Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Void (Repped Week 5 of 5)

For those who have forgotten, this is number five in a series of five scripts I'll be reviewing this week from represented writers who have not sold a script. The exercise is meant to explore the level of quality it takes to obtain agency representation. Enjoy!

Genre: Horror
Premise: The underachieving son of a coal miner struggles to expose a covered-up mining accident that sparked a raging subterranean fire, but is unaware that the fire has kept ominous creatures at bay for the past twenty years.
About: Zach is repped by Brad Kushner at Creative Convergence.
Writer: Zach Nelson

When I was eight years old, my parents took me to The Chicago Museum of Science And Industry to do what every parent back in those days did with their children - trick them into learning something. And of course I responded like most kids do. I stumbled around wondering why everything was much less cooler than I wanted it to be. There were no video games at the museum. There were no televisions. When I was shown a 1000 year old mummy the only thing I could think was, "That poor man's been stuck in this boring shithole for 1000 years?" After begging to go home, my parents promised me we'd leave after one last exhibit. I rolled my eyes and said whatever the equivalent of "whatever" was back at the time. This particular exhibit, I was informed, was an exhibit about mines. And it just so happened the museum was located on top of a very old mine cave. I perked up a little. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. So we got packed into a rather large elevator with a good 40 other people. Our "guide" closed the doors and we started going down. The elevator was one of those old fashioned "freight elevators" with see through walls. I watched as the outer walls passed by. We were going down pretty deep, I thought.

And down.

And down.

Gradually the outer walls turned to rock. As I had expected to go down about five stories, this was a little concerning to me. I know time is warped when you're a kid, but I don't think we were in that elevator less than five minutes. The walls became even darker and dingier. When the hell was this thing going to stop? I started getting worried. But everybody around me seemed to be keeping their cool so I put on a brave face. After this elevator ride to hell finally ended, we were let out into an old underground mine cave. In my estimation we were at least 100 miles below the earth and whatever mine we were in sure didn't look safe. There were these old wooden beams holding things up. They were cracked and warped. If that breaks, I thought, would the ceiling fall on us? I was growing more concerned by the second. I wanted to get back up to the museum. Our "guide" then went into a lengthy spiel about the history of the mine and how coal was excavated and how if I would've been here in 1892 when they first opened the mine, I might have been working here and I couldn't care less because DIDN'T ANYONE ELSE NOTICE HOW FRAGILE THOSE FUCKING BEAMS LOOKED??? Why didn't anyone else notice this?? The guide droned on. We were lucky to even be down here, he explained, as the safety requirements for people were just barely met.

No shit Sherlock!

Then all of a sudden, there was a loud BUZZING ALARM accompanied by a flashing RED LIGHT! Jesus Christ! What the hell!?? We were going to be buried down here. Never to be heard from again. The guide started freaking out (finally), saying that the mine was unstable. There was shaking. I wanted to run but where?? There was nowhere to go! I desperately searched for a way out . For some reason none of the stupid adults were alarmed. Didn't these idiots understand!!?? We were all going to die! "This way!" the guide said. "This way!" I hightailed it in the direction he was pointing, down the mine, around a corner and into...



a cafeteria?

I looked around. Not only was this a wide open cafeteria, 100 miles underneath the crust of the earth. But it was the lower level of what I coulda swore was the place where we entered the elevator. In fact, this entire room looked exactly like the museum. But how had they done it? How had they built a replica of the museum 100 miles beneath the earth? And weren't we still in imminent danger from the mine collapsing?? Why were people eating hot dogs seconds before their death??

And then slowly my developing mind started putting the pieces together. We had never gone down 100 miles, had we? The elevator was a fake. The rocky exterior walls that passed by were stage props, wound around to make it *look* like were going 100 miles into the earth. I had been duped. I had been tricked. But I didn't give a shit. I was just ecstatic to be alive. To this day, nothing has even come close to tricking me the way that mine exhibit did. And it's the reason why, to this day, I am terrified of mines.

Whether they still try to scare the shit out of you, I'm not sure. I can imagine after my experience that they had enough lawsuits to get rid of the "the mine is caving in" portion of the tour, but if you'd like to scare your children to death, here's some information about the exhibit on the museum's website.

Which is why I decided to review The Void - a horror script about a coal mine. This would allow me to face my fears and give you, the reader, something you're always asking for: a horror script.

Now I just want to make something clear before we go on. People think I hate horror. That's not true. I just hate bad horror. Which there seems to be a lot of. Mindless plot-less excuses to have monsters slice up or munch up humans is not my idea of a good time. I like depth to my horror. I'm not talking Masterpiece Theatre. Just something that makes the characters real enough so that I care about whether they live or die. Give me a good horror film and I'll show up opening day.

Is there depth to The Void? Yes, I'd say for the most part there is. Now whether that depth transferred into a good script is another question. After a two-decades old coal mining accident killed his father, Jacob finds himself in the same fucked up going-nowhere situation that his family was in. Except Jacob's got it even worse. The accident that killed his father (and a bunch of other miners) started a coal fire underneath the town that hasn't gone out in 20 years. The town is a mess. Pieces of road cave in unexpectedly. The ground is always warm to the touch. And worst of all, work is nonexistent. Jacob gets by on minimum wage - and with a wife and child on the way, he's desperately looking for a way to salvage his life.

There's a real-life town like Jake's called Centralia, Pennsylvania. It's freaky. Google it.

If all that wasn't bad enough, Jake starts to see strange things in the shadows of the town. The holes that lead down to the burning mines reveal figures, strange lurching 9 foot humanoid creatures. In the woods by his house. On the outskirts near the caves. But are they real? Others believe they're just hungry wolves. But Jacob witnesses these creatures tear his neighbors to pieces. These are no wolves, he tells the cops. But they don't want to listen.

In the meantime, the underground fires continue to burn. When Jacob makes the uninformed decision to put out the fire using the local water tower, he's approached by Eli, an ex-mine worker whose face was disfigured in the accident. He's informed about a long-held secret about the town. Eli is being paid by the mine's wealthy owner to keep the underground mines burning. Keep the mine's burning?? By what would anyone want to do that? Well, apparently, the fire has been keeping a host of these shadowy figures at bay. Now that the fire's been put out, these hellish monsters will be roaming the streets, killing at will. The only way to stop them is to blow closed all the entrances to the mine. And that's exactly what Eli and Jacob set out to do.

The Void was entertaining in places and no so entertaining in others. Particularly in the first half of the second act, where there were a lot of scenes with people sitting around talking about their problems. In fact, the plan to actually do something about the burning underground and its hellish occupants isn't hatched until page 75, which is just way too slow in my opinion. Nelson chooses to use those first 75 pages to focus on the mystery behind the underground mines and the conspiracy to cover it up. But I don't think there's enough there to warrant an entire 75 pages of screenplay. These creatures should be out and attacking by at least page 45, probably even 25. And our protags need to figure out what to do about it soonafter. Throw this story into overdrive. See, The Void falls victim to one of the unsolvable problems in the movie industry, which is that the hook is included in the logline, which eliminates every notable surprise the script has for us. Unfortunately there's no way around this. People aren't going to read your screenplay unless they know your hook. Even though your hook is the one thing you don't want revealed until they read your screenplay. In this case, the logline gives away all the secrets in the first 75 pages.

There's some bigtime irony going on here. I start out telling you to give me a smart character-driven horror story, and Nelson attempts to do exactly that. I just think he went a little too far. He spent too much time getting into these characters' lives and not enough time getting to the story. To me, the lure here is the underground mines and their creatures. That's what I wanted to see. And that's what there's not nearly enough of.

The other thing I was looking for was more out of the monsters. I like my monsters to be based in some sort of logic, even if it's logic based off the rules you set up in your screenplay. What I don't like is monsters that seemingly have nothing to do with the problem. For instance, in one of my favorite horror films of the last few years, The Descent, those creatures were explained as an evolution of man being stuck down in the caverns for thousands of years. I bought that. That made sense to me. Here, you have 9 foot wolf-like men with no eyes. When I try to connect that to a coal fire that's been burning underground for years, I have a hard time making that leap. I guess you could pass them off as descendants of Hell, but that's a little too generic for me. The more based in logic your creatures are, the closer - in my mind - they are to reality. And the closer something is to reality, to being outside your door or in your closet, the scarier it is.

So unfortunately I wasn't the biggest fan of The Void. As with all of this weeks' writers, Zach knows what he's doing. It's simply a case of me not getting into this particular story. But I thank Zack for allowing me to read his script. It was [not] fun revisiting my museum experience from hell :)

Script link: The Void

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest

[ ] worth the read

[ ] impressive

[ ] genius

What I learned: The Void actually had *too much* character development. Or, I should say, it went about its character development in the wrong way. In that early 2nd act portion, it felt like every scene we were sitting down with our characters, listening to their problems. Sure this gave me some backstory on who these people were, but it didn't do so in an interesting way - within the context of a developing story. Anything you're trying to reveal in your script - whether it be character development, exposition, or plot - you have to bleed it into the story seamlessly. If it feels like we're stopping to get to know people, you've destroyed all that momentum you built up. Every scene should be pushing (and I mean *pushing* - not nudging) the story forward. Instead of having your characters sitting in a room, put them out there investigating the problem and having their discussion as they investigate. That way, you're killing two birds with one stone. Always keep things moving!