Derek Milman did a lot of research into horror movies in order to make Scream All Night authentic. Which ones are the best? The worst? The best of the worst?
Not everyone likes horror movies, but there’s a lot of variety out there for all kinds of fans. In order to write Scream All Night, author Derek Milman had to take a deep dive into the weird and wacky world of terrible horror films. This is a transcript of our conversation on the topic, slightly edited for the sake of clarity.
Tell us all about ‘Scream All Night.’
Scream All Night is about a 17-year-old kid named Dario Heyward who had a very unusual childhood. He grew up in a Gothic castle called Moldavia, which doubles as a B-horror movie studio. When he was a boy, his father cast him as the main zombie kid in what would go on to become their biggest cult hit, Zombie Children of the Harvest Sun. But his father physically and emotionally abused him during the production, which was fraught with other tragedy as well, to try to get this perfectly monstrous performance out of Dario for the movie. And Dario was already kind of a sensitive, nervous kid.
There was just a lot going on in this zany, zany castle, and no one was really looking after him. So he got legally emancipated. He moved into a group home where he befriends Jude, who’s this amateur boxer who becomes his best friend. And then at the start of the novel he gets a call from his much older, very eccentric brother, Orin who informs him that their father — who’s actually 91 — is terminally ill, and to come back to the estate for the live burial. Because his father has requested that he be buried alive as an homage to the first movie they made called The Curse of the Mummy’s Tongue, where the heroine gets entombed in a sarcophagus. It does not go well! And Dario winds up inheriting the estate to his complete and utter shock.
These are some spoilers, but I’m putting them in for the sake of the book — he has been accepted to Harvard, so he’s not sure if he wants to reclaim a new future or sort of get closure on his past and his childhood and sort of reclaim his family legacy in the world of underground horror, cults, midnight movies, and all their fans. And there’s a lot of people who live and work at the castle, including his long lost love Hayley who he grew up with them but then left, and he reunited with her. So there’s a big conflict in terms of if he’s going to accept the terms and sort of try to lead this really wacky place back to solvency because it’s failing, or if he’s going to move forward and claim a different future for himself. So that’s really what the book is about.
That sounds interesting to say the least!
It’s definitely unlike anything that’s been out there, I’ll tell you that! That pretty much everyone’s first reaction.
Well that’s definitely a good thing. And I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that you’re interested in the horror genre in general given the topic of the book, but what first got you into that?
It’s interesting you’d ask that. I, as a boy, as a young kid, I was very into books and I was very into movies. Not necessarily horror, but real cinema stuff. And I had long lists of books that I had to read, what I considered the classics: the novelists that I needed to get to by the time I was 18. And I started this when I was 13 or 14. As well as films. Everything from The Deer Hunter to Kurosawa. Long lists. I was really just wanting to experience art in all these forms. I remember not going to some sort of dance I had in middle school because I really wanted to watch The Deer Hunter! Saying this sounds so ridiculous! It was a very uplifting evening, as you can imagine.
So I was really into movies and I was really into books. I had the idea many, many years ago about a Gothic castle where there’s a horror movie studio and a kid who inherits it. But I didn’t know what to do with the story. I had loved movies, not specifically horror, but I had seen the classics as part of my whole regime of watching classic movies. Everything from Jaws to Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist to Deliverance. And then a lot of them came later in life. The ones that were a little bit along the edges, like The Omen or The Sentinel. The ones that were in the ’70s. Like Black Christmas. The ’70s had this great period of just really wacky horror. Jamie Lee Curtis is in 90% of them. I don’t know how she stayed this busy. It’s like every other movie, she’s in! I’m like, wow how did she do all this?!
So when I started talking about the idea to people and people in publishing, everyone was like, “I love this idea, you have to write this!” I started doing more and more research into the horror — specifically Hammer films — which I had not seen before I started the process of writing this book. And that became an inspiration because they did actually move all their production to a English manor house called Bray Studios. And they did have a repertory company of actors. Like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing — who would go onto Star Wars — and Oliver Reed. All of these actors who would become more famous later but they kinda started in these schlocky creature features. They had a deal with Universal. So they were churning out the classic Universal monster movies. And they were in this house for a while just making these things! Until they used every angle that they could. Used every room. And then they left. Which I found fascinating. And that research sort of rounded the story. So then I really started looking at tremendously weird horror movies. They made — and this might feed into your other question — it’s called The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires or something? And it’s like a King Fu vampire movie. And I just — the fact that it exists in the universe — it’s amazing to me. I can’t promise that you’d get through the whole thing. But there’s something comforting that that’s a thing in the world.
So I also looked at Troma films, which is a very different vibe. They did The Toxic Avenger. More exploitative kind of stuff? Rather than the creature features of Hammer, but I wanted to get a sense of different kinds of famous, iconic underground cult horror movie studios. So I dug very deep into those worlds and learned a lot about more and more strange and weird horror movies. But I had been watching some strange ones — things that I would hear about. I was like, I have to see this! I have friends and people in my life who are very, very much into horror movies. So I started watching a lot, probably post 2000, I got very into the strange fringe horror movies that I had never really heard of before. If that answers your question. I hope so.
Yes! And I know you said that the premise of the book is pretty unique, but if somebody reads your book and loves it, given your proficiency for all different kinds of movies, is there a few that you could recommend that they should watch if they wanted to kind of get the same vibe out of it?
There’s a real really kind of creepy, again Jamie Lee Curtis, slasher movie that I don’t think people know about, all set on a train, called Terror Train. This could have been a Moldavia movie because it’s all on a train. The set is very contained, and there’s some sort of frat party or something, but it’s all on a moving train… And there’s this mass killer that’s going around killing people on the train. And it’s kind of freaky. There’s some parts of it that are really scary. So Terror Train is one.
Then there’s one that I saw called Mystics in Bali. It is maybe the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. I can’t — it’s so hard to describe. I just know that there are what they call Leyaks chasing people? Which are these disembodied heads with the entrails and blood dripping. And they’re sort of floating around. If you see it you just fall to the floor laughing. It’s not very scary. It’s just like the strangest thing you can possibly think of. If you can find it, Mystics in Bali is something that should be watched by everyone in the world.
There’s another movie called Happy Birthday To Me. I can’t remember if Jamie Lee Curtis is — I don’t think she is in this one. Again it’s hard to describe, but there are many creepy little things that all add up into this strange sort of cannibalistic climax. It’s a very strange and interesting B-movie that has a lot of artsy little quirks to it. I’m not sure if this is necessarily considered a B-movie since they’re now remaking it, but Suspiria, the original Dario Argento movie, is wild. It’s about an American dance student. She goes to a ballet school in Germany and it turns out to be a witch’s coven. And there’s just some really amazing creepy imagery. Argento films things in these very intense candy-colored hues where everything is saturated in these bright primary colors. And I’ve never seen anything like it. It was very theatrical. The imagery is unforgettable. And the director of Call Me By Your Name is making the remake.
Yeah, I was shocked by it!
That’s an interesting jump!
Quite a 180 yeah. So I’m very interested. Apparently the trailer, which focused on body horror type stuff, was very shocking for people, as it would have been for me. Because I remember that from the original. The original was mostly about witches. But there’s this terrifying scene — there’s a blind man walking a dog — he’s done something to piss someone off, and then they put a spell — he’s in this sort of piazza… Or I guess Argento is Italian and this is in Germany, so I guess it’s a plaza. And then his own watchdog starts attacking him — seeing eye dog, whatever — and starts eating his throat out. It’s really horrifying. That’s a great sleepover movie if you want to get some chills. It’s really fun and very strange. Just, who came up with these ideas and these camera angles and these colors and the idea of this? And the costumes are amazing. The sets are amazing. It’s very lush. Definitely one of my favorites for sure.
I mentioned Black Christmas earlier. It’s a classic slasher movie from the ’70s. Margot Kidder is in it. She’s wonderful. I’m not a huge fan of that subgenre. I find slashers to be very repetitive and not as scary. This one is scary. There’s something entirely creepy about it. I think the killer is living in the attic of the sorority house. And he’s there the whole time. And you’re like, ‘Oh no, a slasher movie with a sorority house,’ it’s very cliche, but actually this movie invented those tropes that not many people realize. Same with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, also a B-movie, invented many, many tropes. Enormously innovative and influential movie. Still looks like something you shouldn’t be watching. It invented everything from the idea of unconventional weapons, to a masked, faceless killer who’s seemingly unstoppable.
Everyone should pay attention to the ones that sort of upped the game. Night of the Living Dead is another one. There were zombie movies, but this one black and white movie, it’s really scary. It’s not cheesy. From the late ’60s and it’s actually really, really disturbing. And we would not have zombie movies or any zombies if it weren’t for Night of the Living Dead. Which is just a brilliant film.
All of my friends know that I love terrible movies, without any shame. But I wanted to ask you — because that was the original pitch for this interview — is we were going to talk about some of your favorite terrible horror movies and all of that, but what about the fact that they’re so terrible really draws you in and makes you love them?
That’s a good question. There’s one we watched recently, I think it’s called Witchboard. I think it was from the ’80s. Tawny Kitaen, she was like a model, she’s the lead… And what I think is so fun is their attempt to try to make things scary, and then it doesn’t work. Something goes wrong. And there’s so much effort and attention into this, and there’s so many people who thought this would be a good idea. And yet nothing works. Everything is deeply deeply funny instead of scary. So then it lends itself to sort of a camp value, which is its own kind of thing. And if you see these random movies, like Witchboard, which no one has probably ever heard of — they get cult followings because literally everything has gone wrong. No one can act, the script makes no sense, there are plot holes, the deaths. People getting killed, nothing is scary. So it just becomes very, very funny. Those can be a lot of fun.
Burnt Offerings is another one — the amazing Karen Black is in that one — I think it’s about a house. It’s such a stupid idea! I think it’s about a house that is haunted, but it does bad things or it makes people do bad things. Somebody was like this is what we should do! I just remember there’s a scene where they try to go swimming in the backyard pool and the pool starts boiling and it’s so campy, it’s so over the top that this pool just starts boiling. But there’s another really good actor in that actually. There’s a real actor and I can’t remember who it is.
A real actor?!
It’s not Gregory Peck. I mean, Karen Black is! But she was like a B-horror [actress]. She could definitely be considered a scream queen. But there’s a major actor in that movie. I can’t remember off the top of my head. But that might be skirting the line between actual horror and one of these sort of campy complete and utter failures of the genre that’s just not scary and doesn’t work at all. But Witchboard is definitely one I saw recently that I can’t get out. Same with Hocus Pocus, for instance. That’s become a Halloween classic, but it’s not a scary movie. Just brilliant people in it. It’s not a bad movie — I mean it is kind of a bad movie — but it’s become like this sort of comforting Hollywood Halloween thing that we all have to watch. We all love that movie. Nothing about it is scary. It’s deeply silly. But it’s also very charming and it sort of warns everyone’s hearts. It’s like this is a movie that people continually come back to now.
I feel like this is a very recent thing. When Hocus Pocus came out — I remember because I was a kid — it came and went. But now it’s like, years and years and years later, I just find that fascinating, that now it’s a traditional Hollywood movie. And then it does actually have a really good cast. Bette Midler… I went to this restaurant this last October. It was right around Halloween. And Bette Midler was sitting behind me having dinner. She was sitting at the bar. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I want to go up to her and just have her quote Hocus Pocus at me!’ She was wearing a turban, and I was very intimidated and I didn’t want to bother her, so I asked Twitter and I was like. ‘Should I?’ And everyone was like, ‘Yes, do it!’ And I was like, ‘No, no I’m not going to bother her. She’s wearing a turban that has a scarf wrapped around her throat. I’m too intimidated by this.’
This is my daily plug for the Tremors franchise because it’s one of my favorites of all time and I think that’s why I love terrible movies, especially terrible monster movies, because they are so over the top that they’re not scary. And as a kid who was literally afraid of everything, being able to watch a scary movie and not be scared by it was like, ‘Yes! Just give me more these.’ And I think I kind of just fell into that genre because of that.
Yeah I think I’m similar to that. I’d say a lot of things scared me as a kid. And so coming back to these horror movies and being able to laugh at these things now is — I don’t know — a source of comfort in a very dark world. Which is kind of what the book is about. People escaping the horrors of reality to make these fictional horrors. Escaping the monstrous sides of real people by making these papier-mâché monsters. That’s kind of a theme in the book, and I think especially now that’s why horror is having a moment now where we have a whole new type of horror coming up. These sort of art house horrors, from Get Out to Hereditary to It Follows, that are these new genre filmmakers are coming and kind of doing new things with the genre. Which is interesting. I just think it has to do with the world we’re currently living in. I really do. Why we just want to escape into some fictional horrors. But you can’t ever forget those classics like Tremors, you know?! I love that you love that movie!
Yeah, and I think horror is very cathartic in a way because you watch it and it’s very scary, it feels very real in the moment, but then the movie ends and you survived. And I think that — regardless of how dark the actual world is, which there doesn’t seem to be an end to all the horror that’s out there — this little bubble that you can be in for a couple of hours just makes you feel better in the weirdest kind of way. It shouldn’t work. But it is very cathartic.
Going off what you said, it also makes you feel smart. ‘Cause horror is the only genre where you’re like, ‘What are you doing?! Why are you going down those stairs? Are you kidding? You can’t be going down those stairs! You’re going in the attic?! You can’t go in the attic alone!’ You definitely feel smarter than the people in the movie. That’s the genre where you shout at the screen. You’re like, ‘What are you doing?! Why are you going in that room where the poltergeist is?! Just go in another room! You’re not going to make it out of this.’ I just think it makes you feel a little bit smarter, too. And you’re kind of like, no. And it has certain rules and you can sort of count on those rules. Even though a lot of horror is famous for breaking rules. Psycho, for instance, totally broke the rules and reprogrammed audiences for generations by doing so. But it has tropes. It hangs onto those tropes a little bit to comfort audiences. It’s exactly what you said, yeah. And you know you feel a little better. It’s a cathartic experience because you came out of it and you’re okay and you can laugh about it.
My last major question about the horror genre is, I’m curious what you have to say about how the genre has grown and changed over the years. ‘Cause you were talking about Get Out, which is a horror movie, but it’s a very different kind of horror movie. Not only in the form and the way that it’s talking about social injustices today, but we also have to consider all these movies coming out that rely so heavily on social media and how social media can be corrupted. And I just think it’s interesting to kind of look back at, like you were saying, all those classic tropes and everything and how they’re still applied today, but how we’re kind of seeing that through a different lens because of the modern era.
So a couple of things happened. I think one thing that happened — this is not that recent — but The Blair Witch Project was the first horror to really start to use what was not quite social media but was the internet. Just the internet at the time. To sort of build up this myth that this is a real movie, and it also created the subgenre of the found footage thing that they’re still beating to death. But they used this idea of the internet — I really do think that this was the first movie that did that — and had websites, before there was Facebook and before there was even MySpace or Friendster, to build up this myth that actually no, this was a real thing that happened. And the movie is actually really scary. We see very little. And it’s this low budget thing — I still think… I’m not quite sure — but I think it’s one of the most successful, in terms of their budget and what it wound up making — they made everyone millionaires — it’s a legendary, legendary story.
What also happened is that you also started having these new billion dollar franchises. Like the Saw movies. Which I actually never saw. Pardon the pun! And like the Conjuring franchise. That’s essentially a billion dollar franchise. So you started having these CGI-led franchises — which when I originally conceived Scream All Night, I’m like, no there’s a studio that’s still making these gentle antiquated creature features in the era of the CGI, very violent — what they call torture porn — type movies. Like Saw. Which I can’t watch. Or Hostel! Sort of where Eli Roth began. He’s actually supposed to be a great guy and I actually think he’s a brilliant director and producer.
But then Cabin in the Woods came along and sort of marked a little bit of a snarky change. It poked fun at the genre. And then you had a little bit of a movement, which is what we’re talking about with Get Out, where it’s like these aren’t quite necessarily horrors, these are more social commentary. They’re just sort of artsy movies that are taking the genre and stretching it and sort of creating new rules and breaking them. Get Out is technically horror, but it’s a lot of things. It’s not just a horror movie. Although it is considered to be a horror, and I hope it is, because it’s definitely one of those — or maybe the only horror — that won an Oscar for its screenplay. I could be wrong about that, but that was a big big deal that that happened. And obviously it’s a very deeply intelligent movie. Very well paced. Brilliantly thought out.
And you have a bunch of other ones around that time, like The Witch was one. Which people still quote. It’s very chilling. It evokes imagery from of Goya and all these painters. It’s a very beautiful movie. Even though I had a hard time understanding it because they speak in this kind of 18th century dialect. I had trouble understanding what they were saying. But it was a really good movie.
It Follows, which I mentioned, I thought was brilliant. I loved the setting of Detroit. They sort of used these burned out looking dystopian wasteland type settings to set this movie in, and I thought the idea — which does follow the conventions of the typical slasher movie — but it was done completely differently, where the creature sort of symbolizes a sexually transmitted disease, follows the person who gets affected. It’s really scary. And there are other ones like Unfriended, which is a ghost story. That takes place on a computer screen. I’m like there’s no way this is going to work, but it worked! I had not heard much about it and I was like this is really clever. And it was actually really scary. And the entire movie is on someone’s computer screen, in videos, through iTunes, through text messages. I mean, at the end of the day it’s a ghost story. I thought it was really brilliant and very, very clever.
So I think where [the horror genre is] going is people are still finding new ways to sort of revamp the old ghost story or the slasher movie or — I mean Get Out is basically psychological horror with some social commentary now. And horror has a long tradition of having social commentary — maybe more than any other genre of film. For instance, The Night of the Living Dead. In the era where Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and Malcolm X, they cast a black actor as the lead. Which at the time was very daring. And I found it very moving and powerful within that time period. All the white people in the movie are making the terrible decisions. He’s the only one who’s clearheaded. And George Romero said he didn’t set out to make a racial commentary; he said the actor just happened to be the best in the audition, which I totally believe. Because the actor’s great. He’s an unknown theater actor and it’s just brilliantly done. A great performance. But I just found that so interesting and I did see it as social commentary. As well as Invasion if the Body Snatchers, which is a terrifying movie. Terrifying idea. But that is also an allegory of McCarthyism, which I found fascinating and so, so creepy. So horror has a tradition of breaking rules and also funneling fear through social commentary and where the times are. Maybe the Purge movies now are doing that a little bit. In our age of Trump.
Although I think the first one must have come out before he was elected. I can’t remember. I think so. But now they’re evolving to sort of mirror this age. I think I saw the first two. But that’s another example. So I think that we’re seeing those massive franchises. Also, It was one of the most — I read that book as a kid, it was one of my favorite books. I can’t believe it took this long for them to actually make an It movie. They made a TV mini series that wasn’t great. But that became one of the most successful horror movies ever made. And also the most successful movie out of a Stephen King book. Like, it’s all happening NOW. So there’s definitely something in the zeitgeist. I think we’re seeing these big budget movies, these big franchises like It, like Saw, like The Conjuring — but also these indie movies that are also trying to take the tropes and remold them.
Hereditary, which I wasn’t a huge fan of, did sort of take a Rosemary’s Baby type story and rip it apart and put it back together in a different way, to try to tell the sort of a possession tale. This is a little bit too much like Rosemary’s Baby — you don’t want to mess with that movie, it’s kind of a perfect movie — and also social commentary in terms of that time period. Feminism, and the fact that this woman was sort of betrayed by her husband, this deeply, deeply disturbing theme at the time and it really shocked people. Jaws even was a giant. It created the whole thing of the summer blockbuster, which is now apart of our culture. And it changed the world because people stopped going to the beach for a while! My parents tell me this story. No one was at the beach. People wouldn’t even go in their swimming pools. It freaked people out to that point, where the beaches were empty! Like no one had ever thought that something could come up from the depths of the ocean when you’re just swimming. I think no one ever got that out of their heads.
I think there’s just so much going on with the genre. And also it’s expanding into television with American Horror Story and Walking Dead. There’s a lot of serialized horror that’s happening in that format as well. Which is interesting. And some of it is quite scary. As well as video games, which can also be quite [scary]. The whole thing of video games… Like Resident Evil, which is quite scary. The last Resident Evil — I’m not a huge zombie fan, so I didn’t really play those, but I did play the last one, which is called Biohazard — and it owed a big debt to Texas Chainsaw Massacre I thought all through the game. Like, wow, this is still influential. You can see The Shining everywhere. So many movies and theater, I’m like, ‘Oh, The Shining. Here it is again.’ We’re still being influenced by The Shining. Which I think is amazing. It’s so interesting to me that that’s the case. I hope I didn’t go on too many tangents there.
No, no! That was perfect. Honestly, like I have a 1,000 more questions for you, but I’m just going to wrap it up here because I think that was a really great discussion. Your book ‘Scream All Night’ just came out July 24. What about any upcoming projects? Is there anything you can talk about ?
Well it’s not formally announced yet, but there will be some exciting Hollywood news coming about Scream All Night. I did get some attention in that regard. So hopefully that will be formally announced soon. In the TV regard. So that’s going to be a really exciting thing. My second book is coming out in 2019. It’s an LGBTQ thriller about an openly gay teen, in a sort of loose homage to Hitchcock and North by Northwest, gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity and goes on the run from cyber terrorist and from the feds who are all trying to use him to their own purposes. He’s a broken kid. The sort of puzzle of his psychology unfolds and comes together through the course of the story. But he’s had a very checkered past and everyone sort of knows it and is using it for their own purposes. And he gets involved with a gay terrorist organization who are trying to take down the Alt-Right people who are the homophobes, and you’re just like, who are the bad guys here?! It’s a very gray area he sort of skirts between. And it’s a fast-paced thriller.
It’s definitely influenced by Hitchcock and that whole notion of mistaken identity. Identity itself is a big subject when you’re that age. James Patterson has an imprint at Little, Brown called Jimmy Patterson. That’s coming out next spring. I believe spring/summer 2019. So I’ve actually been finishing my revisions for that — I had an August 1 deadline while promoting Scream, so my head is spinning around! This is a very crazy time! But I got in my draft early because I knew I was heading out to L.A. So that’s done! For now. There will be more edits. We’re still working on it and they’re coming up with the cover and we’re changing the title. There’s all this stuff going on. But that should be coming out next year! My second book. It’s also young adult.
‘Scream All Night’ by Derek Milman is available wherever books are sold