Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Writer Tip #22 Backstory

I love TCM. Although there seems to be a foolish prejudice against old, black & white, "unwoke" films, I find them illuminating. As a screenwriter, I admire the economy and efficiency of the scripts of the thirties, forties and fifties. In particular, I am envious of the manner in which they established their characters. They only give us exactly what we need to know, and they do it as succinctly as possible.

Nowadays, filmmakers seem compelled to deliver voluminous backstory for their characters. We recently addressed this trend in an episode of the Yippee-Ki-Yay Mother Podcast while discussing the classic 1974 film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, directed by Joseph Sargent and written by Peter Stone (who, during the course of his career, won an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy.) We couldn't help but notice how succinctly the characters were established in the first film as opposed to the 2009 remake The Taking of Pelham 123 directed by Tony Scott and written by the normally reliable Brian Helgeland. None of the added backstory increased the suspense or made the film more compelling. The original film remains a classic. The remake is barely remembered.

Let's look back at how succinctly backstory was employed in classic cinema. Rhett Butler, as portrayed by Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind, is one of the most iconic characters in the history of cinema. How much backstory do we get on him?  Let me show you. It is all summed up in two brief conversations.

Scarlett: That man looking at us and smiling. The nasty, dark one.
Cathleen Calvert: My dear, don't you know? That's Rhett Butler.
He's from Charleston. He has the most terrible reputation.
Scarlett: He looks as if... as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy.

Cathleen further relates that Rhett "ruined" a girl by taking her on an unescorted carriage ride. Here's the second conversation:

Charles Hamilton: Apologies aren't enough sir. I hear you were turned out of 
West Point, Mr. Rhett Butler. And that you aren't received in a decent family 
in Charleston. Not even your own.
Rhett Butler: I apologize again for all my shortcomings. Mr. Wilkes, Perhaps 
you won't mind if I walk about and look over your place. I seem to be 
spoiling everybody's brandy and cigars and... dreams of victory.

When Rhett leaves, it is further revealed that he is a renowned duelist.

That's all we get to know about Rhett Butler's life prior to the start of the film. We assume his family is wealthy, but did they own slaves?  Dunno. Did a vixen break his heart at sixteen which left him afraid of commitment? Dunno. Did his mother long to reconcile with her wayward son? Dunno. Don't care. 

Let's look at another one cinema's most iconic characters, Rick Blaine, as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Once again, two brief conversations tell us all we need to know about his life prior to him meeting Ilsa in Paris.

Major Strasser: We have a complete dossier on you: Richard Blaine, American, 
age 37. Cannot return to his country. The reason is a little vague. We also know 
what you did in Paris, Mr. Blaine, and also we know why you left Paris.
[hands the dossier to Rick]
Major Strasser: Don't worry, we are not going to broadcast it.
Rick: [reading] Are my eyes really brown?

And here's the second conversation:

Victor Laszlo: You ran guns to Ethiopia. 
You fought against the fascists in Spain.
Rick: What of it?
Victor Laszlo: Isn't it strange that you always 
happen to be fighting on the side of the underdog?
Rick: Yes. I found that a very expensive hobby, too. 
But then I never was much of a businessman.

Bam. That's it. That's all we need to know about him. Rick's actions tell us everything else. And it works for female characters, too.  Here's Ilsa, as portrayed by Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Her backstory is summed up in one paragraph.

Ilsa: Can I tell you a story, Rick?
Rick: Has it got a wow finish?
Ilsa: I don't know the finish yet.
Rick: Well, go on. Tell it - maybe one will come to you as you go along.
Ilsa: It's about a girl who had just come to Paris from her home in Oslo. 
At the house of some friends, she met a man about whom she'd heard
her whole life. A very great and courageous man. He opened up for her
a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals.
Everything she knew or ever became was because of him. And she
looked up to him and worshiped him... with a feeling she supposed was love.
Rick: [bitterly] Yes, it's very pretty. I heard a story once - as a matter of fact, 
I've heard a lot of stories in my time. They went along with the sound of a
 tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs. "Mister, I met a man once 
when I was a kid," it always began.

In some ways, I think the screenwriters of that day had it easier. They had movie stars who branded themselves with a distinct persona. Audiences already had an idea of what kind of character Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart would play when they bought their ticket. When I think about some of the late John Wayne westerns, I don't remember the writers giving him any backstory at all. He was just John Wayne. You already knew who he was when he walked into the frame. Today's actors tend to want to display their range. You don't know who Christian Bale or Brad Pitt will be when they show up on the screen.

But it isn't just about the new approach to acting. I think the flood of backstory is a result of too many people reading too many screenwriting textbooks. Some books recommend that you build your characters from the ground up: where they were born, their family history, where they want to school, the name of their pets....  You get it.  The problem is that if you compile all of that information about a character, you become tempted to use it even if it is unnecessary. And backstory is often unnecessary.

Hannibal Lecter, as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, is one of cinema's most fascinating and enigmatic characters. He exudes so much erudition and intelligence that it is hard to imagine how he became a cannibalistic serial killer. Unfortunately, all of the mystery in the character is eliminated when they delve into his backstory in the sequel Hannibal Rising. Ugh. I feel the same way about the Michael Myers character in the Rob Zombie Halloween reboot. They told me all I needed to know about Michael in the original film.

Another reason why I think we have too much backstory in films today is that producers don't have enough respect for the intelligence of the audience. They feel they have to spell everything out. The worst example I have seen of this trend was in my own film The Encounter. In that Twilight Zone-ish religious fantasy, a group of stranded travelers find themselves in a diner run by Jesus. And, of course, whenever Jesus shows up, so does the Devil -- in this case in the person of a State Trooper. Over the millennia, the devil has been given many cool, imaginative names. I can't remember what name co-writer Tim Ratajczak and myself gave him originally in the script, but it definitely wasn't Officer Deville. The director came up with that. And, just to make sure the audience "got it," he had one of the other characters spell it out: D-E-V-I-L.... (Gasp!)  Oy vey. Talk about insulting your audience's intelligence! Give them some credit!

Finding the right amount of backstory can be incredibly difficult. I have been working on a stage musical based on the novel Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Delamore. It is a romantic tale set in a world of sorcerers and fairies. I have been working on rewrites for months with the playwright/songwriter Michael Kline. Considering the fantasy nature of the story, we have to do considerable world building at the start. Our work has concentrated predominately on determining how to convey the necessary expository information without bogging down the audience with needless details. It's not easy. The temptation always exists to over explain. Fortunately, I believe we found the balance but we won't know for sure until we stage the piece again later this summer.

In the end, I have three pieces of advice. First, do not include any backstory that is not necessary for the fulfillment of the plot.  Secondly, trust your audience. Let them figure some things out for themselves. Finally, trust your actors too. You, as the writer, do not have to do it all yourself. The right actor can offer such amazing depth through their performance that it makes all those little facts you thought up about your character unnecessary or irrelevant.

And watch some TCM. They do backstory really well in those classic movies.

Other Tips:

Monday, June 18, 2018

CHAPEL STREET - Chapter 9 - War Is Declared

Here's another sample chapter of my upcoming book Chapel Street.  Keep checking back for more!

Chapter 9

War Is Declared

Gasping for air and still shaking with fear, I became a man with a mission upon leaving the mausoleum. I refused to be manipulated like that again.

Elisabetta Kostek, whoever or whatever the hell she was, had already taken up too much of my time. I was going home to delete the photos of her from my camera and hard drive, and then I would delete her memorial from Resting Place. I did not want to be responsible for anyone else looking into those dark eyes. Especially Teri. She had already expressed too much interest in Elisabetta after I mentioned her. I was tempted to call her and reiterate my warning, but I knew I couldn’t. She would think I was crazy, and that would be the end of our budding friendship.

When I got to my car, I found a slip of paper under the windshield. It read simply: “Never come back.” The mourner obviously wrote it. There was no one else around. But what did he mean? Was it a threat or a warning? He left no signature or phone number. I wish I had written down his license plate number. Anything. He obviously knew something, but he was long gone.

I got into my car and headed out, passing our family plot along the way. As I did I caught sight of a guy standing near the graves. From the familiar hunch of his back, I knew it was Lenny visiting mom’s grave. I looked ahead again, thinking nothing of it, but then it struck me: Lenny was dead. He had never visited mom’s grave because he died before she did. I hit the brakes and turned back to the grave. Just as I suspected, no one was standing there, but it was too real to just be my imagination. My eyes went to the nearby willow tree, which swayed in the light breeze.

“Probably just a shadow,” I said, reason restored again.

I was tempted to back up to see if I could repeat the optical illusion again, but I decided against it. I feared the implications if I was unable to repeat it. It was one thing to have a bad dream. It was another thing entirely to see your dead brother in broad daylight. I was now willing to admit that something supernatural was taking place, but I didn’t want to press the point. I just wanted to get my world back to normal.

While driving home a great hunger overcame me, despite just having eaten a full meal with Teri. I ordered a super-sized Big Mac meal and a cheeseburger at the McDonald’s drive-thru near my house. The previous afternoon the pictures of their food made me nauseous. Not today. I took it as a sign that my new resolve had broken whatever spell the dark woman had placed on me. I was free.

I ate the cheeseburger on the way home, but my fries and Big Mac were untouched as I entered my apartment. I carried the food over to my desk and sat down. I turned the monitor on, fully expecting to find Elisabetta’s image on the screensaver looking at me. In fact, I was hoping to see it, but instead I found a random tombstone photo for one of the memorials I had created. I used the mouse to dispel the screensaver then turned my attention to my Big Mac. I took a bite. It tasted great. Putting the sandwich down, I went to my cemetery folder, where I kept my Resting Place photos. I knew the Kostek memorial were on the two most recent files: DSC_0591 and DSC_0592. I clicked on the second one to bring up the close-up of her face. She was still smiling in the face of digital death.

“Say, bye, bye, bitch,” I said.

While I reached for the mouse again to do the deed, I took a big gulp from my Coke. As I did, I caught something out of the corner of my eye. I had just taken a bite out of the Big Mac, exposing those little onions they used, except they weren’t onions. No. They were alive and wiggling. I turned to get a better look and realized that they were maggots. Tiny little maggots, and I had eaten them!

I immediately vomited everything out over my keyboard, mouse and monitor. In the process, I spilled the rest of the Coke, too. I immediately jumped out of my chair and headed for the bathroom. This wasn’t a paper towel spill. This was a bath towels spill -- plural. By the time I raced back to the desk, there was already a large puddle of Coke and half-eaten food on the floor. I dealt with the desk first. The electronics in the keyboard were toast. No question about that. I unplugged it and tossed it directly into the trash. As I sopped up the sticky liquid and half-eaten food, I turned to the now drenched Big Mac. Just as I expected, there were no maggots. It was just another mind game, and I knew who was responsible.

Now I finally put aside my rational preconceptions and admitted to myself that I was involved in some sort of supernatural warfare. The hows and the whys and the parameters of the battlefield were still a mystery to me, but at least I knew the name of the enemy: Elisabetta Kostek. Everything started when I took that picture of her. No, I corrected myself. I think it started when I looked at her. That’s what seemed to trigger it.


It didn’t matter how it started anymore. I was going to end it.

I dropped the towel and turned my attention to the mouse. I didn’t need the keyboard to delete those files. When I touched the mouse, the cursor moved. Good. I moved the cursor to the close-up file and clicked on it. Or should I say I tried to click on it. Although the mouse still moved the cursor, the right and left buttons no longer worked.

“Damn it!” I shouted as I unplugged the mouse and tossed it in the trash.

The monitor turned black and the screensaver started. Not surprisingly, I was greeted by the smiling image of Elisabetta Kostek. Actually, it was surprising. I set my screensaver to start five minutes after I last used the computer. This time the screensaver started only a few seconds after I unhooked the mouse. I took her appearance as a little show of force to prove that she had the power to manipulate more than just my mind. She could manipulate my electronics, too. Unless, I thought, I was only imagining seeing her on the monitor now.

Yikes. What was truly real? There was a lot to consider, but I didn’t have time to wade into those weeds now. It was time to take offensive action.

“How you doing, Liz?” I asked with a smile as I turned back to the monitor.

I grabbed my camera and turned it on. I found her picture on it and turned the view screen around to the monitor.

“Recognize her?” I asked.

I pressed the little trash button on the camera. A dialogue box came up over Elisabetta’s close-up. It read: “Are you sure you want to delete this photo?”

“Yes, I do,” I said aloud. Then I pressed the trash button again. The photograph was gone, and the wider one of the grave itself appeared in its place. Two quick presses on the trash button made that photograph disappear as well.

I half-expected to hear a faint ghostly wail of pain in response, but my actions were greeted by cold silence. Elisabetta herself even left the monitor. The screensaver replaced her with a photo of my mother, my father and Lenny and myself taken before my sister Janet was born. A superstitious person might have taken the photo as a warning that I would soon be joining them, but I wasn’t spooked. Now that I knew what I was battling, I expected a quick victory.

Other Chapters:
Prologue - My Mother
Chapter 1 -
Chapter 2 - Elisabetta
Chapter 3 - The Upload
Chapter 4 - The Kobayashi Maru
Chapter 5 - Gina
Chapter 6 - Tombstone Teri
Chapter 7 - The Holy Redeemer Lonely Hearts Club
Chapter 8 - A Mourner
Chapter 9 - War Is Declared

Learn more about the book Here.

While you're waiting for the next chapter of Chapel Street, feel free to read my memoir:

Saturday, June 16, 2018

My Ancestors: A Festival of Fathers

To commemorate Father's Day, I want to honor my father, my grandfathers, great-grandfathers and so on -- at least the ones of whom I have pictures.  I think this blog will illustrate the disparate familial currents that lead to my own personality -- which is why I love genealogy and my ancestors!

What can someone say about their father? Well, let me tell you something I didn't know until recently.  My father was a computer genius. He spent his career at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, Maryland. He was incredibly well respected. Even today, people from Social Security practically genuflect when I say I am Doug Murphy's son.

Surprisingly, my father trained to be a lawyer. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Baltimore in 1966. What I didn't know until recently was that he didn't graduate from high school. He attended City College in Baltimore. When he arrived for his senior year, he acted like nothing was wrong. Like he belonged. But he didn't. He failed a number of classes the previous year and had not attended summer school. Some of the teachers from the previous year were curious about his status. They went to the office and checked the records. Somehow my father had pulled a Ferris Bueller and changed his grades over the summer. The teachers corrected the grades and he was expelled. His father Paul drove him home in silence until he finally turned to him and said, "You are an arch criminal." My father was later forced to get his GED the day before his graduation from the University of Baltimore.

I miss you, dad. You were gone too soon (like your father.)

Obituary from the Sunpapers, originally published March 17, 2003:

Douglas E. Murphy Sr., 61, Social Security analyst

     Douglas E. Murphy Sr., a retired systems analyst for the Social Security Administration, died Wednesday of complications from pancreatic cancer at Joseph Richey Hospice in Baltimore. The Hamilton resident was 61.
     Born in Scranton, Pa., Mr. Murphy moved with his family to Baltimore when he was 10.
     He graduated from City College in 1959 and started to work for the Social Security Administration.
     He also attended night school at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1966, his family said. Mr. Murphy's arrival at the federal agency coincided with its early push to computerize. After passing an aptitude test, Mr. Murphy joined the automation effort, beginning a long career as a programmer and systems analyst.
     Although he enjoyed hobbies such as gardening, golf and skiing, Mr. Murphy's relatives say he spent most of his time at, or thinking about, his job at the SSA.
     "He should have been part of the cornerstone," said brother Brian Murphy of Baltimore. Mr. Murphy retired from the agency in 1999.
     Services were held Saturday.
     In addition to his brother, Mr. Murphy is survived by his wife of 43 years, the former Clara Protani; three sons, Douglas Murphy Jr., Sean Murphy and John Murphy, all of Baltimore; a daughter, Jeanne Coe of Baltimore; his mother, Margaret Murphy of Baltimore; three brothers, Paul Murphy Jr. of Hampton Roads, Va., Richard Murphy of Middle River and Kevin Murphy of Baltimore; two sisters, Sharon Sartor of Willingboro, N.J., and Carolyn Dabirsiaghi of Glen Arm; and three grandchildren.

Here's a little tribute film I had for him:

I would be remiss to mention my late father-in-law Donald Leroy Crum, Sr. He was a great guy who raised a great daughter. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to interview him before his death.

My father's father was Paul James Murphy, Sr. He was a great guy with a great laugh. He was a natural born salesman and always a pleasure to be around. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve swimming in the pool in his backyard during family cookouts! I feel sorry for my cousins who were born too late to really get to know him.

Story from "What's Happening," a Baltimore Life Insurance newsletter:


     Paul J. Murphy has contributed much to the growth and success of The Baltimore Life Insurance Company over the past 37 years, and we wish him well on his retirement.
      Paul joined the Scranton District in 1941, became Field Manager in 1945, and was appointed Home Office Supervisor in 1950. He became the Manager of the Baltimore District in 1952.
     "Back in 1941," Paul reminisced, "the Home Office was located at Charles and Saratoga Streets. Now the new building at Mt. Royal Plaza has an addition. The original plans called for construction of a tower in the grassy area near the addition."
      Paul has held many NALU and GAMA leadership positions on the local, state and national levels.  His special interest lies in insurance law: He still receives requests to work with the Insurance Department.
      With a production record that includes winning the President's Award and being runner-up three times, Paul has qualified for many conventions and received the George Robertson and the Harry L. Meyer Awards.
      His civic activities include the Optimists (he was governor of Maryland), the Hamilton Outdoors Club, and the Har-Bel Community Organization.
     "It's been a life of fun," he reflected.
     Paul and Margaret have seven children, the youngest was graduated from college this year. They live near, and their many grandchildren visit.
     "There are more children here now than when my kids were young," Paul laughed. "They'll keep the pool in the back yard full this summer."

Obituary from The Baltimore Sunpaper (photo included):


     Paul James Murphy, Sr., who worked for the Baltimore Life Insurance Company for 38 years and was active in the Optimist Club, died Saturday, in his Hamilton residence after an illness of a year. He was 61.
     A mass for Christian burial will be offered for Mr. Murphy at 9am Wednesday morning at St. Dominic's Church, Harford Road and Gibbons Avenue.
     Mr. Murphy worked as an insurance agent and field manager and in field training. From 1951 until his retirement a year ago, he was the Baltimore district manager of the firm. He joined the company in 1941 at its Scranton (PA) office and was appointed staff superintendent three years later. After serving in the Army in 1945 and 1946, he returned to his job and was appointed home office supervisor. He was transferred to the Baltimore office in 1951 and appointed district manager.
      Mr. Murphy was active in the National, Maryland and Baltimore Associations of Life Underwriters. He held numerous posts in the associations, serving as vice president and president of the Baltimore Association and national committeemen and president of the Maryland Association. He was also vice chairman of the membership committee, and served on the committee of Affairs of Veterans and Servicemen of the national association.
     In addition, he was a member of the board and president of the Baltimore Chapter and national director of the General Agents and Managers Conference of the national association. Well versed in the relationship between life insurance and the law, he was appointed vice chairman of the national association's Committee on State Law and Legislation as well as chairman of the Rules and Regulations Committee of the General Agents and Managers Conference.
     As an active member of the Optimist Club, a service club whose motto is "friend of youth," Mr. Murphy served on numerous committees, using his skills as an organizer to develop sports programs for young people. He served three times as chairman of the Maryland district convention of the club and was the Maryland boy's work director in 1960. He held numerous offices in the organization, serving at one time as President of the Hamilton Optimist Club and lieutenant governor and governor of the Maryland District of Optimist International. In addition to his work with youth in the Optimist Club, he helped to get a YMCA built in Northeast Baltimore by serving as vice chairman of fundraising.
     Mr. Murphy is survived by his wife, the former Margaret Robertson; 2 daughters, Carol Dabirisiaghi, of Baltimore, and Sgt. Sharon Sartor, of Plattsburgh, NY; 5 sons, Paul J. Murphy, Jr., Douglas E. Murphy, Richard T. Murphy, Kevin Murphy, all of Baltimore, and Brian Murphy, of Germany; a sister, Eileen J. LeStrange; and a brother, Francis J. Murphy, of Indian Head, and 15 grandchildren.
Kenny is my mother's father. I never met him. After he divorced my grandmother Rita, he essentially dropped off the face of the earth. He cut off all contact with my mother and her brother, as well as his parents and his siblings. He had two daughters and a son with his second wife. I made contact with them after I started compiling the family tree. He was apparently a thoughtful father and grandfather to his second family. I wish I had the chance to meet him.

Bob was my grandmother Rita's second husband. Since I never met Kenny, I grew up assuming Bob was my natural grandfather (despite the fact that my mother always called him Bob.  Interestingly, she always called Paul Murphy "Father.") He was a great guy. He always took my brother Doug and me to get haircuts when we were kids. Always wiffles, even in the age of hippies. He always advised me never to buy a used car.  He said, "you'll be buying someone else's headache."

Death notice from The Sunpapers:

On December 7, 1989 ROBERT B., beloved husband of Rita C. (nee Rosenberger), devoted father of Mary Jones, Robert Pollock, Rita Bernstein, Anthony Protani, Clara Murphy. Beloved brother of Arthur and Charles Pollock. Also survived by 17 grand-children and 13 great-grandchildren.
     A Christian Wake Service will be held at the Leonard J. Ruck Funeral Home, Inc., 5305 Harford Road (at Echodale) on Sunday 3:30 P.M. Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at St. Dominic's Church on Monday at 9:30 A.M. Interment in Gardens of Faith Cemetery. Friends may call on Friday 7 to 9 P.M. and Saturday and Sunday 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 P.M.

Here's the home movie of Bob marrying Rita:

Frank John Murphy, Sr.,  my great-grandfather, was the father of Paul James Murphy, Sr. He was the fire chief of Dunmore, Pennsylvania, a community right outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. I recently completed a blog about his mysterious origins called My Ancestors: The Mystery of Frank John Murphy. I covered many of the details of his life in that blog. However, I can add something new here. Frank, who grew up in a Italian neighborhood, ended the existing prejudice against hiring Italians for municipal jobs. How about that!

Article from The Scranton Republican, January 23, 1939 (photo included):


Native Of Borough Headed Department For Quarter Of

Century -- Funeral Wednesday Morning.
     Frank J. Murphy, fifty-five, chief of the Dunmore fire department since 1914, died at 8 o'clock yesterday morning in his home, 1119 Irving avenue, Dunmore, after a six weeks' illness of heart disease. Notice of his death was quickly circulated throughout the borough and came as a distinct shock to his legion of friends. Although in poor health for some time, Fire Chief Murphy was able to supervise the workings of the department until six weeks ago when he was confined to his home.
     Chief Murphy was a native of Dunmore and was elected first as chief of the department in February, 1914. He held the post continuously until his death and during his years as head of the department, he made many changes, including the establishment of the platoon system.
     Before becoming fire chief, he was head electrician for the Johnson Coal Company, of Dunmore, and had the distinction of operating the first electric motor used in a mine in this region. When he was named fire chief, the department consisted of one truck, three teams and two hand-drawn pieces of equipment. Under his supervision, the department today consists of four modern motor trucks equipped with the latest fire fighting devices. He was also credited with keeping the borough's electric fire alarm system working with perfection through his electrical knowledge.
     In 1915, he was the organizer of a camp at Moosic Lake for the underprivileged youngsters of the Dundell section of the borough. He was affiliated with nearly all firemen's organizations in the region and held the office of president of the Firemen's Relief Association of Dunmore. He was also an officer of the Lackawanna County Federation of Volunteer Firemen, a member of the law committee of the Six-County Firemen's Association, the Keystone Fire Chiefs' Association of Pennsylvania and the State Firemen's Association of Pennsylvania. In 1921 and 1928 he was instrumental in bringing the Six-County Firemen's Convention of Dunmore.
     He was organizer of the O.F. Johnson Hose Company, later the T.F. Quinn Hose Company. He also organized the Father McManus T.A.B. Society and was the manager of the baseball team representing the Dundell section of Dunmore.
     Fire Chief Murphy was a member of the St. Mary's Church and its Holy Name Society. In 1915, he married the former Loretta McLane who died Jan. 29, 1935. He is survived by two sons, Francis and Paul, and a daughter, Eileen, of Dunmore.
     The funeral will be Wednesday morning with a requiem mass in St. Mary's Church at 9:30 o'clock. Burial will be made in St. Catherine's Cemetery, Moscow.

Arch Robertson, my great-grandfather, was the father of my grandmother Margaret Angie Robertson Murphy. He had little formal education, but he could read and write. By the time he was six-years-old, he was already working as a slate picker at a mine. He didn't like working in the mines so he became a machinist instead. He was a mild-mannered man, who loathed arguments. He was also a skilled violinist. He died of black lung, but his death certificate says cardiac failure.

Obituary from The Scranton Republican:


Arch Robertson, 65, 18 Arnold Ave., East Mountain, formerly of Dunmore, died yesterday in West Side Hospital after a brief illness.
      He was employed as a breaker foreman for the Ace Coal Company and was previously employed by the Pennsylvania Coal Company.
      Surviving are his wife, the former Caroline Stark, a son, Ernest Robertson, Port Carbon, Pa; a daughter, Mrs. Paul Murphy; four sisters, Mrs. Flora Snell and Mrs. Anna Delaney, Scranton; Mrs. Margaret Rigby, Jessup, and Mrs. Jane King, Iowa; a brother, William Robertson, Plains, and three grandchildren.
      The funeral will be held Friday at 2 p.m. Interment, Dunmore Cemetery. Arrangements, Mrs. G. A. Miller.

Vincenzo Protani, my great-grandfather, was the father of Kenneth Joseph Protani.  He was born in the Italian town of Arnara in the province of Frosinone. He came to America in 1903, but the family in the Italy still tell tales about his toughness. One of my cousins told me how Vincenzo entered the village square one Saturday morning and saw a man he had quarreled with. Vincenzo walked up to him and spat in the man's face and told him not to wipe it away until he left. The man stood there with the spittle on his face until Vincenzo finished his shopping and left the square. Then he wiped it away.

Trust me, that man in the old country got off easy if the other stories I heard about Vincenzo in America are true! But that will be the subject of a later blog!

Death notice from The News Post:

PROTANI-- On March 1, 1961, VINCINZO, of 29 North Montford avenue, beloved husband of Sadie Protani (nee Mastracci) and devoted father of Mrs. Rose Taresco, Mrs. Carmella Rinaldi, Mrs. Mary McCubbin, Mrs. Josephine Navarria, Miss Angela Protani, Frank, Dominic, Leroy, Vincent Jr., and Kenneth Protani, and also survived by twenty-eight grandchildren and thirty-two great-grandchildren.
     Funeral services at the JOHN A. MORAN FUNERAL HOME, 3000 East Baltimore street (corner of Potomac street), on Monday, March 6 at 8:30 A.M. Requiem High Mass at St. Elizabeth's Church at 9 A.M. Interment in Holy Redeemer Cemetery. Friends may call daily from 2 P.M. until 10 P.M.

John George Rosenberger, my great-grandfather, was the father of my grandmother Rita Rosenberger Protani Pollock. George was one of my two great-grandparents that I remember meeting. I remember him being a nice, down-to-earth guy. He definitely did not seem like the kind of guy who would go to New York City in his youth and make a living as a dancer on Broadway but he was! He hung with the likes of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. (He liked Jolson, didn't care for Cantor.)

I remember when he died. About a week later, I was spending the night at my grandparents house and my grandmother wanted me to sleep in the room where he died. I told her I was afraid. She asked why. I said "What if his ghost comes to me?" She replied, "Why would that matter? He loved you. He would never hurt you." That was a very good point, and I could sleep easy.

Obituary from The Morning Sun, April 9, 1966:


     A requiem mass for George J. Rosenberger, a cabinet-maker in Baltimore for more than 53 years, will be offered at 10 A.M. Monday at St. Dominic's Catholic Church, Harford road and Gibbons avenue.
     Mr. Rosenberger, 75, died yesterday at his home, 3204 Evergreen avenue. Death was due to coronary thrombosis.
      He was a native of Baltimore and attended St. James parish school in his youth. A cabinet-maker for more than half a century, he had been in the employ of the Fairmount Mill and Lumber Company for the last fifteen years, and the League Lumber Company for the ten years prior to that.
Survivors include two daughters, Mrs. Rita Pollock and Mrs. Helen Ernst; two sons, Norbert J. and Anthony Rosenberger; five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Now my family tree gets sketchy, photo-wise. I do not have photographs of my grandfather Paul Murphy's grandfathers or great-grandfathers. Nor have I identified photographs of my grandmother Margaret's grandfathers (though I probably have them.) I have a little more luck on my maternal line.

John Rosenberger, my 2nd great-grandfather, was the father of George Rosenberger. He was born in Krombach, Bavaria. He was redheaded and very strong but also very short (a common Rosenberger trait.) He and his wife, Maria Anna Fleckenstein, and their four children, Adam, Barbara, Michel, Ottilia Rosa, and his mother, Ottilia Seitz Rosenberger arrived in Baltimore, MD, on October 21, 1880. John worked as a farmer in Germany but worked mainly as a carpenter in the United States. He also owned an oxen cart and used to transport tobacco from place to place.

John spoke little English. Whenever he grew ill, he drank a bottle of ketchup. He considered it a miracle cure all. He treated his grandchildren very kindly, but marital disputes within his home were sometimes settled in a harsh, old-fashioned manner. While in his late-70s, John was arrested for beating his wife. He was taken to the police station, but the magistrate said, "What are we supposed to do with a seventy-year-old man," and promptly sent him home again.

Don't worry. His wife had the ultimate revenge. She outlived him.

Death notice from The Sunpapers (November 17. 1932):

ROSENBERGER -- On November 16, 1932, JOHN, beloved husband of Mary Anna Rosenberger (nee Fleckenstein).
     Funeral from his late residence, 1920 East Preston street, on Saturday at 8:30 A.M. Requiem High Mass at St. James' Church at 9 o'clock. Interment in Holy Redeemer Cemetery.

Jan was born in Bernadice, Bohemia. He arrived in Baltimore with his wife Kristina on August 19, 1891 aboard the SS Stuttgart. Upon arrival in the United States, he listed his occupation as a glazier. Jan later worked as a master brewer, which didn't prove to be a lucrative occupation for a honest man during Prohibition. He worked as a laborer during that period. Between June and September, he and his family would take the train from Baltimore to then-rural Westminster, Maryland, to pick beans and other crops. He was a kind man, but his family treated him with respect bordering on fear.  He died of malaria after working in a swamp.

Death notice from The Baltimore American, July 23, 1924:

KOSTOHRYZ--On July 22, 1924, JOHN, beloved husband of Christina Kostohryz.
Funeral will take place from his late residence, 905 North Duncan street, Saturday morning at 8:30 o'clock. Solemn high mass at St. Wenceslaus' Church at 9 o'clock. Interment Holy Redeemer Cemetery.

Michele was the father of my great-grandmother Assunta Mastracci Protani. He lived and died in the little Italian village of Arnara. Apparently, his father died when he was young and his siblings were dispersed to live with other families. Three of his children immigrated to the United States and settled in Baltimore. My great-grandmother Assunta did so without his permission. Her husband Vincenzo apparently kidnapped her and spirited her away on horseback. I went to his house when I visited Arnara. The current residents were very nice. (I wasn't sure if they were related.)

I believe the man seated in this photograph is my 3rd great-grandfather Joseph Farber, the great-grandfather of my grandmother Margaret Robertson Murphy. He was born in Allenbach, Prussia and emigrated to the United States on March 13, 1846. The family lived briefly in New York before settling in the Scranton, Pennsylvania, area. He was a tough guy. Despite still having a number of minor children living at home, he enlisted into Company c, 197th Pennsylvania Volunteers on January 24, 1862. Unfortunately, he fell sick and spent May and June in a Washington hospital. He was discharged from the service for disability by order of General Wadsworth on July 7, 1862. Still, it was a gutsy move to volunteer to fight at his age. Bravo, grandpa!

You can read about his illustrious son here: My Ancestors: The Honorable George Farber.

Obituary from the Scranton Republican, Feb 24, 1886:


Joseph Farber, an old resident of the Tenth Ward of this city, father of Hon. George Farber, died yesterday. Mr. Farber has been a resident of this city for over forty years and has contributed considerable to its growth. He was also a soldier of the late war, a member of Co. C 107th Pa. Volunteers and was a member of the Soldiers' Veterans' organization of this city at the time of his death. His funeral will take place on Thursday, from the residence of his son-in-law, Jacob Stark, Petersburg, at 2 o'clock p.m. Interment in the Petersburg cemetery.

Here's a little song I wrote, and sang with my wife Deborah, to honor our family that went before us

That will have to be the end of line for now, but I want to thank all of these men for making me the man I am today! If you're interested in how the influences of these men, both visible and invisible, played out in my life, be sure to read my memoir published by TouchPoint Press:

Friday, June 15, 2018

Will Hollywood Steal From You? Part 2

Most of my blogs about the movie business are inspired by questions I receive from aspiring writers and filmmakers. The most frequent question I get is whether Hollywood production companies will steal their scripts.

I previously answered this question back in 2010 in the blog Will Hollywood Steal From You?  My answer was, essentially, no. I felt a reputable production company would be willing to pay you for your script, even if they planned to have one of their favorite writers redo it. The price of a screenplay is generally peanuts compared to the overall cost of a production. So why steal?

Subsequently, however, my interest in the subject has peaked since I have been called as a witness in the lawsuit between Brad Stine and John Sullivan and Pureflix over the film "God's Not Dead." Since the case is still in the courts, I have no desire to add anything to what I have previously written in the blog The Encounter, Part 1, Proof God's Not Dead. That said, I have been looking at the lawsuit Shame on You Productions, Inc. v. Elizabeth Banks involving the film Walk of Shame.

Here's the trailer of the film:

If you watched the credits, you might have missed the name of screenwriter Dan Rosen.  So did he. That's what the lawsuit is all about.

Rather than recap the lawsuit myself, you can read about it here, here and here.

I find this lawsuit interesting for two reasons. The first is Dan Rosen himself. He is an old friend and fellow Baltimoron. We went to Towson University and took at least one film class together. (Wanna see my final project from that class? Here it is: The Lunch. His film was a comic international travelogue shot in Baltimore.) I always remember Dan being very ambitious. Much more so than me. When we were in college, he was already working as a stand-up comedian. If I'm not mistaken, he was also running a comedy club.

Dan was the first, and perhaps only, member of our class to move to Los Angeles. He was also the first one to sell a feature script. (The Last Supper) Throughout the 1990s, I frequently saw him on the Comedy Central show Stand Up, Stand Up and eventually he got to write and direct a few movies himself. Check out his biography: Here. His credits prove he was not some rube right off the turnip truck at the time. He had extensive Hollywood experience.

The second thing I find interesting is that the appeal before the 9th Circuit court, after the lower court found for the defendants, is available online. This was the first time I was able to watch actual arguments in a copyright infringement lawsuit. The main point of the appeal was that the lower court used the wrong criterion in deciding on the similarities between the script and the film. (An independent expert found 42 similarities.) It is fascinating and a must see for every screenwriter. But, before you watch that, watch this video Dan made for a GoFundMe campaign to pay for the lawsuit. It states the issues as he saw them.

Here's the clip of the initial appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Dan and his team apparently lost the appeal. Read Here. They then appealed about having to pay the defendant's court costs.

Dan and his team also lost this appeal.  Read Here.

What do I think about all of this? It's complicated.

First, I want to say that I have not read the script or seen the movie so I cannot address the specific merits of the case itself. However, this case, like every other copyright infringement case, affects the prospects of all freelance, non-union screenwriters without representation. Lawsuits like this make production companies increasingly wary about reading scripts that come in over the transom from people like me. And you. Therefore, I cringe every time I read about someone suing a production company who read their script....

But, on the other hand, there are thieves out there and unless someone stands up against them periodically, we're all screwed. It is very brave, almost insanely brave, to initiate a lawsuit like this one. The bar for proving copyright infringement is incredibly high, even if the production company read your script, and, as in this case, even met with you to talk about it. To make matters worse you may to pay the court costs of the defendant if you lose. And, trust me, your opponent will probably be a large corporation with very expensive lawyers who take very expensive lunches. In this case, Dan had to pay $319,000 in fees and costs. That's more than he probably would have gotten if they bought the script from him!

As I said earlier, I am not familiar with the specifics of the case and I don't want to make a judgement on it. I have no desire to disparage Elizabeth Banks or the other defendants. I am not implying they are guilty, or even innocent for that matter. What interests me are the underlying issues. For example, I strongly agree with the argument Dan's team gave in the appeal about the costs and fees. Having the real prospect of being forced to pay the court costs of the defendant essentially bars the courthouse door to everyone but the very rich. I understand these laws were passed to discourage frivolous lawsuits, but they also discourage legitimate ones, too. Moreover, these laws display the utter hypocrisy of the government. The government feels it is "just" to compel the losers in a civil case to pay the costs of the winners. However, that same government does not feel it is "just" to pay the legal costs of a defendant who is found innocent in a criminal trial! This is just another example of how justice is skewed in favor of the rich and powerful in our court system.

That's why I applaud people like Dan for going on such a forlorn crusade for the justice he felt he deserved. Bravo.

So back to the original question: Will Hollywood steal from you? I would say no ninety percent of the time. However, there are definitely some crooks out there and you should be aware of it. The best way to protect yourself is get serious representation and become a member of the WGA, west. All of my current option agreements are contingent on the films going union and myself becoming a member. That's how seriously I take the issue.

Here is a great list of film lawsuits: Film Lawsuits.

If you'd like Dan to read your script (for a fee), you can find him here:  Rosen Reads

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

CHAPEL STREET - Chapter 8 - A Mourner

Here's another sample chapter of my upcoming book.  Keep checking back for more!

Chapter 8

A Mourner

I was on top of the world as I drove away from the restaurant. It was hard to process the wide range of emotions I had experienced over the last twenty-four hours. I went from haunted to heartbroken to happy. Amazing.

Despite my assurances to the contrary, I was already imagining what it would be like to date Teri, but I had no illusions. I would never violate our agreement by asking her out romantically unless she sent some very strong signals in my direction. I learned the hard way during my thirty-six-years that dating was not my strong suit. Friendship was a reassuringly open-ended thing. Dating was not. Every date was a pass/fail audition. I would not risk a promising open-ended friendship with an attractive, like-minded woman for an uncertain romantic future. Still, I was already hoping that Teri would come to Gina’s wedding with me. Going to her wedding alone, provided I was actually invited, was too pathetic for me to even consider.

My thoughts were so focused on Teri that I didn’t put too much active thought to where I was driving. I planned to head straight home, so I was surprised when Eternal Faith came into sight as I crested a hill. I felt an instant pang of fear, as if some alien hand reached deep inside of me and twisted my intestines. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes for as long as my position in traffic allowed. When I opened my eyes, I took solace in the bright sunlight. It dispelled the evil. There were no ghosts or spirits. No undead. No haunting. No supernatural. Once again, my rational pride took over. I refused to become a victim of superstition. I decided to face my fear head on.

I turned into the cemetery. There were few cars in sight. Sunday was a big day for visiting the dead, but most people made their appearances after church services. It was three-thirty now. The rush was over. People had left their flowers and returned to the places of the living. 

“What am I doing here?” I asked myself, but quickly dismissed the thought. I had every right to be here. After all, one day this place was going to be my permanent home.

The road took me past the rise where my immediate family was buried, but I tried to ignore them. My Catholic upbringing was to blame. I always remembered the lesson old Father Isidore gave us before our first confession. People who died with mortal sins on their souls, like suicide, were damned to hell. Although I turned my back on mother church decades ago, those words still haunted me, especially after the death of my brother. What cruelty! Lenny never had a chance in this world, and, if Father Isidore was right, he was damned to hell in the next one. The fate of my mother was even crueler. She lost a husband and a son and had to deal with cancer too. Now she was damned to hell because of one decision she made in a moment of weakness? A God who would do that was no God at all even if he did exist.

Father Isidore’s words got my blood started boiling again, but I could not deal with those emotions now. I kept driving on the main road past the office. It was closed, but the mausoleum remained open until five o’clock. I often wondered about that. Did one of the employees actually drive into the cemetery and lock the large glass doors at five o’clock? I doubted it. I suspected that they only posted the warning signs to discourage curiosity seekers or possible vandals. 

“What if they really locked it?” I asked myself aloud.

I shuddered at the possibility of getting locked inside the mausoleum overnight. I imagined hearing the click of the lock, and racing toward the door to see Jose Garcia, the groundskeeper, driving away. That would be a true nightmare. With the mausoleum looming ahead of me, I quickly checked my watch again. Three-thirty-two. Still plenty of time for a quick visit. 

But whom was I visiting? Why had I even driven there? This was definitely not something I planned to do. I drove those questions out of my head. Once again, my rational mind pushed back against my superstitious fears. There was no rational explanation for why I had driven to the cemetery, but I refused to turn away. Nothing in that mausoleum could hurt me. The dead were dead.

“I should have invited Teri,” I suddenly thought to myself. 

“No,” I immediately answered myself aloud.

Why would I think that? That was crazy. I had no desire to involve her in this madness. I had even stopped her from looking at the Kostek memorial online.

I calmed considerably when a brown, four-door Mercedes sedan parked in front of the mausoleum. At least I wouldn’t be alone inside. I didn’t think I could face that prospect now, even in the bright light of day. I parked behind the Mercedes, grabbed my camera and hurried over to the large, swinging glass doors of the mausoleum. I saw the other visitor, an elderly white man, walking slowly toward the Kostek vault.

I stepped inside as quietly as possible. I kept my distance, feigning interest in the other vaults as I slowly followed behind the old man. The same palatable sense of gloom that I felt the day before still filled the place, despite the fact that most of the dead flowers had been safely swept away. New flowers, recently placed by mourners in the decorative bronze vases alongside the vaults today, were already withering. They clearly would not last the afternoon.

I discreetly returned my attention to the mourner. He was balding but a few uncombed gray hairs made their presence known. He wore a bushy moustache and an old navy blue suit. His overcoat might have seemed out of season, but was quite appropriate in this marble-lined refrigerator. It made me wish I had worn a jacket. Goose pimples were rising on my arms.

The man walked up to the Kostek vault and stood silently for a moment before he knelt briefly and placed a small bouquet of roses on the floor in front of it. Standing up, he quickly turned around before I had the chance to look away. We made eye contact. I’m not sure exactly what I saw in his eyes – indifference or disdain – as he pointedly turned away and kept walking toward the door in a path that would bring him alongside me. It was unavoidable.

Over the course of the hundreds of hours I spent in cemeteries I made it a point never to disturb a mourner. Often mourners asked me to help them find a grave, but I never approached someone on my own. I knew I had to break my rule this time. I needed to speak with someone who actually knew Elisabetta Kostek, and who could explain her strange hold over me.

As I started toward him, the old man pointedly turned his face further away from me. He veered toward the opposite wall, but there was no way for him to leave without passing me.

“Excuse me,” I said. “May I ask you a question?”

No response. No eye contact. But he was passing me. 

“Sir, may I talk to you for a second?”

Without even giving me a glance, the old man unexpectedly slapped my camera out of my hands. It hit the marble floor with an expensive-sounding crack. I raced after it as it skidded awkwardly across the floor in the direction of Kostek memorial. When I finally caught it, I noticed a large crack in my fifty-millimeter lens. There was no fixing that. The body of the camera seemed unscathed, I still had my expensive telephoto lens in the case.

I looked up from my wounded camera to find Elisabetta staring at me from the photo on her vault. Her smile was smug, as if she had been expecting me.

“Who are you?” I asked aloud.

She didn’t answer, of course. She just continued to smile.

I turned away. The mausoleum was now empty. The old man was gone. For a moment I was tempted to check and see if he left any kind of note with his flowers, but I was afraid to go any closer to the vault. No, the door was the safer option. I started walking.

In a strange bout of paranoia, I thought I could hear movement in the vaults alongside me. It was a gentle rustling at first as the dead rose from their supposedly eternal sleep. Then they began struggling when they realized they were trapped. They banged the lids of their coffins against the roof of the vaults as their anger grew. As the glass doors loomed before me, I imagined the dead would soon break their coffins to pieces and then batter themselves against the vault doors until they were free. By then, their anger would be unquenchable.

My eyes remained glued to the door. I was afraid what I would see if I turned either right or left. Suddenly consumed by an additional fear that the old man had locked the door while I was inside, I began to run. I knew I needed to get the hell out of that mausoleum or I would die.

Other Chapters:
Prologue - My Mother
Chapter 1 -
Chapter 2 - Elisabetta
Chapter 3 - The Upload
Chapter 4 - The Kobayashi Maru
Chapter 5 - Gina
Chapter 6 - Tombstone Teri
Chapter 7 - The Holy Redeemer Lonely Hearts Club
Chapter 8 - A Mourner

Learn more about the book Here.

While you're waiting for the next chapter of Chapel Street, feel free to read my memoir:

Top 10 Horror Films of the 1970s

I am a horror fan. Always have been. Always will be. I grew up on a steady diet of late night horror films in the bygone era of Friday and/or Saturday night horror hosts. I wanted to write a blog about my Top 10 Horror Films, but I had far too many favorites to choose from. Therefore, I plan to do a series of blogs dealing with specific decades. This time we will be visiting the 1970s.

Now I must define what I consider horror. Many people place The Silence of The Lambs on their lists of top horror films. I do not consider films about murderers or criminals to be horror films unless there is a supernatural aspect. The main problem with this distinction will come in the 1990s and beyond with the popularity of "torture porn" films, a genre that was birthed with this decade's Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave. However, since I generally do not enjoy those films, few would be considered for the list anyway.

I do include most sci-fi thrillers in the horror film genre, particularly if the protagonist(s) are menaced by an alien entity or man-made technological threat. I do not include films featuring unenhanced natural threats, like the shark in Jaws. Don't expect to see that film on this list!

With those limitations in mind, here's my list:

Directed by Jack Starrett
Written by Lee Frost & Wes Bishop

Two couples enjoying a camping vacation in the west witness a human sacrifice. After they report it to the police, they find themselves under assault from the shadowy cult.

This is not a great film. It definitely falls into the realm of a guilty pleasure. However, the film manages to combine a couple important themes of the early-70s. First, it had Satanism. Satan was really big after the success of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. It had motorcycles. What do you expect? They had Peter Fonda. I think some law required Peter Fonda to ride a motorcycle in every film (or at least race a car.) It was also drenched in paranoia. Paranoia was the common theme of many great films of the period, from The Conversation and The Parallax View to Three Days of The Condor and Marathon Man. Except in this film, it isn't the government that should be feared. It's normal people. Anyone could be in the satanic cult.

Although this was a low-budget B-movie, I find it much more exciting than the higher budget films of today. There are number of car chases in this film. Today, most of the stunt work would be computer generated. However, nothing compares to seeing real people doing real stunts in real cars. It is definitely more thrilling when real people are in real danger.


On the negative side, the film ends too abruptly. If you were following normal screenplay structure, the Big Gloom that normally ends the second act is where this film ends. The previously chase that the couples survived really didn't supply that all is lost moment you need to end an act. That said, I am willing to cut this film some slack. When a film ends tragically, it is hard to build an all is lost moment. You can't go from all is lost to EVEN MORE is lost.

Directed by Dan Curtis
Written by Sam Hall and Gordon Russell

The tale of daytime TV's favorite vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) is told in this big screen spin-off from the noted soap opera.

Man, oh man. I used to love me some Dark Shadows. I would race home from grade school to watch ABC-TV's Gothic horror soap opera. I had the soundtrack album. I even got a book of vampire jokes by Jonathan Frid. That said, sometimes it is best to leave the past in the past. I recently got a DVD of the show itself. I found it sadly unwatchable. This movie, however, is terrific. People unfamiliar with the original series might be at a slight loss because of the shorthand Curtis uses to set up the characters, but, once the film gets moving, it keeps moving. It is well-directed and shot with the same kind of lurid palate you would find in a Hammer horror film. Definitely worth checking out. However, I am not as fond of the second film Night of Dark Shadows.

Directed by John Hough
Screenplay by Richard Matheson from his novel.

Reprint of an earlier blog:

The Legend of Hell House is a guilty pleasure from 1973. I remember seeing the rather lurid trailer at my local movie house, The Arcade Theater, and knew I had to see the film. Considering the violence, and somewhat tasteful nudity, I am surprised the film was merely rated PG at the time of its release and I was able to see the film unescorted by an adult.

I liked the film, but I must admit I was a little disappointed initially. First, I remember thinking that I had already seen all of the scary moments in the trailer. More importantly, I felt the film was an amped-up ripoff of Robert Wise's 1963 masterpiece The Haunting. At the time I considered "The Haunting" the best ghost movie ever made. Still do. I have had considerable experience with paranormal activity. Whenever someone asks me what it was like to live in a haunted house, I tell them to watch The Haunting. (Please, whatever you do, avoid the Jan De Bont's 1999 remake of the film. It is a travesty.)

Subsequent viewing, however, have allowed me to enjoy The Legend of Hell House on its own level. The plot is simple. A dying millionaire sends a physicist, Clive Reville, and his wife, Gayle Hunnicutt, and two mediums, the tasty Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowall to the Belasco House, described as "the Mount Everest of haunted houses," to prove or disprove the survival of personality after death. Two other psychic expeditions into the house ended in disaster. Roddy McDowall's character is the sole sane survivor of the second expedition. Needless to say, madness and bloodshed ensue before the riddle of the Belasco House is finally solved.

The real strength of the film is the script by Richard Matheson which was based on his own novel. Matheson is one of the most interesting horror/sci-fi screenwriters of his time. His credits included films like The Incredible Shrinking Man to The Night Stalker and numerous episodes of The Twilight Zone. This film itself is reminiscent thematically of Matheson's classic novel I Am Legend, in that it explores the boundary between scientific knowledge and the supernatural. Matheson always likes to have his cake and eat it, too. He accepts and celebrates the supernatural, but he always provides it with an acceptable scientific explanation.

The film is moody and atmospheric, but it might be too slowly paced for MTV-generation. The performances of the four leads are generally solid. That said, I do sometimes waver in my opinion as to whether McDowall is brilliant or hopelessly over the top in the film. It's definitely worth a look.

Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
Teleplay by Richard Matheson.  Story by Jeff Rice.

A cynical newsman named Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) begins to believe that a series of killings in Las Vegas are the result of a vampire much to the consternation of his hot-headed editor Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) in this made-for-TV film.

With the possible exception of Steven Spielberg's masterful Duel, this film the best made-for-TV film of the 1970s. I credit the success of the film mainly with the taut and literate script by the always fabulous Richard Matheson. He situates the vampire myth in a realistic, modern environment. The film plays more like a crime drama than a horror movie. The Kolchak character, expertly played by McGavin, provides the perfect mixture of concern and cynicism. This film is perhaps my favorite modern vampire film, and an influence on my own writing. It was followed by a decent sequel and a hit-or-miss series.

I couldn't find a trailer online, but here's the whole movie:

Directed by Philip Kaufman
Screenplay by W.D. Richter.   Novel by Jack Finney.

Friends Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) discover that people around them are being duplicated and replaced by an alien life form in this paranoid thriller.

This is the second go around for Jack Finney's novel and the results were just as impressive as they were in the storied 1956 version directed by Don Siegel.  Director Abel Ferrara would provide yet another excellent version with 1993's Body Snatchers. The paranoid thriller setup seems ideally malleable for any age. I thought the narrative framework was indestructible until I saw the 2007 version The Invasion. (A happy ending? Really?)

Philip Kaufman tells the tale with a stylish, inventive eye. He also benefits from an excellent cast. Aside from the aforementioned Sutherland and Adams, the film also benefits from great performances from Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright and Leonard Nimoy. A must see, like every other version of this story (except the 2007 one.)

5. PHANTASM, 1979
Written and Directed by Don Coscarelli

A teenager named Mike (Michael Baldwin), who recently lost his parents, tries to convince his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) that something very suspicious is going on at the nearby cemetery/funeral home run by an ominous Tall Man.

I love this film, but structurally it's a mess. It really is. The story is often illogical. The last couple scenes throw everything that happened before them out the window. Was it all a dream? Or a dream within a dream? Or maybe a dream within a dream within a dream? Who knows? Who care? To me, coherence takes a backseat to mood. I believe Coscarelli, perhaps unconsciously, taps into a primordial adolescent fear of death and the things of death. There is foundational truth in Mike's performance, and the relationship between the brothers always feels real to me. Additionally, Coscarelli created a great villain in The Tall Man, played by Angus Scrimm. The flying orbs that roam the mausoleum are also a great touch.

Coscarelli followed this film with a number of sequels that expanded the universe he began in this film. Phantasm II is probably the best of them. It is a much more conventional film, and I enjoy it, but it lacks the undefined magic of the original.

4. ALIEN, 1979
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by Dan O'Bannon. Story by Ronald Shusett & Dan O'Bannon.

A large merchant spaceship answering an interplanetary distress call finds itself invaded by an unknown life form intent on killing the entire crew.

Some say that this film starts off a little too slowly for the millennial generation. If that is true, I pity those millennials who won't give this film the time to grow on them. It is a well-written and masterfully-directed piece of suspense. And the cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright (making her second appearance on this list), John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto and the always fabulous Harry Dean Stanton. In its own way, the sequel Aliens, which made myTop Horror Films of the 1980s list, is equally as good in its own right. However, although some of the ensuing sequels are interesting, none of them reaches of the heights of the first two films.

3. HALLOWEEN, 1978
Directed  by John Carpenter
Screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Michael Myers escapes from a mental institution and returns to his hometown to murder teenagers on Halloween, eventually focusing on the ultimate scream queen Jamie Leigh Curtis.

This might not have been the first slasher horror film, but it is unquestionably the best of them and defined the parameters of the genre. (To learn more about the rules, watch the film Scream, which I suspect will make my 1990s list.) Carpenter made truly excellent use of subjective camera, and provided a nifty little musical theme in addition to making a star of Jamie Leigh Curtis. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of horrible copycats would try to mine the success of this film (including many of its sequels), but we shouldn't blame this film for them. This movie remains a horror masterpiece.

Written and Directed by George A. Romero

A group of four survivors of a growing zombie holocaust take refugee in a large suburban mall, but will the lure of consumerism be their downfall?

Director George A. Romero invented the modern zombie genre with 1968's Night of the Living Dead. That film had a black & white, documentary vibe and state of the art gore. Ten years later, Romero upped the ante with this film. Now the blood is red and the level of gore has grown exponentially. (He would up the gore ante again in the third film of the official canon, Day of the Dead, but, story-wise, it wasn't as good a film as the first two.) The violence in this film is often so over-the-top that it inspires as many laughs and high-fives as it does screams.

The film is also enhanced by the anti-consumerism subtext that grew naturally out of the setting. My problem with later Romero films is that he tended to make socio-economic statements the text rather than the subtext. The worst example is 2005's otherwise worthy Land of the Dead. In that film, the bad guys seem obsessed with money -- by that I mean cash.  Literal cash. In a post-apocalyptic world, paper money would be worthless. The characters illogical obsession with it undermines the story's credibility. Message definitely held sway over narrative in this film. (As the writer of many faith-based films, I must confess I allowed that to happen, too.)

This film is also a sentimental favorite for me because I took a girl to the Golden Ring Mall to see it for our first date. I invited her to go without even considering the fact that I didn't have a car (or even a drivers license) to get us there.  Fortunately, she could drive.

BTW, the 2004 remake was pretty good on its own terms.

Directed by William Freidkin
Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his book.

A desperate mother (Ellen Burstyn) turns to a disillusioned priest (playwright Jason Miller) to save her increasingly disturbed daughter (Linda Blair) after modern medicine and psychiatry prove useless.

Director William Freidkin elevated this film by addressing the subject matter with a deadly degree of seriousness (and budget). He was also aided by a literate scripts and excellent performances from all of the leads, particularly the determined Ellen Burstyn, the soulful Jason Miller and the no nonsense Max von Sydow. And Linda Blair....  As a filmmaker I don't think I could ask a child to deliver such a performance.

Audiences of the time had never seen anything like it. It was a cultural sensation. People were fainting and running out of theaters screaming. I, of course, was too young to see the film during its initial release. I only saw lame, truncated versions on television until I finally saw a theatrical revival in the 1990s.

This film usually tops internet lists of the scariest horror films, but I was actually quite dismissive of it for many years. I felt it relied too heavily on shock effects. I was wrong. As time slowly takes more and more of my loved ones, this tale of a priest who loses his faith because of his inability to save his mother and a desperate woman willing to do anything to save her daughter resonates more deeply with me long after the effects lose their ability to shock.

The best horror film of all time?  Yeah, probably.

Honorable Mention:

THE OMEN, 1976. A good film about the budding antichrist, but a little too Hollywood. Not transgressive enough for this list. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, 1974. A pivotal horror film with some strong moments, but I found some of the acting sketchy. CARRIE, 1976. Stephen King makes it to the big screen. Great performance by Sissy Spacek. The film hovers just below the Top Ten. JAWS, 1975. An undeniably great film.  It's scary, but it's not a horror movie. It's a maritime adventure. SUSPIRIA, 1977. Many people consider this Dario Argento film one of the scariest ever made. I like it, but I think it is overrated. COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, 1970. Modern day vampire films are always a guilty pleasure for me and this is the most California of them all.  EQUINOX, 1970. Cool little indie with great effects for the budget. THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, 1971. A pre-MASH Alan Alda plays a pianist with a soul to sell in this little Satanic film. SALEM'S LOT, 1979.  I originally loved this mini-series, based on one of my favorite King novels, but I think the 2005 version surpassed it.

If you like horror, you should check out these sample chapters of my novel Chapel Street:

Prologue - My Mother
Chapter 1 -
Chapter 2 - Elisabetta
Chapter 3 - The Upload
Chapter 4 - The Kobayashi Maru
Chapter 5 - Gina
Chapter 6 - Tombstone Teri
Chapter 7 - The Holy Redeemer Lonely Hearts Club
Chapter 8 - A Mourner
Chapter 9 - War Is Declared

Learn more about the book, click Here.

Other Lists:
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1980s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1970s
7 Guy Films
My 5 Favorite Westerns
20 Films, or Confessions of a Misspent Youth
My 20 Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Least Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Favorite Dylan Albums
Halloween Recommends