Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Screenplay Review - Grim Night

Genre: Horror
Premise: One night every year, strange creatures attack the major cities, killing thousands. Nobody knows who or what these creatures are, and no one can stop them.
About: Grim Night made last year's Black List AND was purchased last year.  The sale was best known for the writers' inventive idea of making a trailer for their script.  Now I've been promoting making one-sheets for scripts (e-mail me for details), but I never thought it would go so far as people making trailers for scripts.  Cool idea.  Check out the trailer below.
Writers: Brandon Bestenheider & Allen Bey
Details: 117 pages

I'm trying to be better.  I know I don't review enough horror scripts on the site and I want to change that.  I just got back from a meeting where everyone agreed that the most risk-free way to make a movie was to a make a horror film.  So it's a really lucrative market to explore as a screenwriter.

Why, then, don't I review them?  Cause they're often juvenile and horribly written, moreso than most genres.  Horror writers care about scares and gore and disgusting imagery.  They don't have any interest in story or characters.

Well, Grim Night was a popular sale so I decided to give it a shot.  Imagine my reaction, then, when a longtime Scriptshadow reader told me, "You shouldn't have picked that.  It's the worst screenplay I've read in ten years."

OUCH.  Here I was, taking a chance on a horror script, and I happened to pick the worst one in ten years??  Talk about bad luck.  However, myself and this reader have disagreed on many scripts in the past (he liked Hugo!!??), which I pointed out to him.  He assured me, however, "This one we'll agree on.  Trust me."  Hmmmm...So, did I agree?

Grim Night starts "downtown."  Downtown where?  Big city?  Medium-sized town?  No idea.  The slug just says, "Downtown."  Okay, I'll just make up a location for myself then.  Ummm, big city.

Everywhere around this city are warnings.  "Never forget," these warnings warn warningly.  "37,112 dead."  News footage fills us in on the rest.  Every year, these things called the "Grims" come around and kill thousands of people in all the major cities.

They're kind of like really nasty trick-or-treaters.  They come to your door, ask you for something you don't want to give them (a watch, a lock of hair), and if you don't give it to them, they kill you.  So for that one night, everybody stays indoors, huddled up, and prays that the Grims don't bother them.  Most people make it through the night just fine.  37,000 deaths is a lot.  But over ten years?  In all the major cities?  As someone points out, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning twice.  However, there are others who aren't so lucky.

Our hosts for Grim Night are the Green family.  There's the father, Paul, who's just a normal dad who's occasionally late getting home.  There's the overtly brave 15 year old Sasha.  There's younger brother Josh, whose character development consists of owning a samurai sword.  And there's wife Liz, who takes Grim Night the most seriously (believe it or not, there are some people who don't worry about Grim Night at all).

The night begins, and after a few false alarms (Josh's buddy Cooper plays a joke on them), the real Grims show up.  The Grims hide under giant "Grim Reaper" like cloaks so you can't see their faces and instead of walking, they prefer to glide across surfaces.

The Grims are also cheap-asses, because instead of going off and buying their own wives a wedding ring, they demand that Liz give them hers.  She reluctantly does and that's it.  The family feels like they've passed the test and they can go on with their lives.

Not so fast.  Next, the Grims want a lock of Sasha's hair.  And after that, they want Sasha!  Paul tries to fight them off but the Grims take Sasha into the night and Paul realizes that as soon as the sun rises, Sasha will be gone forever.  So they need to chase the Grim who stole her!  Grim-chasing is an inexact science and there are a few stumbling blocks along the way, but in the end they catch up to her and somehow get her back.  But, is this Sasha still the Sasha they know?  Or is Sasha now??

The big question: Was this the worst screenplay of the last 10 years?  Umm, no.  Not even close.  Was it a good screenplay?  Ehhh...sometimes?  I mean, there's definitely something spooky about what's going on here.  Creepy dudes in cloaks coming to your door and asking for shit.  Then killing you if you don't give it to them.  I mean that's the stuff horror's made of, right?  Being in a completely helpless terrifying situation.

My issue is that I just didn't buy it.  The beginning of the script establishes that this has been going on for years, even though it's present day.  So...going on for years where?  In an alternate universe?  So you're asking me to now buy into a world that doesn't exist?  Sure, that's part of movies.  Star Wars doesn't exist.  But the difference here is that everything else is the same.  It's depicted as "reality" when it isn't reality.  The writers have changed our planet's history in order to set up this scenario, and I just couldn't get past that.

The other issue I have is how nonsensical everything is.  The Grims come by to...take your ring?  What are they going to do with a ring?  Pawn it at the local pawn shop?  I don't get the sense that after Grim Night they all sit around and play cards, gambling away the things they've stolen for kicks.  So there has to be some motivation here - some reasoning for this odd behavior.  But we never get it.

If you're going to build a mythology THIS BIG (evil creatures killing thousands across the world), I suggest you know why your antagonists are doing what they're doing.  And I'm not sure the writers know this.  Whenever writers don't know why their characters are doing things, the writing takes on a murky generic feel.  The less you know about the why, the more you have to fake it.  And readers can always tell when you're faking it.

Then of course there's absolutely zero character development.  I mean ZERO.  Like we don't even know what was going on in a single character's life before this screenplay started.  The dad could've been a lion-tamer a month ago for all I know.

Then there were weird choices that made no sense, like right in the middle of all this terror, Sasha goes upstairs and takes a bath?  Uhhh, what???  There were just a lot of weird things like that that popped up.

In the end the script just felt thin.  The real coup here is the trailer.  The writers understood - as I've been telling you guys - that the landscape is changing.  You have more avenues to get yourself noticed than you've ever had before.  Take advantage of them.  Try new things.  They may not always work out.  But remember that you could have Citizen Kane on your hard drive.  But if you don't figure out how to get people to read it, it doesn't matter.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Use anticipation to reel a reader in.  If you use Anticipation correctly, it's almost impossible to lose the reader.  I dare anyone to read this first act of Grim Night and not want to keep reading.  That's because the writers do a great job of building up our anticipation for the Grims' arrival.  We absolutely HAVE to see what they look like and if they'll go after our family.  Anticipation is one of the easiest ways to rope a reader in so if you can write a story that takes advantage of it, consider it.  Just remember, once you've burned that anticipation (and we meet the Grims) you have to use other tools to keep us invested, like suspense and original choices and twists and turns and character development.  I don't think Grim did that effectively.