Monday, October 26, 2009

Ambrose Fountain (Halloween Horror Week 2 of 5)

Genre: Horror
Premise: A family takes over a vineyard, only to find out that it may be haunted.
About: This spec was purchased by Craven/Maddalena Films in 2006. The sale allowed the writer to land the scripting job on the two Boogeyman sequels.
Writer: Brian Sieve

I must admit, setting a ghost story on a vineyard is a great idea. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horror film set on one before, and yet the large empty space of wine country seems perfect to throw a few ghostly occupants onto. But is that the only unique angle that Ambrose Fountain brings to the wine and cheese table? Or is this just another horror flick with a vendetta-bound dead wet girl?

If I told you what film Ambrose Fountain most brings to mind, I’d basically be giving away the entire movie. So you’ll have to figure it out yourself (it’s not hard). The good news is, the movie in question is over 30 years old, and since they’re remaking horror flicks from 3 years ago these days (In Hollywood, the word “reboot” – even for a film that came out last week - practically guarantees a green light), I’m not going to get too upset that Ambrose is borrowing liberally. In fact, in some ways, this is a nice update to that classic.

Carter Harding is a 38 year old husband and father. He, his wife Kathleen, and their 15 year old daughter, Lisa, have travelled from the bright lights, big city, to live the dream of owning their own vineyard. Well isn’t that sweet. But as we all know, before a vine can grow, it must start in the dirt, and there’s plenty of dirt in this seemingly perfect family. Back in the city, it was Kathleen, owner of her own photography business, who was the big breadwinner of the family. Carter’s purchase of the vineyard may have more to do with stifling his wife’s career and proving himself then it does any romantic view of crushing grapes and hosting wine tastings.

As for the vineyard itself, Carter got it for a steal because the previous occupants all died due to a gas leak. But did he bite off more than he could chew? The vineyard was known as one of the best in the valley, where “I’m trying my darndest” doesn’t cut it. The quality has to live up to the distributor’s reputation. So when the distributor comes along and drops Carter like a cheap Merlot for his bad grapes, Carter finds himself with a lot of wine and no one to sell it to. Since he already put every penny into renovating the estate, he now faces his biggest fear: Maybe he *is* incapable of taking care of his family. Even worse, maybe he’s dragged them into a hole they can’t climb out of.

Faced with failure on a catastrophic scale, Carter comes across some old diaries left by the previous owner, a man named Richard Freemont. Freemont mentions that he started each day by throwing a penny into the vineyard fountain for good luck. He believed that that was the key to his success. On a whim, Carter gives it a shot and the very next day, the previously broken Harvester starts right up. He continues throwing coins in the next day, and the day after that, and each day, the vineyard performs better than the day before.

But feeding the fountain comes with a price apparently. Occasionally the fountain will bubble up blood (totally normal I hear), and of course Carter starts seeing people walking around the vineyard at night. But not just any people. The dead people who lived here before him.

Carter’s obsession with “feeding” the fountain begins to take a toll. His wife thinks it’s strange and orders him to stop. But Carter continues on, and those old family troubles bubble up to the surface, resulting in a series of ongoing arguments, testing the family’s resolve. As if that weren’t bad enough, people from town (like the neighbors and the sheriff) start disappearing after heated discussions with Carter. Carter’s definitely going a little nutty. But we know he wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Or do we?

Your enjoyment of Ambrose Fountain depends on one thing: Buying into the idea that a fountain can haunt an estate. I’ll admit I had a hard time accepting this at first. But once I did, I found Ambrose to be pretty enjoyable. The whole diary thing was definitely cliché, but once that storyline’s established, it becomes one of the best plotlines in the script. It’s fun trying to figure out if Carter is responsible for the disappearances of these other people or if it’s the ghosts on the estate that are taking them out.

One thing I liked about Ambrose that helps it stand apart from typical horror fair, is the treatment of the family, particularly Carter’s relationship with his wife. The inherent conflict there, the struggle for a man to live up to *being* a man, and how he would destroy his own wife’s career to achieve that goal, as well as his response when things start to fall apart, make for some great drama. This wasn’t just about a family running into some ghosts. It was about a family that is forced to deal with their issues because of the arrival of ghosts. That integrated approach to the story gave Ambrose Fountain depth where many horror films have little.

What didn’t work was the daughter character. She’s disgruntled about being torn away from her city friends, but that’s about as deep as her character goes. When she comes back late to play a key role, I’d kinda forgotten about her, so I felt a little cheated. The script is not immune from a few clichés along the way either. I definitely rolled my eyes when I saw the diaries (in Joss Whedon’s “Cabin In The Woods,” where they make fun of all the horror clichés, one of the planted “cliché” props from the control room is a diary) but Sieve found a way to make it work.

Ambrose Fountain is like a really great grocery store wine. It’s tasty, but it lacks the extra punch of something you’d find at an expensive restaurant.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: At times, Ambrose Fountain pushes the boundaries of exposition. On page 17, Sieve really takes liberties in telling you everything about who the family was, who they are, and who they want to be. It’s extensive enough to bring attention to itself. Once the reader starts thinking, “Man, this is a lot of exposition,” you’ve taken them out of the story. And you never ever want to take the reader out of the story, unless your name is Robotard 8000. Some writers just like to get all of their exposition out in one scene so they don’t have to worry about it anymore. And that seems to be Sieve’s approach here (except there’s still even more exposition later). But I think that’s a lazy approach. You should look to spread your exposition out naturally, hide it inside a number of scenes. Know that the more you try to pack into one area, the more likely we are to notice.