Just over a year ago, the director, Michael Babbitt, texted my phone and wrote, “I want to do a feature-length movie and I want you to write it.”
Great! I thought. I’m always open to writing. It’s more or less what I’ve spent the last 20 years doing professionally. I’ve known Michael a long time (so long, in fact, that he lets me call him “Mike,” a familiar courtesy he doesn’t extend often or easily to others), and he knows my writing strengths (and weaknesses!)1 so I was very encouraged. It would be something right up my alley — something spacey, with exotic aliens and space ships; or something medieval, with lots of grim castles and visceral action pieces.
“What’s it about?” I asked with visions of stars floating in my mind’s eye.
“I want you to stick a bunch of people in a compound, then kill them slowly.”
I didn’t say anything. Actually, I was waiting for more. Michael tends to be quite dramatic at times (I guess that comes from his theater… sorry, theatre… background. Actors.)2 so his silence came across as a dramatic pause. “Okay,” I finally said when the pause didn’t look like it was ever going to end. “What else is it about?”
“That’s up to you. Think John Carpenter’s The Thing. I want to focus on the characters and the drama between them as they struggle to survive whatever is killing them off.” There was an honest-to-God dramatic pause, then he added. “Surprise me. :)”
“I hate you,” I replied. I’ve known him for over 20 years, so that has been a very common mantra in our friendship. Leave it to Mike to give me driving instructions as vague as that.
It took me a few days to respond as I let his words sink in. Then, the kernel of an idea began to take seed. I began to understand what he wanted; or rather, what he saw in the bizarre camera obscura that functions as his mind’s eye. It wasn’t just The Thing that he wanted to pay homage to; it was the whole host of movies that preceded and succeeded it. The Thing and its ilk belong to very particular sub-genre of horror: the Unspeakable Horror.
The Unspeakable Horror exists without apparent rhyme or reason. It is a force of nature that just happens and the characters who experience it have their entire worldview turned upside down and inside out as a result. The entire purpose of the Unspeakable Horror sub-genre is to watch the characters cope, not necessarily survive.
One of the early pioneers of Unspeakable Horror fiction (though definitely not the earliest) was H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was a product of his time. He lived in a period of massive social and scientific upheaval, a time when the world was an even more uncertain and scary place than it had been in quite a while. He was also prone to illnesses, and he was possessed of a very provincial world view with regard to the people around him. All of this mixed together in his noggin and was lit on fire by his innate creativity. Out of it came the Cthulhu Mythos, a series of stories exploring just how much Unspeakable, Unknowable, Utterly Incomprehensible Horror the human mind can withstand before reaching its breaking point and shattering completely.
From the moment one begins reading an H.P. Lovecraft tale, two things quickly become obvious: the protagonist will surely lose his marbles; and the protagonist will probably die very soon after. Lovecraft’s horrific creations regard us fragile humans the way we regard ants on the sidewalk, and trod upon us just as easily as we trod upon them. (To be fair, not all of Lovecraft’s creations are Titanic in origin. He offers us plenty human-scale antagonists, too.) The drama in his stories is not about unraveling the mysteries of these baffling beings, nor is it necessarily about escaping them it. The drama comes from the protagonist simply trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
So, with that in mind, I wrote back to him. “I’ll do it! And have I got an idea for you…” Then I set out to write him a movie wherein I trap a bunch of characters inside a compound and kill them slowly.
That’s not a spoiler, by the way. It wouldn’t be much of a horror movie if someone didn’t die.
The question is: Does anyone survive at all? And if so, what toll will be exacted on them?
1A comment from the director stated, “There are very few weaknesses, just wait until you see the film.”
2The director refutes this statement. He directed his first film at age 12 and had not yet become distracted by acting.