Collins’ Crypt: Before They Went Legit

Read about the horrific origins of respected Hollywood writers.

The rise of the Internet has probably killed the column for good, but back in the day I used to love Fangoria’s “Skeletons In The Closet” recurring feature, which would highlight a now famous actor who had appeared in some B- (or lower) grade horror flick earlier in their career. Some are legendary – Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th, Tom Hanks in He Knows You’re Alone, Holly Hunter AND Jason Alexander in The Burning - but they’d often find a couple per year that were legit surprises (at the time), such as David Caruso in the junky Without Warning.

But just as interesting to me is digging up an old horror film and seeing a now famous name under “Written by." Like actors, writers that are starting out will take what they can get, and it’s interesting to see how many have gone on to be powerhouses despite having such nonsense on their resume. So I’ve compiled a few that I thought were fun; feel free to add in your own in the comments!

David Chase

The guy that inspired this article, and since I’m going alphabetically it just so happens that he’s first. A TV veteran going back to the '70s (Rockford Files, Kolchak), David Chase’s creation of The Sopranos has forever cemented his legacy as an important name – pretty much any HBO show of note since should carry a thank you to him for setting the precedent. But before his TV work, he had a sole feature credit as the screenwriter for Grave Of The Vampire, a wonderfully bad '70s low budget vamp flick that I caught on a budget pack earlier this year (and again over the weekend at the New Beverly, paired with House Of Dark Shadows). Precious little of his remarkable writing talent is evident here, but it did have a frustrating, ambiguous ending, so anyone who came to Sopranos because they were a fan of his silly vampire opus probably wasn’t as shocked by the show’s polarizing finale as everyone else.

Bill Condon

The future Oscar winner behind Dreamgirls and Kinsey is currently finishing the second part of Breaking Dawn (aka Twilight 4), and has dabbled in horror throughout his career, even directing a Candyman sequel. But his first credit was on the schlocky Aussie flick Strange Behavior, which was dubbed as a “Video Nasty” at one point – which I assume makes Bill Condon one of very few people (the only person?) to write a Video Nasty AND an Oscar winner.

David S. Goyer

A go-to name for comic adaptations thanks to his work on Nolan’s Batman trilogy and more or less kick-starting the Marvel feature brand name with Blade (and the same year’s TV movie Nick Fury!), one of David Goyer’s earliest credits is Demonic Toys, Full Moon’s 1993 attempt at another Puppet Master type franchise. A few spinoff movies have followed (including the inevitable Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys), as well as a long delayed direct sequel in 2010, each carrying a credit for Goyer for creating the characters. It’d probably be the most embarrassing thing about his latter day IMDb filmography if not for the fact that he has story credit on Ghost Rider 2 as well.

Brian Helgeland

I recently caught LA Confidential at the New Beverly, seeing it for the first time in years, and it had no problem living up to its legacy as a masterpiece (it has one “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes… out of nearly 100). Much credit has to go to Brian Helgeland, who (along with Curtis Hanson) took James Ellroy’s huge, sprawling book with something like nine main storylines and whittled it down to a script that in no way feels rushed or gutted. His career since has been spotty, but his name still carries weight, which is more than you can say about any of the guys who also have writing credit on Nightmare On Elm Street 4, which serves as Helgeland’s first produced script. Bur while Confidential holds up beautifully, time has not been as kind to Freddy’s fourth adventure, which is the one where he became a full time jokester and left actually being scary far behind. Since Confidential (and Payback!) is so good, let’s give Mr. Helgeland the benefit of the doubt and assume someone else came up with the “sand shark Freddy” sequence.

Robert King

Along with his wife Michelle, Robert King co-created The Good Wife, a sleeper hit show that has earned many Emmy and Golden Globe wins/nominations over its past three years, plus a Writer’s Guild nomination for King and the rest of the writing staff. And if I had my own awards show, he’d be the winner of the “Best Pauly Shore Movie” trophy, thanks to his 1989 script for the laughably/awesomely titled Phantom Of The Mall: Eric’s Revenge, which features Shore as a yogurt shop clerk. The title makes it SOUND like a sequel, but Eric’s Revenge is in fact an “original” that transplants the Phantom of the Opera story into a new mall, haunted by the title character, who was nearly killed during a shady attempt to clear up some land for the shopping center. Should have just hired Alicia Florrick to represent him in a civil suit.

Tim Kring

Long before he botched the intriguing concepts behind shows like Heroes and Touch, Tim Kring was a journeyman writer, penning TV movies and one-off episodes of stuff like Knight Rider. And then in 1987 he got a big break, penning the sequel to a beloved film from a couple years before – normally a great gig. Unfortunately that film was Teen Wolf Too, the much (and deservedly) hated followup that only had two minor characters return from the original. Interestingly, the first Teen Wolf was written by Jeph Loeb, who went on to work on Heroes. My guess is that they didn’t talk about it much.

John Logan

John Logan has had a fine career, penning big budget epics (Gladiator, The Last Samurai) and beloved family films (Hugo, Rango), earning three Oscar nominations along the way. In fact, he’s written so many movies he can easily forget Bats, a 1999 horror film starring Lou Diamond Phillips. It’s basically a theatrically released Syfy film, complete with an action packed first half (a Syfy staple; it hooks you in so you’ll keep watching the movie during its duller second half) and half-assed direction, but the script actually isn’t too bad for this sort of thing. Let's see if either of the guys who wrote the sequel (an ACTUAL Syfy original movie, natch) can find the same success.

John Sayles

It’s no surprise that someone as fiercely independent as John Sayles would have gotten a start working for Roger Corman (who has given starts to more mega-stars than can be counted), who also works outside the studio system. Penning occasional studio films like Spiderwick Chronicles allows him to continue making indies every couple of years, earning him a few Oscar nominations and infinite accolades along the way. And according to the IMDb, he got a decent ten grand to write Piranha, Corman’s Jaws knockoff that also started a collaboration with Joe Dante, with whom he’d go on to write The Howling a few years later. He also wrote another Jaws knockoff: Alligator, which is much better than you’d expect a movie about a rampaging alligator to be. Sadly he seems to have left his horror days behind him, but that helps add to the surprise of new viewers who only know him from Lone Star and Honeydripper when they see this “junk” on his resume.

Sheldon Turner

For years it was easy to dismiss prequels outright, being that pretty much all of them were terrible (Godfather II doesn’t count, it’s only half prequel!). But then X-Men: First Class came along and turned out to be the best X-film in years, depicting the way the team first came together at a time when Erik and Charles were friends. So kudos to all of its writers, including Sheldon Turner, who had already attempted a prequel a few years before (prior to his Oscar nomination for adapting Up In The Air) with Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. While not too bad of a survival horror flick on its own, Turner’s script ridiculously finds pretty much every single thing of note about the cannibalistic Sawyer family (Morty’s missing legs, the Sheriff’s front teeth, and even Leatherface’s “face”) happening over the course of a SINGLE DAY. It’s the sort of reverse-engineered writing that sinks most prequels, and with First Class’ script attributed to so many, I have to wonder how much of his stuff survived. But he has at least fourteen movies in development right now, so he must be doing something right.

James Vanderbilt

Currently a highly sought screenwriter thanks to films like Zodiac and Amazing Spider-Man, James Vanderbilt’s first screen credit is for Darkness Falls, a truly bad killer tooth fairy movie for which he shares credit with two other writers. It is unknown if he was named in the lawsuit (settled amicably) from the writers of The Tooth Fairy, a nearly identical script that had been floating around for years at that point, but either way he should be relieved someone else wanted to take credit for the idea. A modest hit when released, Falls’ biggest claim to fame is cementing the PG-13 horror wave that started a few months before with The Ring, as well as being the debut feature of Jonathan Liebesman, who recently helmed Warner’s big budget Wrath of the Titans (and followed Falls up with the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw prequel).

Add in guys like Joss Whedon (the original Buffy movie) and Frank Darabont (Nightmare on Elm Street 3), and you have a pretty great pool of talent that got their start writing movies in a genre where the writer is sadly least appreciated. Too many folks are quick to chalk up the success of a horror film to its director or the iconic nature of its central monster, but will just as quickly blame the “hack” that wrote it if it’s not up to par. It’s no wonder so many of them left it behind – hopefully not permanently in most of the above cases. Come on, Mr. Chase – use your clout to give us the Grave of the Vampire sequel that was promised forty years ago!