Monday, September 7, 2009

The Many Deaths Of Barnaby James

Labor Day Schmabor Day. Scriptshadow doesn't take days off. What is Labor Day anyway? A day off in celebration of "labor"? We need more holidays like that. Here's my question. Us U.S.'ers have been around 300 years and we have about a dozen holidays that give us days off. How is it for you countries who have been around for 2000 years? Do you guys have like 100 holidays? Every other day must be a holiday. What am I even talking about right now? Back on point. Today, we actually have a spec sale to cover. Outside of Fuckbuddies - which was really a replacement for the case of the disappearing Cameron Crowe - we haven't had many of these lately, cause there just haven't been that many. Which means all of you are slacking! Get out there and sell some scripts so I can review them! - I haven't read Barnaby James but from the description, it just goes to show that you don't need to write the next high-concept comedy or thriller to sell a script in this town. And that if you have a script that's a little different, Appian might be interested (remember - DiCaprio bought the very "un"spec-like "The Low Dweller") - As for the rest of the week, expect a rare double-review where I team up with one of our readers to tackle the latest from one of the bigger writers in town (and someone I've reviewed a few scripts from on the site already). Also expect another rarity: Me reviewing a horror script. A horror script I thought was quite good in fact. Also we'll take a trip back to a script that Spielberg, when he read it, said was the best script he'd ever read up to that point. The script never got made. Also, I'm learning that Spielberg says that kind of thing a lot. And as for the final review, we'll keep that a mystery for now. Here's Roger Balfour with his review of The Many Deaths Of Barnaby James...

Genre: Horror, Dark Fantasy
Premise: A teenage apprentice in a macabre circus for the dead yearns to bring his true love back to life, but not before encountering the many dangerous and gothic characters that stand in his way.
About: 2008 Black List script. Sold to Appian Way in March, 2009. Remember, Appian is Leonardo DiCaprio's production company. Nathanson is repped by CAA and Benderspink. His script "The Occasionally Interesting Anti-Adventures of an Unnamed Girl" is in development with Scott Rudin at Disney.
Writer: Brian Nathanson
Details: 114 pages (undated)

You ever wonder what the world would be like if Chuck Palahniuk wrote “Something Wicked This Way Comes”? Or what if John Bellairs had a love-child with the Blood Countess herself, Elizabeth Bathory, and their baby boy grew up to write screenplays?

Yeah, these thoughts never occurred to me either, until “The Many Deaths of Barnaby James” found its way onto my hard-drive.

Let’s all pretend it’s a late cider day. The once green leaves have faded to blood-red and autumn herself has wrapped her crisp cloak around your shoulders. Gather ‘round the fire and focus on Roger in the chair as he tells you the one about Barnaby James and his many deaths.

Once upon a time...

...there was a transgendered club owner who called herself Lady Liberty. Spindle-shank skinny and all tattoos and lipstick, a spiked tiara protrudes out of her bluish-green wig. She’s the force of nature behind The Pound, the Mortecita den of sin where the especially seedy and select can be serviced by boys and girls appareled in scant, bordello-red leather.

If your name’s Callahan, you’re probably interested in other taboos of the flesh. Lady Liberty can accommodate you, too. As a VIP, you’ll be escorted past Malacoda, the chain-wielding bouncer, and led into the basement that’s fondly referred to as The Meat Room.

And there you will find stacked glass cases that align the walls like some Freak Show exhibit curated by Eli Roth or Darren Lynn Bousman. Because inside each glass case is a prisoner, a live human being on display as if they were action figures at Toys ‘R Us. It’s a veritable smorgasbord for those who have a taste for American red meat.

Just seeing this live menu causes your eyes to turn yellow, your fangs to jut out.

It triggers The Change.

Because if your name’s Callahan, you’re also a feeder. One of the cursed. And the cursed gotta eat. But don’t touch Play-Thing, the mangled, gibbering mass of scar tissue with female genitalia. She’s already reserved for someone else. But that plump brunette next to her? She’s all yours, friend.

Bon app├ętit.

But this story isn’t about Lady Liberty or Callahan or the other characters that populate this story. Not really. This is about Barnaby James. Everyone else is more or less a monstrous obstacle on Barnaby’s Campbellian road of trials slash rite of passage.

Who’s this Barnaby chap and what’s with this many death business?

You know anything about Saint Nicholas? And I don’t mean Santa Claus, although this dude’s the prototype. No? Well, he’s a miracle worker of sorts. There’s the legend about the malicious butcher that lured three children into his house. He killed them and put the butchered remains in barrels. Saint Nicholas is the dude that saw through the butcher’s ruse and resurrected the slain children.

I mention this legend for two reasons. 1) Resurrection is both crux and MacGuffin in this dark fairy tale and 2) when we first meet Barnaby he’s digging up a grave in the Church of St. Nicholas cemetery.

Barnaby’s a grave boy.

He works for Azlon. Azlon is showman, businessman, barker and owner of the Black Top. The Black Top is a mysterious travelling carnival and circus. Think Vaudeville cross-pollinated with the Grand Guignol. A sprinkle of Caligari here and a dash of Rob Zombie’s “Living Dead Girl” there.

And, oh yeah, all of the performers are resurrected corpses.

Azlon possesses a wand. It’s about ten inches long. Metallic. It has ancient writing and strange swirling symbols chiseled into its sides.

Now here’s the racket. Grave boys like Barnaby dig up these corpses, and Azlon arrives with his wand. He jams the wand into a specific spot between the corpse’s neck and chest. The wand plunges into the flesh and leaves a telling mark on the body. Purple ichor bubbles out of the mark, enlivening decayed flesh, making the body new again. The deal is, these people are given a second chance at life, but it’s in servitude to Azlon and his Black Top.

You don’t like the terms of the deal, say hello to the business-end of Azlon’s other wand -- his boom-stick. After all, the Reaper will gladly chaperone you six feet under for a second time.

Now, Barnaby, he doesn’t remember much before his life with the Black Top. He doesn’t remember how he died. He remembers that he was raised in an orphanage. He remembers that he was rescued from the orphanage by a farmer. He remembers that he worked as a farmhand.

And he remembers Delilah.

He remembers her porcelain skin, her red hair. He remembers that he loved her. He still loves her. He loves her. And every time the Black Top passes through Mortecita, the longing for Delilah becomes overwhelming. Because Mortecita is Delilah-Ground Zero. It was their home before all the bad came to pass, and it’s her home now.

Mortecita is the resting place for Delilah’s corpse.

And every year Barnaby begs Azlon to resurrect her. She’s an angel. She’s so beautiful she could be a lead attraction. It’s how Rob Zombie must feel about Sheri Moon Zombie. But every year Azlon must dissuade the boy. But this year, Barnaby is not going to take ‘No’ for an answer.


Barnaby steals Azlon’s wand and escapes the Black Top. He embarks on a journey to find the final resting place of sweet Delilah so that he can resurrect her. Lovers reunited.

You still haven’t told us about Barnaby’s many deaths...

And spoil the fun? Okay, I’ll throw out some bones.

Barnaby has a huge problem. And that problem is the bounty hunter employed by the Black Top. They call him The Fiddler. He’s sort of an assassin-troubador. A murderous minstrel. Has a nasty switchblade attachment on his fiddle bow. Likes to kill things.

If Barnaby’s presence in Mortecita isn’t enough to send its underworld into a frenzy, then the unleashing of The Fiddler all but guarantees a maelstrom of people stabbing each other Michael Myers-style to simply make it to dawn alive.

And like Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and countless other fairy tale children before him, Barnaby has wolves and witches of his own to contend with...

A) Jayce. Twenty-seven. A modern day Don Juan. A necrophile. I wish I could make the word ‘necrophile’ blink. But I guess it pops out on its own, doesn’t it? When we first meet Jayce, he’s going to town on a corpse in the Mortecita cemetery. With his dong. Yeah. It’s gross. Anyways, Jayce is in a relationship with...

B) Elena. Early thirties. Although ‘relationship’ is probably too strong a word because she’s more of a beard for Jayce. She’s a Bible-quoting born again who doesn’t put out. But she has her reasons. Elena is a feeder, a were-creature, who is trying to be free of her curse. And Elena’s ex is...

C) Callahan. But we already met him. He’s not so keen on letting Elena put her sinful and flesh-eating ways behind her. He wants his were-mate back, and he’ll do anything to get her back. Even if it means dragging her to The Meat Room himself so she can no longer fight her primal urges.

D) Figueroa. Forties. A salty old dog of a tattoo artist. Sort of a liaison between those that are undead, or if you wanna be PC, ‘re-born’, and the waking world. Barnaby goes to him to cover up the mark on his chest and to find the whereabouts of Delilah’s body. He might even murder Barnaby to get control of the wand...

So yeah, a dark forest of nasty adults. Barnaby may or may not die a few times trying to navigate his way through the forest.

Sounds twisted. Did you like it?

I thought it was pretty damn good. It’s a matter of taste on two fronts. 1) Subject matter and 2) narrative structure.

The content is not going to be for everyone. But that’s okay, nothing is for everyone. I’m a stickler for dark fantasy and fucked up fairy tales. I like both Lemony Snicket and Mario Bava. If those two want to team-up and try to scare the bejeezus out of me, I’m all for it. And that’s what this story feels like. It has claws poking out of it.

If you’re like me, and your favorite holiday is Halloween, then you might love this thing. Because this story pushed all my Halloween buttons, and that’s no small feat. After I finished reading it, I wanted to hand the script to my favorite tattoo artist and say, “Here’s your reference point. Read it. Be inspired. Now slap a full sleeve on me.”

The sense of melancholy in the third act is so intoxicating I might have even shed a tear.

This thing just isn’t all flash, there’s some real storytelling chops at work here. It’s unique. It feels new.

It’s “Sweeney Todd” on X-rated over-drive. It’s “Into the Woods” if every character was trying to kill each other. It’s Sondheim and Hans Christian Andersen distilled through Tim Burton and Dario Argento.

The structure irritated me at first because it was jarring to be pulled out of Barnaby’s point-of-view. I was already settled in with the character and I didn’t want to leave him, and the writing was so good I was kind of surprised that the writer chose to structure the story as a Rolodex-shuffle of rotating perspectives.

But it’s necessary for the story to work. It’s devious. Like Lemarchand’s box. We meet the characters and then Barnaby collides into them. There’s some bait-and-switch moments, and they work. The ending caught me off guard.

Reminded me of a Robert Cormier story. If you know his books, you know he writes about teenagers. And no taboo is forbidden. Every topic is fair game, however shocking. But more interestingly, his protagonists rarely win. And that’s heart-wrenching.

So if you’re willing to go along for the ride, you might also notice this story is laden with the monomyth. From a Campbellian perspective, the writer is tilling some rich fields. It’s not something that calls attention to itself, and I like that about it. But it’s certainly there for those of you who like Joseph Campbell and are into the Hero’s Journey.

If I lived in Los Angeles, and if he were so inclined, I’d love to take Nathanson out for a nice, dark stout and tar-tar and discuss our future careers in serial murder.

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

What I learned: Are you using structural trick-flourishes for the sake of style alone? Or does the nature of your story necessitate it? Because the punishment for the sin of the first is that it will damn your story under the label of ‘gimmickry’. You don’t want to be known as the guy or gal that’s all style and no story, do you? But if your story necessitates a structure and style that deviates from traditional dramatic structure and you can pull it off, then more power to you. You must ask yourself, what will make your story more powerful? Do you want to make “Smokin’ Aces” or do you want to make “Pulp Fiction”? There’s an important distinction in there, somewhere...