Monday, November 5, 2012

Screenplay Review - Stephanie

Genre: Horror
Premise: A young girl who lives alone in a house is shocked when her long-absent parents return and settle back into their day-to-day lives.  However, it appears that they may have a hidden agenda.
About: This script finished high on the recently released 2012 Blood List, run by Kailey Marsh.
Writers: Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski
Details: A very lean 94 pages

Well that's a bit of a tease, isn't it?  I talk up this whole Equalizer script and all of a sudden don't review it??  Oh, the perils of script reviewing.  Don't worry, I'll review it at some point down the line.  Stay tuned.   I will say this though: That script was one of the best I've ever read at executing the 3 act formula.  It didn't exactly bring anything new to the table, but it was so good at what it did bring, you hardly noticed.  From the sparse but information packed writing style to the designs behind how McCall killed people to the depth behind the secondary characters to the careful escalation of the plot to the several expertly crafted twists.  It was like an entire screenwriting course packed into a single screenplay.  That movie's going to be badass!

Speaking of badass, let's talk about Stephanie.  Not so much the script, but the title character. This girl's only seven years old and she's been able to live on her own in this giant house for weeks (months?).  She goes about her daily routine, snacking on leftover peanut butter and Little Debbie packages, while every once in awhile, the house rocks back and forth, moaning like a broken foghorn.  It's in these moments that Stephanie heads into her dead baby brother's bedroom.

Oh, one thing about her dead brother.  HE'S STILL THERE.  Yes, the poor little baby died weeks (months?) ago, yet continues to lay peacefully in his crib, where hundreds of flies buzz around him.  Stephanie's pretty sure that whatever's making these noises in the house is connected to her dead brother's soul - that he's a ghost of sorts - so she tries to comfort him to keep the horror to a minimum.

Writers Collins and Piotrwoski are pretty damn brave in their first act plotting as very little "happens" throughout the first 30 pages except for Stephanie trying to keep some semblance of her daily routine going.  But little mysteries do pop up here and there.  Why does the house groan?  Why is her dead brother lying in his crib like he's still alive?  Why are there x-ray negatives scattered about showing a tumor growing in someone's brain?

The story finally ramps up when Stephanie's parents return to the house, or at least two adults who we assume are her parents.  Whoever these people are, they appear to be cautious of Stephanie.  They're always speaking in whispers when she's not around.  A decision is being weighed.  And it's a big one, evidenced by the gun the man always seems to be carrying.

But before that decision is made, the man and woman try their best to put life back together in the home.  Everything is cleaned up, the fence in the backyard is rebuilt, and most importantly, Stephanie's little brother is properly buried.  You wouldn't exactly call things "normal," but they're definitely better than a 7 year old girl living alone eating hostess cupcakes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Where are child services when you need them??

However, the semblance of normality quickly disintegrates when Stephanie's dead brother appears back in his room and the man and woman decide to play operation on this little girl who may or may not be their daughter.  Stephanie doesn't like the game Operation, and that means Stephanie is going to make these people who have invaded her home pay.

Stephanie has its share of strengths and weaknesses.  Its biggest strength is probably the creepiness factor.  Watching this little girl wander around this house alone, looking at and talking to her dead baby brother with flies buzzing all around him, is the kind of stuff that makes you lose your appetite.

And it uses that tone, combined with a series of intriguing mysteries, to pull you in.  It's not easy to write 30 pages of a character wandering around a house by herself and keep it interesting, but stuff like the dead brother and the mysterious x-rays achieved just that.  You were definitely frustrated that things were moving along slowly, but at the same time, you couldn't stop turning the pages.  You needed to find out where this was going.

And I really admired Collins and Piotrowski for using so little dialogue in the story.  This was not about long conversations between daughters and parents.  It was about visuals, images, sounds, moments - the kinds of things that make a horror script a horror script.

However, there were a couple of things that bothered me.  The first was that the writers were always waaaaaaaay ahead of the reader.  I mean you didn't have ANY IDEA what was going on at all.  And after awhile, that started to get frustrating.  You wanted answers, and the script wasn't going to give you a single one until the very end.

It's important to reward the audience every once in awhile with an answer to one of the mysteries, so that we feel like we're making progress.  Take "The Others," for instance, a movie about a mother and her children living in a giant house alone during the war.  They start hearing noises around the house and at first believe it may be a Nazi trying to take refuge in the home.  We have an "answer."  But when that doesn't prove to be right, it's implied that it might just be the kids playing tricks on their mother.  Okay, we have another "answer."  Then, when that's proven wrong, we genuinely believe it's ghosts.  Another "answer."  In other words, we keep feeling like we have a beat on things - only to have a new development prove us wrong, forcing us to start over again.

There's nothing like that here.  Outside of maybe an implication that the dead brother is causing all this, we're given very few if any answers, only more questions.  The parents, in particular, act so damn weird that I don't know what's going on.  I don't even know if they *are* the parents, which is kind of cool in a "what the f*ck is going on right now?" way, but since we've been asking "What the f*ck is going on?" for an hour now and still don't have any leads, we're antsy.

And without getting into spoilers, I'm not sure the ending provided those answers.  Visually, it was really cool to see Stephanie lose it, but I still wasn't sure what happened to her brother.  I still wasn't sure what prompted the parents to leave and why they came back.  I didn't know how long they were gone.  I didn't know why Stephanie wasn't sure if they were her parents or not.  And I wasn't sure how Stephanie became...super-power Stephanie (unless the arrival of this tumor caused it - which felt like it needed way more of a detailed explanation).

On the one hand, I can see why this has received attention.  It's really spooky.  It's a story I haven't quite scene before.  The mysteries keep you turning the pages.  I just wish we were rewarded more often and got more answers in the finale.  This wasn't quite for me.  But, if you liked the second half of Looper, you're probably going to like Stephanie a lot.  Let me know what you think.  

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

What I learned: I think it's a huge gamble to be too far ahead of the reader for too long.  You can do it for a little while, but sooner or later the reader wants answers.  If you ignore this advice, your ending has to be, like, the best ending ever.  We *really* have to feel rewarded for reading that long without any sort of payoff.