Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Incident At Sans Asylum

So today we have a review of S. Craig Zahler's script, "Incident at Sans Asylum." Zahler is the writer of the number three script on my Top 25 list, the Western, "The Brigands Of Rattleborge." That script is a town favorite, yet everyone's terrified to make it. I have no idea why. Show this thing to one A-List actor and they'd die to play the part of Abraham, a character that has the potential to be one of the greatest movie characters of all time. We're talking Hannibal Lecter territory here. But hey, you guys don't want an Oscar? That's cool with me. Anyway , this is one of Zahler's earliest scripts, written in 1998 while he was still in college. He wrote the script as a directing vehicle and was actually going to shoot the movie for 75,000. I'm leaving the review in the trusted hands of Roger Balfour, a young man whose unique perspective on writing digs all the way to the bone of Zahler's work. So take it away, Roger.

Genre: Nihilistic Horror
Premise: A group of struggling musicians who work as cooks in an asylum for the criminally insane get locked in with the inmates during a massive thunderstorm. Chaos ensues as the musicians/cooks struggle to escape and stay alive.
About: S. Craig Zahler, writer of the 2006 Black List screenplay, “The Brigands of Rattleborge”, wrote this script which has been developed by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures in conjunction with Vertigo Entertainment. Helmed by Spanish director, Daniel Calparsoro. To be released, one presumes...
Writer: S. Craig Zahler

Caveat lector: Forgive me. I’m going to season this review with references to other horror movies and writers of the genre in order to properly convey what this script accomplishes to do. We’re going to explore the coin of this sub-genre a little and look at the ideas that are reflected on both sides of the coin.


I’m one of those struggling screenwriters outside of LA that worships at the stone altar of “The Brigands of Rattleborge”. I live in the Bible Belt. I don’t just surround myself with books that can be categorized as Southern Gothic, I live in the environment. I’m exposed to the Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy flavor grotesquerie every day. It’s part of the atmosphere here.

It’s the temperature.

And I only read it a few weeks ago. But when I finished, I wanted to hold the screenplay up in the air like the baby Simba and shout its ultraviolent majestic grandeur from the precipice.

“Look, some dude wrote a screenplay and he used the word ‘agglutinated’ in one of the prose passages when describing dried blood and brain matter! Fuck studio readers!”

“Rattleborge” was a bizarre and compelling morality play that explored a cycle of bloodshed and violence and bloodlust. It was about revenge. It was about what revenge does to a man’s soul. It was about the consequences of revenge. It was Shakespearean. It was Greek tragedy. It was Grand Guignol. It was Southern Gothic. It was “Unforgiven” if written by Cormac McCarthy. And I loved every fuckin’ word of it.

So, I was foaming at the mouth to read another Zahler screenplay. Here’s a guy who is obviously both a bibliophile and a cinephile. He knows his literature as well as his movies. And the motherfucker can write. So when I found “Incident” in my inbox, I burned through it immediately like a junkie jonesin’ for the rock.

And if the screenplay wasn’t a PDF file on my computer, I would have hurled it against the wall in frustration and disappointment. But, it was a PDF file on my computer and I need my netbook. It’s not very useful to me if it’s in pieces.

Did you expect to be disappointed?

No. I was supposed to be shaken, thrilled. I was supposed to be aroused viscerally and cerebrally. But instead...I was puzzled. I felt like I was attacked by an angry mob of natives on some alien continent where people don’t possess souls, and they tried to cut my limbs off and fuck me in the eye-sockets. And after the initial shock of that faded...I felt empty. Hollow.


But something had slipped under my skin, kept nagging me throughout the day. I kept turning the story over in my head like a rock in a lapidary, trying to find its meaning. Surely, what I just read had to mean something, right?

Zahler is a writer that seems to be interested in eliciting dread. Which I think is an admirable pursuit in the world of Story. Dread is a useful ingredient, a powerful emotion that burrows past a person’s mental walls and pierces the heart like a stiletto fashioned out of ice. The sensation is like being impregnated with a seed of panic and as it grows and blooms and does war against your conscious and subconscious, the war that fights against this revelation can be best described as a paralyzing sensation, a numbness that tries to protect you from the horror that elicited the dread.

Dread pairs especially well with exhilaration.

Horror movies like “Alien” or “The Descent” are good examples of this. Both stories that are more Lovecraftian in nature than most of the intentional adaptations of his work out there.

They manage to explore the concept of Lovecraftian existentialist and nihilistic horror. The realization that man is an infinitesimally small speck in the order of the universe. Or: man is insignificant in the face of the alien, the other. H.P. Lovecraft, a master at eliciting dread, was an atheist who wasn’t scared by the concept of God and the Devil; Angels or Demons. So he created a pantheon of the other, whose very existence, when exposed to man, was capable of driving the individual mad.

Of course, the stories in “Alien” and “The Descent” have different outcomes...

Sure. Ripley is the light that pierces the darkness of the other. She blows it out of the airlock and wins. In “The Descent”, Sarah’s ordeal and exposure to the other drives her mad with a hallucination of freedom, but her dramatic need to be reborn in order to overcome her family’s death is a still-birth attempt at best. She doesn’t make it out of the cave. She’s left trapped in the caves with the other, wrapped in a bundle of raw nerves and reduced to a gibbering psychological state.

But I would argue that both movies are exhilarating. Cathartic even. We faced the abyss, we ran from the abyss, we fought the abyss. When all was said and done, we walked away from the theater and were entertained. No biggie. Just a fun roller-coaster ride of a story. Go on with our lives, rejuvenated for a while by our escapist encounter with the abyss.

So what’s the moral?

Distribute some darkness and dread with that creator’s wand, and pit it against light and hope, toggle in some thrills, and you have a heady potion of adventure. Adjust the contrast knobs if you want the tone to be dark fare, or lighter fare. If done right, manage to thrill an audience both viscerally and cerebrally.

But what happens when dread is the ultimate victor? What happens when dread is your only ingredient?

“Incident at Sans Asylum” happens.

It is not a ride.

It is not escapism.

It is a cold, serrated knife in the gut.

It’s watching a layer of torn skin be flayed from the bone with a potato peeler, and feeling every moment of it.

These characters are not heroes.

They are victims.

And we suffer with them.

So what’s the story?

George is a musician in his mid-twenties who moonlights as a chef at the local asylum. Seems to be a new job for him. His band-mate Max is his second-in-command and they spend a lot of time together, working in the kitchen preparing cafeteria-style meals for the populace of the institution. When we first meet them they’re pissed at a younger, undisciplined drummer of the band, Ricky. Why? Ricky was a no-show for a studio session that they all saved up hard-earned money for because of his questionable taste in women. Ricky also works with them in the asylum as a cook, and most of the humor in the script (which is kept to a minimum) is derived from George and Max making fun of Ricky and his dubious taste in the female gender. We’re also introduced to William, a likable Hispanic employee who works diligently for George as a kitchen grunt and is a bit ostracized by the other guys, especially Max, because he’s not a member of the band.

There’s a simple, naturalistic feel to the scenes and the dialogue. Spare, with the highlights of these scenes being the detail applied to George’s job as a chef. Zahler captures the weird, limanel state-of-being of the struggling artist: George and his band have a gig at a venue where they have to cover an extra set because a scheduled band dropped out at the last minute. Which means their gig is going to run to 2 am. Good news for the band, but George also has to be back at the asylum at 5 am to oversee a shipment of product that is set to arrive.

The details are right. The lack of sleep. The tedium and mundanity that accompanies chopping vegetables or cleaning up blood because the plastic bag that contains meat product ripped and it made a mess everywhere. Pretty ordinary stuff that chef’s deal with everyday, but the fact that they are mentioned in the script gives the scenes and characters a sense of verisimilitude.

This sense of simply being and living and working is shattered when a thunderstorm blows out the generators and fries up all of the electrical wiring in the building.

This means two things: (1) No more lights, and (2) The electronic security doors leading to the outside world no longer operate, and there is no way to open them.

J.B., the main security dude/orderly, needs the cooks to help him escort the inmates back to their cells from the cafeteria before things start heading south. Already, some of these mentally fragile inmates are starting to panic because the thunderstorm interrupted their mealtime and habitual sense of institutionalized routine, and more importantly, there is no fucking light anymore.

So the cooks argue about what they should do, some opting to barricade themselves in the kitchen, while George and Max decide to help J.B.

And of course, things go horribly wrong.

As violence erupts within the darkened walls of the asylum, we get the sensation that some of the alpha’s of this insane-convicted-felon populace have taken over and they have some plans for these cooks who have been preparing meals for them for the past few days.

What about the structure? Does Zahler do his own thing again?

Kind of. Zahler does eschew the traditional, time-tested 3-Act screenplay structure and does his own thing. But I get the sense that he turned to classic stories of the horror genre found in literature and studied what made them work. How they were put together. Hell, they were good enough in that medium, why try to interface it with the Hollywood way?

This is essentially a tale told in 2 Acts. With Act 1 being a 40-page setup; Act 2 plays out like a brutal and tragic 50 page survival mode.

Most comparable movie in structure, theme and style I can think of is “Wolf Creek”.

Let’s get to it already. Was it scary?

It’s pretty fuckin’ terrifying, dudes. Think about it. You’re a kitchen grunt who works in the cafeteria of an asylum for the criminally insane. A dark storm hits and transforms the asylum into a haunted house with no exits and no lights. Several of these inmates are roaming the haunted house. They raid the kitchen, find sharp objects, and begin attacking all the institution employees they can find.

As the characters look for asylum within the *cough* asylum, there’s even shades of zombie horror. Kind of like a dreadful game of hide and seek. They catch glimpses of the pale, naked flesh of the lunatics as they roam the halls. Some are harmless, some attack on whim, others have some kind of fucked up plans for our characters. Except, you know, these ain’t zombies. These are people. There’s nothing supernatural about them.

And that’s the idea. The only monsters in this story are the ones within ourselves. There’s probably nothing more revolting than the depravity and sickness a broken mind is capable of.

The realism and brutality and chiaroscuro murk gives the story a distinctive 70’s cinema vibe.

It sounds pretty good. Why didn’t you like it?

A few reasons which could be chalked up to a matter of taste. I’m not a fan of the genre. I don’t like Nihilistic Horror when it’s followed to its logical conclusion: I don’t like watching violence as it’s committed against a protagonist for the sole purpose of taking away any and all motivation for the protagonist to merely stay alive.

Here’s the deal. George isn’t a hero. He’s a victim. He exists to be broken down and ground into dust.

There’s a key scene that brought to mind Gregg Araki’s “The Doom Generation”. If you’ve seen it you probably already know what I’m talking about. Except this castration is performed with poultry shears instead of pruning shears.

The most disturbing part of the flick is that this is a horror movie where the final coup de grace is the protagonist offing himself. Sure, there’s a character in “The Exorcist” who kills himself. Father Karras kills himself, but he does so because he’s trying to kill the Devil. Even if he was driven mad by the Devil and opted to kill himself, it would be an act that would be seen as a man who was driven mad by a demon and was looking for respite.

George kills himself because he’s been emasculated, both literally and spiritually, by his fellow man. He’s a victim of the violent volition of sick minds, which any human being is capable of, and he refuses to recover after his ordeal because he feels like he has nothing to live for. Even though he survived, he comes to the conclusion that his life is over. George loses the will to live because his sense of peace has been irrevocably violated. There is no more sanctuary for George. His sense of asylum has been stripped away, stolen.

The only escape from the horror and dread is death.

And I don’t like that.

What did you like?

The details and the foreshadowing: The Shakespearean technique of evoking and harnessing storms and weather to parallel the emotions, moods and future of the characters.

I liked that the exposure to the inmates is limited to mealtimes, where cooks are separated from the rest of the institution by a plexi-glass window. At first, we never see any of the inmates. We only hear them being directed through the line by an officer.

In fact, whenever they hear ghastly screams coming from the bowels of the asylum, the cooks are so accustomed to it’s just white noise.

The symbology. Zahler knows what he’s doing. Some interesting stuff going on with violence and images. Particularly an image involving a calf’s head and a decapitated body.

There’s a brazen climatic scene of suggested violence and horror that involves an oven. If the director is capable, this sequence will become part of cult-cinema history.

I like that someone is writing dark, cerebral genre fare other than the Nolan brothers. Stuff that feels like it’d be as much at home in literature as it would be on screen. I’d like to see Zahler take a stab at “Blood Meridian” for Ridley Scott, or maybe even adapt Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” trilogy into an HBO miniseries.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest

[x] worth the read

[ ] impressive

[ ] genius

What I Learned: Theme, theme, theme. Your choice of theme can either invigorate an audience, or alienate an audience. Nihilistic themes always seem to come out of a dark place, and when followed to their logical conclusion, descend into an even darker place. As storytellers, we have a responsibility when it comes to deciding what kind of story we want to tell. Again, this is a matter of taste, but I like to think that stories of hope are more palatable than stories of despair.

Also – I was reminded of a quote concerning the distinction between horror and terror. Anne Radcliffe wrote, “I apprehend that neither Shakespeare nor Milton, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreader evil.“

Boris Karloff put it in simpler terms. Terror is anticipating the monster behind the door. Horror is the sense of shock and revulsion upon seeing the monster. Zahler seems to be a master of both, and uses both techniques impressively. This is an apt distinction for anyone who wants to know the secret to creating suspense.