Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Screenplay Review - Gaslight (Roger Review)

Roger Balfour comes back from the dead again to review a script that I'm reasonably certain was written exclusively for him. Jack The Ripper...and vampires.

Genre: Period Piece / Thriller / Gothic Horror
Premise: Secretly imprisoned in a London insane asylum, the infamous Jack the Ripper helps Scotland Yard solve a series of grisly murders whose victims all share one thing in common; dual puncture wounds to the neck.
About: Writer Ian Fried came out of the gates swinging when his The Ever After Murders landed on 2010’s Black List. Gaslight was on 2011’s Black List and was scooped up by Exclusive Media’s Hammer Films (yep, Hammer Horror) after the success of its British horror flick, The Woman in Black.
Writer: Ian Fried
Details: 127 pages - 6/26/11 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

What a great year for screenplays, right guys? Last week, there was a three-million dollar sale (eat your heart out, Shane Black). According to Scott Meyers at Go Into The Story, there have been 32 spec sales this year. That’s a 33% increase from last year. But, most of the acquisitions seem to be what I like to call safe purchases. Stuff that’s not too expensive to make or belonging to a low-risk genre.

That’s why, back in February, I was excited to see that one of my favorite scripts of last year had sold. Gaslight hit the market in June 2011 and made quite the impression. It’s not Found Footage, it’s not a Romantic Comedy, it’s not a Modest Budget Thriller. It’s a Gothic Period Piece with horror and fantasy elements, and other than using a mix of historical figures and characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s not based on a graphic novel or Young Adult property. Nor is it a piece of Twilight fan-fiction where all the names have been changed (cough, Fifty Shades of Grey).

We all need a little variety in our Story Diet, but it’s hard to sell such a beast, a fantasy (I would argue that this is dark fantasy) spec that’s not based on preexisting material. I imagine it’s even harder to sell one that’s also a Period Piece. Not even Guillermo Del Toro, the King of Dark Fantasy, and his super friends James Cameron and Tom Cruise could convince studios to greenlight the HP Lovecraft adventure At the Mountains of Madness. A similar struggle is also happening with Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower.

It takes balls to write something like this, and the route to production is a tougher one. It’s easier for a creative exec to say “No” to such a spec (risks and costs are too high), and in this day and age, most of them do (unless you’re Helgeland spawn).

So, it’s good for us all when a genre behemoth like Gaslight sells. It proves to us that there are people in Hollywood with discerning taste who get excited by such heady story fare.

Although the script was the talk of the town for a while, it didn’t sell until eight months later when Hammer Films decided to take the plunge after its success with The Woman in Black. (And can I just say, Kudos to Hammer for being willing to pull the trigger on great stuff like Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, a steampunk novel I championed on this site over two years ago.)

So, what’s this sucker about, Rog?

As any good Gothic tale should start, we begin with death in the midst of a storm. We’re aboard a Russian Immigration ship, which we learn later is appropriately named The Demeter, where the First Mate finds the slashed and marbled remains of the Captain. He runs through the ship, witnessing ghastly sights such as the boil-covered and bloated bodies of the Russian passengers as he searches for the killer. And as any good horror teaser unspools, we can guess the fate of the First Mate as the last thing he sees is a shadow-covered phantom coming at him.

Cut to the establishing shot of Victorian London, the land of fog-drenched cobblestone streets, the threat of a cholera-outbreak and bloody murder. We’re at the scene of a Jack the Ripper-esque kill site, where an alabaster skinned beauty sports twin puncture marks on her neck and has been exsanguinated. She’s surrounded in gold coins. A mason jar filled with congealed blood sits nearby. It’s a gruesome scene and our Scotland Yard boy Donald “Monster Hunter” Swanson notes that the gold coins aren’t local currency.

So from the very beginning we have this mash-up of Ripper-style killings (slashed bodies and female corpses in alleyways) with distinctive clues pointing to a Bram Stoker-style vamp (dual puncture wounds and exsanguination). So, who exactly is the culprit? Is it Dracula? After all, the very first scene took place aboard The Demeter (a vessel all Stoker fans should recognize). Or, is it Jack the Ripper, trying to misdirect the investigators? Or, is it someone and something else entirely?

That’s the narrative question of this whodunit, and I would not spoil the answer for anyone, but I did forget to mention this savory detail: The label on the mason jar full of red sticky reads, “Lucille Westernra”. Does that ring a bell? It should, because that’s the ‘ol red-headed slut from Dracula. That’s right, that’s Lucy’s body marinating in the alleyway.

Why is the Scotland Yard Inspector nicknamed “Monster Hunter”?

Well, we can single out one suspect because he’s already being kept under lock and key. Chief Inspector Swanson took down the Ripper a while ago, losing someone he loved dearly in the process (and baring the psychological and emotional scars as a result). Jack the Ripper is now known as Patient 1167 and he’s caged like a Victorian Hannibal Lecter in the basement asylum underneath Carfax Abbey operated by...wait for it...Dr. John Seward.

Another individual from Bram Stoker’s novel who helped take down Dracula. Interesting, that.
Swanson’s boss, Commissioner Bradford, puts some pressure on our Monster Hunter to consult Patient 1167 because the serial murderer is the closest thing to whatever’s out there leaving a trail of bodies and frightening the London public. The newspapers and turn-of-the-century paparazzi are already spreading fear about the murderer, and with the worry of a cholera outbreak, it’s only a matter of time before mass hysteria takes to the streets.

Swanson is the best person for the job, despite being emotionally damaged from his previous encounters, because the other detective in line would botch the investigation and Scotland Yard would have another Sweeney Todd fiasco on their hands.

What’s Jack the Ripper like?

A beefy and mustachioed Hannibal Lecter with a penchant for self scarification mind games. He’s a cocky hulk with silver-capped teeth (the ones that aren’t rotting) who seems to know too much about the murders.
Of course Swanson is reluctant to talk to him but he really has no choice, so we get a sense that he’s facing his fears every time he visits the killer.

Luckily, Swanson has the help of one Florence Nightingale, whom he has a romantic background with. The nurse turned doctor is recruited by the detective because he’s curious about the nature of the blood that’s left inside the mason jars. She proves useful, because she’s the one that figures out that the blood left behind is diseased.

Astute Stoker fans will recognize the cast of corpses and potential suspects as more and more bodies begin to pile up around London, but I challenge the audience to guess who and what is responsible for these crimes. As Swanson is forced to have more face time with Jack, the more clues he gets to aid him in his quest.
Sounds a lot like Silence of the Lambs. Is that the template?

Yes, but that’s not too hard to figure out from the logline. Think the familiar template of Silence of the Lambs combined with a rogue’s gallery of drug-addicted victims and suspects from Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a smattering of Victorian CSI and you get the idea. It feels like everyone is hiding a secret and I think that’s crucial in making a murder mystery work.

But you know why I like this script? I was not disappointed by the reveal of the villain. Part of me was scared that I was going to be disappointed after such a buildup, but I’m pleased to report that the villain, his motivation and his plan are really cool. It was just something that satisfied my imagination and I even wanted to know more about the back-story. The third act is full of havoc and I think it’s something that deserves to be on the silver screen.

I also have an appreciation for the world-building in this script. Not only is there pressure coming down on Scotland Yard from Queen Victoria, but newspaper headlines and even a cinematographer recording footage of the unfolding investigation really helps root the story in a believable world. We get a sense of how the events are affecting characters in different layers of the London society. The writer also did his research, using details from Stoker’s novel and historical events (even using Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show which was in London at the time) during the time period to add realism and flavor to the story.

So, what’s the verdict, Rog?

Hollywood espouses that it wants fresh but familiar, so when considered as part of that formula, it’s rather quite brilliant. Sure, there are the familiar beats of our detective consulting with the dangerous Jack a la Starling consulting with Hannibal Lecter (and yeah, of course Jacky is gonna break out and complicate things), the comfortable rails of a crime procedural and a ghoulish plot against London.

But, there’s also the freshness of the setting. Sherlock Holmes may have made Victorian London familiar to audiences today, but there’s something atmospheric and distinctively imaginative about London during this time-period, so much so that the whole steampunk genre thrives on its aesthetic.

It’s the combination of historic police procedural combined with vampires versus Jack the Ripper that gives this script edge, the sum of its familiar parts that makes Gaslight so fresh. It’s a Gothic amalgam of a serial killer tale and creature feature. The fact that the writer pulls it off makes this thing a marvel. Usually such fare goes off the rails or the parts don’t work as a whole, but everything feels pretty seamless here.

Critically, I think amping up the Jack role would give this script even more of an edge and make it feel less predictable, especially to those of us who know The Silence of the Lambs by heart. What makes him tick? Why is his capture kept a secret? These are a few questions I had about him while reading the script. When I see the logline to this script, and I imagine when I see the trailer, my expectation is that I’m gonna get to see Jack the Ripper help Scotland Yard fuck up the undead. The thought of that makes me geek out, and I would have liked to see the nucleus of this concept exploited more.

Thematically, although the character stuff with Swanson is good, I feel like it could also be tweaked to make it great. As writers, sometimes we have to decide to either give a character what they want, or what they need. Right now Swanson is a man who has lost, and in the resolution, he may get what he wants, but I feel like the writer should give him what he needs. Does that make sense? He may accomplish his goals as a Scotland Yard detective, but on a heart level, I still think there’s more to be explored here. Perhaps the key is his unrequited romance with Florence Nightingale. I like how it ends, but it feels like there could just be something more.

Regardless, Gaslight is solid. It goes from murder mystery to an apocalyptic and action-packed third act, and it works. It takes a master world builder to drop someone like Jack the Ripper into the Dracula mythos and sustain the story for over a hundred and twenty pages. Not only that, but I think it holds its own with Frank Darabont’s great Frankenstein script. The undead have never been so classy.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Dramatic Reversal. This is a simple but powerful tool when writing a climax. Call it formulaic, but every climax when the conflict is man versus man (especially in adventure and action flicks) involves a moment of isolation where it’s just the protagonist facing down the antagonist. The Dramatic Reversal occurs when all the odds are stacked against the protagonist. In Star Wars, think when Luke is about to be blown into smithereens by Darth Vader and the TIE fighters. For an intense moment, it seems like all is lost. But then Han Solo swoops in with the Millenium Falcon, saving Luke’s ass so he can take out the Death Star. Gaslight has an effective moment of Dramatic Reversal where we think all is lost, but the person we least expect explodes into the scene and changes the course of events so that the odds are favorable for the protagonist. This is effective because at some point, the protagonist made a hard choice that carried them into the climax and put their life in danger. It may seem like they’re about to be punished for making this choice, but then narrative poetic justice sets the scales right and then it feels like the protagonist has been rewarded for making the right decision. Which is to say, always have a chess piece ready to bail out your main character, and make sure it’s organic to avoid being accused of using a deus ex machina.