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On its face, Haunt, the new movie from filmmakers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, is a simple affair about a handful of teens who head out in search of fun, arrive at a remote locale with bad cell service and find themselves beset upon by a gaggle of masked murderers. If you’re a horror diehard, you’ve seen that movie before. If you’re a newbie to the genre by way of recent high watermarks like Hereditary, The Witch, The Babadook and Get Out, you’ve still probably seen that movie. But Haunt is proof of why movies like it exist and must continue to exist: for the primal cathartic release of a bloody carnival ride.
Beck and Woods rose to prominence in 2018 with A Quiet Place, an awards contender on which they share a writing credit with star and director John Krasinski. Haunt is just their latest outing as a two-man writer-director team, arriving in time to herald Halloween’s approach and, as a happy bonus, to coincide with Friday the 13th.
They wrote Haunt at the same time as A Quiet Place, not expecting both of them would be made. But in the wake of A Quiet Place, they find themselves able to command a pitch meeting in ways they couldn’t in years past.
“We have a lot of upcoming projects that we’re excited about, but the thing that gets us up in the morning is the next big, crazy, zany original idea, which is a script we’ve been working on for a year now,” Woods tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re on the finish line. It’s our favorite thing we’ve ever written and we’re just excited to be able to use A Quiet Place in our rear view as a platform to get that movie out.”
In a conversation with THR, the duo expand on the effect A Quiet Place‘s success has had on their careers, the cathartic power of a good old-fashioned slasher and the totally bogus concept of “elevated horror“:
I’m connecting the dots between Haunt and A Quiet Place, and they’re very different kind of projects; this is a specific niche, the haunted house kind of slasher movie. What led you to to this as your follow-up?
Bryan Woods: It’s interesting, we actually wrote the scripts for A Quiet Place and Haunt around the same time, believe it or not. That was part of the fun of it, because we’re, on the one hand, over here writing A Quiet Place, which we kind of always perceived as this Spielbergian studio horror film, what you would consider “elevated” horror, and then on the other hand, we’re scoffing at ourselves and going, “Don’t be snobs, you don’t have to elevate horror.” There’s something amazing and beautiful about a low-budget throwback slasher, which is what Haunt was. We were really chasing John Carpenter and Toby Hooper and all those films that we love. So we felt like we were sharing our love for two different sides of horror because we love them both.
Scott Beck: But what’s kind of funny in the process when Brian and I were writing is we tried to be optimists when going into the script and we know how hard it is to get a movie made. When writing both A Quiet Place and Haunt, we had no expectation that the movie would actually get made. There were little things here and there, and if you’ve seen Haunt, there are two carry-overs of specific moments, one including a nail, that we wrote into both scripts, again from maybe a pessimistic point of view that movies don’t get made, so we want to have a nail gag in at least one. But they both happened to get greenlight at the same time, and we found ourselves in a situation where we’re ripping ourselves off, but for the best reason possible because we got both movies made.
Woods: We said to ourselves that if Quentin Tarantino can end every single movie in a Mexican standoff, we can have two nail scenes in two movies. But we love that there’s a conversation between the two movies and we love that there are two different sides of the same coin in a weird way.
Elevated horror is a topic of great interest for me. It’s a nonsense term. But, when John Krasinski was promoting A Quiet Place, he used that term very earnestly and straight-facedly, and you guys, it sounds like you think it’s a bogus phrase. What do you feel about “elevated horror” being the buzz phrase for this genre?
Beck: Right! So, we throw the term “elevated horror” around in major quotes. We don’t deny the fact that the horror genre being used in an interesting way isn’t unique to our time. You can point to Night of the Living Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and look at those as simply great B movies. But there’s something incredible under the surface of both, whether dealing with racism, or politics, or the fear of communism seeping into the United States back in the 1950s and 1960s. We feel that in the undercurrent today, obviously pointing to Jordan Peele with both Get Out and Us, movies that are really hitting social discourse underneath the veil of genre.
Woods: But what’s really cool, as movie fans, is that we’re getting these amazing movies, what would be considered “elevated,” like Get Out, like The Witch, like It Follows. But that’s not the only game in town! We felt like there was a hole missing in the genre work that we’re seeing right now that we hope Haunt fills from some people.
Beck: I’ll add to that: One of the most surreal moments of the whole Quite Place whirlwind culminated on a night in November last year during awards season, and Paul Thomas Anderson, of all filmmakers, hosted an event for A Quiet Place, and he stopped the party and he did this whole talk about what he loved about the movie, and what he loved is that first and foremost, it’s a B movie. Paul Thomas Anderson, we hold him at the top of our Mount Rushmore of filmmakers. The stuff that he does just transcends any other type of cinema that’s out there. To hear somebody so well-read just appreciate a good, solid B movie, and it happens to be Paul Thomas Anderson, that floored us. It also inspired us to embrace the genre for what it can be, and it doesn’t need to be anything more than a rollercoaster ride.
The Witch is an interesting example because within the first 10 minutes, something very shocking happens; they don’t wait until the end of the movie to pull that stuff out. But it sounds like the purpose of Haunt is to remind folks that there’s another side to horror, and it’s a more traditional side or at least the side people think of when they think of horror. Maybe that is also why people reach for the term “elevated horror” in the first place?
Woods: Absolutely. Well said. For us, the fun of it was just marinating in our love of the Halloween season and horror itself, and poking at all those tropes, using those tropes, turning them on their head a little bit when we wanted to in certain sections of the film, but also just relishing them.
Beck: And I think beyond that too, with any approach we personally have to horror, we’re always looking at it thematically too. So, for example, A Quiet Place was very much about broken communication in the context of a family. If these aliens had not invaded Earth, this family would still be grappling with the loss of their child and having broken communication. With Haunt, the approach was not just doing a haunted house film, but it was about our lead character and making sure there was something substantial in her DNA. In this case, it’s this trauma that has been infecting every aspect of her life, and bridging that into the metaphor of wearing masks as human beings. We go out into the world and we put on a mask of what we hope we can be and what we want to be, but maybe that’s not really who we are once we take it off. Extending that into the Halloween trope for Harper, the villains are also wearing these masks very literally, and there’s something darker and deeper beneath that surface when they take those masks off.
So you feel that you can communicate a lot of great ideas, deeper concepts, through something as grimy as the “kids go to the haunted house, kids get dead” formula?
Woods: Yeah. We’re at our most comfortable when we feel like there’s something underneath the gimmick. Again for A Quiet Place, we love the idea of if you make a sound, they kill you, but we didn’t write that script until many years later when we actually felt like we had a story, a theme and substance. Haunt‘s the same way. Haunt is something that we want, honestly, people to appreciate the rollercoaster, that feeling of going to a haunted house, to evoke that feeling we felt when Scott and I were teenagers in the middle of Iowa, going to haunted houses during Halloween. First and foremost, that should work, but we feel more comfortable when it has that thematic resonance bubbling under the surface.
What brought you to that specific theme of Haunt, since we’re talking about that?
Beck: Just looking at family members, friends that have suffered trauma. Sometimes it’s not in a sweeping, dramatic way that you would see on film. Day to day, you see people having to wake up and deal with poisonous, toxic relationships, or something that may have happened 10 years in their past that’s still affecting them in very subtle ways. To a certain degree, that was the entry point so we could hopefully speak to something real and tangible.
Trauma is another term I hear used often in discussions of horror. But it’s not a new thing. I feel like horror has always been the genre of trauma. Is your relationship to it as well?
Woods: I think horror is, if nothing else, about trauma, whether that’s psychological trauma or physical trauma. It’s about what scares us, and what damages us, and what we need to heal from. Horror at its best should be cathartic. You want to go to a scary movie and you want to walk out of the theater feeling like you conquered something for yourself personally.
Beck: Yeah. I think about one of the most impressionable horror movies that I remember seeing as a kid, David Cronenberg’s The Fly; it deals with trauma in a different way. It’s a tragedy in terms of a love story, and somebody is trying to break cutting-edge science, but they end up destroying themselves and a potential relationship in the process. The end of that film still gets me to this day, how heart-wrenching it really is.
The catharsis is huge. I feel like a lot of horror, the attention-grabbing horror, ignores the idea of catharsis and goes very heavy on suffering and on grimness. Not that there’s no place for that, but I found myself onboard with these characters getting to fight back against their tormentors. Do you feel like that’s maybe missing a little bit in this new glut of horror movies?
Woods: That’s what we hope. We hope that it can be a cathartic experience. We hope that it can be experiential, and you can feel like you’re taking that journey with the characters, and seeing it not just be, I guess for lack of a better term, pure torture porn for 90 minutes. That’s not something that was ever interesting to us. What was really cool was our producer, Eli Roth, who’s certainly known for his gore and shocking violence, it was wonderful working with him. All of our conversations were about character, making sure that we had time with them and we loved them and related to them, but it was also about the villains and making sure that we understood their motivations. We’re playing it a little bit close to the chest, both in A Quiet Place and in Haunt. We don’t like to get into backstory and reveal all the secrets of why, in A Quiet Place for example, the aliens are here, where they came from. We love putting that on the periphery and letting the audience be a part of the conversation.
And we’re certainly playing that same card in Haunt. Eli really encouraged us to dig into their motivations and their backstories, not to put it onscreen, but just so that we all felt comfortable and felt like we knew what we were doing so that it would add a layer of kind of immediacy that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
I wonder a lot about how movies like Haunt fit into this new ecosystem of horror, where the horror that gets valued is the horror that emphasizes its own importance. How do you want to see Haunt fit into that conversation when we have so many horror movies with these high aspirations?
Beck: First and foremost we’re coming out on Friday the 13th, so I think that’s indicative of how we want people to embrace the movie! (Laughs.) We do compare the movie to a rollercoaster ride. That’s what we’re gunning for. It’s rather simplistic perhaps, but for us, we wholeheartedly embrace that. The movies that we go back to and really watch outside of, you know, our love of French New Wave and Jacques Tati and François Truffaut, would be Steven Spielberg’s Duel, where it’s just man versus truck. There’s something incredibly heart racing about watching that competition between those two, and you’re hoping that the good guy wins.
Woods: I have to say, we spent, as artists, the last 20 years trying to pull our heads out of our asses. It’s hilarious to think that if we went to ourselves in high school and said, “Would you ever make a slasher film that takes place on Halloween?”, we’d be like, “No!” It’s weird. We were immersed in The Criterion Collection and we were, like Scott said, devouring the French New Wave and Zhang Yimou and Hou Hsiao-hsien, and all these amazing art house filmmakers. Those were our first heroes. It’s ironic that over time we’ve actually come to appreciate some of the other films and other filmmakers that you might not think of, but also at the same time, all of our heroes started in this world. When you think about Peter Bogdanovich, for example, one of his first films was Targets, and Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, all these filmmakers cut their teeth on really fun genre movies. We’re proud to attempt to participate or to attempt to follow in their footsteps.
In light of all that, do how you feel about A Quiet Place‘s success in this ecosystem, and what you want for Haunt‘s success going forward?
Beck: A Quiet Place put us in a position that we’re incredibly grateful for; when we were writing that years ago, and we would pitch the idea to an executive, they would get this glazed-over look. So we feel validated to a certain extent that there is an appetite for what we consider as original filmmaking amidst the landscape that’s sequels or remakes or, you know, based on existing IP. For us, in the wake of Haunt and even beyond, and extending to some of the stuff we’re working on, we’re trying to capitalize on that momentum. Instead of focusing on sequels per se, it’s about investing back into the ecosystem of original ideas in a massive marketplace. So that’s where our heads are.
Woods: We have a lot of upcoming projects that we’re excited about, but the thing that gets us up in the morning is the next big, crazy, zany original idea, which is a script we’ve been working on for a year now. We’re on the finish line. It’s our favorite thing we’ve ever written and we’re just excited to be able to use A Quiet Place in our rear view as a platform to get that movie out.
Haunt is the first movie I’ve seen by you two as a duo. A Quite Place you share a credit with Krasinski. I feel like the conversation around that film focused on him and your names got lost in the shuffle. But it sounds like that isn’t a bother for you because you’ve been able to parlay that movie’s success into other projects?
Woods: We look at it like this: John’s been building a career for the past 15 years, right? And he’s a celebrity in addition to being a writer and director, and he’s been cultivating a following for years and years and years. So we felt like he should have the spotlight, because he’s been doing this for so long. The film coming out, we were so grateful for the success, and John did such a terrific job, that it’s hard for us to be like, “Oh, we didn’t get enough attention,” you know what I mean? We felt well covered, but let us now take the next 10 years and do our best to put our work out there. If we steal the spotlight, then that’s terrific. But we’ll just be pounding away in our own humble way.
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