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The Architects of Scare Season

For the past seven years, the Saw films have existed synonymously with all that is most terrifying about Halloween. This year, as millions of horror fanatics prepare to flock to Saw 3D for their annual Halloween weekend scare fix, Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunston, writers of Saw IV, Saw V, Saw VI and Saw 3D, explain the culture of the scare.

On the Culture of Scary Movies

Marcus and I both have a long history of looking at the screen and being scared. You want to blame someone for our current warped minds? Blame Steven Spielberg. Because when I was seven years old, my parents took me to see Poltergeist at the Coronet theater in Evanston, Illinois. I don’t know if you’ve seen Poltergeist lately, but that is a scary movie, it is not a PG movie. I can’t look at a drumstick now without thinking of that scene in that movie when the guy is eating a drumstick that is covered in maggots and then he rips his face off. You can see how I was scarred by him, specifically. And, I remember seeing Psycho when I was a little too young to see it and I remember just being freaked out about Anthony Perkins when he was dressed as his mom. And I would see that in my room.

The other one that affected me in  big way was John Carpenter’s Halloween.  Think about it: just look out your back window and someone is standing there staring at you. It’s creepy. That doesn’t happen in real life. And I still think about it.

But, I just loved the experience of when all things went quiet and you knew things were going to happen and it still got you. Because naturally, you scream and then you laugh. Screams and laughter are polar opposites in terms of emotion, but they work hand in hand in horror movies.

Being scared can be a fun sensation and it’s a communal one too, like when you go to movie theaters and it can be much more effective when you’re around people who are just as scared. One person screams and everyone else screams, one person screams and everyone else laughs.

Naturally, that is all heightened now that we are in the midst of Halloween week and Saw has become a part of that. The first one opened on the 29th and we again seven years later are again opening on the 29th and it’s become a tradition: if it’s Halloween, it’s gotta be Saw. It’s become a part of a lot of people’s Halloween traditions. They’ll go trick-or-treating and then they’ll go see Saw at 10 o’clock or whatever. And it’s fun to talk to people that that’s their routine. It’s part of their life, the way it was part of mine to watch Halloween or have the Friday the 13th marathon with friends.

So it just happens that Saw comes out the week of Halloween.  We have the perfect vehicle to capture that same feeling of scares. To give them back the same way we got them.  Or better. Products of our environments, I suppose. We’ve had our scares and are giving them back to kids twofold.

Marcus and I both grew up in small towns where there’s a hysteria behind celebrations. Halloween being the big one. Everyone on my block decorated their houses, dressed up and went out hardcore. As soon as people were answering doors, there were kids out there with huge bags of candy and often with each door, there was a scare that would come with it. And that was a wonderful feeling and I think that for both of us, that feeling of fun has stuck with us into adulthood, where often people lose that.

I remember reading horror stories in anthologies growing up. If it took you twenty minutes before lights out, that was the perfect form. I remember the first time I read “Survivor Types” that great Stephen King short. Those are cherished memories, Ramsey Campbell and all these great authors that began to shape our nightmares and let us imagine what was creeping in the shadows surrounding our beds. Just terrific. The old comic books like Creepy and Eerie, I don’t know if they still exist, but back then, I remember being at Dominick’s grocery store in Evanston, where they’d be all these magazines where you start out with Cosmo or Better Homes and Gardens and you just get more depraved as you go down the line, like Creepy and Eerie and Fangoria. That had these great, vivid covers, kids staring at them wondering what was in them and then buying them when I got old enough and being shocked but also enraptured.

On Writing the Saw Series

The stark terror of Halloween really proved how you can orchestrate a suspense sequence with shot selection and predatory camera work. The first Saw is really the one that all the others have been judged by, about trying to get back to the thrill of a great twist. It’s the suspense of the demise that works so beautifully in the first one. They spend a long time describing what the trap can do and what you’ll have to endure and that’s the moment the audience shares with the people on the screen—that beautiful dread and the outcome is then handed off to the special effects people, when most people have their eyes shut anyway.

The thing about Saw is that it’s kind of like writing for a TV show, you have certain parameters that you have to stay within, preexisting characters that are going to return and that you have to serve and there’s often a structure that you’re going to have to follow. The Saw films are very collaborative. They’re much more analytical than you might think in terms of figuring out ways for people to die.

And of course, none of this happens in a vacuum, of course we have influences. When we’re thinking about monsters or creatures, we’re referencing The Thing, which is almost 25 years old and sure was effective and still is effective in its depiction of the creatures.

In terms of location, films like Tobe Hooper’s  The Funhouse set the standard. I used to watch it over and over as a kid and was terrified by its depiction of a carnival, something everyone can relate to.

Wes Craven does chases really well. We’ll reference that, when a killer is chasing someone, he does them and cuts them in a really distinct way and he can be making a horror movie, like Scream, or a thriller like Red Eye, but he’s still doing the chase sequences the same.

There’s a color palate, Marcus is always referencing Dario Argento in terms of how he would light certain scenes. We’re always affected by the strangest things and they come up at the strangest times in terms of reference.

Traditionally when you think of a terror film, you think of The Last House on the Left or I Spit On Your Grave, but Saw is a little bit different than that. I always saw Saw as a horror/torture film, but if you ask the producers when they were first making it, they thought they were making Seven, not a lot of people refer to that as a horror film, but a lot of horrific things happen in that movie, especially compared to the thing we do. How many movies do you see Gwenyth Paltrow’s head in a box?  Saw is more focused on the traps, people enjoy the traps in terms of seeing something that takes your breath away, that makes you say “oh my god, how is this going to play out.” And in terms of the first one, you’re wondering about the mystery and how it’s going to play out and the twist and what’s going to happen. A lot of the early horror films like Terror Train or the Friday the 13th films were all about that twist at the end: who’s the killer? So you’d go through the entire movie trying to guess who it is and then getting the reveal at the end. That experience is what I’d compare Saw to. In that way it is a throwback to those 80’s horror films in terms of who the killer is and what the twist is at the end.

But the real surprise is usually us ourselves, in the social settings that we’re in, they may not know who we are, but when we start talking about Saw, their eyes widen and they say “You write that?” Like we should have fangs or blood dripping from our heads. Like they don’t know that we’re just regular guys who happen to love horror movies. Or maybe we’re not.

Happy Halloween.

Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, October 2010

All Saw 3D photos by Brooke Palmer, courtesy of Lionsgate Films.

Patrick Melton hails from Evanston, Illinois and attended the University of Iowa, where he met his writing partner, Marcus Dunstan.  After moving to Los Angeles and working for various film companies, Patrick attended Loyola Marymount University, where he received his MFA in Screenwriting.  In 2004, Patrick won the filmmaking contest Project Greenlight for the script he co-wrote with Marcus Dunstan titled FEAST.  Since then, Patrick and Marcus have become household names in the horror genre with such films as SAW IV, SAW V, SAW VI, the two FEAST sequels, and THE COLLECTOR, which Dunstan also directed.  They have provided rewrites for the successful MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D and the recently released PIRANHA 3D.  Currently, Patrick and Marcus are writing a film version of THE OUTER LIMITS for MGM and they are preparing to film THE COLLECTOR 2 this fall with Dunstan returning to the director’s chair.

Marcus Dunstan hails from Macomb, IL and attended the University of Iowa, where he met his writing partner Patrick Melton. After moving to North Hollywood in January of 1999, Marcus attempted to stay in shape by jogging in a nearby park. He found a gun in that park, ran back to his apartment and shortly thereafter gained 50 pounds. Odd job after odd job followed as Mr. Dunstan watched his youth dim under the mocking gaze of his Communications Degree.  A fateful call from Patrick Melton began with, “What if we took a shot at writing a horror film?” That script became FEAST, which was selected by Project Greenlight and released by Dimension Films.  The success of FEAST led to the creation of two sequels that so offended one viewer, Dunstan was asked not to reproduce.  In 2007, Marcus co-wrote SAW IV with Patrick Melton, during which time, Dunstan, fearing kidney stones, endured an ultrasound only to discover that his jeans were so tight they had pinched a nerve under his ribcage.  With shame intact, Marcus co-wrote SAW V, SAW VI and SAW 3D for director Kevin Greutert. Dunstan’s next offering as director will be THE COLLECTION, a sequel to his directorial debut, THE COLLECTOR, which is based, once again, on a script co-written by his college bud, Patrick Melton. The screenwriting duo are currently working on the film adaptation of the sci-fi series THE OUTER LIMITS which will hopefully bring Dunstan one step closer to realizing his lifelong dream of living on the moon…or within walking distance of a Jimmy John’s Subs…whichever comes first.