In 2016, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, creative partners since growing up together in Iowa, were working on screenplays for two horror movies set in their rural roots. Based on loglines, the two scripts couldn't have seemed more different.
One, a high-concept and nearly wordless sci-fi thriller, was optioned by Michael Bay and rushed into production with John Krasinski at the helm; A Quiet Place became one of the biggest surprise smash hits of 2017. The movie's success helped greenlight the other script, a Halloween night haunted house gorefest called Haunt, with Beck and Woods serving as directors.
"The two stories were different attempts at the varying spectrum of what the horror genre really is," Beck tells SYFY WIRE. "A Quiet Place was our ode to M. Night Shyamalan and The Sixth Sense, and our love of that film, but Haunt was always leaning into our love of the grind house slasher movies of our childhood."
So whereas A Quiet Place was a family drama with the trappings of a genre film, set in an abandoned town terrorized by blind creatures with acute senses of hearing, Haunt is an ode to the exploitation B-movies and rowdy horrors of the '80s, with inspirations that range from childhood heroes such as Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter to the sort of stuff you'd find only on VHS and at midnight marquees.
Haunt follows a party of mostly loosely acquainted college students from a Halloween party to what is supposed to be a twistedly realistic haunted house in an abandoned factory plant. The place is staffed by clowns who look like they got rejected from a Juggalo caravan for taking the concept too seriously and settled into running a sadomasochistic Sleep No More in the hollowed-out bowels of rural America.
"It was kind of a bizarre thing, and it's funny because the two movies almost converse with each other in a weird way, like there's [stepping on] nail scenes in both films," Woods reflects. "They are two sides of the same coin or two sides of our dark souls. It's funny for us to watch them back to back."
There are definite parallels beneath their respective genre trappings. Both A Quiet Place and Haunt play up the tension created by strange and uncertain environments, while also leaning heavily on thrilling and sometimes gruesome set pieces (the latter film features far more decapitation). A Quiet Place, which was directed by and stars Krasinski alongside his real-world wife Emily Blunt, is about a family of four, soon to be five, trying to survive in their haunted town; Haunt tracks the band of students, with focus on Harper (Katie Stevens) and Nathan (Will Brittan) through a maze of less oblique but equally terrifying monsters.
"We're big set piece filmmakers," Woods says. "There's nothing more fun for us than sitting in a room, in our office with a marker board and laying out what are scary set pieces. So for A Quiet Place, it was the silo for example and what would it be like if somebody drowned in a corn silo? And Haunt is just a series of set pieces, literally set pieces."
When they drew up the traps and set pieces for Haunt, they were largely rooted in individual characters' personalities, which required the first half-hour of the movie to set up in between — and within — exposition. That was in part based on the advice from Eli Roth, who is a producer on this film. "It's almost shocking to say this," Woods says, "and I still can't believe that there's a lot of very smart industry people who really feel this way, but when you go into meet on a horror film or pitch, their attitude is kind of like, 'yeah, let's get a bunch of unlikeable characters that we want to see die and that will be entertaining.'"
Roth, they noted, often takes over half an hour to get to any gore in his infamously gory movies, and the first few cuts of Haunt had more than 40 minutes before any killing. It was all to establish the characters, especially the protagonist. Harper is miserable at the beginning of the film, reeling at the tail end of a bad relationship and suffering from past family trauma, and gets pulled out by her roommates to a costume party where she is the only person not wearing a costume. At least on the surface.
"Our approach in the horror genre is always thematics first," Beck explains. "A Quiet Place, we came up with the idea of 'if you make sound, you die,' but we consider that the gimmick of the movie. It's a family drama, that's the meat and bones, and a film that's about broken communication and trying to overcome that.
"With Haunt, even though we knew on a very surface level that it's a haunted house movie, we wanted to lean into the idea 'everybody's wearing a mask,'" he continues, "and that extends to our lead character of Harper who's dealing with traumatic issues in her real life; she puts on this façade of 'everything's fine, everything's going to be okay.' When truly it's not, and the journey is very much rooted in her being able to overcome her own traumas."
The villains of the movie are also wearing masks — the aforementioned edgelord Juggalos — but there's more than meets the eye with them, as well. The traps they set, created by Beck, Woods, and production designer Austin Gorg, were specifically tailored to each character's particular mask.
"[Gorg] tried to bring to the table different looks for all of the rooms, in different ways that we could activate feeding off of everybody's individual fear," Beck says. "And that feeling of handing over your own vulnerability to the unknown."
It's helpful to look at Haunt through the lens of A Quiet Place, and also probably inevitable, something the two filmmakers will likely contend with for quite a while as their careers continue to grow. Right now, they're working on a new project with Sam Raimi — they're not involved in the Quiet Place sequel, which they said took them by surprise when they first heard about it. Sequels in general, they say, are not really all that interesting to them.
"We grew up in the '80s, so when we think about movies, we think about before [something] was a franchise, before it was a television show on Disney+, it was like a brand new idea," Woods says. "Like E.T. and Close Encounters and even a movie like Halloween, coming up with big splashy original ideas is where our hearts are. A Quiet Place was such a big swing that actually paid off, and we are very lucky that people embraced it because now we have the opportunity to take more swings that are also crazy and outside the box."