13. Each character with his own shape, style, mannerism and speech. We should be able to identify each if we hear their voice coming out of the darkness. It’s best if each character has his or her own ‘range’ – the way they would speak, even under stress – for example, Jaws as horror has Richard Dreyfus, on being the first and only one on the boat to see the shark, relays to the others in the cabin: “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” In the Roy Scheider character’s role, this moment would have been met by a shocked silence. So each encounter of a character with a turning point has a character-specific reaction.
14. (+) Avoid the predictable tip-toeing, questioning, freezing, thawing, running and getting killed that ruin all other low-budget horror by varying the pace with false scares (a set up with a character looking in a bathroom mirror, hearing a typically ‘scary’ sound, turning with a quick breath and finding a friendly character might invoke, “You scared the shit out of me,” followed by “At least you’re in the right place.”
15. (+) Artfully delivered humor. Some real people and characters use laughter and humor as devices for defusing tension, and Dawn Gilliam is one. Even if her humor seems ‘unrealistic’, it is her method of coping, and humor is a wonderful device to punctuate horror, which otherwise can be monotonic and predictable, leading to a story that’s too heavy. Humor is particularly useful to get a too-serious character (Max) to lighten up. It’s a fundamental form of human connection, and it would be a mistake to make any film without it.
16. (+) An intricate connection of set-ups and pay-offs aligned to causally connect characters’ choices with consequences. A fair implicit promise in the fist scene that then wraps around the sundry characters like a octupus’ legs, holding them all in because they’ve made a choice to play in the octupus’ territory.
17. (+) The usual actions and reactions that interconnected characters have that do not relate to rational motives but exhibit character traits that define them: political behaviors typical of hierarchies, sarcasm, sadism, etc. At best the characters aren’t stick men walking through rigid nonsensical plot points, but men and woman pushed and pulled by emotions, fears, fatigue, etc.
18. Characters who become fully dimensional by reacting dramatically to situations that continually build the plot. This means avoiding any protracted cuts away from danger to ‘learn who this character is and why we should like them.’ Characters will define themselves by action. It’s okay to have bios, but ultimately each character will be himself or herself. We believe them because they act out their identities, and we believe the ‘unmasked’ character because of the way that he or she acts under stress. So in reality there are two characters within each character: the one that operates in socially convenient circumstances, using social levers to manipulate, and the one who acts or reacts to crises, where the normal pace and convenience of everyday life is swept away.
19. (+) A consistently conjured image system that serves to advance the story and define the characters. One in Landfill would be sunset, night, morning. Another we’ve discussed would be fire, ice and the tardigrade. The utility of such images is that they work on a primal level, and powerfully amplify an audience reaction in a way that doesn’t need to be ‘earned’ dramatically. We’re using ancient feelings in service to our intents.
20. (+) Horror always demands an ending that either says, ‘Evil has Triumphed,’ or that ‘Evil will answer the bell for the Second Round,’ So the escape of a few of the mutants serve well.
21. (+) An Apocalyptic ending, fairly foreshadowed by your suggested lab scene with the tardigrade, which works in a set-up/pay-off relationship with the attempt to incinerate the mutants at the end.
22. Near the end, when you’re feeling terribly pleased with yourself, step back and take out the highlighter. On each page of the script that is written, you should have a different color for an action or dialogue that’s either (a) creepy; (b) scary; (a) ominous; (b) suspenseful; (c) horrific. If what’s written has none of these things, cut until you get at least one on the page. Because if not, it means that you’ve gone a whole minute of screen time in some tone that doesn’t support your promise to the viewers.
23. (+++!) In working for an eco-horror story, we are as much creating a niche as Tom Clancy did for technothrillers. To make it compelling, we need to stick close to what is really happening with environmental mutations, extending only a little into the realm of what could happen. Basically, past chemical dumping and the resulting mutations have laid the groundwork for us, just as the energy crisis has force consideration of mining methane from dumps. The beauty of carving out a niche is taking the ‘competition’ completely by surprise. This is why it’s good to have a second idea in mind after the first one goes into production. Until someone knocks you out of your niche, you’re the ‘go to’ team.
24. (+) Fidelity to the real world as it is, with all its warts and inefficencies; we cannot invent a ‘world of convenience’ with its occupants tailored for solving t he problems arising from the plot; that’s TV..
25. (+) A damn near perfect incorporation of scientific realities into t he story, making it scarier after leaving the theater than during the movie.