I watch a lot of bad movies. Part of this is a function of the conditions under which I usually watch movies (at the end of a long day of doing stuff outside, so tired I can barely lift the remote and flick through the options on NetFlix), part of this is because for every good, smart horror movie that comes down the pike there are a legion of terrible ones, and part of this is because I think there's a lot to learn as a writer from bad movies. The key, of course, is not just sitting there covered in Cheeto dust and loudly proclaiming something sucks. You have to think about why something sucks. A skill many people don't seem to have.
Which brings me to Abattoir.
Abattoir is a unique animal. The love child of a great movie with an intriguing premise and a schlocky pile of hot garbage that wouldn't even deserve its place in the bargain bin if we still had those. I even hesitate to call it a bad movie, but at the same time there's the old nine gallons of ice cream/one gallon of manure rule. But for our purposes, it doesn't matter whether the movie's good or bad, since this is not a movie blog. It's a narrative blog.
In the first hour of so of its running time, Abbatoir does a number of things right. The premise is absolutely killer: there's a mysterious guy running around buying up properties where horrific tragedies have occurred, literally tearing the rooms out of the house, and then flipping them (TLC should really get on this). Julia is a reporter who's sister's family was murdered, and their house purchased and renovated. There's a neo noir feel to the dialogue between the reporter, Julia, and her cop boyfriend, Grady (unfortunately doesn't extend to the rest of the characters and is bizarrely dropped right around the time the rest of the movie goes off the rails).
Much of the first act concerns itself with digging through property records and birth certificates, which might sound boring but is actually great. It's quiet horror, mundane paperwork forming a trail of breadcrumbs one can follow to the supernatural. The sort of tone that makes the story feel more grounded. Which is what we general want in horror. We want to be presented with familiar surroundings, slightly tainted with a sense of unease, because that makes the horror seem more plausible.
At this point in the narrative, the writer is involved in a balancing act. You want to peel back the curtain slowly, but not too slowly. You want to build anticipation without boring the audience. In the final good decision made in the narrative, the writers introduce a videotape, ostensibly of Julia's sister's murder, which provides a peek behind the curtain. Something about the room in the background of the grainy video doesn't look right, and we're given the impression that maybe this video was made after the murder room was ripped out of her sister's house.
So we've got this fantastic setup, but unfortunately it's completely squandered. The script commits the sin of giving us too much exposition in a jailhouse visit with Julia's sister's killer. The guy reveals exactly what Dayton Callie's awfully-named Jebidiah Crone is up to, and why he's doing what he's doing. Too much information, too early in the story.
The story next takes us to a small Louisiana town, where all the residents act predictably weird and unfriendly. There's nothing wrong with using cliches, but there's a lot wrong when they feel like cliches. At this point the movie lapses into the usual small town weirdo shtick for the next twenty minutes or so, before finally taking us on Disney's Haunted Mansion ride. Literally.
I think the idea of building an entire house out of different rooms where gruesome murder have occurred is brilliant. But then we actually see the house, and there's not a lick of subtlety to it, just cheesy camera work and cheesier CGI, with Dayton Callie doing a Saturday afternoon horror host impression and stamping his magic staff on the ground. Ugh.
Summing up the lessons from the movie:
1. If you start with a grounded tone, keep it. If you want to get nuts, do so from the beginning.
2. This is hardly a new lesson, but always bears repeating--show, don't tell. Kill your exposition deliverers. This is horror, I'm sure you can find a way to off them.
3. As a corollary to #2, show your monsters as little as possible (as Stephen Graham Jones says, "just the toe"). The movie does this well with the videotape scene--it's so grainy and shaky, and the camera never fully focuses on the TV that's playing it back. Then it seems to forget its own lesson and unleashes the CGI ghosts.