Halloween is just around the corner and that means binge eating candy in between visits from trick o’ treaters and binge watching late night horror flicks. Writing a screenplay is no small feat–but writing a horror screenplay requires a unique and specific process where scares and tension are as equally important as plot and character.
Horror movies need to tap into the audience’s collective fears and leverage them to make the screenplay successful. A great storyline and characters are the way to start your screenplay but you need to figure out how you will leave your audience unsettled. If you plan on writing your own horror flick in the near future, here’s a list of great screenplays you can learn a thing or two from:
John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic is still one of the most successful independent movies of all time, and set the bar for modern horror screenplays. There are several reasons why Halloweenis still a staple in today’s movie culture. It is no secret that in most genre screenplays, female characters are underwritten, unsympathetic, and objectified. While Carpenter did write most of screenplay, producer Debra Hill wrote the dialogue between the three female leads played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis, and P.J. Soles. Thanks to Hill’s dialogue, the female leads felt more believable and authentic–which helps the audience connect with them before they become Michael’s would-be victims.
This movie’s script, written by Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson, is a shooting script–a version of the screenplay used during the production of a movie or television show, and is different than a spec screenplay. Kubrick is a master director, and seeing how he planned to build tension outside of the dialogue and simple stage directions is a master class in suspense.
The Exorcist may be more than 40 years old, but it can certainly rattle your bones and leave you with chills. One thing to note is the lack of a movie score; there are of course the iconic piano key notes throughout the movie, but there isn’t a dedicated score outside of that. It may be obvious to the audience at first but as the movie progresses, the minimalist music helps lull the audience into the screenplay, helping them forget they are watching a movie.
After skillfully building tension with a crime plot centering around protagonist Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), director Alfred Hitchcock does something uncommon in Hollywood, and especially in 1960: he switches the point-of-view of the film’s lead about 50 minutes into the film by killing Marion off. The audience is left with creepy motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) as he struggles to get away from his domineering, hot-tempered, and murderous mother, or so we think until the script delivers yet another iconic plot twist.
Kevin Williamson, writer of Scream, opted for a shocking first scene–making the movie’s opening one of the most iconic in horror movie history. The film begins with a young woman, Casey, innocently flirting with a stranger over the phone, before it ends with her frantically running for her life. Because Casey was played by A-list actress Drew Barrymore, who was also put front and center in the film’s marketing, audiences were really thrown for a loop when the phone conversation takes a sudden turn from flirty to menacing. The script never lets up either, giving Wes Craven one of his most meta films of his career, one that deconstructed the entire slasher genre.
Some of the most well known lines from movies, and even scenes, are actually ad libbed, or improvised. Improvisation actually has many benefits for actors.
Below are six famous movie scenes that you may have not known were improvised.
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Most people are familiar with Humphrey Bogart’s line from the 1942 movie, “Casablanca.” Bogart was teaching actress Ingrid Bergman how to play poker between takes when Bogart first said the famous line. Once they were back on camera, the line came out spontaneously during one of the flashback scenes in Paris.
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
“The Godfather,” 1972
Everybody loves cannoli! Francis Ford Coppola, the director of “The Godfather,” added the line, “don’t forget the cannoli,” last minute to the script. But Richard Castellano decided to take Coppola’s line and make it his own.
“Are you talkin’ to me?”
“Taxi Driver,” 1976
One sentence in the screenplay, which reads, “Travis looks in the mirror,” led to Robert De Niro improvising the entire scene in the movie.
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
After Roy Schneider encounters the Great White shark, the scene was supposed to close. Instead, Schneider made up this line to help bring closure to the encounter.
“Son of a b****, he stole my line.”
“Good Will Hunting,” 1997
When Robin Williams goes to the mailbox to read a note, Williams said a different line for each take of the final scene in the movie because nothing was scripted. Co-star Matt Damon, who co-wrote the script, told Boston Magazine in 2015 that after Williams said the well-known line, “It was like a bolt, it was just one of those holy s*** moments, where, like, that’s it.”
“The Shining,” 1980
Nothing is scarier than Jack Nicholson, who portrays Jack Torrance, busting a door down with an ax. During that scene, Nicholson’s character sticks his head through a hole in the door, and says, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” Nicholson’ joke, which referenced Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” was almost cut because director Stanley Kubrick, who is from England, didn’t know the reference.
Back in 2007 I posted on YouTube my first 20 minute video analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, putting forward interpretations of a hidden theme of Native American genocide and identifying various foreshadowing subtleties through which the audience could “shine” regarding the horrors that awaited further into the film. At the time The Shining was largely considered by mainstream critics to be a purely commercial Kubrick piece—a work well below par for the great director, but I quickly found that I wasn’t the only one beginning to notice that the film was not what it first appeared to be. A handful of people had started posting online articles offering their own theories, many of which would later end up in the documentary movie Room 237.
As expected, the viral spread of debate about The Shining was met with accusations, from some parties, of pareidolia (seeing something because you expect to see it) and “conspiracy theory”—the default term now used to attack, without any real argument, anything that challenges mainstream media consensus on a given topic. The word “conspiracy,” by definition, refers to an attempt to commit an illegal act and requires an agreement between two or more people. So if Kubrick did encode hidden messages in his movies without the knowledge of his cast and crew then it doesn’t qualify as a “conspiracy” being that Kubrick was an individual and what he was doing was not a crime.
Further down the line I researched The Shining and other Kubrick films in greater detail, making several visits to the Stanley Kubrick Archives in London, and discovered a lot of information that further supports the increasingly accepted argument that Kubrick did in fact encode many hidden meanings in his films. My theory that The Shining carries a hidden theme regarding the historical role of gold reserves in US monetary policy was vindicated when I looked at the “Jack’s scrapbook” prop, which is barely shown in the film, but is full of articles relating to the First and Second World Wars, the creation of the Federal Reserve bank and the US abandonment of the Gold standard. The various black-and-white photos adorning the walls of the Overlook Hotel in the film are also still housed in the Kubrick Archives and virtually all of them show bankers, business tycoons, movie stars, and US presidents ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson.
A rare verbal acknowledgement of hidden messaging also came from Jan Harlan, executive producer of The Shining and brother-in-law of Stanley Kubrick. In two interviews for The Guardian he acknowledged that the set designs of the Overlook Hotel had intentionally been made spatially impossible to disorientate the viewer, a theory which I’d posted a year earlier and which had been met by some short-sighted respondents with the knee-jerk accusation of pareidolia.
I also tracked down Joan Honour Smith, the airbrush artist who placed Nicholson’s photo in the framed picture at the end of The Shining. She didn’t know exactly where Kubrick acquired the original, unaltered ballroom photo, but did reveal that Kubrick had allowed her to spend a lot of time on set. One of her many interesting set visit stories was that Stanley had initially made his crew decorate the huge bar room set in silver and then, to their dismay, ordered that they redo the entire thing in gold. Gold and silver were identified in the US Declaration of Independence as the only legal money, which ties in nicely with the Gold Room dialogue about money and the fact that there wasn’t a Gold Room location in Stephen King’s novel of The Shining. Co-incidence theories lose plausibility in the light of such information.
So for me, the argument has been settled, Stanley Kubrick did encode hidden themes in The Shining and the only debate to be had is how he kept it quiet (a matter which is fairly easy to understand considering his well-documented cast- and crew-baffling mind games on set) and which interpretations of those messages are the most credible.
Room 237 Sparks a Row
During the pre-production of the film Room 237, a documentary about various interpretations of The Shining, director Rodney Ascher invited me to be interviewed for the film, but I had serious reservations. I’m accustomed to editing my own work and, from past experiences, have learned the hard lesson of never letting someone else edit your statements for you. I also felt that the mixture of competing, and often incompatible, interpretations of The Shining in one documentary film might serve only to discredit them all by association. So I politely declined to take part, but was pleased to see Ascher breaking the mainstream media doors wide open with his film by getting a strong reception at Cannes, securing a distribution deal, and generating hundreds of news media articles on the subject.
I closely followed the media response to Room 237 and, frankly, much of it was predictable. The boring old “conspiracy theory” term was used by certain journalists who appeared personally affronted and threatened by the idea that The Shining might be deeper than mainstream critics had acknowledged. It’s possible that there was a certain competitive bias in their coverage. After all, mainstream media film critique is nowadays up against fierce competition from independent online film critique and analysis. But the “conspiracy theorist” claim was, to an extent, justified by the inclusion in Room 237 of the theory that Kubrick helped fake the 1969 moon landings for NASA. On surface appearance it seems that to accept that interpretation of The Shining requires a wholesale acceptance of the belief that the moon landings were faked. For most people that’s asking too much, especially if they write film critiques for major newspapers and magazines in which their pay checks are determined more by editors than public opinion. But, as with most controversial conspiracy debates, there are middle ground possibilities. It’s possible that Stanley Kubrick simply believed the moon landings were faked and perhaps even made hints to that effect in some of his films, though personally I don’t see it in The Shining. The Apollo rocket on Danny’s sweater was certainly an intentional choice, but it’s not enough, in my opinion, to interpret the entire film. I see no other evidence of a moon landing message in The Shining, but it doesn’t mean I have to hate Room 237 for giving the idea a platform for public consideration. In fact, I disagree with probably at least 60% of the interpretations in Room 237, but I still enjoyed the film. John Fell Ryan’s forward-backwards theory, for me, is debunked by the fact that different versions of The Shining have different run times (the original cinema release, which included a hospital scene ending, isn’t available at all), but I still found that part of Room 237 interesting and entertaining.
Right or wrong, Jay Weidner’s moon landing interpretation of The Shining was widely used as a sort of straw man to attack all the other interpretations Room 237 had to offer, and to that effect I think I made the right decision not to be in it. Even Rodney Ascher himself came under fire simply for creating a film that allowed viewers to make up their own minds. But there are some revealing contradictions in the negative coverage of Room 237. Two scathing attacks were posted by Jim Emerson at the late Roger Ebert’s website , one stating “In the end, once the film is released, the filmmakers’ intentions don’t really matter anymore because it belongs to the audience.” That’s a roundabout way of saying that films have no meaning, which in itself would render all film critique, including Jim Emerson’s, as redundant.
Back when The Shining was first released Roger Ebert abstained from reviewing the film. Eventually he did review it in 2006 and put forward an interpretation that the film wasn’t actually a ghost story at all, but rather a series of hallucinations within an abusive family situation. He even identified a crucial piece of visual encoding, the presence of mirrors in Jack’s interactions with ghosts—Jack is talking to himself. These observations by Ebert correlate strongly with my own writings about the film. So on the one hand we have Ebert offering interpretations of The Shining that would fit right in with those in Room 237, yet we have Emerson attacking Rodney Ascher and Room 237 on Ebert’s own site and referring to the interviewees as “obsessives” and “conspirators.” But the contradictions don’t stop there. In his second article, Emerson attempts to tear apart every theory in the film, one by one, but neglects to mention that the impossible set design interpretation (outlined in Room 237 by Julie Kearns) has been verified by Jan Harlan. Emerson also states that a plausible case might be made for the Native American genocide theme…so let me get that straight. If an interpretation is offered that Emerson personally considers plausible then it’s acceptable, but if it’s one he entirely disagrees with then it is to be attacked and ridiculed as “conspiracy theory” and viewer “obsession.” I don’t think so. And Emerson wasn’t the only attacker of Room 237 who made the contradiction of slating the film, yet tentatively admitting the genocide theme was plausible.
One of the funniest and most revealing features of Room 237 is that, although Ascher really does present the various theories on an equal platform to invite equal consideration, Room 237 has a visually encoded message of its own. The interviewee narrations are accompanied by interesting bits of visual editing that imply what I call a “fractal movie”…a movie within a movie. The film makers even made a trailer in which The Shining scene involving a river of blood pouring out of an elevator is re-enacted by a river of blood and a cassette tape coming out of a VHS machine (a reference to my YouTube video Something In The River of Blood?). And the Room 237 marketing posters feature similar motifs such as a hedge maze in the shape of a human brain—a psychological maze. None of this stuff is talked about by the interviewees in the film and so, as far as I can tell, Ascher is making a visual statement that one can get lost in a psychological maze of film interpretation. And I haven’t read a single critical review that brought attention to that feature. Ascher’s media detractors entirely missed those clues, even though it tentatively supports their own attacks on the interpretations contained within the film.
Beyond The Shining
It appears that Room 237 has opened the doors of deeper film interpretation for some people, while closing it for others, but it has not to my knowledge sparked wide re-interpretation and curiosity of Kubrick’s full filmography. It makes little sense to assume that Kubrick would spend such a great deal of time encoding hidden themes and messages in The Shining, but not in the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, or Eyes Wide Shut. Room 237 also included clips from many other classic and cryptic feature films such as An American Werewolf In London, a film worthy of deeper analysis itself.
The Shining isn’t the only film full of hidden themes and meanings. And this is verifiable in that Stanley Kubrick openly admitted to a fan by letter that his film Dr. Strangelove contained subtly encoded sexual themes throughout. The letter, a copy of which had sat in Kubrick’s archives for decades, has now been published in the Stanley Kubrick Archives book.
Starship Troopers was attacked as being pro-fascist upon release, yet in the DVD commentary director Paul Verhoeven and writer Ed Neumier openly admit to encoding all sorts of subtle hidden messages and even point out many of the revealing details. Neumier even confessed in an interview for the website Something Wicked, “One of the things that Paul and I decided to do with Starship was to not tell anybody what we were doing, to really play it down the middle. To play it on the one side as ‘this is just a big fun, stupid movie’ and on the other hand have all these other themes in it, which if you look at it are there in every scene, they’re just not underlined or pushed.” In fact the film is deep enough that I was able to produce an extensive analysis documentary that rivals my writings on The Shining.
In the book Giger’s Alien, the legendary artist H.R. Giger, himself renowned for symbolism, made various admissions to the encoding of sexual and reproduction cycle imagery in Alien’s visual designs. He explains that the orifice of the Alien egg was initially deemed too vaginal by the crew, who were worried it might offend Catholics in the audience, so Giger put a cross section in the vaginal orifice to symbolize his disdain for religion and censorship.
Spielberg’s E.T., like The Shining, was broadly considered purely commercial upon release, but a decade later the director began explaining in interviews that the film is actually about family break-up trauma.
And I discovered a fascinating hidden detail encoded in a sequence of flash frames in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and posted a video about it. A fan then pointed out that in the DVD extras for the film the viewer is told outright to look at the individual flash frame images and to find that hidden detail.
These are open admissions and cannot be snobbishly dismissed, but such admissions of encoded hidden meanings in movies are rare. Some directors meet us half way by admitting that their films do have hidden meanings, but instead of explaining it they challenge us to discover the messages for ourselves.
Author Stephen Rebello cites in his book The Making of Psycho that when Hitchcock released his follow-up film The Birds one of the marketing billboards told the viewer outright that the film has a hidden meaning which upon discovery would double the audience’s appreciation.
In interviews David Lynch has many times, refused to answer questions about the meanings in his films, instead offering cryptic descriptions of “dream logic.”
And of course advertisements are full of subtle details designed to get a subconscious reaction from the viewer against their will.
I also encoded a ton of hidden meanings in my own, ultra-low budget feature, Turn In Your Grave. In fact I even announced on set that I was doing it, thus challenging my cast and crew to try and figure the film out as we were filming it. I think between them they managed to notice maybe 25% of the hidden themes based on their comments to me on set.
However, hidden messages in movies are very often not admitted to at all. The film makers know that most people won’t even be looking for hidden stuff, but they trust that sooner or later some viewer will pick up on something significant and then the awareness of that revelation will spread by word of mouth, which is made easier these days by the internet.
I’d like to see other under-appreciated movies get the same transformational rebirth The Shining has had and for new and upcoming film makers to familiarize themselves with these unconventional forms of communication that go beyond the severe restrictions of the diabolical screenplay format.
So for those wanting to step beyond The Shining in terms of appreciating other movies at a deeper level, I suggest the following twenty films, some of which I’ve already posted videos or articles about and some of which, to my knowledge, contain depths that haven’t yet been scrutinized and talked about in published film critique.
1. The Big Lebowski (1988)
High on visual metaphor and verbal innuendo, this Coen Bros classic can initially be seen as just an eccentric comedy about guys who like to go bowling, but it presents a complex, tangled web of characters and events worthy of repeated viewing. Hidden themes include a political statement about the comparisons between the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, a social commentary on the decline of male identity and masculinity, and life’s ups and downs presented as the strikes and gutters of bowling. Pay close attention to The Dude’s symbolic dream sequences.
2. The Thing (1982 remake)
Already a cult film and appearing on many sci-fi and horror top ten lists, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing is an incredibly sophisticated film, partially because a one-year shooting delay allowed Carpenter and his team to plan everything down to the last detail in advance. The result is a sort of puzzle movie in which the viewer can play detective in their attempts to figure out who is human vs. imitation and what exactly happens in the parts of the story that are not directly shown to us. Even the mere use of clothing continuity is quite revealing regarding when characters have been assimilated by the enemy.
And several fans of my videos about The Thing wrote me with an observation that resolves one of the major plot mysteries of the story—how The Thing got access to the locked blood storage unit. In one interview Room 237 director Rodney Ascher mentioned he was considering making a movie about fan theories of John Carpenter’s The Thing. I would certainly be interested in watching that.
3. Citizen Kane (1941)
Although in film studies Citizen Kane has been talked about endlessly, it’s still a great one for non-film students to get into. The film was technically and artistically ground breaking in its day—in fact I think if its release had been delayed until 2014 it would still be considered ground breaking on many levels. The film contained hints that its lead character represented a particular media tycoon of the day, William Randolph Hearst, which resulted in media attacks on Orson Welles personally. The success of the film, and the enemies it earned him, nearly finished Welles. It certainly crippled his future output, but not his long term influence.
4. Wall-E (2008)
In recent years there have been many children’s films that carry intelligent and subtle themes placed in them for the adults in the audience. Wall-E especially stands out because there is so little dialogue in the film. Visual communication is the order of the day. There are many intentional parallels with hidden themes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and other hidden themes include…well, I won’t mention them yet being that the film is on my analysis to-do list for future publication.
5. Bladerunner (1982)
Ridley Scott adored Stanley Kubrick’s work according to actor Joe Turkel, who played roles in both The Shining and Bladerunner. The film’s vision of a corporate takeover of society is well-recognized, as are some of its allusions to Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, but there are still a ton of themes and details that are rarely, if ever, talked about. In the scene of Deckard looking at a family photograph dropped by the Replicant character Rachel, I noticed an incredibly subtle detail—the photograph, when seen in close up, briefly turns into live video footage. In other scenes involving photographs and dialogue about memory, logos of recording media corporations are visible in the backdrops.
6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
An incredibly sophisticated parody of elitist snobbery in Medieval England, elements of which still remain a part of modern Britain. Even in their TV series the Pythons were genius when it came to challenging class system pathology. Their first feature film works on many levels of humor and metaphor, from surrealist slapstick to background visual gags to brain-twisting sections of dialogue, as it pokes fun at the art of historical epic filmmaking itself.
7. Blue Velvet (1986)
Probably David Lynch’s most successful blend of commercial film making and his own brand of dream-logic surrealism. Like with Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, there are sections of the film that are basically dream sequences disguised as straight narrative events. Once you figure out which scenes are and aren’t dreams a different story emerges.
8. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Some reviewers claimed A.I. contained the worst of Spielberg and Kubrick. Personally I think it combined the best. The film is deep enough that I was able to write a 23 chapter analysis of it. Here are two of my short videos on the subject, David’s Oedipus Complex and The Significance of Teddy.
9. Blow Up (1966)
Incredibly original arthouse film by Michelangelo Antonioni. Very little is explained outright and the story takes many unexpected turns in both style and narrative. It certainly carries strong social commentary.
10. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Reduced in reputation by its inferior sequels, Wes Craven’s finest work taps into the subconscious bogeyman and psycho stalker archetypes and, through a genius stroke of mixing dream events with real events, provides a narrative through which those archetypes are able to surface and haunt the audience. But the film also, more subtly, plays on our sexual fears and general fear and hatred of pedophiles.
11. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)
In my opinion the most original and conceptually ground-breaking feature film ever made. The next time you watch it, tilt your head 90 degrees while looking at the monolith—remind you of anything? There’s also the controversial presence of multiple hints that the HAL 9000 computer represents IBM. For a detailed study, check out my 14 chapter analysis.
12. Cape Fear (1991 remake)
One of those films so commercially effectively the critics forgot to look a little deeper. Scorsese takes the black and white, good and evil characters of the original and spices them up by making sure everyone has skeletons in the closet. The perfect wholesomeness of the family unit is dropped in favor of a more realistic and modern family that is driven apart by individual ambitions, infidelity, and denial. And to top it all off Scorsese frames the whole piece around a biblical concept in which the psychotic Max Cady can be considered an angel or a demon, depending on how you view his effect on the family.
13. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Kubrick’s most artistically underrated film. Everybody gets the basic parody of military brainwashing in the first half of the story, but in the second half Kubrick offers a greater intellectual challenge. Issues of media propaganda and parallels between the Vietnam War and the colonization of America, among other themes, are intertwined in a cryptic puzzle. In particular, sexual objectification of women, a consistent theme in Kubrick’s work, is central to the film’s cryptic second half.
14. Barton Fink (1991)
The Coen Bros go all David Lynch on us. Real events are cryptically mixed with the story-writing thoughts of the lead character as he attempts to write his first Hollywood script, having already achieved success with his last Broadway stage play. The film parodies, in equal measure, the phoney executives of big picture studios and the self-delusion of writers who let financial motives overtake their artistic impulses.
15. High Plains Drifter (1973)
For me this is easily Clint Eastwood’s finest picture. It was only his second outing as director, yet the quality suggests a film maker with at least a dozen previous features under his belt. The conceptual trappings of classic westerns are turned on their heads as a town of supposedly God-fearing, honest, and hard-working folk are made to pay for past crimes they collectively committed and hoped they could bury. Some critics were so offended by the portrayal of the townspeople that Eastwood later made an apologetic remake of sorts, Pale Rider. My in-depth analysis of the film can be watched here.
16. Rango (2011)
Another kids’ film worthy of adult attention. Rango is jam-packed with social and political themes, from oil wars and corruption to the empowerment of the individual. It also pays strong homage to many classic pictures that share its themes—Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Apocalypse Now, 2001: A Space Odyssey and, of course, the aforementioned High Plains Drifter.
17. Hellraiser (1987)
Another horror, which has been tarnished in reputation by inferior sequels. Clive Barker went all out in his first feature, both viscerally and subliminally. Of course the full-on gore received more critical attention than anything else, which says as much about the critics than it does about the film. Look beyond the gore and you’ll find a multilayered film that explores the pathology of sadomasochism and the seedy underworld of the sex trades. A sub-plot of parental abuse is suggested and there are many visual references to the pain and pleasure subtleties of sexual awakening. Here’s a feature I picked up on, but have never read about in any reviews or studies of the film—the mysterious puzzle box representing the television set itself.
18. Time Bandits (1981)
Incredibly original feature that shows the Monty Python intellect in a different light. The use of dwarf actors in roles designed to visually fit with the child actor lead is a genius stroke. There are tons of jokes and inventive special effects on display, but beneath it all is a cryptic narrative involving dream sequences, an unflattering view on God and religion, and a strong anti-corporate message. While successful, the film’s dark and mysterious ending perhaps prevented it from becoming a commercial mega hit.
19. The Matrix (1999)
This film’s anti-corporate, anti-artificiality, anti-big government messages have made it a favorite among critics of the War On Terror. Unlike most of the other CGI-effects movies it actually has a narrative that thoroughly justifies the use of CGI, and within the action and special effects bombardment there are lots of thematically significant visual details.
20. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Tarantino is renowned for his witty dialogue, but much overlooked is his ability to use symbolic props and dialogue subtleties hinting at events and character traits that aren’t so obvious from the movie plotline. Here’s my analysis of the film’s deleted scenes.