The Decline of Screen Writing
Updated: Dec 31, 2019
Guest blogger Luke Allen from Horror Land talks about what's gone wrong with horror films today. Do you agree with him?
Being an avid horror fan, I find myself watching a wide range of films, from low budget indie films to studio led big budget affairs. And year after year, I notice a huge decline in the standard of film. Whilst the quality of the production does seem to be on the rise, thanks to bigger budgets and cheaper equipment, what is lacking is a basic understanding of writing. We have a new age of fledging film makers, all self-educated on the visual art of film, but are lacking the less evident backbone that holds any film together, the script.
Whilst it might be cool to know how to frame shots and dress scenes, the real work lies in the screen play. And this has quickly become modern horrors “Achilles heel”. Alfred Hitchcock needs no introduction to any film fan; the master of cinema knew his craft very well. That is why he surrounded himself with amazing screen writers such as Samuel Taylor, Ben Hecht, John Michael Hayes and Joseph Stefano. Screen plays for films such as Vertigo, Notorious and Rear Window were eloquent, well-paced and extraordinarily clever. With a great script, half the work is done for you. Hitchcock’s appreciation of the script was well known, and he spoke about it often in interviews. He once said, “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script, and the script.”
All off Hitchcock’s screen writers were award winning, well established names. You see, back then screen writing privileges were left to qualified technicians of the written word, ones with a proven track record. However, it seems that Modern cinema seems to be a lot less bothered about silly little things such as qualifications. It’s becoming more and more frequent that first time directors are turning in their own scripts. These new age directors and writers are unequivocal underqualified and under educated in the finer points of making a motion picture, but where once quality was always the most important part of film making, modern production companies are more concerned with quantity. Having around the year coverage of cinema releases, directed to DVD/Blu-Ray and streaming media is key to good business and this is where our new age film makers step in.
Whilst gorilla film making is not a new concept by any means, the modern age is passing cinema tools into the hands of people that don’t really understand the medium. And it seems that this trend is only growing in one genre, Horror. You never see low budget, iPhone shot action films, nor do you ever see first time film makers trying their hands at a making a cloud founded romantic comedy. But these sensibilities seem to be fine when applied to horror, because….it’s horror!! Such is the attitude towards the genre that production companies are happy to fund films, without much thought on the final output.
English journalist and author Christopher Booker spent 30 years analysing film, to better understand the art of storytelling. In 2004, he published a controversial book, based on his findings called, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. In his book, Booker breaks down the seven type of plot that exists in film, and how every “good” film ever made fits into one the seven archetypes; Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. Booker generalises conventional plot structure by ringfencing them into one of his seven story types, but at the same time, he dismisses many film that fall short of his criteria. Now this is by no mean a definitive look at how to structure a story, there are many writers that strongly disagree with booker, but it is a clear guide that scripts, novels and plays DO follow a set path, in order for it to work. And this is a path that many modern film writers are ignoring.
Having watched the recent Ari Aster written and directed film Hereditary (2018), I was once again reminded of the incessant reliance of style over substance in cinema. The film was beautifully shot, with haunting imagery and a great cast, but the story was raving mess that made no sense. Having read many different reviews for Hereditary, it’s clear that the lack of any real story has led many cinemagoers to interpretive their own ideas on what the film was about, as every other review has a different take on what was going on. I for one hated the film because it simply lacked any logical narrative. It is certainly a million miles away from similar styled films such as Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror Rosemary's Baby, Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1968) or even one of my favorite films, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). Unlike these classic cult-based film, I doubt we will still be talking about Hereditary in 40 years’ time.
What is being lost on modern horror, is a strong understanding on structure and the proven principles of storytelling that have been around for centuries. Whilst filmmaker might want a monster ripping a thinly clad teens arms and legs off, what they should be really asking themselves is why the creature is ripping of limbs, and how it plays into the bigger picture.
The horror genre is slowly sinking under the weight of bad films with terrible scripts and a lot of this is to do with the education of the people making them. Writing is fundamental to a film’s success and as long as this skill is being overlooked, in favour of fancy cinematography and crazy special effects, I fear that the genre will become more and more misunderstood.
Luke Allen runs a site called Horror Land that's dedicated to all things horror in entertainment. He knows a great deal about what makes a great horror film and you can find out more on his website, www.horror.land