen shorts and directed sixteen as well for Off Stage Films. When I asked him why he wasn’t working on a feature, he said, “Because I haven’t filmed a perfect short yet.” And his production company and school are both repeat award winners, and rightfully so.

Chris represents the kind of artist I love – not the ones that put themselves down and self-deprecate ad nauseum, but the ones that want to tell a solid story and entertain the brain. The ones who want to continue to learn about craft. The ones who can criticize their own work, and dive back in to make it better, or put that lesson to the test in their next venture. They strive for great art, regardless of genre or available finances.

Messineo’s Advanced Film Class shot my short TOO MANY PREDATORS. The student crew busted their asses, never griped, and I have no doubt all will go on to bigger and better things. The actresses and our special effects makeup artist were equally fabulous. The movie is not perfect, but what the student crew did amazed me, and everyone put in a combined 100 hours into what amounts to a three-and-a-half minute short. We all learned from the experience, and we will all improve from the exercise – but too many in moviemaking and writing never seem to advance from the knowledge they should have absorbed.

Yes, movies take a lot of effort, and every time you watch one you are witness to a small miracle. So why do professionals in the industry, as well as intelligent independents turn out drek by the truckload? Your guess is as good as mine. But nothing boggles my mind more, or pisses me off more, than seeing someone who just doesn’t get it. How can you not know that you’re making shit? It’s shameful.

As for horror filmmakers that churn out cheap garbage, I’ve heard some in the past say stuff like this: “It’s just a horror movie. Fans’ll love it!” No, we probably won’t. At least those among us who give a damn. Therefore, the trash you ultimately deliver to the masses will only earn you the embarrassment and humiliation you deserve – though with your lack of introspection, you’ll probably just think everyone’s an idiot. Or that they’re jealous of you. Or that they don’t “get it.”

Now that I’m moving forward to 2,000 movies, I have no doubt 450 will be a complete waste of my time. But I want to thank those fifty or so directors, writers, cinematographers, editors, etc., as well as the actors, for the decent and spectacular features that will put those other morons and their tripe to shame.

Whew. I feel better now.

(SKELETON MAN photo from Uverseonline.)

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