Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bad Moon Rising (Halloween Horror Week 4 of 5)

Roger's back for his second Halloween Horror Week review since, well, let's be honest, he understands this genre a lot better than I do. But before we get to this werewolf tale, a lot of you are probably wondering what the hell happened to the Reader Top 25 List. After some deliberation, I decided I didn't want the list to get lost in the midst of this week's horror theme and the Logline Contest. For that reason, I've moved it to next week, starting Monday. Bare with me and hang tight. It'll be worth the wait. :)

Genre: Horror
Premise: When Sheriff George Waggner is killed, his son returns to Talbot, West Virginia to discover that the small town has become victim to a rash of brutal murders. The investigation points to the nomadic motorcycle gang that has set-up camp just outside of town, and the arrival of werewolf hunter Noah Packard confirms that the bikers may be more than they claim to be.
About: I don’t know much about the former status of this spec, other than that it was written by the prolific Scott Rosenberg. His first produced script was his fourteenth, “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”. Other credits include “Con Air”, “Armageddon”, “Beautiful Girls” and “High Fidelity” among others. It’s said that his stuff rarely makes it to the screen preserved, and his specs “Johnny Diamond” and “Down and Under” seem to be highly praised around the board.
Writer: Scott Rosenberg


A quintessential horror staple and archetype, one of the original Universal monsters that’s sadly been co-opted by the modern demand for the Vampire and the Zombie. The interest for the Vampire seems to come and go in cycles, because in the 90’s many popular authors called for a moratorium on all vampire fiction, but now we’re mired in a popular culture that worships at the altar of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, the Showtime juggernaut “True Blood”, and the CW’s lackluster “The Vampire Diaries”. And just when you think the supply for the Zombie has already flooded the market, some new George Romero flick or the promise of an adaptation of Max Brooks’ “World War Z” proves that the supply is simply catering to demand and the eternal torch of fan-service.

If “Twilight” penetrating the velvety brain-meats of teenage girls was enough to resurrect the Vampire from movie purgatory, could the arrival of Meyer’s “New Moon” in the cinematic lunar cycle usher in a new pop-culture Werewolf Age? Will the same teenage girls be interested in Joe Johnston’s “The Wolfman” remake, or will they have to be pulled by the hand by their diamond-dead boyfriends? For lovers of the lycanthrope, it’s a good question, and I suppose we’ll find out in the upcoming months, but for now, let’s turn back the page and take a look at a Scott Rosenberg shapeshifter spec from the 90’s.

“Bad Moon Rising” opens up with an Avram Davidson quote, Steppenwolf lyrics, and a 5 page sequence set in Vietnam. A wounded marine is hiding in a bunker from the VC, and a frosty marine comforts his hurt and frightened pal. It gets excruciatingly tense when the VC enter the bunker and the frosty marine changes into a wolf and protects the marine by tearing the limbs off the Vietnamese soldiers before disappearing into the jungle.

Twenty-three years later we’re at a biker rally in Tobaccoville, North Carolina and we meet The Lunar Cycles Motorcycle Club. At first glance, the gang reminds me of the nomadic vampire family in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark” (a film I hold close to my heart). The whole sequence also evokes “Easy Rider”, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, and “On the Road”. And no, I’m not being facetious or pretentious.

The gang is led by Coop, who is described as “a dash of Kerouac, a sprinkle of Manson, and 2 heaping tablespoons of the coolest guy in high school”. They’re a pretty big pack, but the notables are: Lobo, a ten-year old kid; Mighty Joe, an affable 300 pound mute; Inkslinger, the club’s tattoo artist; and Canvas, the Lunar Cycles’ very own illustrated man, whose flesh is an inked patchwork iconography of the pack’s origin and history.

At Mecklenberg Correctional Center, they pick up the wayward and troubled Locked-Down who has just been released from the slammer. Coop is tired of moving around so much and he wants the Lunar Cycles to settle for a while in Harpers Flats, a tract of land near Talbot, West Virginia, a biker friendly state. Problems arise when their arrival coincides with the mysterious mauling of Talbot’s Sheriff, George Waggner.

As you can tell, Rosenberg weaves in what must be ardor, or at the very least, appreciation, for Lon Chaney, Jr. and “The Wolf Man”. For you neophytes, Talbot is the surname for the original Wolf Man, and George Waggner is the director of said film. And just like in the older film, the innocent love interest for one of our protagonists is a gal named Gwen who works in an antique shop (but we’ll get to that in a second).

Pages 11-20 focus on my favorite character, Noah Packard. He smokes unfiltered Lucky’s, drinks undiluted coffee, and walks with a slight limp. When we meet him he’s at his own marriage ceremony, but when his pager goes off he leaves his weeping bride at the altar for more important business. Because he’s Dr. Packard of the Packard Institute of Lycanthropic Studies and Investigation and he has a grisly murder in Manhattan to investigate. In reality, the police detective hates his guts and thinks he’s a quack, until wolf-hair is discovered in the throat lacerations of the corpse during the autopsy.

Packard has an assistant named Ginny, but she’s quickly out of the picture when Columbia rescinds her internship when they find out he’s a “doctor” of “lycanthropic studies”. But I think the coolest character trait about Packard is that he is haunted by a figment of his imagination that’s named Maleva. “Remember the old Gypsy crone, from the Lon Chaney Jr. Wolfman movies played by Maria Ouspenskaya? This is her. And Noah Packard is the only one who can see her.”

Like Elvis playing a mentor to Clarence Worley in “True Romance”, or John Wayne as father figure to Jesse Custer in Garth Ennis’ “Preacher”, Maleva acts as ego and guilt-ridden conscience to Packard, and they have frequent conversations with each other. Unfortunately, after 10 pages with Packard, we’re told that we won’t be seeing him again for a while.

Because at page 20, we’re finally introduced to the main protagonist, Teddy Waggner. Estranged from his father, he escaped small-town life to pursue his dream of being an architect in Washington, D.C. Upon news of his father’s death, Teddy returns to Talbot to tend to his father’s house and possessions, and hopefully rekindle a flame with the girl he left behind, Gwen Croft.

But when teenagers and whole families begin showing up as mangled corpses, the townies assume Teddy will serve as interim Sheriff. He doesn’t argue with them. Predictably, we learn that Locked-Down is tormented with dreams of “ranging” (running free as a wolf, killing and eating anything that gets in your way) because he’s been in prison for so long.

Even his sister Dakota (who has just arrived from New York, connection?), a white-trash canine fatale, can’t control his nightly murder sprees. The town council, looking to kill the animal that must be responsible for these murders, employs a lecherous Canadian hunter named Abilene Triggs to lead the hunt. Meanwhile, tensions rise between the conservative town alderman (he does not like Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”) and the merry prankster bikers, planting the seeds for the third-act finale.

We know it’s the third act when Packard arrives to Talbot, ready to kick some werewolf ass. By now Teddy has slept with Dakota (doggy-style), and the exchange of bodily fluids apparently gives him POV-style flashback visions of all the people Dakota murdered in New York, and now, Talbot. The town alderman puts together a mob of pitchfork wielding townies that attack Harpers Flats, and Coop goes off the deep end and assembles the pack for the mass murder of Talbot.

The finale is pretty fucking cool, as the townies and werewolves go to war. And let it be said that these werewolves are the half-man, half-wolf hybrids a la “The Wolf Man”. Sadly, page 112 is missing. And this sucks because page 112 is when the werewolves return to Harpers Flats, which Packard has booby-trapped with Bouncing Betties loaded with silver shrapnel. Apparently, lots of characters die on this page, but it’s alright, because we learn why Packard is so obsessed with werewolves.

The final scene with Teddy and Gwen makes no sense to me, but it gets points for the pure outlaw spirit of the thing.

Rosenberg is a guy I study religiously, and he’s been known to place himself in the “plot is for pussies” school of screenwriting. And in this manifestation of “Bad Moon Rising”, it shows. I think there are wandering structural issues and some freewheeling choices that hold the story back.

It feels too big to be a movie.

But to be fair, the characters are pretty great. Even the secondary characters are really interesting, so much so that you want to know more about them. But this kinda feels like an early draft in the sense that everyone seems to get a lot of screen-time, but I think the spotlight needs to be adjusted so the story has a sense of focus.

Case in point. Noah Packard is the type of character that can steal a whole movie. He deservedly needs a movie of his own, and compared to Teddy, he’s much more intriguing. According to the amount of pages that focus on Teddy and his journey, the message is that this story is about him. The only problem is, the whole time you keep wondering when we’re going to get back to Noah. And everything comes together in the end so that Noah and Teddy have to team-up, but the effect is that of a missed opportunity.

Thematically, I think there’s more weight to Noah’s story and his emotions. It’s simple: His story is just more interesting.

Whereas Teddy’s story feels conventional, and I dare say it, boring. It’s the typical “boy returns to small town to win back the one that got away” story that hurt Rosenberg’s television show, “October Road”. It’s not fresh and it plays flat, almost one-dimensional.

Teddy’s whole situation feels very passive, and the story suffers for it. I suppose if the father-son relationship was shown more, instead of told to us, it’d work better, but even the focus here competes with Teddy’s love story with Gwen.

Final verdict is that the roving cadence of “Bad Moon Rising” feels more novel-like (or the seedling for a pretty kick-ass HBO or Showtime television show) with its large cast of characters and sprawling tangents. For entertainment purposes, not a bad thing, but for the cinematic medium, this wolf-puppy needs a focus that’s not spread thin over so many back-stories and competing sources of conflict.

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

What I learned: For me, a good plot is always character driven. William Faulkner said that character is the engine that drives a story, and I agree. The decisions your characters make steer the plot. When characters make enough decisions that seem out-of-character, then chances are that your plot has taken over the wheel. That’s how plot-driven stories happen. Narrative harmony happens when characters drive a story, not events. At some point, your characters have to take the reins and actively try to steer their fates. Otherwise, it’s frustrating to watch a character just react to the events around them.