Lists are tough. There’s a temptation to lie. When Ben and I were approached about compiling a list of horror films that have influenced and inspired our work, I thought long and hard about what should go on it...
Then I realized I was thinking much too hard and for far too long and decided to go with my gut, jotting off a quick list of favorites in a mad rush, then cherry-picking the titles that felt, to me, the most formative. Why do I have the priorities I do as a viewer and a writer? Who or what is responsible?
Because our screenplays (for The Night House, Super Dark Times, SiREN, Stephanie, the upcoming Hellraiser reboot and dozens of unproduced movies besides) are the result of a particular alchemy of varied, sometimes even conflicting, interests, it seemed best for us each to compile our own list using our own criteria.
I’m dying to see what Ben chooses. Despite the fact that we constantly communicate via a shared well of pet references, I suspect there won’t be much overlap. That’s part of the fun.
As a caveat, I’ll say that I’ve deliberately left out some heavy hitters (The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street 3) that I deeply love but assume are well trodden territory around these parts. It seemed best to focus on films that have some kind of connection, however tenuous, to the ones we’ve gotten made.
Check out their list on Horrorville at https://boxd.it/esgsy.
I’ve chosen eight. These aren’t my favorite horror films, just important ones, landmarks on the path of my development, creative and otherwise.
Roughly in order of release:
The Exorcist - I know I said I’d leave out the “goes without saying” heavy hitters, but The Exorcist is too good and too important a touchstone not to mention. I won’t speak for Ben, but on my end, I think everything we do is just scratching at the attic door of this thing. We talk a lot about “buttons” in our writing, what real world fears the genre elements are intended to prey upon. No one plays that game better than Friedkin and Blatty do here, exploring the very real terrors of pediatric illness and the crushing weight of a crisis of faith in an endlessly engaging, completely human drama that dances on a knife-edge between the subtly cryptic and the shockingly extreme.
The Company of Wolves - Bonafide “kindertrauma.” For years I carried the nightmare memory of “the movie where the giant doll follows that girl, where the grandma’s head shatters like China, where the werewolf comes out of that guy’s mouth.” Years before I would discover Neil Gaiman, before I would grasp even a fraction of what screenwriter Angela Carter was laying down here in Neil Jordan’s adaptation of her short stories, I was haunted by the notion of fairytale horror, soaking up so much about tone and perspective. The staginess of this film gives it a timelessness, an eeriness that’s unmatched. Verisimilitude grounds The Exorcist, that’s what makes it frightening. But a lesson I’ve tried to take from The Company of Wolves is that sometimes a narrative adherence to reality can act as a psychological safety net. And the only way to truly terrify is to take that net away.
The Gate - Who the hell is this movie even for? It apes the vibe of an Amblin adventure movie. The protagonists are all children. And yet… one of those children gouges a moaning, demonic eyeball from the palm of his hand with a shard of broken glass, another wakes from a dream of his mother’s ghost to find himself dancing with the corpse of a dog. There’s demons and death metal and workmen in the walls. I grew up in a time when genre labels were fast and loose and nothing felt entirely safe. I don’t think I can oversell the impact of that on my adolescent mind. Turns out, in hindsight, this movie was made for me.
Ghoulies II - Another janky B movie I was drawn to because of the monsters but looking back, I think I loved it because it made me sad. As goofy as it is, Ghoulies II is disarmingly humane. Phil Fondacaro and Royal Dano are fucking heartbreaking as (respectively) a suit actor with dreams of performing Shakespeare and an aging, alcoholic magician. The heroes are people who’ve reached a dead end, living a transitory existence in a crumbling carnival. They’re damaged and lonely and I didn’t want them to die. That was a crucial lesson for me. Pathos knows no bounds, genre, or budget.
Candyman (1992) - Growing up, I was shocked by the violence. As an adult, I’m shocked by… everything else (and also the violence). The use of sound was a game-changer too. Tony Todd’s booming voice, the Phillip Glass score, the way the two intertwine as we’re forced to listen to his grunts of effort while he eviscerates a beloved supporting character, the camera panning coldly across the city. Everything in this film has weight. At the same time, it’s highly conceptual, almost abstract. The character of Candyman is a concept, a story made flesh. As such, in addition to the visceral horrors, both shown and implied, the film explores the horror of ideas. Rare but supreme is the movie that can unnerve with words alone. What Candyman says is every bit as frightening (and alluring) as what he does. “I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom… You were not content with the stories, so I was obliged to come.” There’s poetry here, wordplay, and turns of phrase that continue to inspire.
The Stand (1994) - A TV miniseries from 1994 can’t entirely hold up today but it broke my heart and mind open as a middle schooler. This is the one that forced me to graduate from reading Stephen King’s short stories to tackling his 1,000+ page novels. So many characters, so many different kinds of people. I loved them all but not all of them would make it. Hell, most of them wouldn’t. And that was okay. The ones that fell along the way, I loved them even more. Because I had to watch them fall. But in the end, the movie isn’t bleak or cynical. Ultimately, The Stand is a kind story with teeth. I’d never seen anything like that before.
Martyrs (2008) - I don’t really like twists. They fail more often than they succeed. What I do like are turns. Just when you think you understand what movie you’re watching, Martyrs wraps up a narrative thread and takes an unexpected turn that, rather than negating what came before, elaborates on it. The tiered reveals are a marvel of structural engineering. I’m not even a fan of the torture genre but the way this one turns it into a thematic ouroborus, interrogating the complicity of character, artist and viewer in the violence, the way it takes that violence to such extremes that no more can (or need) be done (or said)… It blows the genre out, destroys it. And replaces it with something transcendent.
House of the Devil - This movie came out right as Ben and I fell in with our reps. It was, for me, the high water mark, the kind of modern horror film I wanted to make. The concept is high but the execution is grounded. The devil, as they say, is in the details. The way Greta Gerwig dissects her pizza. The size of that fucking Walkman. The natural rhythms of the dialogue, broken up by long stretches of solitude. But, most importantly, the visceral desperation of Jocelin Donahue’s Samantha. Every time we write, I strive to find a moment as simple and elegantly expository as the scene where she turns on every sink to hide the sound of her crying in the public restroom. In seconds, that moment tells us everything we need to know about that character, her situation and her motivation.
As Luke said, we didn’t discuss our lists ahead of time. I chose to make a list of films that have influenced the work Luke and I do together in the horror genre, but not necessarily films that one would immediately think of as obviously horror. Presented here in autobiographical order because it’s nice to remember nice things.
Taxi Driver - Martin Scorsese. I rented this on VHS when I was 15. I think I was already obsessed with the idea of the film before I even really knew what it was about. And it immediately became my favorite movie. I think Paul Schrader might be the first screenwriter I recognized as an artist in his own right and I saw how I connected more with his artistic contribution to the film more than even with that of Martin Scorsese. I think Taxi Driver was the movie that taught me what a screenwriter could be. But it also taught me that even a film that was considered a classic could be dark, brutal, nihilistic, and have a relatively unsatisfying ending. And while Taxi Driver isn’t a horror movie in any official way. I think the lessons I took from have been more than applicable to our work in the genre.
Blue Velvet - David Lynch. Another one I saw at 15. I was too young to rent it but I had an older friend named Dustin, who worked at a video store and would bring stuff over a lot. David Lynch was a subject of much fascination to both of us but it required a lot of effort to obtain copies, and I think Blue Velvet was the first one we could get. Dustin had seen it already and I remember him reenacting beat by beat the infamous “closet scene” up through the arrival of Frank and the events that follow… (fun trivia: Dustin was part of the inspiration for the Daryll character in our film Super Dark Times, mostly in that he was loud, foul-mouthed, and kind of chubby) Dustin was a very expressive storyteller, he even did act outs of most of Dennis Hopper’s behaviors, every gesture, every word, every beat of that scene was fascinating, and terrifying. The movie existed in my mind like the memory of a dream before I even saw it. And when I finally watched the whole movie I fell in love with David Lynch in every way. But I think if I had to pinpoint the aspect of his influence that feels most relevant right now I would say Lynch’s use of cinema to create atmosphere and tone is the biggest thing I take away. I’m not sure if the “is it horror or not” discourse has ever caught up with Lynch, but personally the question is meaningless to me. Lynch has never made a movie that would be officially categorized as horror, but in all of his work he uses sounds and images to evoke feelings of terror and dread, and yes horror. Blue Velvet taught me about how the way you look at something influences what it feels like. It’s the kind of movie that makes you look at the world in a different way and as someone who is interested in telling stories that is a powerful gift to receive. Blue Velvet is also structurally one of my favorite screenplays. The way it escalates from the known world through all the wild turns it takes to the climax is definitely a cornerstone reference for how I approach a lot of the movies we write.
Cure - Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I think about this movie a lot. I probably watch it at least once or twice every year since I first discovered it around 2006. At the time I had just graduated from film school and was trying to figure out what kind of filmmaker I would be. I had a lot of different interests and there wasn’t a clear best path to take. It would be a few years later that Luke and I would start writing together and would begin the process of discovering which of our shared tastes would come to define our style as professional writers. I remember that I learned about Kiyoshi Kurosawa from an interview with my favorite musician Jim O’Rourke. I don’t remember what exactly he said but I went out immediately and rented CURE from the nearest Hollywood Video store in Savannah GA and watched it at least twice in the same day. I was transfixed by the style and tone immediately. It was a horror movie in a way I hadn’t quite seen before, it had suspense and some onscreen violence, but it was the ideas in the film that wouldn’t leave me alone. In terms of genre and narrative CURE is kind of like a low budget version of Se7en or even Silence of the Lambs, but the strange mythology of mesmerism give what would otherwise be a fairly standard procedural story immense depth. After seeing CURE I began a continuing quest to see as many of Kiyoshi’s films as I could. This was before Netflix streaming and not all of his films had been released with english subtitles. Curse, Charisma, Bright Future, Seance, and of course PULSE, all became instant favorites that I would watch repeatedly. When I look back at that time it’s easy to see how Kiyoshi has influenced almost everything I’ve written since.
No Country For Old Men - Coen Brothers. I first saw Raising Arizona around age 8 and ever since then I have been a passionate fan of the Coen Brothers. And they are possibly the single biggest influence on me as a filmmaker. By 2008 I had moved back to Fayetteville GA, where I grew up and where Luke and I met in high school. The Coens had been on a weird run of comedies for the past few years and I wasn’t sure what to expect of this movie until I saw the trailer and knew I would love it. I’d have to analyze the release dates to be sure, but around this time is when Luke and I started writing together. He was living in nearby Newnan GA and had just started a job teaching high school english. I remember seeing the movie with my dad and being enthralled. I saw it several more times, and while I’m certain Luke and I talked about it at length, it wasn’t until a year or so later, after I had moved to Los Angeles with the first our spec screenplays, that the importance of No Country For Old Men started to really be understood by me. I think No Country For Old Men is the best template there is for how to write good physical action in a grounded way. The story itself is almost mundane, and the individual scenes are often as simple as “a guy checks into a hotel room” but they never rely on movie logic, and instead they take the time to demonstrate realistically how each character interacts with their physical environment to achieve their own unique goals. This both creates tension in scenes that would otherwise be mundane, (pulling a suitcase through an air vent) but also gives the more visceral action scenes a tactile aspect that makes them more upsetting and effective. Every movement, every choice, each character makes is deliberate. We know Chigur is an unstoppable killing machine because we see him made the choices with his behavior that an unstoppable killing machine would make. And we learn almost everything we know about him through our own observations. I think it’s safe to say that Luke and I have applied those lessons to everything we’ve written since.
Beyond the Black Rainbow - Panos Cosmatos. The first few years I lived in Los Angeles were packed with weird screenings at the various indie theaters in town. For several years I was a member at Cinefamily and being a struggling freelancer I made sure to get my money’s worth, sometimes going three or four nights a week. Beyond the Black Rainbow had played a few festivals and there was a trailer online that looked promisingly psychedelic, but it took a couple years before it was officially released in the states, I remember emailing theaters and distributors asking how to see the movie. I actually stole a DVD-r screener copy from a friend who worked in development. I probably watched it a dozen times before it started playing periodically at Cinefamily. I believe I managed to the 35mm print of Beyond the Black Rainbow 3x, and at least once with Panos doing a q&a after. At this point in our careers Luke and I had committed to the horror genre as our main area of focus within the industry. We had started to carve out what we thought our unique skills and interests were within that genre, and for me part of that pursuit was consuming as much of the current cinema as possible and look for like-minded people. I think what I saw in Panos’ film was a pure enthusiasm for exactly the things he loved, and a deft understanding of cinematic style that allowed him to stitch it all together into a package that found uniquely appealing. I still don’t really know if the movie makes total sense. And I don’t really care. I could tell that the energy this guy was bringing to his work was vital and pure and that if the horror genre was going to evolve and grow it would need people like Panos making movies like Beyond the Black Rainbow. It’s funny to note that around the time I saw this movie was when Luke and I were first contacted by dimension films about pitching to reboot Hellraiser. I knew even then that BTBR was far too strange of a movie to bring up on a conference call with development execs, but I enjoyed imagining what Panos would do with that kind of material. So it was pleasing to me years later, after having made a few movies of our own, to see references to the Cenobites in Panos’ masterpiece MANDY. And of course Luke and I went on to make a totally different Hellraiser movie with our close friend and collaborator director David Bruckner. I can say now that everything happened the way it was meant to. I’ve never met Panos, but I hope he at least knows how much I admire his work.
Luke Piotrowski was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago before moving with his family during his sixth grade year to the suburbs of Atlanta, where he stayed until he was able to make a family of his own and move them to the suburbs of Los Angeles, where he currently resides. He’s written many screenplays in many genres with Ben Collins, his writing partner of 13 years, including SUPER DARK TIMES, directed by Kevin Phillips, and THE NIGHT HOUSE, directed by David Bruckner. You can follow Luke on Twitter at @luke_piotrowski.
Ben Collins grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to Los Angeles in 2009 where he still lives and works. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BDavisCollins.