Sorry my friends but I'm taking the day off. Not to worry though. As promised, I've brought in an expert to give you a long-awaited horror review. His name is Tarson Meads and I trust his opinion implicitly. Today he'll be reviewing a recent horror spec that sold titled "Kristy."
Premise: In the vein of THE STRANGERS. A student trapped on a deserted college campus comes under attack by a malevolent group of intruders.
About: Dimension picked this up late last month for, I am hearing, low-six figures.
Written by: Anthony Jaswinski.
Initially the logline for Kristy did nothing for me, and when I heard it sold a few days later, my initial response was “Whaaa...?” The quick sale did garner some negative feedback on a few tracking boards, the main complaint being the lack of originality in the premise. Some claimed it read like a sequel to The Strangers. Others hailed it as just another generic horror spec. I was intrigued. After all, this puppy did sell. And as someone who reads a lot of genre scripts in my spare time, I always try to be as objective as possible. I think no matter how bad a script is you can always learn something from it. So when Kristy graced my inbox, I decided to bump this to the top of my “to read” pile.
The first thing that struck me was the nice page count. Kristy clocks in at 91 pages. Look at it this way, if the script sucks, at least it won’t take too long to end the pain. The second thing was the visual writing style. Fortunately this guy could write, and write very well. From page one Jaswinski set the tone of dread with vivid descriptions of the rural campus. This already started to read like a decent horror movie. I was in.
It starts off with a typical opening. We meet our hero, Justine Wills, along with her boyfriend Aaron in her college dorm late one afternoon. He’s slightly perplexed over her decision to stay back over the thanksgiving break to finish a poetry assignment, rather than accompany him to his parents place. He gives her a few opportunities to change her mind, but she’s determined to play catch up. So after their goodbyes, he drives off to his parents place... All rather basic, but now the gears of premise begin to churn...
Apart from one security guard, a student on her way out, and the campus groundskeeper, there’s now a lot of empty space between Justine and any form of civilization.
“The entire place is now entombed in rural silence. Cold November sun has set on the freshly mowed lawns.”
You can’t help but feel a slight pang of loneliness in this place.
We follow Justine around her campus for a few beats until she decides to take a run down to her local 7-11. In this case it’s the only building for miles. Jaswinski likes to subtly remind us every now and then that we are indeed in the middle of fucking nowhere.
Driving along this empty highway is where we first encounter our bad guys. They approach Justine in the opposite direction, hauling ass with headlights blazing on highbeam. Justine flicks her own highbeams to either alert or scold the driver.
By page 19 it was clear Jaswinski understood the importance of pacing and getting to the meat of the premise. Thankfully, he doesn’t linger too long.
Justine was rendered stock standard, typical for most horror movies. But the first few pages do a very nice job at introducing her. Jaswinski doesn’t try to force you to like her, but rather sympathize with her. This girl does have some issues that need resolving. She’s no Ellen Ripley, but Justine did possess certain character traits I love with these standard archetypes. She wasn’t just kill fodder for the bad guys. This girl had a brain, and as the pages roll on she’s certainly forced to use it. Horror just works so much better when you actually give a shit about the characters in peril.
By the end of the first act, set-ups and devices had been effectively deployed. Now I’m not going to break this script down and analyze it scene-by-scene, because apart from being painfully boring, I’d actually like you to read it as spoiler free as possible.
So let’s fast forward a few pages and meet the bad guys.
One of my biggest pet peeves with horror movies is that the villains always seem to be able to clock the layout of a building, house or wherever, better than the residents who live or work there. They can get in and out seconds before our hero even knows what’s going on. Whenever this happens it drops the plausibility of the film down by about ten notches. In some instances it almost comes off as being lazy. Unfortunately Kristy does have some of those moments. However they are in early stages of the script when our villains are taunting Justine. Once she’s pursued, the action does not resort back to cheap scares. It becomes more of a hunting movie – which takes us to various locations throughout the college campus. Justine is on the run, but also taking steps necessary to defend herself and fight back.
At times, I could not help but be reminded of The Strangers. After all, the bad guys also wear masks, in this case macabre aluminium masks. They appear for no apparent reason, and they even partake in the odd bout of door knocking. But with Kristy’s villains, there’s one significant difference – these guys are actually threatening. They carry the same cold disregard as their psychotic cousins, yet they seem to be smarter and far more cunning. Sure, they shoot, they stab, they slice and they give chase, but they don’t stand around in a fog for thirty pages, trying to look eerie. They’re always on the move, actively hunting Justine down like wounded prey.
By now you’re probably wondering “why is this called Kristy?” All is revealed through a tense moment between Justine and one of her pursuers, via SMS. For the most part, all the little set-ups and pay-offs worked adequately. For this type of genre they are somewhat to be expected. And as far as horror stories go, structurally, it was sound. Granted, it was a very basic plot, but it read solid.
So in a spec marketplace clogged full of Vampires, Ghosts, Zombies, Serial Killers and Aliens, did Kristy manage to scrub up to size?
Yes it did.
Although far from perfect, it was not only a nice surprise for me, it was one of the best horror specs I’ve read since Michael Stokes’ “Nightfall.” I realized Jaswinski was never trying to reinvent the wheel, but rather spin it so violently fast, I couldn’t help but feel a little thrilled along the way. Now if that was his only intention, as I suspect it was, then he definitely succeeded. I’m quite positive the guys over at Dimension felt the exact same way.
[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned from Kristy: This script proved to me that explaining why the bad guys are there is not always important. What is important is that our hero just gets the fuck out of dodge, and we the audience, feel something along the way. It also proved that if written effectively, a simple plot with a well worn premise can still be fresh, entertaining and commercially viable. For any screenwriters toying with the idea of writing a horror script, I recommend you read this first. There’s a good reason why it sold so quickly.