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This is the fourth in a series of essays about alternative sources for structure and plotting for screenplays and television series (for earlier entry in the series, see the bottom of the essay).
By alternative, I mean sources other than the usual tomes written by the usual gurus, sources you might not immediately think about, that can be used as guides in trying to tell your story, sources that you might not have even considered of any use in this area.
The idea of writing these essays originated with the sudden rise of what is now being called a second golden age of television, as well as a paradigm shift in the way movies are made. There are now so many different ways of telling a story on television, while in movies there has been a swing away from the Hollywood/Studio type of filmmaking, that I believe thinking outside the box when it comes to finding ways to tell stories might be a wise move to make at this time.
However, before proceeding any further, I would also like to say one other thing. You may look at many of my lists and recoil at the hoity-toityness of them all and even accuse me of being a snob.
Well, what can I say? I am a snob and I’m proud of it.
But I seriously doubt it would hurt anyone’s ability to write if they let a little more snobbishness in. In fact, it might help. You never know, so give it a try.
Today I will focus on grindhouse/exploitation films and TV series. These are stories that are highly influenced by everything from pre-code films, to midnight movies, to Roger Corman films, to low budget cult films, to Italian giallo films, to soft core porn and sexploitation films, the Ozploitation movement in Australia, the British sex comedies of the 1960’s, Blaxploitation, the list goes on and on.
They are known for having an exaggerated and exploitive use of sex and violence for their own sakes, often, if we’re lucky, in very poor taste, and even more often with very poor technical values.
In the movies, one can easily see the influence in Quentin Tarantino who has raised grindhouse to an art form, but it also can be seen in such horror movies as Saw and other torture porn films, and such low budget production companies as Troma Entertainment, as well as dozens and dozens of movies that only show up on Netflix, Hulu and other alternative media.
When it comes to television, there probably aren’t as many series that one could call completely grindhouse, but one can see the influence in such soft core series on cable like Gigolos and Red Shoe Diaries, the use of nudity and sex in cable series like Game of Thrones and The Borgias, and such horror series as Penny Dreadful and The Walking Dead.
Of course, the reading list I reference is not an exhaustive list, just some suggestions that reflect my personal preferences. So I apologize if I didn’t include your favorites. But please, do share. The more choices given, the more writers have to choose from
- The Book of Judges – The Bible as a whole has more than its fair share of stories that would make a grindhouse theater manager drool, but the Book of Judges is perhaps the one with the most gruesome and over the top tales in the whole of the Holy Book. The stories take place during the period when Israel had settled in Canaan and they were ruled by a series of Judges. But the Israelites kept disobeying God and some pretty awful things happened. This is the book that contains the story of Samson (with the hair), but also has such things as a child sacrifice, a massacre of 70 brothers, the stabbing of a man so large the knife stuck in his flesh (and after being locked in his room, his servants didn’t disturb him thinking he was on the toilet) and a particularly awful story about a gang rape that lead to a cutting up of a body with the parts delivered all over the nation, civil war and the forcible abduction of virgins to be wives to a tribe whose women had all died.
- The Oresteia, Oedipus Rex and Medea – The Greeks knew their blood and gore when it came to tragedy and often didn’t spare the flow of it. In the trilogy The Oresteia, Aeschylus dramatizes the house of Atreus which has as its basis child sacrifice, adultery, murder of a husband and, finally, matricide, with the title character Orestes getting off Scott free at the end by using a technicality in his defense at trial. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a man kills his father, marries his mother and has sex with her, and when he finds out, he blinds himself while his wife/mother hangs herself. And last but not least, in Euripides’ Medea, a jilted wife kills the women her husband is going to replace her with and also kills her children, making sure that not only will no one dare marry the ungrateful bastard after this, she also ensures that his bloodline will die out—and she gets away with it when she’s pardoned.
- Jacobean Tragedy – A sort of drama written around the time of James I that is known for its extremes in violence (the stage seemed to flow with blood) and gratuitous sexual situations. Some of the more famous ones are ‘tis Pity She’s a Whore in which a brother and sister commit incest and the brother cuts out his sister’s heart; The Revenger’s Tragedy in which a man gets revenge on the man who poisoned his beloved by getting him to kiss the beloved’s skull, now covered in poison, as well as a father who gets his tongue nailed to the floor by his sons (and that’s only a small part of the plot); The Duchess of Malfi wherein a Cardinal kills his mistress with a poisoned Bible.
- Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare is one of his weakest plays, but can still be very effective with the right production. A sort of pre-Jacobean Jacobean tragedy, this is a play where father turns against sons and they try to kill each other; a young girl is raped and then her tongue cut out and hands cut off so she can’t identify her attackers; and where the title character, in the ultimate revenge, kills and bakes two of the rapists and feeds them to their mother without her knowing it, and afterwards kills his now un-pure daughter.
- Fanny Hill, the writings of The Marquis de Sade and the Memoirs of Casanova are various extremes of pornography, with Fanny Hill being in good taste (though sexual acts are detailed, they are so euphemistically described that they are both erotic and inoffensive); de Sade’s writings being explicitly detailed fever dreams of sexual acts with extreme violence connected to them (hence, why we get the term sadist from his writings); and Casanova’s writings being a portrait of the time period with a bunch of sex thrown in.
- Grimm’s Fairy Tales – These tales for tots are often some of the darkest and more violent of all children’s stories. In The Juniper tree, a stepmother kills her step son and cooks him a stew that his father eats; in Three Army Surgeons, the title characters impress an innkeeper by surgically removing some of their organs which are later carried off by a cat which someone tries to rectify by replacing the organs with ones from a dead body, a pig and a cat; in The Robber Bridegroom a woman is tricked into going to a house where a gang of thieves abduct and eat women; in A Willful Child, a young girl is so disobedient, God made her so ill she ends up on her deathbed, where upon she is buried, but she keeps reaching her arm out of the grave until they strike it with a rod hard enough that she doesn’t reach out again. Those are just a few. Have fun.
- Short Stories of Edgar Allen Poe – These include tales about someone being buried alive (The Fall of the House of Usher and The Cask of Amontillado); someone being murdered and buried beneath some floorboards (The Tell-Tale Heart); a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition strapped to a table while a gigantic crescent razor slowly swings closer and closer to him; a pestilence that a nobleman discovers no one can escape (The Masque of the Red Death); a man who tortures and kills his pet cat which leads to the murder of his wife and his being caught by the authorities (The Black Cat).
- The art of Tom of Finland. Touko Laakonsen used the pseudonym Tom of Finland in creating his drawings that are over exaggerated and fetishistic depictions of men, drawings with heavily homoerotic overtones and extreme explicitness. He influenced a whole generation of artists, but there is no one quite like Tom of Finland when it comes to depiction of sex.
And just for kicks and giggles:
- Bill Gains and EC Comics, especially Tales from the Crypt, a series of comic books that were so daring for their time, both in sex and violence, that it led to the censorship of comic books for years to come. When Gains could no longer continue his comic empire, he went on to create Mad Magazine.
Remember, “the book you don’t read won’t help”: Jim Rohn
YOU WANT ME TO READ WHAAAAAAT? A Snob’s Guide to Alternative Sources for Structure in Plotting for Screenplay and TV Writing-earlier essays
Part 1: Epic Stories http://ow.ly/U6Mao
Part 2: Rom Coms http://ow.ly/WBUnN
Part 3: Night Time Soaps http://ow.ly/WCeDX