Out of the Woods: Wherein Josh Jabcuga Interviews Horror Author/Screenwriter/Slasher Extraordinaire Matt Serafini About His Just-Released Novelization of William Malone’s Scared to Death, His Thoughts on Halloween Kills, & Vinegar Syndrome Picks!
Josh Jabcuga: During our first interview that ran at Cereal at Midnight, we discussed Mike Flanagan's film adaptation of Stephen King's novel Doctor Sleep. Your tweet about the film went viral, even catching the eye of King. A little over two years later, you've penned an adaptation of your own--Scared to Death: The Novelization. This is an intriguing undertaking, since the film, directed by William Malone (and based on a screenplay by Malone and the story by Malone and Robert Short) was released in 1980. Encyclopocalypse Publications has released a novelization here in 2022, which is certainly not typical for movie novelizations.
First off, Matt, congrats! Based on your body of work as a writer, and your knowledge and taste in films, I believe you're the perfect writer for this project. How did you get involved with this, and who had the clever idea to give Scared to Death this second lease on life?
Matt Serafini: Hey, Josh! Just want to thank you for inviting me back to Cereal at Midnight. It's always a pleasure to talk with you, my friend, and it's hard to believe it's been two years since we last did that.
To your question, I immediately picked up on what Encyclopocalypse was doing when they reissued Skipp and Spector's Fright Night along with Jeff Rovin's Re-Animator. Two long out-of-print books that are always in demand whenever the topic of novelizations comes up. Word on the street was that they were about to start commissioning adaptations of vintage genre films that never had novelizations, so I was already following them with great interest. As a fan.
At the same time, an audiobook narrator that had just been hired to perform my seafaring adventure novel Ocean Grave was beginning to work for Encyclopocalypse as well. That would be Sean C. Duregger, and he's a terrific narrator in that he approaches the material with the utmost reverence and respect for an author's work. He and I go back quite a few years as we're both physical media nerds with a passion for collecting Blu-ray discs. He knew that I had always wanted to write a novelization and he gave me an intro to Mark Alan Miller at Encyclopocalypse, who I knew from my days as a horror journalist back in the 2000s.
Regarding Scared to Death, well, it was a bit of serendipitous magic! Encyclopocalypse had obtained the rights from director William Malone. They also had Malone's Creature (aka Titan Find), but that title was already spoken for and that was just fine with me because I actually love Scared to Death. Is it a great movie? No. But for what it is, under the circumstances in which it was made, well, I'm a huge fan. It's a movie that works hard despite its limitations and I think it really succeeds. Especially with its monster. The Syngenor just rules.
Josh Jabcuga: That's right! I bought their Fright Night reissue, and your novelization of Scared to Death, which I'm currently reading and loving! You're in great company there.
It's been nice to see Malone's name pop up so much lately, with your novelization, and with Vinegar Syndrome having just given Creature (aka Titan Find) a rather high-profile Blu-ray debut. I've worked on media tie-ins and adaptations for comics, and when you're dealing with licensed properties, studios, and someone else's source material and IP, well, it can create some unique challenges. As a writer, how did you go about crafting the novelization? What was your approach to the material? And did you run into any temporary hurdles or challenges that surprised you, different from those you might experience when working on your own original material with your own novels?
Matt Serafini: It is really nice to see Malone's name out there again, I agree. He's a filmmaker whose passion for the genre comes through loud and clear in all his films.
Working with someone else's IP is a genuine privilege. And ideally, I think you have a responsibility to stay true to what that IP is, even as you add your own voice to it. The biggest challenge is that writing for an existing IP tends to feel more constrained. In the case of Scared to Death, I knew where it had to end up, and so you're working with an existing framework. That can feel somewhat limiting when compared to writing your own material, but that's also the job.
Scared to Death was an interesting project to adapt because it needed to be rethought from the ground up. That's not a dig on the movie, by the way. It's just that there isn't much story there. It's a low budget creature feature and I knew it wouldn't be fun for my readers if every other chapter was simply random characters wandering around in the dark waiting to be killed. I had to reinterpret the story and William Malone was very gracious about letting me bounce ideas off him. We had a few conversations early on about the lifecycle of the Syngenor that inspired me to turn those creature attacks into "monster POV" chapters that give the creature an arc as opposed to being an excuse to splatter some gore around (which I still do, I swear).
My general approach was: I knew I was going to add quite a bit of story to this novel and so I looked for opportunities to expand on concepts that already existed within the film. For example, the main character of Lonergan is an ex-cop turned pulp novelist. It's pretty much window dressing in the movie, but I dove headfirst into that. It gave me a chance to have some fun with the genre's paperback glory days (the novel is set in 1980) while also giving the book a slight meta quality if you want to dig a little deeper into it. I also created a subplot for the film's second lead, Sherry Carpenter. She doesn't fully show up in the movie until act three, but I wanted to bring her into the action right away and set her on a parallel path so she and Lonergan have their own separate adventures that eventually coincide. In my book, she's dodging some shady government operatives while trying to locate a secret laboratory, and those bad guys are merely suggested in the film, so that's another thing I seized on.
It all goes back to what I said at the start. You have a responsibility to stay true to the IP, so even though I was given tremendous freedom to make this book my own, it still has to feel like Scared to Death. The movie is in this book. It's just that a lot of other stuff is, too.
Josh Jabcuga: I'm glad that Malone was receptive to you, and everything you bring to the table—your skills, your talent, and that "Matt Serafini" voice. With your approach to the material and his blessing, I believe you created something that can stand on its own—whether people have seen the film or not. That's an accomplishment you should be proud of, because sometimes readers (even other writers) don't realize you're not simply taking the script and converting it into a novel. It's more than that. At least it can be. And it really feels like you struck a nice balance.
Recently I read The Director Should've Shot You by Alan Dean Foster, who has built a name and a career on novelizations and media tie-ins. There's a real skill to doing this type of work. As a fan of the genre, its history, and as a physical media collector, do you have any personal favorite novelizations? And were there any in particular that you referenced, as far as, "this is the ideal novelization" or one you wanted to shoot for...?
Matt Serafini: Great question! I don't think there's any novelization out there that I consider 'definitive' in terms of execution or craft. As a kid, the ones that caught me off guard were the ones that resonated. Anything that had extra scenes and/or storylines that enhanced a movie's mystique. In Craig Shaw Gardner's Batman, for example, I think of Bruce Wayne chasing the Joker and his goons after being shot in Vicki's apartment. Or I think of the Curtis Richards Halloween novel, which is a real curio. From the bizarre Pagan prologue to the way it interprets Michael Myers as a deranged sex pervert, it depicts the events of the movie, but with very different grace notes. In the world before the Internet, there was no easy way to understand why some of these books were so different, and I think that's one reason why novelizations endure in some circles. Established art interpreted through an author's singular voice.
When I was sitting down to write Scared to Death, my biggest inspiration was a few contemporary tie-ins. Tim Waggoner's Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, for starters. I'm a big fan of Tim's and was delighted to read all the extra work he put into that book. In addition to Tim being a fantastic writer, you can feel him bending over backwards to tie off the loose ends of six films (all of which I adore). I knew I was going to have to do something similar with Scared to Death to make it work as a novel. Similarly, I thought Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tie-in was such a great piece of writing, especially all the ways he reinterpreted his movie to work in novel form. Both of these directly informed my approach to Scared to Death.
Josh Jabcuga: I'm glad you mentioned Tim Waggoner. What a tremendous writer. I'd encourage anyone out there to check out his work. His book about the craft of writing, Writing in the Dark, is exceptional.
But we're here today to talk with you and plug your work. Matt, when did you first develop your love affair with books and movies? What was your gateway? And when did you know you had to follow your passion to be a writer?
Matt Serafini: I think my origin story is similar to everyone's... including yours, probably. Growing up, my dad was always open to letting me watch whatever horror I was interested in. I think the first movie I saw was Halloween II back when it was on cable. I couldn't have been older than 7 or 8. Hey, it was "edited for content." lol Anyway, I remember it so vividly. And even without any context, I found the beginning (which recaps the original's ending) to be so terrifying that I was spellbound. I think this probably amused my dad who had seen the original in theaters when it came out. That weekend, we were in the video store and he suggested we rent the original. "See how it all started." That was really the beginning of the end for me. Every weekend after that, I was in the horror section of the video store, asking to rent something else -- including Scared to Death!
At the same time, my mother noticed my interest in scary things and would bring me home horror paperbacks from every yard sale and flea market she'd check. I built a pretty awesome library that I still have today. And that double whammy really set me on the path.
When I was in fourth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Campobasso, taught us creative writing and I would always write stories where Jason and Michael Myers were after my classmates. Thankfully, I was never placed on any kind of watch list (that I know of). She was a great teacher though and actually nurtured my creativity by politely suggesting I try my hand at something other than slashers. This was a fantastic approach because she was still nurturing something that I obviously liked doing, and also got me thinking about ways to broaden my horizons. I think everyone has a formative teacher in their past and Mrs. Campobasso was definitely mine. Had she squashed my enthusiasm to write horror, instead of nurturing it, who knows if I would've carried that passion with me for the rest of my life. I really am grateful to her.
Josh Jabcuga: Shout-out to Mrs. Campobasso, and all the great teachers out there who found creative ways to nurture us and not discourage us. I had an English teacher who once "caught me" reading Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire on a lunch break in the library. Other times she'd be on the lookout for me reading comic books. She scolded me for my trashy reading choices, but in a weird way maybe I got the last laugh. So yeah, maybe our origin stories are similar, but I'm Mr. Glass here. Ha!
You're a slasher guru, and anyone into slashers should definitely, definitely, definitely check out your books. So I have to ask your thoughts on Halloween Kills.
Matt Serafini: Ha-ha okay, let’s talk Halloween Kills, maybe the most divisive entry in the entire series.
I absolutely love it! Favorite Michael Myers movie since 1988 (Halloween 4) and one of the few new movies that I’ve already watched numerous times (it’s rare for me these days).
I get why it’s divisive, but it just goes everywhere I want one of these things to go. One of my favorite aspects of this series is how the town of Haddonfield itself is always a character. It reacts to Michael’s killings in a way that feels very real. For Halloween Kills to make that its focus, well I was primed to love this one from the very start. And boy did I.
More than that, I thought there was a really transgressive element that many people didn’t seem to notice (or didn’t care to engage with). The idea of wallowing in the suffering of its victims, making us feel bad for witnessing their final moments. It’s like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games filtered into a slasher movie. But with a dash of Stephen King’s IT as well. A town so scarred by the monster’s crimes that it has changed its inhabitants for the worse.
A truly unique sequel that takes The Shape back from a culture of “my comfort movie” addicts.
Halloween Kills rules.
Josh Jabcuga: I can't let you go before we discuss (boutique label) Vinegar Syndrome. You have the subscription package, correct? Not everyone gets what the company is reaching for. Overall I appreciate what they're doing, and this has been a really strong year for them so far, in my opinion. What have been some of the highlights for you this year? And what are a few personal faves from the past two years or so that you think deserve more love? My pick would be Blood Games. I think a lot of people slept on that one.
Matt Serafini: I love the yearly package just because I love Vinegar Syndrome and am always glad to support them!
Blood Games is a great one! Could not agree more. This year I was stoked to get Death Wish II on 4K but really they’ve been killing it lately. Recent favorites include The Scary of Sixty-First, which is an ultra-trashy throwback to the kind of 16 mm exploitation I grew up on, and then there’s New York Ninja, the movie they assembled and restored (and rescripted). Both are really good examples of a company expanding out from what they’re known for without deviating too far from their bread and butter.
William Malone’s Creature was one of my most anticipated releases (and it looks great). I love how they’re getting into direct-to-video action flicks through their VSA line, too. A few outstanding releases there are TC-2000 with Billy Blanks and Bolo Yeung. If you like a good post-apocalyptic RoboCop-meets-Thunderdome riff, then look no further. Also love Whatever It Takes, a great buddy-cop yarn where Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Andrew Dice Clay team up to take down Fred “The Hammer” Williamson’s steroid smuggling den. Oh, and their double dose of 80s gialli, Nothing Underneath and Too Beautiful to Die… movies I want to live inside of if there’s an afterlife!
It’s great to see them put so much stuff on 4K. Gems like Ticks and Dead Heat and Hospital Massacre (X-Ray)… if you love the bottom shelf of the video store in your brain, then they’re doing their best to keep it well stocked at all times.
I just want to thank you for all your time, Josh. I love our conversations and hope to have one in person sometime soon!
Josh Jabcuga: Absolutely, Matt! Thank you for your time. It’s always a pleasure!
For more info on Matt’s Scared to Death: The Novelization and to purchase a copy, CLICK HERE
Since May 2019, Joshua Jabcuga has been a freelance digital content provider for All Elite Wrestling, which can be seen every Wednesday night on TBS at 8pm ET and every Friday night at 10pm on TNT. His adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale's novel Bubba Ho-Tep and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers for IDW Comics, was released in 2019. It is his third series for the publisher, including a Scarface prequel and a tie-in for The Mummy. Jabcuga has teamed with Heath for three audio commentaries for Cereal at Midnight (John Carpenter’s They Live, Batman , and The Rocketeer). Follow Josh on Twitter— @Jabcuga