Saturday, November 9, 2013

Horror By the Sub-Genres: Single Location Horror

Isolation is at the base of nearly every horror film ever made. Even when it is not explicit within the story or the source of the horror itself, isolation is one of the key elements that creates the suspense and dread necessary for a film to be considered horror.

No one is scared of the slasher that might be walking amongst them on the bustling streets of New York City; the slasher only becomes frightening when the victim is alone, in the dark or someplace where screams can’t be heard, and the slasher can do his work in privacy without being interrupted. The idea that there is safety in numbers is a cliché for a reason. Though our ancient ancestors were often solitary beings that would fight amongst each other for the scarce resources, it was when humanity started building communities and protecting themselves as a group that we began to flourish as a species.

This is why the single location horror film is so effective for audiences that love true horror. A single character or small group of characters that find themselves trapped in a place, be it a broken elevator, a car, or a farmhouse in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, is a perfectly relatable circumstance to all of humanity. Though books, television, and movies can widen the scope of human knowledge, the human experience happens viscerally in a single perspective. The world may be getting overrun by monsters, but the only experience you have with it is the one happening right at your door. To make a stronger real-world analogy, the horrifying events of September 11th, 2001, may have a national consciousness, but everyone who lived through has a very specific memory of where they were and what they were doing when they heard about it.

Horror is personal. When the entire world is ready to explode and kill humanity forever, that is not a horror film; that is a disaster film. Horror is what happens to individuals.

The history of the single location horror film actually predates the medium of film itself. Many early films were based on popular stage plays of the time, translated to the screen for wider recognition (and because, in the heyday of filmmaking in the early 20th century, movie writers couldn’t churn out scripts fast enough for the movie machine), and some of these stage plays contained in them the seeds for what would become the elements of horror: old dark houses, mysterious murders, characters with dubious motivations. A stage play, by its nature, works best when a single location can be constructed on the stage and used throughout the performance, and many of those stories embraced the “chamber room” storytelling style.

It’s a fun coincidence that making a film in a single location is always cheaper to produce and therefore more appealing to the financier, which has kept the sub-genre alive and doing well for the entire history of the filmic medium. Here are four recommendations for further exploration into the sub-genre.


Director Alfred Hitchcock loved a challenge, whether it was murdering his leading lady before the halfway mark in “Psycho”, setting an entire film on a life boat in “Lifeboat”, or making a monster out of innocuous creatures like “The Birds”. But perhaps his biggest challenge was to turn “Rope”, a stage play about a murderous gay couple hosting a dinner party, into a single location thriller film shot in ten uninterrupted ten-minute takes.


Burdened with the name M. Night Shyamalan upon its release (though he only came up with the concept), “Quarantine” director John Erick Dowdle and “Hard Candy” writer Brian Nelson worked from an outline from Shyamalan to create this claustrophobic combination of single location horror and supernatural battle with the devil. With a good cast boasting “The Mindy Project” co-star Chris Messina, “Hannibal” actress Caroline Dhavernas, and a pre-“Prometheus” Logan Marshall-Green, and some interesting imagery, this film was better than its namesake would have you believe.

THE OBSCURE- Fermat’s Room

A challenge more difficult than making a suspenseful film that takes place almost entirely in a single room might be making a suspense-thriller in which math seems exciting, and “Fermat’s Room” achieved them both. The premise, about four mathematicians invited to solve a major math mystery, only to find themselves trapped in a shrinking room with only their knowledge to save them, is just the tip of the iceberg in this very crafty Spanish-language film from director Luis Piedrahita.


Before director Vincenzo Natali was so effectively creeping people out with his Oedipal genetic Frankenstein story “Splice”, he started his directing career with this truly dark and bizarre film about seven strangers who wake in a massive machine made out of cubes of varying colors that contain all manner of horrible traps. A clear influence on “Saw” as much as it was a loving homage to classics like “Ten Little Indians”, it wears its horror as proudly on its sleeve as it does its dark science-fiction.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Lonely Halloween For Theatrical Horror

For the first time since 2004, Halloween came and went without a major horror franchise entry.

In 2004, director James Wan brought the low-budget first installment of the eventually record-breaking horror series "Saw" to the screen, and it was a juggernaut that dominated the holiday for five years running.  By the time of the release of "Saw VI" in 2009, it had genuine competition from the even more low-budget "Paranormal Activity."

The following year, the final film in the Jigsaw series (for now), "Saw 3D: The Final Chapter" ended that franchise, while "Paranormal Activity 3," directed by "Catfish" filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, made a barrel of money.

Then, last year, the "Paranormal Activity" franchise, probably figuring there was no solid competition, took the opportunity to try and capture the teen crowd with the franchise that had been largely a fun adult concept; the result was somewhat less than stellar, and although it made money, it was a critical mixed bag at best.

And the fifth entry in the series has been delayed until 2014, along with the spin-off movie, "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones."  This year, there was only one major theatrical release during the Halloween season: the remake of "Carrie," which was more of a thriller and didn't even come out on Halloween.

What's going on?

Well, perhaps the studios are realizing that horror doesn't have to be in a ghetto of the one-month window anymore.  James Wan, one of the reasons that the "Saw" franchise gained the notoriety it did, had two hugely successful horror films this year, "The Conjuring" and "Insidious: Chapter Two."  And they both came out in either the late summer or early fall.

People who like horror like it all year long.  Wan proved that with his films, Blumhouse Pictures proved that with "The Purge" earlier this year, and if the trend continues with the high-cost flops of summer like "RIPD" and "After Earth," this may be the way of the future for studios that want to keep making money without the exorbitant risk involved.


Friday, November 1, 2013

Sundance Is Bringing Out the Dead

To celebrate Halloween night, The Sundance Channel aired the American premiere of the French television series "The Returned" (whose original French name, "Les Revenants," might be just a little bit cooler than its American name).

The series, about a small French town slowly discovering that people who have been thought dead (and, in some cases, years dead) are coming back to their homes, looking exactly as they did before they died, and remembering nothing about their own deaths.

Now, lest you run out in the hopes of finding another intense and brutal hour of undead thrills along the lines of "The Walking Dead," take a quick breath and manage your expectations.  This is a French television series, with subtitles, that is about a small town dealing with the return of loved ones that were thought to be lost.  There are moments of suspense and the occasional pop of violence, but for the most part, this is a drama series.

Don't take that as a hesitation to recommend, though.  This is an excellent series.  While it doesn't have the horrifying intensity of "The Walking Dead" (or the train wreck laughability of "American Horror Story"), the series has great characterization and a quietly brilliant way of building small mysteries and revealing information in a frustratingly calm pace.

This is the second show from The Sundance Channel that is creating an excellent brand for the network.  While shows like "Dream School" and "The Writer's Room" are very good shows that could conceivably be found on any decent cable network, it is series like this one and the recent "Rectify" that really branding the network with solid, independently-minded shows with slow-burn intensity and a focus on character over plot machinations.

If you don't have any more free hours of television watching during the week, try cutting something out.  Drop one of the many procedural investigation shows or something from Bravo; or, if you watch American Horror Story, maybe drop that until it comes out streaming.

The Sundance Channel is a deep cable network that needs some breakout recognition, and shows like "The Returned" and "Rectify" can be the game-changing programming that "Breaking Bad" was for AMC (and by the way, in case you're concerned about Sundance's taste in programming otherwise, they do run repeats of "Breaking Bad" as well).


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Chris and Kathy Are Going It Alone

So we've decided that we're going to be handling our material on our own now.

We had a literary agent, and a manager, and a few other groups that were attempting to help us get our work distributed and published.  The problem was, we were bringing more options to the table than the people who were supposed to be doing that for us.

We're not geniuses, but we're pretty good at what we do, and we're pretty fast at what we do, and we're extremely motivated with what we do; we need people who are as fast and motivated as we are, and they're hard to find.

And that's where we come in.  We're as committed to distributing and publishing our work as we are to making our work in the first place, so we think we're the right people to do this job.  There are lots of opportunities to communicate with people in various industries with new technologies, and we're going to be crazy and unreasonable and try to go it ourselves.

And if it doesn't go well, then we'll just have to fire us.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Some Halloween Recommendations for Family Viewing

Hey, gang.  Kathy and I wrote an article about fifteen family-friendly horror films to watch for the Halloween season, which was published over at Deseret News.  You can check it out online at

Sorry about the interruption in updates on the blog here, but we've been neck-deep in big changes, and we're about to start announcing some of them here soon.  Keep an eye out!

Monday, October 14, 2013

American Horror Story: Coven Has Stolen From Stan Lee

American Horror Story: Coven, Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchak's third season of anthology bizarreness, has broken new ground again (and not in some weird sex way, although I understand if that's what you figured).

This season, instead of stealing from all the greatest horror movies that have done what they're doing before (to which they add bad dialogue and lots of sex which is much more horrifying than the scares), they've decided to steal from an even more unusual source for horror movies: Stan Lee's original X-Men. With the girls of Coven attending a school called Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, alarm bells are ringing for Mr. Lee, who invented The Xavier School For Gifted Youngsters. It is pushed further when the "witches" (who are apparently mutants in this world who develop very specific witch powers at puberty) have abilities that no witch in history has had, like being a human voodoo doll or having hate-sex with someone until their heads explode. I can't imagine, even if Mr. Lee were to take it as an homage of some kind, that he would be that excited that this is how the homage ended up looking. Stan Lee's work was never subtle or the most brilliant work ever made, but there was a sincerity in his stories and a desire to say something meaningful and to make the world a better place.

I wouldn't say that Stan Lee should be mad at American Horror Story (at least, no moer than Robert Wise should be about them stealing his work in The Haunting in season one), but I would advise him to send a letter along, asking them to cite their sources, just like you have to with any term paper that is largely comprised of material taken from other places.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


originally posted at

Humans love to stalk, to hunt, to devour. Many of the advancements humanity has found in the world have their roots in the desire to overpower another: weaponry, medicine, knowledge, these are all achievements which place humanity at the top of a quickly narrowing pyramid of superiority. We want nothing more than to know that we are at the top of the food chain.

But with that dominance comes a level of complacency. The dark beating heart of the hunter resides in some of modern man still, not satisfied to follow the unnecessary parts of ancient man’s psyche into the rubbish bin of evolution. Their very instincts were for survival and dominance, and they are not so easily quelled. The boredom and listlessness of modern life, the lack of challenge to simply stay alive, pushes people to pursue socially acceptable pastimes such as game hunting, martial arts, and paintball battles.

But the true center of what they’re striving for in those activities, the thrill of possible injury or death, the true and total domination of another creature, are hampered by things like safety gear, rules and regulations, and weaponry that takes the challenge of survival away.

The only true challenge to the cunning of a human is the cunning of another human. Often in horror stories, the struggle exists between two individuals. That is further sharpened in the humans hunting humans sub-genre, because roles are assigned by the hunter, not by nature itself. The hunter, often a wealthy person or a domineering social structure, makes the decision and the boundaries for the competition, often with seemingly insurmountable odds.

This dynamic, of the wealthy hunters who have achieved, acquired, or consumed everything legal and reasonable to that point and needing to venture into the realm of human hunting to quench a darker need, creates a class of haves versus have-nots, a story as old as the class system itself.

And therein lies the true desire of the hunter: not to be back in his savage state, spending his days trying to survive by killing when he has to; but to be strong enough and cunning enough that you stand even outside your own species. That you, as a human, have achieved something more than the rest of your species, that you have combined the savagery of ancient man and the technology, cunning, and intelligence of modern man to create something more than man itself.

The genre has been alive and well (so to speak) since the adaptation of the book “The Most Dangerous Game” (mentioned below as the Classic for the week), and has popped up in places as varied and unusual as the futuristic Ray Liotta film “No Escape” and the John Leguizamo comedy “The Pest”. Here are four recommendations for further exploration into the sub-genre.

THE CLASSIC- The Most Dangerous Game

NOTE: This is the entire film
The film that started it all, this film was written and directed by “King Kong” creators Ernest Shoedsack and James Ashmore Creelman. Starring “Sullivan’s Travels” actor Joel McCrea and the original scream queen Fay Wray, the film was shocking in its day and still holds up for classically-minded viewers.

THE MODERN- Battle Royale

A frightening dystopian vision from director Kinji Fukasaku, based on the novel by Koushun Takami, “Battle Royale” tells the story of a competition where the government forces a class of ninth-grade students to fight to the death on a small island. Highly influential on Quentin Tarantino, and credited with being the inspiration for “The Hunger Games”.

THE OBSCURE- Deathsport

In the typical Roger Corman attempt to cash in on a popular craze, director Allan Arkush brought to screen “Deathsport”, a blatant knock-off of “death Race 2000” (for once, Corman was stealing from himself) that featured David Carradine as a competitor in a futuristic death sport that uses destructocycles.

THE REINVENTION- Series 7: The Contenders

Framed as a marathon of episodes of a very popular reality television in the near future where regular people are given the chance to win money by killing off their competitors, “Series 7” is both satirical and touching in its portrayal of America’s obsession with violence and media, and the lives that are ruined in the wake of that pursuit. A clever conceit and an incredibly strong central performance from Brooke Smith as a pregnant returning champion make this an absolute essential in the sub-genre.