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Monday, December 03, 2007

As we continue working on the plot of this haunted house movie, one question that keeps coming up is whether to put a teaser at the beginning.

A teaser in a tv show, you'll recall, is a high-key opening sequence that grabs the audience and makes it want to watch the whole show. Someone's running, someone's fighting, someone is killed. It often sets up the story. In HOUSE, someone becomes ill. In CSI, they find the bodies.

A teaser in a theatrical movie functions differently from a teaser in a TV show. If you've paid $12 to see a movie, you're not likely to walk out if the first twenty minutes are slow. All a teaser does is get your blood pumping. Think of the Bond movie opening sequences. Sometimes they have nothing to do with the plot of the movie; they're just an excuse to have a neato action sequence.

Arguably a teaser does have the same function in a movie you're watching on DVD. If you've rented a bunch of DVD's from Netflix or Zip, and the first twenty minutes don't do it for you, you'll go on to the next one. Netflix doesn't lose any money, but you lose word of mouth.

A teaser can be enormously valuable in a spec script, of course. If you don't grab the reader within the first five pages, she'll dump your script and pick the next one off the stack; or, if she's required to read through, she'll start skimming. Skimming is the death of most scripts.

But we're not writing a spec script. And I've noticed that a teaser seems to function much differently in a horror movie.

One of the biggest challenges in a horror movie is pacing. You want to reach a crescendo of fear. But you can't stay there long. A crescendo wears out its welcome pretty fast. So you have to carefully ramp up the pace, from the first stirrings in the shadows up through the climax. A horror movie is a symphony of fear. You start with the tinglings of dread. Slowly you build to a level of alarm. Soon there's whammy. But then you back off to a lull where the characters react. Then you begin building again to a bigger whammy, and so on until finally you're on a home stretch to the climax -- with plenty of twists and turns to stretch out the finale.

(There is a really clever recording I heard on the radio once that I haven't been able to find since. It's Beethoven's 9th Symphony with baseball style color commentary. "And he's coming up to the crescendo -- no, wait! I think he's going into a minor key! Folks, this is incredible!" Anybody know where to find it?)

So what happens when you have a teaser?

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR opens with a kid murdering his whole family with a shotgun. This sets up the curse on the house. Then we have a big lull while the Lutz family moves in. We're killing time getting to know the family and their issues, waiting for the first scare. A spectral voice tells a priest to "get out," the dog is nervous, etc.

The biggest problem for me was that the most horrifying thing in the movie happened in the first two minutes. Blood seeping out of the stairs has nothing on kinslaying.

The problem with a teaser in a horror movie is that it spoils the build. It's like starting a symphony with the whole horn section blasting away.

I noticed that in a lot of the movies we're watching for research -- THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, THE HAUNTING, THE OTHERS -- there is no teaser. The movie is a long build from the smallest, rationally explainable events, to the scares at the end.

(These can be of different pitch. THE OTHERS and BLAIR WITCH stay in the land of dread, while THE HAUNTING turns into a special effects lollapalooza.)

So what keeps us watching?

I think it's important to remember that neither the reader's nor the audience's experience begins with the script or the movie. The reader's experience begins with the cover letter, which mentions the hook. The audience's experience begins with the marketing campaign.

The most important fact that the audience knows coming into a horror movie is that they are seeing a horror movie. So they don't, strictly, need a teaser. They know bad things are going to happen. If you go see THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, you know that kids are going to be cut apart with a chainsaw. So you're going to stick around at least until the chainsaws come out. Until then, you'll make do with hints and suggestions. It's enough to see that one character is very, very scared; we don't have to see what she's scared of, yet.

Likewise, in ALIEN, we know there's going to be an alien hunting down the members of the crew. So we know to be scared going into the crashed spacecraft. We know to be scared of those eggs. We know that the dark corridors of the ship are scary, even if we haven't seen the beastie yet.

In fact, one of the hardest things to watch in a horror movie is where the characters needlessly put themselves in danger. What kind of idiot would poke his nose into that egg? And we have to remember that the characters don't know they're in a horror movie. They can't hear the scary music. Who's scared of an egg? Who's scared of a corridor?

We're writing this script in 7 act structure. No one dies until mid-3rd act. I've had the note that peril comes late. But I'm not sure that's right. The audience knows what the hook to this story is. They know this is a haunted house. So if I give them clever hints, they should experience dread. And I need to play with their dread for a while before I start killing off the characters, or the picture will climax too soon. On the kind of budget I'm working with, there aren't going to be any big special effects.

Oh, okay, one character gets sucked into a Maw of Hell®. But that's at the very end.

I'm using a seven act structure because it helps me make sure that each act raises the horror level and the pitch. In the first act, the villagers are scared of the house. In the second act, the characters see weird things in the house. In the third act, someone dies, but the characters don't know it yet. In the fourth act, they know the house is haunted, and try to escape, but can't. In the fifth, they're up front and personal with the house's evil. In the sixth, the outside world becomes involved. In the seventh, they discover what makes the house evil, and lay the evil to rest.

We did consider various teasers. One would have shown that the house was haunted; but we know the house is haunted. One would have set up the curse; but we know the house is cursed. All would have introduced extra characters that we'd never see again. All would have told the audience what they already essentially knew.

So, we ditched the teaser.

Of course, there are horror movies with teasers. The dreadful AN AMERICAN HAUNTING tells a haunting story set in the 1800s which begins in dread and ends in death; but it starts with a girl in the present running from nameless horror, in a bookending scene. It doesn't quite work but I see what they were trying to do.

There are also terror movies, which I'm leaving out of this equation. In CRAFTY SCREENWRITING I distinguished between horror and terror as: In a terror story, you're scared you'll end up dead. In a horror story, you should be so lucky. SCREAM has a clever teaser that kills off the movie's only name actress. But SCREAM isn't really about scaring the audience. You can watch SCREAM and eat popcorn all the way through. Try doing that the first time you see ALIEN. I'm not sure my definition holds up entirely.

I'm not sure how all this relates to the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies. They are technically horror movies. The victims do wind up in nightmarish fates, though they seem more cartoonish than horrifying. The horror movies I like violate the laws of God in primal ways; the deaths in the Freddy movies seem more clever than primal. But they don't have the same slow pacing. We see Freddy in the first reel, I think, and the pacing is mostly dread punctuated by horror, dread, horror, dread, horror, etc. rather than dread, dread, dread, dread, horror, horror, horror.

But I don't really grok the whole Freddy/Jason/Pinhead franchisable demon killer subgenre, so I'll leave its analysis as an exercise.

Maybe I'm making too much of this. Maybe there isn't a rule that a horror movie doesn't need or want a teaser; maybe just a horror movie that depends on a long slow build. But I am pretty sure that the haunted house movie I'm writing now doesn't want one. And I think it is very important to remember that almost no one is going to see the movie you're writing without knowing what kind of movie it is. The audience is coming in to see it with certain expectations.

This incidentally is one reason the right title is so important. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION suggests a movie about a convict who comes to terms with his imprisonment, which is not what the movie's about. Whereas if a movie has "haunt" in its title, or "horror," or "nightmare," or is simply called POLTERGEIST, then at least we're clear what kinda movie we're watching.

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The Philosophy of Horror by Noel Carroll: an awesome book that discusses exactly this issue (the difference between horror and terror, not the teaser thing, athough he may cover that too).


By Blogger Anthony, at 12:32 PM  

Speaking of the Shawshank Redemption, I think one of the reasons it did so badly theatrically was because of the name. Well, there's that and the fact that it's a prison movie. People who like to watch prison movies are generally not the type of people who would see a movie called The Shawshank Redemption.

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:20 PM  

(There is a really clever recording I heard on the radio once that I haven't been able to find since. It's Beethoven's 9th Symphony with baseball style color commentary. "And he's coming up to the crescendo -- no, wait! I think he's going into a minor key! Folks, this is incredible!" Anybody know where to find it?)

It's called "New Horizons In Music Appreciation: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony" by Peter Schickele, also known as PDQ Bach.

I'd send you the track but I only have the album on vinyl... here's a link though.

It's a great piece of comedy -- hope you can get hold of it.

By Blogger M@, at 1:21 PM  

Found an mp3 online - enjoy!

Download it here

By Blogger John Hudgens, at 1:52 PM  

Awesome. "New Horizons..." is available on iTunes!

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:16 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger Brandon Laraby, at 5:10 PM  

As an aspiring Horror writer, I've always found that - in the movies I've seen and appriciated - A good Teaser can do much to set the tone and get people going.

Now, maybe I'm wrong here, but isn't the whole first 5 mins or so of Ginger Snaps (one of my all-time faves) a Teaser? It sets up the threat and gives us a taste of what's to come then, beautifully, slides into the Title and on with the show.

I've always thought of Horror as the hardest genre to portray because it relies - almost solely - on the audience's belief in the reality of that world or situation; The ability to take the audience and make them believe that they are NOT safe.

It's a fragile balance that, once lost, can never be regained. If you don't believe in the danger there's no way you're going to let yourself be scared by it.

The best example of a Movie that grabs on and doesn't let go is The Exorcist. I dare you to watch that movie alone, on a stormy night in a dark room. Even now, it's terrifying and not just because of the spinning head and pea soup.

Watching it now, I know it's fake but viscerally that movie works for me because we find out about these characters and see the transformation, we can relate to the fear - we BELIEVE it could happen.

Anyways, I'll stop now before I go into Rant mode but I think that teasers are a great way to go if you can use it to set up both story and character without giving too much away.


By Blogger Brandon Laraby, at 5:12 PM  

I assume you're talking about the remake of The Haunting. The original is a more 'land of dreader', and way, way better.

By Blogger Oli, at 4:49 AM  

Thanks for spoiling your movie/show, Alex! =b

Re: NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13TH, etc. etc. I haven't watched the first ones or any of them very extensively, but I've gotten the impression that the first in the series work a lot better and have more meaning than just the schlock slasher movie, even though I guess the proceeding ones can also add something to the first one. I'm not much of a horror fan, so I can't really say that I know what I'm talking about.

By Blogger The_Lex, at 12:03 PM  

A Haunted House eh? I would revisit Something Wicked This Way Comes and perhaps Silver Bullet. I also think the remake of The Hills Have Eyes has one of the greatest teasers this side of 2006.

By Blogger Rusty James, at 8:14 PM  

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