I remember very well meeting with my future business partner, Shaun Gerardo, in the bar of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. It was around Christmas 2015, and we were brainstorming story ideas for a film production company we would form. I provided the outline of a story entitled Brothers Keeper, which I have yet to write as of November 2016. I anticipate doing so someday, because I have learned that unwritten stories that manage to stick in my mind for a long time remain there for a reason. One of the little clerks in my head obviously thinks that the Brothers Keeper file indeed is worth preserving, and I have learned to trust their expertise in such matters.
Besides discussing Brothers Keeper, we spoke in broader terms about wanting to make horror films that are actually good stories. That should be obvious, and yet since the heyday of horror dramas in the 1960s and the 1970s (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left) too many such stories have set aside the core elements of good storytelling (dramatic conflict, compelling characters, believable dialogue, story and character arcs) for cheap scare effects. I swear that I am going to walk out on the next producer who insists on a “boo” scene every eight minutes. I am not a purist, truth be told. I shall listen to the man who wants me to add a pair of naked breasts, or a hot number nubile and nude in a shower, because we men are all groundlings at some point. Nevertheless, those damned “boo” scenes (killer leaps out from behind the curtain and grabs the heroine only to discover it is all a dream) have got to go, or at least be used as a last resort when the author or the filmmaker cannot think of anything particularly creepy, or scintillating, or just plain disgusting. While I am on my rant, let us also get rid of those ADD quick cuts and that obligatory grab and scream shot at the conclusion of virtually every horror trailer. We need to stop recruiting horror film directors from the ranks of music videos and try to find those select few young filmmakers who actually know a little something about Hammer Films, George A. Romero, William Friedkin, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter.
Horror is about atmosphere. It is about building tension. The cheap “boo” scene works against horror by releasing tension. In a horror story, whether on paper or in film, the audience should find little reason to laugh. The story should grab a hold of that man or woman’s heart and twist it. There is nothing funny about that, thank you very much.
Now I shall jump off my high horse for a moment. Even I am getting bored of my own pretensions about horror, and the truth is that I too enjoy ridiculous slasher films. I do not find them all that scary, but I love them in the same way a teenaged boy loves getting up in the middle of the night to sneak a peek at “the good scenes” he may find on Cinemax After Dark (invariably French or Italian women looking bored, while a wide assortment of men chew on their necks and nipples). Slasher films are guilty pleasures. If we are of a certain age, then they remind us of our youth; and there is nothing wrong with that.
It is just that these films are not really scary. The noted exceptions are the first and the second Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The rest of the many scream queen films of the 1980s may entertain us, but is there anyone out there who has stayed up all night because of the masked killer in Terror Train or Prom Night? I rest my case.
Thus, Shaun and I discussed making films that would be truly horrifying because, first and foremost, they would be compelling stories. Start with the characters, figure out the dramatic conflict, and let the creepy atmosphere take hold where it naturally should. The horror will come alive on its own, and it will take hold because the audience is actually invested in the people on the screen. In other words, we wanted to go back to the basics.
With this objective in mind, I wrote the script for Darkest Night. This is the first time I have developed a story first as a script and then as a novel. Shaun and Cristopher Sabol, our other business partner, gave me invaluable feedback over the course of three drafts. Given that I have never written a second draft of any of my previous novels, this story is the first one to be developed in that systematic manner we normally call “the writing process.” This time, I had proofreaders. I actually edited my text based on their feedback. Oooh! Aaah! Some pretty girl out there should smile at me for exhibiting real discipline. I am not sure this makes me a real writer. Nor am I sure that the end product is better because of the proofreading and the editing. What I can say is that the story and the authorship are mine, but the “sausage making” that took place in between the first and the last word was much more collaborative than anything I have done before.
There are scenes I included in the novel that none of us had conceived when we were collaborating on the script. There are also scenes in the novel that are expanded from how they appear in the script. This is as it should be. I may deplore the overuse of ADD quick cuts and other horror genre tropes in films today, but I also acknowledge that films should never feel like novels. If they do, then they are too bogged down, too slow, and probably in need of another go around with the editor. There is a reason why we microwave popcorn before putting a DVD into the machine, but we do no such thing when propped on pillows beside our bedroom lamp with a book in our hands.
I want to thank Shaun Gerardo and Clare Angami for creating the distinct artwork that appears on the front cover. They are both talented graphic artists. I love the simple and understated creepiness of the cover. I look forward to our future collaborations. It is good to have some talented friends when taking a walk down the dark side, is it not?