I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since the third grade. I wrote monster stories for classroom assignments, made up plots for my Lego people (that usually ended up with them being sliced in half, which was easy to do with Lego people) and whispered to the dog that it was for sure going to be beamed up to an alien space craft and vivisected.
When my friends and I started role-playing, I instantly gravitated to the game master role; I concocted intertwining plots (some of which lasted over three years) that drove them crazy with suspense.
Those early years of junior high and high school were extremely influential on my work, as they are, I think, for almost every writer you know and love. Except with me, my main writing influence wasn’t books and authors, it was movies and directors. I learned to tell better stories by watching masters make you writhe in your seat for 90 minutes.
Here is a partial list of movies that I saw over and over again in the theater (and/or on this crazy invention we had back then called “VHS,” but you kids wouldn’t know anything about that).
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If you’ve read my work, odds are you can see the direct influence of these classic flicks. If you haven’t read my work, there’s this other crazy invention called “Amazon.” Look into it.
This list is in alphabetical order, but if it weren’t this movie would still be number one. James Cameron’s scif/horror masterpiece rocked my world when I was in high school. I’ve watched the movie over a hundred times now, and every new viewing brings a new lesson on overlapping tension arcs, something I use frequently in my work. It also sparked my love for “pack predator” action as opposed the “single monster” approach.
I always watched movies like Halloween or Friday the 13th and would scream at the movie, “He’s down! You have a knife! So stab him in the face!” The heroine never did, of course, otherwise the movie would have been over, but that killed some of the fun for me. With a pack predator movie, the characters can behave more logically, kill some bad guys, but the plot keeps ticking away.
American Werewolf in London (1981)
It was scary. It was gross. And most of all, it was funny. There were jokes and laughter, even a rotting dead man stealing a character’s toast. His toast, I said! How offbeat is that?
This John Landis classic taught me that I could take all of the humor that pervaded my high school culture and use it in a scary, gripping story. Horror doesn’t have to be oh-so-serious. Character banter and irreverent humor can (and should) be just as much a part of making characters real as communicating their terror when the Thing That Goes Bump In The Night corners them in the back room of the abandoned research facility.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
This movie put biology front and center. The bad guy wasn’t some deranged serial killer, wasn’t some supernatural bogeyman that lived in your dreams, it was a frickin’ plant. A plant that used biomimicry to replace you, yet largely let society continue on without missing a beat.
Snatchers fed into my fascination with parasitology, which led directly to the plot of my first novel, Infected. Pandemic, the conclusion to the Infected trilogy, also carries the influence of Snatchers. There is even a scene in Pandemic that is a blatant love letter to this movie.
The Thing (1982)
As a biology nut in high school, this movie blew me out of the water. The concept of a collection of single cells working together to make something mean and nasty is still a part of my fiction to this day.
The Thing was also a major intro to a monster that has no fixed form, that can change shape but do so via a believable, scientifically plausible mechanism. Scientifically believable body restructuring is the basis for the eww-ick horror within the Infected trilogy: the things that happen to the character are vastly more frightening because the changes make sense.
Oh, and by the way: if you’ve only seen the 2011 version of The Thing, do yourself a Gigantic Damn Favor™ and go watch the ’82 version, featuring a grim-faced Kirk Russell at his evil-stomping best.
They Live (1988)
I saw this because my high school buddies and I were huge fans of professional wresting, and Rowdy Roddy Piper was at the top of that list. We were crazy for anything he did. He made a movie, so I promptly saw it the night it opened in our small Michigan town.
They Live introduced me to the concept of evil hiding in plain sight, and that puppet masters could be all around us, pulling the strings of the world. Of course, this is a very common theme, but I didn’t know that at the time. That theme permeates PANDEMIC: you never truly know who you can trust.
If these movies resonated with you, say so in the comments. Think there’s a movie I missed? List that as well, and tell me why.
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