The 13th Floor

Why a Good Filmmaker Can Turn Any Concept Into a Scary Movie

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people claim a movie is great just because it has a great premise. Whether it’s “Come on! Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig are cowboys who fight aliens!” or “How could you not love a movie where the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE girls fight zombies?” Some people seem to think that a 90-minute movie couldn’t possibly be boring because it can be described with one great sentence.

However, it’s even more frustrating to me when people use a premise to demean a great movie. This happens oh so often to one of my favorite films, THE BIRDS — it’s a well-oiled thriller, but it’s dismissed as a silly bird attack movie. If you’re basing your judgment solely on the plot, BIRDEMIC is on exactly the same tier as Mr. Hitchcock’s film, and that’s not a world I want to live in.

It’s time for us to end this obscene practice once and for all. Just like a bad filmmaker can make an exciting idea completely tedious, a good one can make any concept scary.

Consider some of the most famous horror movies of all time: HELLRAISER is about an evil Rubik’s Cube that conjures S&M demons. POLTERGEIST is about a little girl who’s adducted by a TV set. THE RING is about a haunted videotape, for crying out loud! It’s easy to describe these movies in a way that makes them sound incredibly silly. What makes them effective is the way they are presented.

If anybody but Clive Barker had made HELLRAISER, it wouldn’t hold the same raw power (as proven by its endless litany of sequels), and whether you believe that Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg directed POLTERGEIST, in somebody else’s hands that material could have felt like just another throwaway AMITYVILLE riff.

I think the best recent example of a director mining solid horror out of a silly concept is THE BABADOOK: It’s literally a story about an evil pop-up book. In another world, it could have spawned a six-part franchise at Full Moon Features; however, thanks to incomparable director Jennifer Kent, it’s a sublimely terrifying rumination on the dark side of motherhood.

Selling a concept is always the same — no matter how far-fetched or mundane. You need a solid cast, a consistent tone, a tight screenplay with well-etched characters, and so on and so forth. Sure, it takes more finesse in all of these aspects to ground a premise that’s more out-there, but on the same token it’s easy to ruin even the most basic of ideas; people aren’t going to buy the story of a geeky poet in high school if you cast Dwayne Johnson in the role.

Your movie isn’t good because of the concept — your movie is good because it’s good.

THE BLOB’s story of a murderous ball of space jelly is great because of a stellar special effects team and a director willing to commit to an unrelenting approach. CANDYMAN has a ridiculous name and M.O., but Tony Todd’s gravelly menace and Phillip Glass’s woozy score transform it into an urban gothic masterpiece. You don’t have to believe in a story for it to work — it has to believe in itself, and it has to be crafted by people who know what the hell they’re doing with it.

So I don’t want to hear you going around defending a movie with a three-word summary; “killer gingerbread man” just doesn’t cut it. That idea doesn’t make it good or bad or anything in between — it just is. What really matters is the dedication and craftsmanship of a team of people willing to go the extra mile. That’s all you need for your skin to crawl — whether the culprit is a cannibal, a ravenous beast, or a talking plant.