By and large, people watch horror movies because they want to be scared. In real life, most of us will never run into a chainsaw-wielding psychopath or a 30-foot-long man-eating shark — at least I hope not. But, when we watch the right horror movie, we can vicariously experience those thrills and the adrenaline rush that comes with them.
Then again, not everybody who pops in a horror movie on Halloween night this year is looking to scare themselves silly. Some people want to laugh themselves silly, and for that they turn to the wild world of direct-to-DVD and rental-only horror movies.
Like the mountains of candy that little kids stuff into their mouths on Halloween night, low-budget horror movies are usually cheap, bad for our health, and totally awesome. After some hardcore Halloween partying, nothing beats winding down the night with a campy slasher film about a demonic clown, or an over-the-top creature feature with flying Nazi alligators (which hasn’t been done yet, to my knowledge).
This year for Halloween, Screen Rant wanted to take a closer look at the world of low-budget horror, so we turned to an expert: screenwriter Johnny Sullivan. In “Confessions of a Low-Budget Horror Writer,” Sullivan talks about his own work writing low-budget horror, why horror movies are often so cheap (and cheesy), and some of the requests he’s gotten from production companies to help bring movies in under budget.
First, some quick background: Johnny Sullivan has been writing features since 2002. He has worked with Dimension Films and the SyFy channel on multiple horror projects. Recoil - an action thriller - starring Steve Austin and Danny Trejo is scheduled for an early 2012 release. He also has the family adventure Science Fair in development at MGM.
Screen Rant: Why do you think there’s a market for low-budget horror? What is it about these movies that people like so much?
Johnny Sullivan: I think there are two audiences. Audience # 1 is the casual, older moviegoer that doesn’t realize that the movie is a cheap, most-likely-not-particularly-good direct-to-DVD flick. The cover looks good. There’s some recognizable ‘stars’ above the title. I call this the ‘My Parents’ audience. Audience # 2 is made up of genuine horror fans. Die-hard horror fans who know full well that the flick is probably crap, but, hey, it’s a horror movie! They gotta see it! It’s not like they’re going to get to see a ‘Christian Slater fights a giant crab’ movie in a theater! Also, teenage girls. And maybe hipsters trying to be ‘ironic’ by spending money on something named ‘Piranhaconda’.
Personally, I belong to Audience # 2. I’ll watch anything if it’s a horror flick. I think the burgeoning world of VOD and Netflix and YouTube will even contribute more to the low-budget horror world. These films can also be made cheaply and don’t always need to attract ‘name’ talent. The monster is the star.
Do most low-budget horror films get written on spec, or do producers reach out to writers directly with their own ideas?
There’s this weird middle-ground with low-budget movies. I think some of them do sell on spec, but it’s rare these days. I think it happened more often a decade ago – back when the Internet was the wild west, and e-mail queries were taken more seriously.
The first movie I ever got paid for was a film called ‘Fear of the Dark’. I literally wrote it on a train while commuting between Long Island and New York City. This was 2001. At the time, I was an office manager for a talent agency. There were hours that I had nothing to do, so I sent out queries to various low-budget production companies (I didn’t even attempt anything at the studio level – it was an obvious low-budget flick).
Somehow, this Canadian company liked my logline and requested the script. They read. Liked. Bought it for $5,000. I wasn’t union yet, so I gleefully took it. I was 22 at the time. Amazingly, they made the movie. It got released on DVD and is still kind of a popular rental/Netflix for pre-teen sleepovers. That was – definitely – a spec low-budget DVD sale. I don’t think that kind of thing happens anymore. At least, not that easily.
As a working writer, generally the opportunity to write creature-features is brought to me. A production company has a deal to do ten movies for -let’s say – SyFy, so they need writers and ideas. They’ll reach out to multiple people like agencies, managers, etc. They’ll reach out to guys like me who have done this kind of work in the past, and have a resume of similar genre films. I’ll put together an ‘idea sheet’. Generally, it’s like three pages of creature-feature ideas consisting of a title, a logline, and a short synopsis.
Logline: Giant frogs attack a swampland community
Synopsis: Radioactive waste mutates the local frog population of New Orleans. Local cop Mack Mason (C. Thomas Howell or Tom Sizemore or Richard Grieco) enlists a group of rookie deputies to journey into the muck to combat the threat, but wind up becoming the inadvertant guardians of a bunch of lost, nubile, drunken teens – stranded in the swamp post some Mardi Gras mayhem.
I just made that up.
There’ll be about ten or so movie ideas on those three pages. I send it off. I wait for them to read. Sometimes they like none. Sometimes they like one. Sometimes they like a few of them. If they like one, they’ll pay me to write a treatment – but that’s the contract – if they don’t like the treatment, I’m only getting paid for the treatment. However, if they love the treatment – they’ll pay me to write the script. This is a ‘step’ deal’ – commonplace for the industry in general, but in the low-budget world, the money is much, much less. I’ve been WGA since 2002, so I can’t really be short-changed on a project – but a non-union writer can expect to be low-balled on any direct-to-dvd deal.
How much flexibility do you have when you’re contracted to write a low-budget horror film? If you’re told that the budget can’t exceed $1 million, how does that affect your writing?
A lot of times I’ve had to write for the location. The production company has an area they want to shoot in for the tax breaks. Usually, it’s Canada. Or Romania. Or Michigan. Occasionally I’ve had an established script that I had to rewrite for the location. This is pretty typical. New Mexico becomes Vancouver. LA becomes Toronto. New York becomes Bulgaria. It does limit me a bit. I have to pull my punches on action sequences. I have to be frugal with any explosions. I have to keep the characters to maybe five, six speaking parts. Gotta be thrifty with the gore, sfx, etc. I’ll get notes on that. ‘Does he have to transform into a Man-Shark three times?’.
However, it is a great writing exercise. Horror films by nature aren’t expensive. At least, they shouldn’t be. Look at Jan DeBont’s ‘The Haunting’. Really? An 80 million-dollar horror flick? No wonder it wasn’t scary. Cheapness is horror’s ally. Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ cost 8 bucks. ‘Fear of the Dark’ cost about 500 grand. ‘The Prophecy’ sequels I worked on (back to back) cost about 3 million split between them. Blockbuster budgets are not horror’s friend. The cheaper – the scarier.
A lot of the time, the reason people watch low-budget horror movies is to laugh at the cheesy dialogue and terrible acting. Is this a problem at the script stage, or do these films get dumbed down during shooting?
These movies get written fast. They get made fast. That’s not an excuse, I know – but that’s the case. There’s not a lot of time for rewriting or finessing. It’s very run ‘n gun. At the end of the day, the production company wants a rad title and a cool poster. It’s similar to the Corman factory during the 50s and the 60s. Get a cool monster, get a hot girl screaming at it, and there’s a movie. I respect that. Sometimes movies are supposed to be a freak show. I love ‘Cinderella Man’. I love that movie. I also love ‘Night of the Creeps’. There’s room for both.
You mentioned development. Development is more of a studio term. These direct-to-dvd flicks don’t get ‘developed’. There’s the script. They shoot it. There’s no budget for development! I wrote a non-horror film called ‘Recoil’ this past year. It was the best experience of my career. I did one light, brief polish for the director and the producers and then they went and shot it with Steve Austin and Danny Trejo – it came out great! That never happens on the big-budget studio level.
What’s the weirdest request you’ve gotten from a producer or director while writing a low-budget horror film?
Not many. A low-budget horror film on its own is a weird request. Generally, I’ve been left to my own devices. If they change something, they don’t tell me. The ending of ‘Fear of the Dark’ was changed without my input. I received Story By on ‘The Prophecy’ sequels because I was so heavily rewritten by the director. I wrote a movie called ‘Barracuda’ for a production company. At the script stage, they wanted me to give the mutant barracudas the ability to fly. I told them it was already done in ‘Piranha 2: The Spawning’. They had no idea what I was talking about.
Direct-to-DVD/Video on Demand horror and action films offer a unique opportunity for writers and directors to break into the industry, but is there a risk of getting stuck doing low-budget movies?
That’s more a risk for an actor. Actors tend to get pigeon-holed doing ‘low-rent’ movies and its usually a sign of a downward-sloping career. That can definitely taint an acting resume (although a lot of those ‘b’ actors make a pretty good living doing those films, regardless). With writers, work is work. We don’t generally take the blame for a bad movie. I’ve done both studio films and direct-to-dvd flicks and I’ve never felt the lower-budgeted films were a hinderance on my career. Some writers do take pseudonyms, but I’m proud of all the work of I’ve done. I wrote ‘Fear of the Dark’ back in 2001 and since then have worked steadily for ten years. It’s a great way to break into the industry and it’s a great way to learn.
Low-budget horror movies tend to fall into one of three categories: slasher film, ghost story, or creature-feature. Which one is most popular among horror producers?
Monster movies right now are pretty popular with producers. The SyFy ‘SuperDinoCrocGator’ stuff. They rent VERY well and everyone likes a fun title and a silly cover. A close second is slashers, mainly because they can be made VERY cheap. Other than a few stateside-released Asian horrors, I haven’t seen a lot of DVD ghost stories. However, in the wake of ‘Insidious’, expect maybe an uptick in requests for creepy haunted house movies.
Okay Ranters, now it’s your turn. Share your thoughts on low-budget horror movies in the comments. This Halloween, are you planning to watch any low-budget horror movies? What’s your favorite direct-to-DVD horror film?