The rest of the week is Odd Fever. I tackle a straight action script, a moody spooky period piece that a certain star has been trying to get made forever, and at the end of the week, for Amateur Friday, I review...a zombie script?? What the hell is going on?? Anyway, it promises to be a different week at Scriptshadow. Hope you enjoy it!
Genre: Supernatural Thriller, Horror, Drama
Premise: An orphaned teen returns un-aged from a mysterious 10-year journey to battle a powerful minister for control over a gateway to hell.
About: Dan Calvisi was a Senior Story Analyst for Miramax Films for over five years and now runs the script consultation service, Act Four Screenplays. As a professional reader, he worked for Fox 2000, New Line Cinema and Jonathan Demme's former production company, Clinica Estetico.
Writer: Daniel P. Calvisi
"Donnington" has the type of logline I eat up.
Not only does it mention a gateway to hell, but it has the phrase, "un-aged from a mysterious 10-year journey". It's such a bizarre detail (Why is the character un-aged? Where did he go? What happened to him? Again, why didn't he age?) that captured my imagination and made me want to read the script.
Weaned on horror movies, Ghostbusters and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, I am always very interested in gateways to hell. All of my favorite myths involve characters like Orpheus or Hercules entering such gateways to rescue or retrieve loved ones or creatures from the shadowy, fiery underworld.
And, I'm here to report, this script is about a boy who disappears into such a doorway to claim a mythic mantle and returns to the ordinary world (yep, un-aged and ten years later) with a supernatural boon that may bring death to every other person he encounters in the natural world.
Cool. Who's the boy?
Seventeen year-old Ben Danvers officially becomes an orphan when his father dies in jail. We meet our protagonist at his father's funeral, where we also learn that the townspeople hate his father. Donnington is a town devastated by a horrible mine explosion that killed thirty-three people in the early 80s (in fact, the script begins with a creepy cool prologue that captures events in the mine just before the cave-in, which involves a miner fleeing into a red light with a baby in his arms).
Ben's caseworker has enrolled the pagan teenager (during the funeral, he spouts his knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology to the minister) at a top-notch school, a prestigious private institution called the "Donnington Lamb of God Evangelical School for Christian Leadership and Development". So, not only do the townspeople express resentment for Ben because of his paternal pedigree, but he's being placed in an educational environment that violently clashes with his own personal beliefs.
It's at the evangelical school that we meet Cassie Harken, a goth-y gal who is immediately attracted to Ben, especially when he announces that his topic for his senior term paper will be disproving the existence of Hell. Her own topic for Senior Themes? Vampirism in the bible. This is a match made in the bowels of a heavily religious and right-wing environment, the common denominator being that both characters have a mutual disdain for authority figures.
They bond when they visit the cemetery and start to make myths, or make-up stories about the people behind the names on the headstones of the graves.
At this school, not only do we get to meet Ben's reluctant teacher, Mr. Grabash, we also witness the school's painful version of required chapel, which is the daily assembly led by the school's figurehead, Brother Gabriel.
What's the story behind Brother Gabriel?
Brother Gabriel is known for dressing all in black and delivering not so much a fire and brimstone sermon to the young sheep at his school, but for pontificating about a place he calls "Outer Darkness". I suppose the place is related to the Cormac McCarthy novel in that both are about the concept of Hell, although Brother Gabriel also refers to it as a physical, geographical place while McCarthy seems to only be concerned with the moral and emotional metaphor.
Basically, Gabriel makes kids weep by talking about the complete solitude of Hell and paints word scenarios where they must imagine being trapped there, and that it's too late to call on Jesus for help. It's important to know that Gabriel and his school rose to power because he's the only known survivor of the Golgoth mine cave-in of 82. He reminds the kids and the townspeople that not only is survival a miracle, but that his purpose on earth is to save the youth from Hell.
Ben gets in dire straits with Brother Gabriel while trying to interview him for his term paper. Not only does Gabriel dislike Ben, but he doesn't appreciate him challenging his authority. To complicate the situation, Ben also learns that Gabriel is also possibly molesting Cassie.
Does supernatural stuff start to happen?
Yeah. One day, at the Jesuit house Ben lives in (where his caseworker finds him lodging) he receives a mysterious letter that has strange symbols and glyphs on it. There's a phrase that says, "Return back. Mine." So, accordingly, Ben is drawn to the Golgoth mine, but the townspeople warn him that it's condemned because of mercury poisoning. Undeterred, he explores the hillside and encounters the Charon-like Duey, the old punch-in clerk from the prologue who now wanders the hills as a sort of guardian. In their first encounter, he demands to inspect Ben's tongue.
The first act turn approaches when Ben learns about Cassie and Gabriel and when the strange birthmark he has on his body starts morphing into a map on his body. He lines it up with another map and it all leads to a particular entrance of the mine called Raven Hill. Under the cover of night, Ben goes to the mine and encounters three men (perhaps the mysterious authority trio Gabriel answers to at the school) in hazmat suits are inspecting creek water. He's chased into the mine...
...where he disappears for, apparently, a really long time. Now, for me, this was the most intriguing part of the script. We're treated to a time-lapse of the outside of the mine, and although we're not sure how much time is passing, we suspect that whatever is happening must be supernatural. Sure enough, Ben emerges from the mine with a beard and his face is weathered by the elements.
And, he's holding a lacquered wooden strongbox with iron latches.
It reminds us of the circular, mossy door he fled into in the mine.
What's in the box?
That's part of the mystery. No matter what Ben does, he can't seem to open it. And no matter where he leaves it, it seems to magically reappear wherever he's at. Yep, it's an inanimate object that follows him around. There's also a scene where the villains are searching for the box, and although it's in plain view, they're unable to see it. Ben spends the rest of the script carrying the box around with him.
So, ten years passed while Ben was in the mine?
Yep. Ben returns to Donnington to find that the town is eclipsed by the gigantic new mini-mega church that spires up into the sky. He meets Mr. Grabash, who is now a drunken hobo that wanders the streets, and Cassie, who is ten years older while Ben isn't. She's super confused, and tells a tale where she thought he disappeared for good.
We discover that Brother Gabriel is now calling himself Prophet Gabriel, and that he's built an institution that seats fifteen thousand people. Parents from all over the state enroll their kids at the school. Gabriel seems to employ most of the town. Gabriel isn't too happy to discover that Ben has returned, and the mysterious three men are on alert to snatch him and interrogate him about his experience in the mine.
Which he has no memory of.
He gets mysterious flashes of what happened to him down there, and well, they're not always pretty.
And, now, Ben is plagued with more strange events. While he tries to discover who Gabriel really is and what he's up to, he becomes aware of phenomena with the box. Disconcertingly, everyone in contact with him seems to die soon after. There's a cool detail when he interrogates a photographer and we learn that, in the photos of himself, he seems to have a dark smudge-like tail following him around.
Does Ben learn about the mysterious men that employ Gabriel?
Yep. We learn that they're part of a consortium called The Alchemy Group, and that they've been interested in the mine for a very long time. And they're very intrigued by Ben and his bloodline.
It all culminates into a bloody finale (one that actually made me sick to my stomach) where Ben may or may not become a popular mythical figure. Pay attention to the clues: references to the Valkyrie, gargoyles, Tartarus and a certain scythe-wielding icon.
Does it work?
It's a very intriguing mystery. In a good way, it reminded me of "Donnie Darko". The tone and the element of mystery is both its strength and weakness.
There's some character and plot stuff that can get confusing at times. Just lots of goals that seem to get lost in the 2nd act shuffle: Ben is trying to clear his father's name, but he's also trying to expose Gabriel, and he's also trying to solve the mystery of not only the mine, but the Alchemy Group, and his true nature. It can feel convoluted.
I also felt that, at times, the author was grinding an axe rather than simply telling a story.
All in all, it's a cool puzzle narrative that reminded me of "Carnivale" and stuff by Stephen King. It also has a really cool concept at its heart: It's about a boy whose inheritance is related to the Grim Reaper. And for that, it's definitely worth reading.
Please contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org for the script.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There's a quote by Richard Kelly that I'm pretty fond of, "For me, for fantasy to truly work, there has to be an undercurrent of absolute realism." When you have birth marks morphing into maps, a character disappearing into the underworld for ten years and returning with no memory of the experience, an ornate box that you can't open but follows you around no matter where you leave it, and encounters with a supernatural realm that culminates into a boy becoming a scythe-wielding mythical figure, it's important to ground everything in a realistic setting with characters that feel like real people. I think Donnington could benefit by not only making its setting, the town, more realistic, but by depicting the town in such a way that makes it feel like an actual character. From "It's a Wonderful Life" to Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" to the more modern "Lars and the Real Girl", there's something to be said for giving a community, a collective of people, a character arc. Donnington is a town that has suffered a great tragedy and has turned belly-up, but the setting never quite felt realistic. I think it could benefit from being fleshed out more. How do you do this? You depict more characters from the community who have different backgrounds. For example, I'll point to Karl Gajdusek's "Pandora", which portrayed multiple characters who inhabited a town. They were all different ages and from different social stratas with different jobs. All together, the varying perspectives felt like a tapestry of characters that gave weight and soul to the setting. I'm not advocating turning this script into an ensemble piece, but if "Donnie Darko" can make a town feel like a character, so can "Donnington". At one point, a character says, "God left this town long ago." It's a literal Ichabod (the departure of God's glory). For the audience to believe that a setting is truly cursed, first they have to truly believe the setting.
note: Okay, comments seem fixed.