Genre: Horror Western/Creature Feature
Premise: After committing a massacre in an Indian village, a cavalry troop finds their remote fort under siege by vicious flying reptiles seemingly sent to avenge the massacre. Fort Apache meets Aliens.
About: Michael Ezell is a Project Coordinator in the Makeup FX industry. From his email submission for an Amateur Review: "I have to read countless 'horror' films to do budget and bid breakdowns. All those 'slash and hack' films and creature-features with yet another group of teenagers camping in the woods inspired me to break that mold and write something different. I happened to be watching a doc on John Ford at the time and thought, 'What if John Ford had decided to direct a creature film?' The result for me was 'It Flies At Night'." Ezell is a Nicholl semi-finalist.
Writer: Michael Ezell
Ah, the 'ol Horror Western.
It's a genre mash-up I have an affinity for. Something about those big, wide open spaces and shots of vast, rugged terrain framed by doorways seems like a rich setting for scares, thrills and a healthy dose of repulsion. There aren't many of these suckers. For me, the most notable as of late are JT Petty's "The Burrowers" and perhaps Antonia Bird's "Ravenous". The latter is definitely a Period Piece, but I suppose it can be debated whether or not it's a Western. In screenplays and literature there's always Zahler's "The Brigands of Rattleborge" and McCarthy's "Blood Meridian". I guess people attempt to write these genre mash-ups but I rarely come across a script that pulls off this particular brand of alchemy.
When I came across the submission, I decided to give the script a chance because the writer told me about his background in the Makeup FX industry. He told me about his inspiration behind the script, that he was watching a John Ford documentary and dared to dream what a creature-feature by the famed director would possibly be like. Not only does that take balls, but here was a guy trying to break the mold of all the other horror scripts he was being forced to read because of his job. He assured me that reading his amateur script wouldn't be a headache, that he was a Nicholl Semi-Finalist and had been writing scripts for a few years. To make me trust him more, he even provided a synopsis of sorts to peruse in case I had cold feet.
Well, instead of reading the synopsis, I decided to look at the first ten pages of his script. So far, so good.
I kept reading.
So, who are the Cavalry Troops on this bug hunt?
Lt. William Griffin is in charge of this group of men investigating the death of two families who lived and worked on the land near Fort Lewis. He's the youngest man in the troop, the most educated, but the one with the least experience.
Private John Carson is too old to be a private. While the other men carry standard military gear of the time, Carson carries a tomahawk and big-ass knife. We understand he's probably been demoted for his drinking at some point, and this seems to be a point of contention between him and his rival, 1st Sergeant McCallister.
Not only does McCallister wear the rank Carson used to wear, but the guy's an ex-Union soldier while Caron's a former Rebel. I thought this was a great dynamic because it guaranteed there would always be conflict amongst the troop, and it's actually the set-up for an antagonist who decides to screw the rest of the soldiers over when things get dicey.
Rounding out our triumvirate of heroes and villains are the comic relief, Tate and Arbuckle. Two Abbot and Costello idiots anxious for some action. The troop has two Indian guides who are reluctant to lead them into a valley because of superstition. To make matters worse, they encounter an omen in the form of a mutilated buffalo during their expedition. There's some speculation as to what killed it, and although no one can agree, there's the tell-tale sign of a reptilian claw print nearby.
When Griffin spies some branded horses, he ignores the bullying of McCallister, and with the support of Carson, leads the troop into the valley.
Why are the guides superstitious of the valley?
First off, there's an Indian encampment in the area that they're wary of, as they're not of the same tribe. This particular tribe seems to be living under a dark cloud. No one is playing or laughing and braves are all equipped with not-so normal spears, weapons easily over ten feet long.
The English-speaking spokeswoman of the tribe, Bluebird, confronts the soldiers and tells them they did not steal the branded horses. Rather they found them, and there was no trace of their riders. Although while Griffin is taken with her beauty, he doesn't quite believe her story and decides to speak to their shaman instead.
They find the shaman inside his teepee chanting in front of a fire, and he holds a strange ceremonial knife that has a big, albino reptilian claw as a handle. There's a painting on the wall of a strange animal, a horrible lizard thing that warriors are fighting off with long spears. He tells them they all must beware of something he calls It Flies At Night, and he also says that he must sing his song to this thing and give his sacrifice, otherwise they're all going to die, Indians and whites alike.
McCallister, frustrated by Griffin's patience, jumps the gun and points his gun at the shaman. Demands the braves who killed the settlers. Of course, everything goes to shit and the shaman cuts Griffin across the face with his strange knife-claw and McCallister blows him away. Thus, the massacre begins as Indians take arms against the troops but are shot down by the frightened soldiers.
They decide to flee back to their fort before the braves return, and it's when they decide to camp that they are first attacked by something from the sky. A soldier is killed and mutilated. They escape to the fort and Griffin is convinced it's the Indians retaliating for the massacre. He aims to return to the camp the next day and give them some come-uppance, which McCallister is all about while Carson is the reluctant one. Sure, they found bodies, but they didn't exactly see what attacked them.
It's only when more soldiers are snatched from the fort wall and pulled up into the sky that Griffin starts to think it isn't Indians, "What on God's green earth was that?"
"Well, it sure as hell wasn't Indians. Unless they learned how to fly."
But McCallister isn't totally convinced. "Fuck you, Carson. Whatever it is, they had somethin' to do with it."
So, what exactly was it, Rog?
Scar-Head and her brood are these nasty albino lizard things with wings that can lift entire horses into the sky and drop them on their enemies. They're tough, ugly bastards that score quite a few gory kills, but other than having wings and claws, and grotesque white skin, there's really nothing distinctively unique about the creatures. Other than story, I think the one thing that can separate a creature-feature from the rest of the pack is a truly unique monster. The xenomorphs in the Alien movies are the shining example, with their Giger-design, inner mouth, and acid for blood. Not to mention their weird sexual organ imagery. The worms in Tremors are another good example because they make the very ground below the character's feet dangerous.
Or take something simple like Jaws, where the characters build a mystique around the shark by simply talking about it and revealing the corpses it leaves behind. Like in Cameron's Aliens, you don't even see the monster until the mid-point of the movie. I'd say that building a sense of dread and mystique is half the battle in crafting a capable creature-feature.
As far as nasties go, these reptiles are utilitarian. They make a capable threat, but I guess I wanted more mythology about them and wanted features that make them a truly unique monster.
So, what happens?
Well, Bluebird and her love-interest warrior brave, Running Elk, bring their people to the fort and make a demand. They want Griffin and his men to protect their women and children while the men hunt down these monsters once and for all. They want to strike a truce, and only when the threat eliminated, will they deal with their own conflict.
This sends McCallister into conniptions, but Griffin, intrigued by Bluebird and guilt, acquiesces.
The rest of the second act plays out as a sort of Monster Siege on Fort Lewis. There's some waiting around as the characters get to know each other. Plot-wise, this may make you question if the characters are behaving realistically. I'm not sure if this quite works, because it makes our troop seem kind of passive.
Especially since this doesn't feel like a Our-Only-Option-Is-To-Sit-Around-and-Wait scenario. The only obstacle is the creature, so I kept thinking, well, if they know the mountain where these things live, why don't they go kill them?
Which they do, later on.
Pissing off Scar-Head, the brood mother, who goes on a revenge spree against our heroes after they kill her children. Things are also more complicated when McCallister becomes an outright obstacle and antagonist, creating another threat for Griffin and Carson. I liked this human conflict and thought it was more involving than the bug hunt stuff, and there were some touching heroic moments that are well-written, but I think these pay-off scenes could have benefited from a more powerful theme.
Does it work?
As an action-packed bug hunt, it's a page-turner, but like I just said, I think this sucker could benefit from a more resonant theme. I would have liked to see more meat to the story. Starting with the characters, I definitely think the most interesting was Carson. He was an underdog of sorts who was looking for redemption, and his ultimate pay-off is poignant and cool, but I think the reasons for his fall from grace could have run deeper. My suggestion to the writer is to search for a deeper flaw.
Other than the hatred towards Indians, I didn't feel there was a strong thematic undercurrent that runs from the beginning all the way to the end of the script. I think part of the genius of Aliens, other than the unique creatures and the multitude of obstacles and the problem-solving of the characters, is the maternal theme. Two mothers defending their broods to the death. It was a subtext that elevated the material and made the characters, even the Alien Queen, feel like real entities with motivations that ran thicker than blood.
But, as an Amateur Script, I was pretty impressed. I would watch a movie like this. I also think the writer shows a ton of promise and is someone to look out for as his craft improves. That's why I'm giving this a...
Script Link: It Flies By Night
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I'm a firm believer in treating B-material like A-material. Just because something has monsters in it doesn't mean it can't have heart or a powerful story. I think the key is creating a protagonist who is looking for something more than just defeating the monster. In Aliens, Ripley wanted to be a mother. She had a hole in her heart for a child. Newt filled that hole. When Newt was endangered, the stakes went through the roof. Create a character who has a void in their heart they yearn to fill, and let the plot become an obstacle to try and prevent them from filling that void. If you do that, I think you'll find that the theme will rise to the surface as you write and polish and shape your story. That's my two cents, anyways.