Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Screenplay Review - Somnia

Genre: Horror
Premise: When a grieving couple adopts a young boy, they soon learn that his dreams manifest themselves into reality.
About: This script finished high on this year's Blood List.  It appears that the writers are just now starting to make some noise.  They wrote and are directing a feature called "Oculus" in which two sibling orphans witness a haunted mirror killing someone - a murder the young brother is charged with. Looks like these two like orphans!
Writers: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard
Details: 114 pages - February 7, 2012 draft

Were tears shed during my reading of Somnia?  I will neither confirm nor deny this rumor.  I will confirm this though - Somnia is probably the best straight horror script I've read since The Ring.  Just when I was ready to declare the death of intelligent horror, this comes around.  Actually, I wouldn't call Somnia "intelligent" so much as well-crafted.  Nobody crafts horror screenplays any more.  They just slap together a bunch of creepy-looking children or old women who move in that creepy herky-jerky motion and expect us to shell out big bucks.  Why would we do that?  You haven't given us anything new and you haven't given us anything deep.

 I mean seriously - creepy imagery is going to compose of 10, maybe 15 pages of your script.  What's happening during the other 100 pages?  You need to build a story with characters we care about going after things we care about, and present it in a way that's relatable but unique.  Not an easy task by any means but I can tell you this - putting forth the effort is the first step.  If you treat your horror script with the same kind of love and attention that you would a drama -- making sure every single emotional beat is played just right -- then you've quadrupled your chances of writing a good horror flick because most horror writers don't care about depth.

Somnia is about a kid, Cody.  He's six years old and an orphan.  He's actually had a couple of sets of foster parents already but neither set worked out (for mysterious reasons).  Enter Mark and Jessie, a young and eager-to-adopt couple who unfortunately experienced a horrible tragedy.  Their son, Sean, drowned.  Finally, after a couple of years of mourning, they're ready to move on, and adopting Cody is a big part of that process.  Is it a little freaky that they're adopting a boy who's the same age as their dead child?  Yeah.  But both parents have good intentions.  Well, at first anyway.

The couple quickly learn that Cody doesn't like to sleep.  In fact, he stashes soda and sugar in a secret box underneath his bed so he can stay awake.  At first it seems like a minor quirk Mark and Jessie have to deal with.  I mean foster children aren't exactly known for being trouble-free.  But then things start getting weird.  For example, Cody loves butterflies.  And when he sleeps, butterflies start appearing all around the house.  Hmmm...

Then, one night, after Cody sees a picture of Sean, Mark and Jessie are shocked to see, in their bedroom, SEAN!  Like, ALIVE!  Well, kind of alive.  He looks just like he did in the picture, unmoving.  But he's there, in 3-D.

The next day Jessie puts 2 and 2 together.  Their new little boy can manifest his dreams into reality.  This gives Jessie all sorts of ideas, so she starts showing Cody some home movies of Sean.  Sure enough, that night, Sean shows up!

Marc, being the more psychologically stable of the two, realizes that this is so not okay and encourages Jessie to stop trying to recreate their dead son through their new son.  But Jessie's already hooked on this creepy version of Tivo.  Unfortunately, it isn't just dead sons that manifest themselves in Cody's dreams.  It's this really freaking scary-ass monster dude called "The Canker Man."  The Canker Man is thin and tall and toothless and moany and really f*cking f*cked up!  Like he eats people n shit!

Things start getting worse not just at home but at school since Cody can only go without sleep for so long.  I did read an article once about this Vietnam man who claims to have not slept in 40 years.  Oh, and I saw a Dateline Special (is Dateline ever not special?) about this family who had this super unique genetic mutation that made it impossible for them to sleep once they reached a certain age.  And they went into detail about how if you don't sleep for a week, you start turning into a zombie.  It becomes impossible to think.  And then after a couple of months your brain pretty much turns to mush.  The point being that Cody's going to fall asleep sooner or later.  And when he does, nobody in his life is going to be safe.  Cause the Canker Man is coming to get them.

With these horror scripts, I'm always looking for an emotional component, some "in" I can latch onto so I care about the characters.  Of course, you're trying to do that in every script, but I think it's especially important in horror scripts because it's the difference between the scares feeling cheap and the scares feeling deep.  The more we care about the characters, the more we'll fear for them, and by association, the more we, ourselves, will be afraid!

You do this by establishing strong relationships with characters who have [typically] troubled backstories.  In this case we have Cody, who's had to go through all sorts of shit including being left by his real parents and two sets of foster parents.  On the other side of the fence, we have this couple who lost their son to a terrible tragedy.  In other words, we have two very sympathetic situations, and audiences/readers latch onto and care about people they sympathise with.  By pairing these sympathetic entities together, you establish a dynamic that we want to see work.

To keep us invested, this opening is followed by a mystery phase where we get the feeling there's something wrong with Cody.  He smuggles sugar under his bed so he doesn't have to sleep.  Butterflies appear whenever he goes to bed.  Then there's that whole opening scene where his last foster-parent tried to shoot him.  What's going on??  We want to find out!

Now truth be told, it's not that difficult to write the above.  I wouldn't say it's "easy" because a lot of young screenwriters still haven't learned how to make their characters sympathetic.  But most professional screenwriters can achieve this opening.  Where I realized that this wasn't just another script was when Jessie started using Cody to see her dead son.  Now we were introducing a dynamic I haven't seen in this kind of story before.  Most writers would've stopped at just "kid projects crazy spooky shit when he's asleep" and called it a night.   Here the writers utilize pre-established emotionally-charged backstories (the loss of their child) to twist the story in a new direction.  I sat up after that and said, "Oh.  OKAY.  These guys are writers."

And they continued to deliver.  I loved all the little touches they added.  For example, Cody's love of butterflies plays prominently whenever he's dreaming.  But whenever he gets mad or upset or sad, butterflies become these dark gray musty moths that tease the arrival of the Canker Man.  Now was the Canker Man the most original monster I've ever seen?  No.  But like a lot of things here, he was just different enough to make it feel fresh.

Now I'm not going to spoil the ending but for me that's what put this over the top and into the "impressive" category.  I always tell writers that if you really want to impress a reader, write something that connects with them on an emotional level.  I'm not talking melodrama here.  I don't mean go write a sequel to The Notebook.  I just mean make us care for the characters and want to see their issues resolved.  When we find out what happened to Cody and why he's like the way he is, I'm not going to lie, I choked up a little bit.  It was powerful stuff.  And that moment stemmed directly from the writers going that extra mile and making this more than a screenplay full of empty scares (like some other scripts I've reviewed recently).

So yeah, I thought this was really good stuff.  Nice to see some great writing in the horror genre.  I've been looking for a script like this for awhile!

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

What I learned: Don't fall in love with your clever 3rd Act explanation. The only complaint I had about Somnia was that the writers were too on-the-nose with their final act Cody explanation.  It was a good explanation.  I actually loved it.  But it felt like they knew it was good so they really - hammered - it home.  "And it's because A happened to you that B happened to you which is why C and that's why you're going to be okay now, Cody!"  I think you have to give your audience more credit.  They like connecting the dots themselves.  If you have to spell it out for them, they'll feel cheated and pandered to, and that can actually ruin a solid ending.