Southern Horror Writers Serve Up Some Lake-side Mayhem
The following is an article I wrote that came out August 18, 2021 in Script Magazine.
Here are a few alternative titles I came up with for it- ha:
The Reigning Architects of Horror Movie Writing
From Psychological Horror to Pinhead, the Winding Path of One Writing Team
How to Trap Your Anxieties into Screenplays – with Ben and Luke
Fox Searchlight’s new thriller feature The Night House stars Rebecca Hall who you might recognize from Tales From The Loop or the dozens of other tv and film credits she has. It was directed by David Bruckner and written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski.
I talk with Ben and Luke who are Southern-California based and who grew up in Fayetteville, Georgia together. They know each other all the way back from high school. They even both went to film school at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), before Luke left for Auburn to study writing.
The movie starts somewhere in upstate New York in a nice lake house. Beth, a high school teacher, hears creaks and footsteps around the house and sees a shadow figure. We find out that her husband Owen’s committed suicide by shooting himself while sitting out on the couple’s boat, in the lake.
The story becomes a cross between a few things like 2020’s Invisible Man with Elizabeth Moss and — Winchester starring Helen Mirren about a woman wracked with guilt about her fortune that comes from blood money, who never stops construction on her house, hoping to trick ghosts into leaving her alone. Funny enough, Ben and Luke pitched to work on this latter film. It’s the pieces of projects that didn’t happen for them that became The Night House.
It’s fascinating how this film came together for the guys and what elements fused to become this story. It should give up and coming filmmakers hope and show that patience is the way.
After her husband’s death, Beth finds more pieces about her life that she had no idea about, as we, the audience, find out more about Beth herself. We know that she’s “been dead before” for a few minutes and how she feels about death. Beth finds a photo of a woman in a book store who resembles her. She drives nearly three hours away to Utica to this book store and finds more clues. I don’t want to completely spoil this for you, but Beth finds out that Owen is not who she thought he was. You also wonder who Beth is. She falls under the category of “unreliable [narrator]” as we see a lot of things from her point of view, as she begins to drink heavily in the aftermath of Owen taking his own life. There are elements of the story where you have to suspend your disbelief.
The cast is quite sparse. Others who round it out are Vondie Curtis-Hall as Beth’s neighbor Mel, and Sarah Goldberg as Beth’s best friend and co-worker Claire. Evan Jonigkeit is Owen in flashbacks. Both Mel and Claire suggest that Beth stops looking into what secrets her deceased husband had and get on with her life. Mel is a witness to things he never shared before with Beth. He’s seen Owen with a strange woman, Owen up in the middle of the night, confessing to Mel that he has “urges” he can’t control. At this point one may think Mel and Owen were in cahoots, hell- even Claire too, but you have to watch and see if this is the case.
The movie teases a connection to the Caerdroia: The Journal of Mazes and Labyrinths of Welsh origins and ritual practice of patterns in which people dance for magical purposes like luring a ghost into the maze and trapping it there. Ben and Luke tell me that they know people with Caerdroias in their backyards, the director’s partner for one. For the movie, the purpose is building patterns in which to lure evil spirits and trapping them. The guys tell me how they got into “architecture and construction as spell-craft” and how they literalized this notion by making a familiar space (like one’s house) into the unfamiliar. You could say the idea of two mirroring house patterns in the movie are akin to one’s conscious and subconscious.
The Night House as well as its protagonist are both Frankensteins. I’ll tell you why. Speaking of houses, Ben and Luke also pitched on the Amityville remake and said that scraps of that pitch also became The Night House. For whoever needs to hear this- the guys have written up to forty-page pitches before for studio projects, if this makes you feel any better.
The origin story of The Night House is that their first draft was written in 2014 because they wanted to write something for themselves in between getting “chewed up by studio development” on other things. Ben just suggested that they write it to “have the most fun we could have”.
Beth actually is pieces of the widow from Hellraiser (which they pitched on). Luke says her “heart and soul was repurposed”. That they used that same grief this other character had and put that into Beth, combined with her sympathetic nature and physical and mental isolation. Ben adds, “Characters find themselves in unique emotional situations. If the horror doesn’t show up in the story, that’s what makes it interesting. The reality of their emotional space interacts with genre elements.” With Beth being alone a lot, her mind wanders and creates her own reality.
The lead character of Beth is Luke adjacent. He also taught high school. He says that he doesn’t want to write about himself necessarily. He makes him freeze up and for him- “it feels restrictive”. He’d rather write about others who could be similar to him and let those characters find themselves. Ben says that during the filming, Rebecca’s “Beth” actually sounded and looked a lot like Luke in real life somehow, with the words coming off the page.
The guys attached their director first, then casting fell into place. The long road went like so– When they wrote The Night House, “it predated the art house horror movement. It was the world of Paranormal and Insidious, says Ben and “we wanted to get away from jump-scares and studio system style.” People told them- “We don’t know what to do with this.” So, the writers put it in a drawer for years. During those years, David’s career advanced, as did theirs. Ben continues, “After he [David] made The Ritual– he texted us- and said- didn’t you send us a script four years ago that I never read?”. Meanwhile, Luke and Ben had been developing The Night House with other directors, but it never happened, so it was available.
As for willing Rebecca to be the lead, Ben did, in California hippy style, manifest it. He says he saw her in the film Christine and was very impressed. He had a lobby card from that movie- from the Sundance Five Theater on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. He put it onto a magnet board and it was two years after this that Hall was cast as Beth.
I ask the guys if they, like Beth, ever had any near-death experiences. For them, the answer is no, however Luke explains another parallel to Beth. He says he has crippling night time anxiety and wakes up staring at the ceiling, realizing the certainty of death and fills himself with existential dread. So, like Owen in the movie builds another house to perhaps trap an evil spirit, Luke and Ben wrote a screenplay to trap this “anxiety, terror and despair” about the certainty of death. Ben says they added other anxieties and voila. Trap what’s haunting you – into the script – and then you have power over it. There you go, writers. Own all of your anxieties, put them on the page and give them to readers and viewers and you, too, may get a film made like The Night House. Make your screenplays your very own Caerdroia.
In the magic of a circuitous full circle, Ben and Luke have now been hired to work on a Hellraiser reboot movie with David Bruckner! Winding roads are your friend.