Fear Street and How to Elevate your Horror Film

This post is going to be VERY spoilery for Fear Street 1994, Fear Street 1978 and Fear Street 1666 on Netflix. I recommend you watch them first. There’s some great surprises in this story you’re going to want to experience firsthand.

I read some of these Fear Street books as a kid. Each one began with a yearbook. Each one crossed out these pictures as the teenagers were killed off. The story that stuck out the most though was woven throughout the Fear Street and Fear Street Cheerleaders books: Sarah Fear and The Evil.

Sarah Fear was like “I woke up like this.”

The movies are loosely based on these. In this case that’s a good thing — the movies elaborate and elevate the campy horror I loved as a kid to something I really enjoy as an adult. Not only is it good horror, it’s smart.

There are many themes touched upon in the Fear Street movie series. I noted:

  • Racism/Classism (Shadyside vs Sunnydale. Even the names show a clear distinction in their fortunes, but Sunnydale’s good luck is at the expense of Shadyside’s sacrifice)
  • The Societal Harm of Misogyny (Literal witch hunts. Women who spurned the advances of men are accused of witchcraft – sentenced to death for the mere act of denying a man.)
  • Homophobia (The plot begins in 1666 with Sarah and Hannah accused of witchcraft since they love each other.)
  • Legacy and The Choice to Bear it or Break it (The Goode Family continuing their “traditions” to ensure their good fortune at the expense of others).
  • Reversal of Expectations (Goode = Evil. Fier/Fear = Innocence. Sunnydale is full of dark secrets, while Shadyside is innocent.)

I find that good horror, the stuff I want to watch again and again, isn’t just full of cheap scares. Good horror is about something.

My favorite horror movies are in the realm of It Follows, A Quiet Place.

Fear Street decided to be more than just a trio of slasher flicks. It’s clear depiction of classism separates and destroys people. Because one man, Solomon Goode, decided he wanted power over others, he doomed an entire town for generations. “The sun will shine on us yet,” he says, prophesying not that his crops will grow, but that he will be among the chosen few, at the expense of whoever is sacrificed.

Shadyside is plagued with gruesome murder and people being trapped in the town due to financial reasons. “Nobody ever leaves Shadyside” is a poignant line spoken from despondency. Sunnydale is the cookie-cutter perfect town. As long as each generation of Goode sacrifices someone to the evil forces that Solomon summoned, they will remain prosperous and carefree. Who cares if some teenagers die? Or a church full of children? Power over all becomes the ultimate evil here. The pulsating blob of malevolence in the caves is just a personification of that.

Forcing the Shadysiders to kill each other? That’s the whole dog eat dog mentality that plagues the working world. Step on someone to get ahead, that’s what the corporate bigwigs do right?

Nothing like someone over analyzing horror movies to ruin the mood, amiright guys?

But our Shadysiders make the ultimate decision to fight this. Our main characters band together to take down the evil. They fight against expectations and they honor the memory and wishes of Sarah Fier. The truth sets them free, and follows Goode to the end of his days.

When Deena and Sam emerge from the evil caves at the end of the third movie, they emerge in Sheriff Goode’s house. It’s beautiful, perfect, and full of mounted and taxidermied goats. Goats, of course, being a symbol of the Devil. The girls go out to the street, bloody and bedraggled. A neighbor spies them as he’s backing his car up, which causes him to be flattened by a passing truck. Sunnydale’s good luck is over and that is due to the actions of the Shadysiders.

If you are writing horror, you’d do well to take a page from Fear Street‘s book-to-movie adaptation. Making your movie about something other than just an axe wielding serial killer will capture your audience’s imagination, bring to light societal problems in the real world… and possibly lead to a few sequels. Anyone can write about some murderer picking off teenagers, but to make that story more than scares elevates your writing to the next level.

It’s been many years since I read the books, but I believe The Evil was originally Sarah Fear’s revenge personified. I distinctly remember her dying on her passage to America, cursing her sister or somebody for making her go on this journey. The movies decided to go deeper, and the revelation of the real evil was a great twist that made for excellent commentary on classism, misogyny and more.

I’d totally watch more of these, Netflix. Please continue giving Leigh Janiak the chance to direct them.

A Film Is Born Three Times Pt. 1: Re: Writing

“A film is born three times. First in the writing of the script, once again in the shooting, and finally in the editing.” — Robert Bresson, French film maker.

I think folks at first take for granted that a film is a thing born of an idea, written, produced, and edited and then it just exists… but there’s so many changes along the way. Your first draft is almost never, ever going to be what appears on screen. And it probably shouldn’t. Some first drafts are better left being forgotten, but you can’t make a final draft without suffering through the whole writing and re-writing process.

The Road Less Traveled

I talked a bit about my short horror film The Road Less Traveled in my how-to post here: Making the No Budget Horror Film – Bridget LaMonica

The very first very rough draft was written in 2014 while I was at SCAD. Cassie is abandoned at a bar by her friends and captured by two bad men named Miles and Dawson in a cool car.

While in their nefarious clutches, Cassie calls her mother, who races to try to find her. Cassie gets her revenge, only to have her mother finally arrive in time to bury a couple bodies. I called the story Werewolf because that was the monster at the end of the story.

Hunted, an early draft of The Road Less Traveled:

Cassie talks too much. There’s a lot of her talking on the phone, to a friend at a bar, to the kidnappers. Blegh.

She has a cell phone and is able to call for help (kind of a horror movie no-no).

Cassie is resourceful. She knows ways out of her situation but finds her methods were anticipated.

I sent the draft to my friend Masha, who gave me a great critique. Eventually I created the story that was much more interesting to me: Mia (formerly Cassie, now with a more appropriate name – Missing In Action) kidnapped by a lone serial killer named Clyde (the name is never said out loud) who brings her to an abandoned slaughter house to do his evil work. Jokes on him, because Mia fights back. This was called Hunted.

The script was presented to director Lindsay Barrasse. With Lindsay’s attachment to the script and her love of classic horror, we leaned further into classic horror tropes and set the story in the 1970s instead of modern day. No more convenient cell phone.

Draft 9:

Cassie is now Mia and she has no spoken dialogue (only a few lines of voice over).

This version mentions a “90’s style watch” but later we changed the date to the 70s.

Mia is adept at survival — she knows some skills but is unable to escape until later.

I wanted a horror story that played on the classic tropes while delivering some surprises. I had a not-so-subtle reference to a favorite TV show, Supernatural.

Hunted became The Road Less Traveled, inspired by the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”, Supernatural‘s “The Road So Far” and the fact that we had a female victim who would prove herself capable. The film became more and more about female empowerment, especially since most of our production team was female.

A note: I almost never find my title until a few drafts later. Same with a theme or tone — sometimes it just takes that long to finally whittle down to what I want to say.

Routine Procedures

Before The Road Less Traveled was produced, I had a thesis film at SCAD called Routine Procedures.

This script began in a short script writing class. The basic premise being a group of soldiers discovering an alien box in the woods that could spell doom for all mankind.

The very first (equally very bad) draft saw Johnson, your average Gary Stu with his boss Magnus and a feisty Latina soldier Reyes (inspired by Private Vasquez in Alien). Reyes ends up being an alien. There might have been some idea about aliens enslaving humanity or something? I dunno. This draft doesn’t exist anymore and nor should it.

This script went through several drafts in the class, becoming a time travel story in which these soldiers discover this alien artifact that forces them to relive the same day over and over as they deteriorate. Only one soldier notices, and he is freaking out, man.

Draft 3, Page 1:

In this version we have about 5 characters: Johnson, Sterling, Reyes, Magnus and Hopkins.

This draft was way too talky with too many characters. Still I can see all the major things I kept from this draft forward: Johnson as our lead who figures things out, Magnus as the hard-as-nails superior who is afraid of change, the story starting by mentioning de ja vu.

I condensed the best parts of Hopkins into Reyes and deleted Sterling entirely. He was a useless jerk.

I worked with director Nick Bow to make the film. He suggested Johnson should be a woman. I stopped. I was about to argue. And then I realized, yeah, why didn’t I think about that? The genders of Johnson and Reyes were flipped and we put out a casting call. We got some excellent people to fill out these roles and it wasn’t who we originally expected.

Draft 9, page 1:

The characters were reduced to 3.

We wanted to be clear what happened where (time travel stories get complicated). We labeled the repetitions and the different sections of landscape we were shooting in.

In Draft 3 Reyes saw a snail stuck in a loop. Here it’s a millipede.

Less dialogue and more focused.

As I recall, the title Routine Procedures was there for most of the drafts. I think the first one or two were called Maneuvers or something vaguely military-esque. When I settled on Routine Procedures, it helped sell the fact that this was a time travel story.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Drafts are called such because they are a continuously changing process. The first draft is often called a vomit draft (ew) because you might need to get your initial idea out fast. You bring it to a critique group or a trusted friend who can give you notes, and then you incorporate that into a rewrite. The script is never actually done until it is filmed, and even then it’s open for interpretation.

Next up, Part 2: Production.

Reading List: Screenwriting

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers: Secrets of Success that in order to become an expert in anything, you need 10,000 hours of practice. That is also true for screenwriters and film makers.

I am of the belief that if you want to be good at something, you’re constantly working to enhance your knowledge, hone your craft and try new things.

When I interact with young screenwriters, I find myself recommending the same reading material over and over again, so my next logical step was to list them here.

The Short Screenplay: Your Short Film from Concept to Production

Before you run, you must walk.

Before you write a feature, I highly recommend you write a short film.

A short film can range anywhere from 1 min to 45 or so, but usually around 5-10 mins is the common format that can find itself programmed into film festivals. That’s the sweet spot, so you might want to look in that range specifically.

Find it here.

Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need

Often touted as the “Bible of Screenwriting,” Save the Cat! is a famous book on the craft. This book takes a more Hollywood approach to screenwriting that’s beneficial for those wanting to understand the formula of most popular films.

From the initial idea, to creating a beat sheet to marketing your script, Save the Cat! is a great resource to dive into.

the book’s strength lies in its foundation of the formula of story arcs and organizational tools such as the beat sheet, so this is definitely a book you should check out.

Find the book here.

Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways to Make it Great

I always send this book recommendation with the disclaimer “This is by no means a commentary on your script!”

This book is broken up into digestible chunks that go into details on common problems and how to fix them. This book explores structure, the nitty gritty of story and other details that might have been missed during your first draft, such as a deep B story or multi-faceted characters.

Find the book here.

Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box

This is the book for any sort of TV writing. Here you learn about the particular format of broadcast television writing. TV writing is a different game than writing a feature by a long shot, as it pertains to act breaks, teasers, tags, and how to best tell a joke (the funny word comes last!).

This book also has a meaty section on agents, navigating the world of spec script writing and pitching.

Find it here.

Honorable Mentions:

The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script 10 Minutes at a Time. Find it here.

Secrets of Film Writing. Find it here.

Grab the Audience’s Attention: Opening Shots

When my DP Tery Wilson told me a particular Steadicam shot she wanted in the feature film we worked on, it struck me as important. And important it was. “This,” she said, “Is the beginning shot of the whole movie.” No pressure!

It struck me how big and weighty the first scene — and really the first shot — in a movie is. It sets up story, character and tone. It has to hold your attention from one moment to the next. The first minutes of a film are prime real estate. If you’re not hooked, you might bail. Next movie on Netflix. Next attempt at entertainment.

We are far too impatient as a modern audience to sit around for setup that takes too long.

Pace is influential here as well. Although It Follows is similar in structure to an old school horror movie — slow mounting dread throughout the story — it gets to the meat of the matter right away. That’s something I always thought the old horror movies back in the day had trouble with.

The screenwriter has to catch the attention of the first reader through to the first audience who see the film and can recommend it to their friends.

Having a bombastic beginning also relates to my earlier post about title sequences. You don’t always see flashy title sequences in movies but when you do, you better believe they are doing an important job. You can see that post on title sequences here.

It Follows

That first shot in It Follows is not just a great beginning, but also an example of fabulous shot design. The shot doesn’t break away into any edits as the girl runs from the house, is chased by an unseen follower, and eventually rushes away from the home.

What’s genius about this shot is how it follows the first person you see, establishing the horror element of an unrelenting terror. We first see the girl run out of the house, track alongside her as she runs down the sidewalk, then we become the mysterious follower, never taking our eyes off her until she flees the scene. This shot never stops moving, perfectly simulating the monster of the story.

The Dark Knight

You can see a fantastically simple yet effective opening shot in for The Dark Knight. It’s truly brilliant in its simplicity, as the very first shot doesn’t show any people, but succeeds in building tension and expectations of sudden violence to come.

An extreme zoom into a building as a window suddenly explodes outward tells us everything we need to know about the upcoming scene: stuff is going down, and it’s going to be shocking. The whole film is a slow boil to an epic, explosive showdown. It’s only fitting that we see that echoed in the very first, seemingly innocent cityscape shot.

And that whole bank robbery scene is so engaging that you can’t help but be hooked — ready for the ride.

Make it your goal to master creating a beginning – and especially opening shot – to your film that not only captures your audience’s attention but says something about plot and tone. You’ll be more likely to get an opportunity to make another film and then we’ll be studying your film making choices.