Telling stories versus recycling old ideas

One of my great pleasures in life is to use e-mail to pick the brains of people who’ve spent decades in industries of interest to me and learn what I can from them.

One example in the movie industry is Gary Kent, a gentleman who’s had quite a long-ranging acting career. He’s been an actor, writer, producer, director, worked in stunts and many other facets of filmmaking. In his movies, I’ve seen Gary in one movie in particular, the 1973 film Let’s Play Dead. The title Let’s Play Dead and the cover showing an unseen man taking a hatchet to a playhouse seemed very creepy.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the film that I remember from watching it years ago: A woman suffers a car breakdown and looks for help. She encounters two brothers (Gary played the older brother and his friend John Parker played the younger brother), and before long they kidnap her and put her into a room with two other women. One of them’s been there for months. The two men terrorize the women, and we learn the men have a major mother issue straight out of a Sigmund Freud session.

The police finally start investigating, find the two women (the other died) and come to the house where “Mom” is. In an oddly-strained voice, she tries to tell them nothing’s awry. Well, they don’t buy that and enter the house. The movie ends with Gary’s character dead by suicide and John crying.

Where’s “Mom”? She’s a corpse in the master bedroom and apparently has been dead for years.

This movie sticks out in my mind even today, when you consider how many cookie-cutter suspense/thriller/horror films are out there. You know the basic formula: deranged killer escapes from custody and goes on a horror rampage. And, yes, something at the end will strongly suggest a sequel. It’s a formula that’s been done again and again and again and again. Sometimes it gets so cheesy that what was supposed to be a horror film (Jack Frost–the serial killer who becomes a murdering snowman–not the Michael Keaton movie) evolves more into an unintentional comedy. The human imagination is a wonderful, powerful thing, but yet it seems too much like it’s limited.

A few weeks ago, I e-mailed Gary and asked him how Let’s Play Dead came about. He confirmed that what was said on Internet Movie Database was true: the film’s writer, Don Jones (who also directed) was intrigued by a news report out of Los Angeles where a car was found abandoned on the shoulder of Interstate-5 (which runs from the U.S./Mexican border to the U.S./Canadian border). The female driver was never found. They wondered what may have happened to that driver and took the story from there.

Gary added that he and John based their brother characters loosely on people they’ve known or read about.. This reminds me of Edwin Neal, who played the Hitchhiker in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and said in an interview that when he read the script, the hitchhiker reminded him of a crazy relative; he performed his audition like the relative and was cast.

Asking “what if?” and creating a movie is a formula used for dark works of fiction also:

What if a Catholic school was run by a secret society of its male students? (The Chocolate War)

What if a cocky adolescent kid discovered a paper route customer was a fugitive Nazi and decided to blackmail him–only to have the Nazi turn the tables on him? (Apt Pupil)

What if a couple having marital problems ends up in a deserted Nebraska town run by a dangerous religious cult? (Children of the Corn)

And from one of my all-time favorite films:

What if a crew of space explorers are tricked by their employer into picking up a hostile alien lifeform that starts killing them one by one? (Alien)

I’ve never written by a screenplay, but I have to think great movies–especially suspenseful ones–come when we ask “what if” and let our imaginations take over.