The Art of Writing Horror: Lessons from Trash Fire

By June 30, 2017Main

In my humble opinion, it’s criminal that the films of Richard Bates Jr. aren’t more widely discussed. Few filmmakers today are tuned into the grotesque nature of our culture, evoking Gothic influences as wide-ranging as John Waters, Robert Aldritch, Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor.

This skill is aptly put on display in his most recent feature, Trash Fire, the genre-blending nightmare of a couple who attempt to repair their relationship by visiting the man’s family from hell. The film is part arsenic-sprinkled romantic comedy, religious thriller and pure Gothic horror. It’s a gamble, one that didn’t work for every viewer, but it’s impossible to ignore the skill present in Bates’s screenwriting. One can learn much from him, if you survive until the ending.


Horror films often neglect developing layered characters in favor of plot. Here we find a truly person-driven horror narrative. The often exaggerated and gruesome characters are full of quirks and oddities that make them feel literary. Bates achieves this mainly through dialogue, which he calibrates with near-perfect comedic timing and grotesque details – his exchanges snap at the viewer like bullets – but he also infuses his words with character information.

One of the film’s best lines comes when Isabel announces her plan to abort her child, and Owen replies, “We’ll split it.” Then, of course, we have Violet’s horrific conversation with her pastor – a scene that reaches Shirley Jackson-level moments of chilling revelation. The dialogue makes these people tangibly horrific, and vivid as well. They’ve got dimensions that we don’t necessarily want to discover.


But Bates isn’t satisfied with gnarly caricatures. Even the most despicable of his characters have objectives. Their repulsive behavior is almost always offset by a tender moment. After the abortion argument, Owen delivers a touching apology in the form of Isabel’s eulogy. (Isabel is also the only character who doesn’t really commit a ‘sin.’) Even Violet believes she’s acting from a moral high ground, which makes her character all the more frightening.

But Owen’s deformed sister Pearl is the film’s most surprising, and possibly endearing, character. For reasons I won’t list here, Pearl completely subverts expectations – Bates writes her as a deranged, childlike recluse at first, then unleashes a myriad of complexities onto the viewer. He knows these people, and he allows the audience to understand them as well, in all their ugly nakedness.


It’s evident from the first scene that this is a deeply personal film. And not in the explicitly autobiographical ways that this statement might imply. I’m assuming Bates doesn’t have familial murder and extremist grandparents in his past, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t pour his soul into this story. Owen’s mental illness and Isabel’s heartbreak are palpable – not in their ugliness, but in their honesty.

These characters display a full range of human emotions, from petty anger to humor to utter sadness. For a genre film, this span is fairly impressive, and it wouldn’t work without Bates’s honesty. You can’t show this kind of hurt unless you’ve experienced it. Willingly exploring these dark parts of your mind can be painful, but they can also allow for intensely impactful storytelling, along with shocking diversity in tone. Which leads us to…


This film looks and feels like a very dark romantic comedy in its first half hour, aside from a few well-timed nightmares which set the proper tone. The grotesque elements only come in later, and while they’re laced with the same vicious humor, they overstep the boundary of comedy. Bates handles the tonal shifts mainly through his consistent character arcs.

Even as the film slides into the fires of hell, Owen and Isabel’s relationship remains central. This allows Bates to play with tone and genre. Scenes oscillate between weird humor and tragedy, hilarity and pathos, always featuring consistent characters. It’s a bold move to operate in so many different spheres, and it makes the film captivating. Bates’s balance is something to marvel, and to study.

Of course, this kind of personal, wide-ranging film will polarize. Trash Fire isn’t for everyone. But for those of us interested in showing a dark, honest side of humanity in film, Bates lays down some important groundwork. Take a look at this film, if you think you can handle it.