Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Bone Orchard

Should be a fun week. With Sundance going on, I decided to review a couple of popular scripts from the festival. Make sure to sign up for my Twitter or Facebook (links to the upper right) so you can be informed when those reviews go up and maybe snag copies of the scripts. Don't know how long they'll be up so act fast. I also have an interview coming from a recent Top 25 writer. He gives some great advice so you're going to want to check that out. And finally, expect a review of a flick opening this Friday by one of the biggest writers in town, William Monahan. Right now, Roger brings us that rare genre mash-up, the vampire western! Let's see if he liked it.

Genre: Western, Horror
Premise: Wanted in their home state of Texas, a brother-and-sister gunslinger duo lie low in the Old West town of Bone Orchard. When the "Coolies", Chinese immigrants slaving away on the Transcontinental Railroad, summon an ancient Chinese vampire to avenge their collective mistreatment, the gunslingers are forced to form an uneasy alliance with the Texas Ranger who hunts them if they want to survive.
About: Optioned by U.K. based production and development company, Red Sparrow. John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, Animal House) is attached as director. Russel Brand and Mila Kunis are said to be circling.
Writer: M.D. Presley

I can see why "The Bone Orchard" appeals to John Landis. Like me, he obviously shares a love for the Genre Mash-up. Not for the faint of heart, mashing two genres together is an alchemical balancing act of irony and contrast. Not only do you have to understand the intricacies of each of your chosen genre's conventions, you have to have a bit of the lunatic in you to even attempt such a narrative feat. In the early 80s, financiers thought John Landis' werewolf script (a little screenplay called An American Werewolf in London) was too frightening to be a comedy and too funny to be a horror film.
Silly suits.
So this is a mash-up of the gunslinging Western and the fang-banging Vampire Horror film?
Correct you are. But these ain't cliché Eurotrash vampires. The writer turned to Eastern mythology for this particular creature feature. A wise choice, because gone are the familiar vampire mythos staples such as crosses, garlic and holy water.
Instead, we get salt, fire and holding your breath.
You see what the writer did? He took a classic monster (and its mythos) that everyone knows so well, and spun it on its head to present his audience with something new.
With something unfamiliar.
The result is a fresh take on a classic genre. This simple decision helps lend a latent intrigue to the story that separates it (and its logline) from all the other vampire scripts out there.
Sounds cool. What about the Western aspect?
Fortunately, it's more than just setting.
Twenty-something gunslingers Deacon and Lucretia "Cree" Corley are on the run. Cree shadows the jovial and loquacious Deacon as they ride into the town of Beauton, nicknamed the Bone Orchard for the cemetery that seems to be growing just as fast as the booming town. Perhaps the sullen and mysterious Cree did something bad to warrant their exodus out of Texas. Or perhaps not.
Like in any Western, the first matter of business when arriving to a new town is finding the saloon. It's here that Deacon finds his old friend Clement, who insists on being called "Tex" because he's from Texas. Deacon won't humor his friend in this regard, but Cree won't humor him at all. She's quick to expose him as a cheat at cards to the rest of the patrons, and because she's the cleverest Corley, she doesn't trust the guy.
Clement has a pretty sweet gig with the Transcontinental Railroad as a hired gun. He protects the stagecoaches from Sacramento that carry the company wages. But because Clement is a bit of a con-man, he likes to work both sides of the law. He's not above paying bandits to pretend to rob the coach just so he can collect and split up the reward money. Deacon learns of this con firsthand as Clement shows him the ropes.
Cree ain't too privy about this kind of work, because (1) she doesn't trust Clem, and (2) she's concerned with keeping a low-profile.
Why is Cree so surreptitious?
I won't give it away, but let's just say that Cree is a cold-blooded gamine.
And all gamines have stalkers, but Cree's is particularly worrisome.
He's a mean mother by the name of Manny, a poncho and sombrero wearing Texas Ranger who has ventured out of his jurisdiction not so much for justice, but for a Cree-shaped bounty.
She can lie low in the Bone Orchard, but it's no guarantee that Manny and his Colts won't find her.
Isn't there another side of the Bone Orchard that exists in sharp contrast to the Old West iconography?
Yes, and that's where it gets interesting.
At about the same as the Corleys arrive in Beauton, so does an ornate Palanquin, a wheel-less carriage born on the shoulders of four Chinese men who carry it to the Chinese Side of town.
The Palanquin carries Bei Sheng, a Chinese dignitary who has come to the Bone Orchard "to see the treatment of our people." He has brought a Box with him, "A weapon; one my family has wielded for generations."
The box catches the attention of Jin, the daughter of Shi Man Tau, a "Coolie" who lives the equivalent of a slave existence at the tip of the Transcontinental Railroad's whip. He appeals to Bei Sheng to take Jin back to China with him. This wild land is too dangerous for her and he wants her safe in her homeland.
Bei Sheng agrees, and because Jin speaks English, he also takes her on as his translator during his time in the Old West.
When Jin gets too enraptured with the Box in his possession, he tells her, "Like any weapon, we have adorned it in trappings tempting to the eyes. And that the eye covets the hand must touch."
As we can all guess, when Bei Sheng witnesses a tunnel collapse that traps and possibly kills ten to fifteen Chinamen, he is not too pleased. But somehow, he maintains a stoic façade when the callous Mr. Maxwell (the train company boss) convinces a foreman to continue tunneling with dynamite with complete disregard for Coolie life.
What the hell's inside Bei Sheng's Box?
Sweet, undead poontang, mein friends. Sweet, undead poontang.
Bei Sheng requests an audience with Mr. Maxwell during dinner. He wants to impart a gift to the Transcontinental boss-man. He opens the lid, revealing our Bride with White Hair: Jiong Zhao, a beautiful Chinese woman adorned in traditional attire. Obscuring her face is a yellow parchment covered in Taoist characters.
A former concubine nicknamed "Bright Dawn", Jiong Zhao is a vampire who has been captured by Bei Sheng's family, "Like you, she lives off the blood of others. She too is an evil thing, so I find it fitting she puts an end to you."
But when Jiong Zhao slaughters Mr. Maxwell and Bei Sheng and rips the parchment that binds her to Bei Sheng's family, all bets are off.
Jiong Zhao is not too pleased to find herself in a barbaric land called California, and enslaving Jin as plaything, tour-guide, and translator, she begins infecting the townspeople.
It takes hardly any time at all before the Corleys, Manny, the Sheriff, his Deputy, and the salty Scottish barmaid Maddie find themselves in a 30 Days of Night-esque pressure cooker.
Except, you know, this is better than that film. For starters, this is just plain fun.
Think Crouching Gunslingers, Hidden Wuxia Vampire, and you'll get the idea.
How are Chinese vampires different from the traditional Eurotrash vampires?
Ahhh so...but first we must ask: How many souls does one have?
You said one?
Wrong. There are two. The higher and the lower.
Jiong Zhao explains, "Sometimes though when one dies the lower soul is caught as breath within the body, and when the body is not buried it rises as Jiang Shi. When they awaken, they have only the lower soul. With an animal's hunger, they seek food from the blood of the living. It is only with time that thought and control return, and when they do the Jiang Shi's hair turns white as a sign of power."
Weaknesses are salt (rocksalt was never so fun) and fire.
But the coolest thing, and something I wish was used to create more tension and drama, is that if you hold your breath, the undead can't see you.
This is such a great device and opportunity to create a tense and claustrophobic scene, but I felt it was never fully milked or exploited for maximum effect.
If anything held this script back for me, it was the fact that I wanted more. I wanted more of The Funny, more of The Action, more of The Horror. It wraps together pretty fast, and I felt like there was a major loose thread that was never tucked in. Overall (and this is just my comicbook geek opinion), I wanted more bombastic storytelling that milked this premise for all it was worth.
Overall, a fun and competent mash-up that somehow never goes over-the-top (and you think it would). "The Bone Orchard" not only has a great contrast of cultures for director John Landis to explore, but it's also a refreshing take on the vampire mythos with hopeful franchise opportunity.
I love Cree, and I want her to have her own James Bond-like series. What do you think?

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

What I learned: Show your audience something it hasn't seen before. Sure, we've all seen plenty of vampire movies. We live in a media climate where a Mormon gal de-fanged the traditional vampire into Tolkien High Men or Emily Bronte Heathcliffs whose skin *sparkle* in the sunlight. And everyone seems to love it. It's a constant source of argument between me and my teenage concubines who don't know the difference between a real vampire and the emasculated caricature of what they think a vampire is.
The point is, if you're working with familiar tropes, try to create something new. Or if you're mining material that's become common knowledge, turn to other sources, other mythologies that a western audience might not be so privy to. Generally, if people don't want to necessarily learn about new things, they want to be entertained with something novel. Something new or different. I wouldn't recommend writing about vampires (or zombies or werewolves) unless you have a take on the subject that's so unique an audience is willing to spend cash-money to see it for themselves.