Sunday, April 11, 2010

I Died a Thousand Times

Hmm, this week is going to be a little crazy. I'll be contrasting today's huge fanboy review with something tomorrow that's so independent, I'm not even sure I know about it. And I read it! The good news is, the script was great. As for the rest of the week's reviews, it's still up in the air, so anything goes. But to ease the pressure of Uncle Sam's ridiculous monetary demands this Thursday, I'll be making a big announcement that should get all of you amateur screenwriters in a frenzy. So stay tuned because that opportunity will be coming before the end of the week. Right now, buckle yourselves up for another Roger review...

Genre: Crime, Prophetic Horror, Action
Premise: A former Pinkerton detective is resurrected as a Sifter, a bounty hunter tasked with going after people who have skipped out on destined meetings in Hades. When he's ordered to hunt down a young artist, his past literally comes back to haunt him. He's forced to team up with his deceased wife, now one of heaven's operatives, to stop an impending apocalyptic event known as The Awakening.
About: "I Died a Thousand Times" is Aaron Drane's sophomore screenplay. Drane went to film school at UCLA, where this script won the UCLA Samuel Goldwyn Award. In 1997, the script yielded a million dollar payday when it sold to Arnold Kopelson. He sold a couple more scripts to 20th Century Fox and most recently wrote and produced the FEARnet web series, "Fear Clinic", which stars iconic horror movie actors, Robert Englund and Kane Hodder.
Writer: Aaron Drane

Ironically, I never heard of this script until my friend let me wander around in his mystical script vault, which turned out to be kind of like the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark, except the relics on these shelves were unproduced and forgotten screenplays. I got lost among the shelves of scripts, overwhelmed and paralyzed by the paradox of choice. Four hours later, I finally escaped the labyrinth with brass brads in my hair and paper cuts on my fingers, armed with a copy of Aaron Drane's "I Died a Thousand Times" (not to be confused with the 1955 remake of High Sierra), a spec that purportedly sold for a million bucks back in 1997.
If you think this logline sounds a lot like that short-lived Fox television show, Brimstone, you'd be correct. If it also reminds you of the short-lived CW show, Reaper, or the long running Vertigo comics series, Hellblazer, you'd be correct as well. This script melds two of my favorite things, noir and horror, and if it didn't skimp on the fantasy aspect, we'd have the kind of mash-up trifecta Roger Balfour loves to endorse.
Isn't this about a Pinkerton?
Yep, and that's a detail that separates it from the rest of the pack and plants it firmly in a Ross Macdonald-esque detective sphere.
We meet our man in a seedy hotel room, where old Untouchables re-runs are playing on the television. A body lying still on a bed suddenly arches into the air, as if it's being jolted by electricity. He starts to breathe, whispering, "Back in flesh."
He stumbles to the bathroom and pukes, taking note of the bloody syringe on the floor. He studies himself in the mirror. He's a junky. To make matters worse someone is banging on the door to his room. It's the police.
He exits the bathroom and looks to the wall, where he sees a dead woman, nylon stockings wrapped around her throat.
Thus begins the voiceover, "The name: Sal Lorredo. In 1926 I was a detective employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency –- hunting down wanted criminals. When I died my soul went to hell. And when I got there...they gave me my old job back."
For most of the last century, Sal has been resurrecting in freshly dead host bodies to hunt down people for The Company, AKA Hell. Apparently, Sal's new host body recently strangled a woman and possibly OD'd, so he exits via fire escape and is pursued on foot through the city until he dives into a cab.
He's dropped off at Elmo's Videos, housed in a former liquor store. It's here he meets his handler, Doghead. He's a bald man with a deformed face covered in burn scars, and he sits behind a barrier of chicken wire.
They bicker.
We learn a few things about the rules of this world. Sal has to hunt down John Seymor Hamby, a deathrow inmate who failed to die on his prescribed expiration date. Instead, he was paroled on a technicality and his talents have become a burden to The Company.
Doghead warns Sal, "Better not fuck this one up, Lorredo –- you haven't been utilized for a while. And that host body doesn't make you immortal."
Sal discovers that Hamby has taken up his family's profession as a butcher, and we're treated to a Se7en-esque romp as Sal discovers that Hamby is a nasty serial killer with a penchant for human flesh. There's a horrific fight to the death as Sal has to get Hamby to sign a contract before sending him on his way to Company HQ.
So basically, the way Sal recruits for The Company is by murder. We learn, "There's only one rule in my profession: Above everything. At all costs...stay alive. Dying on the job isn't allowed. Expire before the job is completed and you'll burn. The Company doesn't give second chances."
Sounds like a cool and atmospheric setup sequence. So what's the main plot?
It is. I really enjoyed the first fifteen pages. It was grim, mysterious, darkly humorous, and I liked the never-say-die attitude. It reminded me of both Dark City and Se7en.
Sal takes a quiet moment to visit his wife's grave at Parkview Cemetery. Her name was Helen Marie Lorredo. Via flashback, we learn that she was a nurse who got infected while caretaking the ill during the Tuberculosis Outbreak of 1926.
Their story: On the day Sal finally gets his Pinkerton promotion, Helen, on her deathbed, sadly tells Sal it's time for him to fulfill the agreement they made. It's never something that's entirely spelled out, but for reasons I didn't really understand, Helen would rather die by bullet than tuberculosis.
Sal helps Helen lift a .45 to her head, but apparently she releases her grip on the gun right as Sal pulls the trigger. Her final words: "Forget about me."
But eight or nine decades later, Sal can't. He feels like he's lost without her.
Back at Elmo's, his handler informs him he's been reassigned. It's a big one. Doghead tells him, "The Company has decided to offer you a full pardon. A chance to reclaim the life that you lost."
It's time sensitive.
Within the next seventy-two hours, Sal must locate and expire Emily Wharton, a young restoration artist who has missed her incept date.
What else is happening in the world?
Dovetailing with Emily's disappearance, is a growing situation involving a charismatic leader named Robert Skinner and his cult known as The Devil's Brigade. Whatever they're up to, it seems to be ground zero for what is going to become an apocalyptic event.
A dark ceremony in a warehouse shows us Skinner's Disciples. They're being branded with a symbol called a Kern, which represents The Eye of Awakening.
To compound the plot, there's stirrings in the Sifter community that a heaven-sent operative has arrived on Earth. They're pejoratively called Joy Boys, because supposedly they always die with a smile on their faces, "Joys existed as nothing more than superstition. Fairy-tale angels created by Sifters hoping for a happy ending...but never got one."
So what's up with Emily?
Sal follows the trail to Dr. Neumeyer, where we learn that Emily had an abortion. Not only that, but she has developed a rapidly spreading cancer caused by unremoved fetal tissue in the uterus. The last time Neumeyer saw Emily he was prescribing her painkillers, and he believes that she died from the cancer.
OK. So if Emily's supposed to be dead, how can she be alive when Sal finds her?
Sal arrives at a winter carnival on the pier, where there is a dance he found a flyer for in Emily's apartment.
Yes, he discovers Emily alive.
He also discovers that Helen has resurrected in Emily's body, part of the heaven-sent operative to stop The Devil's Brigade from completing The Awakening.
The magical winter dance is intercut with flashbacks to Sal and Helen dancing together in the past, when Sal proposed to her. It's a sad and lyrical sequence, saturated in regret and melancholy.
I liked it, but for reasons I'll get into in a moment, I was confused by Sal and Helen's sentiments.
Does Skinner need Emily for The Awakening ceremony?
Maybe. Perhaps that's why an operative from Heaven has been sent to occupy her body, to stop Skinner's plans.
When Sal discovers a lost chapter from the Judeo-Christian Bible (something also not in the apocrypha or other scriptures), he has a linguist decipher the tome:
"The Book of Revelations in the Bible mentions Four Horseman: Death. Disease. Famine. War...this Book also includes a Fifth Horseman –- a Dark Messiah. Who will open an Eighth Seal and herald in some kind of Dark Resurrection called the Awakening."
All bets are off when Sal decides to help Helen and heaven's operatives to stop The Devil's Brigade. Of course, The Company isn't too happy with Sal's decisions and they put a bounty on his head, releasing the other Sifters on him. Not only that, but Skinner's Disciples also put Sal in their sights, along with some detectives who follow Sal's trail of violence.
Sounds like an intriguing actioner spec. Did you like it?
You know, I did. But not as much as I wanted to. It was certainly better than End of Days, if anyone remembers that Schwarzenegger vehicle. I enjoyed the supernatural crime world, and I liked how it set out to be original, consciously trying to avoid the same ground as something like Rosemary's Baby, which is what most prophetic horror movies mine from.
The detective trappings of the plot are very Ross Macdonald, which is a quest to solve a mystery, with an A to B to C find and interrogate character itinerary, but then of course it turns into an actioner we-gotta-save-the-world third act.
The hardboiled prose falls somewhere between Chandler and James Ellroy, but for some reason begins to feel overwrought once we pass the mid-point. This probably has more to do with my frustration over some of the choices the writer was making. I wasn't emotionally involved with the story because I was confused by Sal and Helen's relationship, which is revealed mostly through flashbacks and cryptic dialogue and melodrama in the present.
I thought Sal longed for his lost wife Helen, but then when he's reunited with her, he kind of wants nothing to do with her. Why? I didn't understand the emotions here. Also, here's a dude that euthanized his wife. That decision felt like a mistake. It didn't so much feel as a mercy killing, or 'good death', than as a "Huh? Why the fuck did he shoot her?" moment.
When there's already so much darkness, it's a little too much. I feel that it not only muddles the tone, but it alienates the audience and keeps us from empathizing with Sal. My heart wanted to be involved, but instead I was just confused.
It's a lot of doom and gloom for one man to endure.
But you know, I think it's something that could be fixed. I think people would eat this up if it was ever made into a movie, particularly fans of dark fantasy and crime stories.
Hell, it could even be a supernatural Chinatown.

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

What I learned: You know, I'm in a position where I get to help my screenwriter friends with their pitches. If they're pitching to me, and I get confused following all the character connections, then chances are the plot and backstories might be a little too complicated for a screenplay. This isn't always the case, but as I was trying to explain the plot of "I Died a Thousand Times" out loud to one of my friends, they got confused. I thought, do I suck at describing things? Or are the plot and character connections too Byzantine? I decided that the connections in the script were complicated, perhaps to a fault. More specifically, I didn't understand the emotions between Sal and Helen. Sal longs for the wife he helped euthanize, but when he finally gets a second chance with her, he sort of wants nothing to do with her. I didn't get that. If I said at my euthanized wife's grave, "I'm lost without you," and I suddenly got a second chance with her, I wouldn't spend a lot of time running away from her. It didn't feel consistent. For clarity's sake, make sure that your character's emotions are consistent, and logical in a narrative sense.