Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Woman in Black

This is going to be a good week at Scriptshadow. We don't have a single script that receives less than a "worth the read." One of those scripts is shockingly good exorcism story, one a comedy, and one a script that wasn't very good but has an insane approach to it that, combined with the "universally loved by all geeks" director, is going to make it a must read. Finally, we'll finish off with a new Top 25 script, a crime drama that blew me away. And I don't even like crime drama, so you know it's good. Right now Roger's going to review a genre and a screenwriter he knows well. Let's give him our full attention.

Genre: Old Fashioned Ghost Story, Gothic Horror
Premise: When Arthur Kipps, a young widower and solicitor, leaves his son in London to settle the legal affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, proprietor of the Eel Marsh House in Crythin Gifford, he finds himself in a life and death struggle with a specter whom is killing all of the town's children.

About: Based on a 1983 novel by English author, Susan Hill, "The Woman in Black" was adapted into a stage play (which still runs today in the UK), a couple of radio plays and a TV Movie for Britain's ITV. Under the newly resurrected Hammer Film Productions, the script was written by Jane Goldman (
Kick-Ass, Stardust, The Debt, X-Men: First Class) and is set to star post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe with James Watkins (Eden Lake) as director. Presumably this is the first script coming out of Goldman's recent signing with William Morris Endeavor.
Writers: Jane Goldman, inspired by Susan Hill's 1983 novel.

Details: 2
nd Draft. Dated August 3, 2010.

This is how it's done.

Let's forget the pedigree for a moment. Let's forget this was a novel written by Susan Hill, a lady inspired by English ghost story masters M.R. James and Daphne du Maurier, a lady who understood setting, suspense and atmosphere. Let's forget that said novel was creepily satisfying enough to be adapted into a stage play, a radio play and a TV movie in Britian. And, let's forget that newly resurrected Hammer Horror returns to the cinemas swinging, not only with Let Me In and The Resident, but with this deliciously Gothic ghost story written by the foxy Jane Goldman (a former paranormal tv show host) and helmed by Eden Lake (have you seen this flick?!) director James Watkins.
Forget all that.
You can be completely ignorant of the history, tradition and the modern filmmakers involved and still be creeped-the-fuck-out by this terrifying M.R. Jamesian ghost story.
Why do you compare this tale to the work of M.R. James, Rog?
Jamesian storytelling can be categorized by (1) a protagonist who is a reserved and rather naive gentleman-scholar, (2) a characterful setting in an English village, seaside town or country estate, and (3) the discovery of an object or secret that attracts the attention of a malevolent supernatural menace.
James is also known for saying, "Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious; amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story."
So, Arthur Kipps is a naïve gentleman?
Arthur is a young English solicitor who has been labeled as excess cargo by Mr. Bentley, head of the law firm which employs him. When we meet him, he's getting ready for his trip to the seaside market town, Crythin Gifford, where he is to retrieve the legal documents for the recently deceased Alice Drablow. Mr. Bentley has put Arthur in charge of handling her estate, retrieving the deeds and resolving any matter that my hinder the sale of Drablow's property, Eel Marsh House.
This is his chance to prove himself as more than baggage to the firm, and we're immediately interested not because matters of real estate law intrigue us, but because we feel sympathy for Arthur Kipps and his situation.
You see, Arthur is a widower. His wife Stella died during childbirth, and he's been left alone (save the Nanny) to tend to his frail and sickly son, Edward. Edward is only six years old and he receives medical treatment that Arthur can barely afford with his current wage. It's not an option for him to lose his job, so this is a job that turns into a quest that will either make or break him.
His motivation is simple: Keep his son alive.
It seems easy enough. Gather all the dusty documents at Eel Marsh House and retrieve some papers from the local Crythin Gifford solicitor. It's a simple snatch and grab job, right?
Arthur's quest is immediately met by resistance as soon as he arrives in Crythin Gifford, elevating what should seem like a stroll in the park to a task that goes from annoying to impossible in a matter of hours.
What's going on in Crythin Gifford?
Nothing good.
This place is either cursed or haunted or both, and in fact, this is something Arthur is gonna have to figure out if he wants to get out of this place alive.
On his train, Arthur meets Samuel Daily and his little dog, Spider. Samuel is a businessman who resides in Crythin Gifford. As him and Arthur get to talking, he suggests that Arthur is gonna have his work cut-out for him if he's trying to sell Eel Marsh House. Daily deals with property himself, and he says that no one will touch the house.
No one in the little town owns an automobile, except for Daily, and fortunately, he offers to give Arthur a ride from the train station to the quaint market town.
At the Gifford Arms Inn, we learn that all of the rooms are occupied, even though there are only three or four people at the bar. The innkeeper and his wife say they'll be able to host him in the attic for the night, but they say that even that space is booked for the rest of the week, despite Arthur's firm telegraphing a reservation in advance.
The message is clear. These people are trying to get Arthur out of their town.
Arthur has a creepy night in the attic, and this is why: The beginning of the script opens with a chilling scene where three little girls, dressed in Victorian dresses and pinafores, are playing tea-party with their stuffed animals. As they play, we hear the market chatter outside...then suddenly, all three girls "stop and look up simultaneously, their eyes fixed on something across the room, their faces suddenly, disturbingly, blank."
One by one, in synchronized movement, the three little girls stop what they're doing, and in perfect unison, jump out the window.
We never see what they saw.
That's on page one. One of the best first pages I've ever seen in a screenplay. Moving forward, that room they were playing in, that room they lived in, that's where Arthur has to sleep the first night. Although he's able to rest, it's the atmosphere and expectation that contributes to the sense of dread that begins to bleed from the story, and by the time you make it to the mid-point, it's all but saturating the pages.
The next day Arthur ventures to meet the local solicitor, Mr. Jerome. It's this stroll through the town that we begin to notice that the townspeople are very, very, VERY protective of their children. They peer from behind picket fences while the fathers scowl at Arthur. The scenario reaches grotesque tones when we learn that Mr. Jerome and his wife are possibly keeping their daughter locked in a dungeon-like cellar to protect her from...death.
Jerome is hasty with Arthur, wants to get him out of the town. He's gathered all documents and has arranged his assistant, Mr. Kenwick, to take him by pony and trap to the train station. Arthur wants to do a thorough job, and refuses to leave the town with missing documents.
He bribes Kenwick into taking him to Eel Marsh House.
What separates Eel Marsh House from other haunted houses?
Imagine a house on its own little island, separated from the mainland by "an incredible vista of shining marshland". Nine Lives Causeway is the path that leads to the house, and at hightide, the causeway disappears and the house is unreachable.
Or inescapable.
For a few hours at least.
Not only is this a brooding, creepy and Gothic setting, it also adheres to the number one rule for all haunted houses: Aside from being haunted, the exits must be guarded with peril. These exits must be seemingly unreachable. If Alien was a haunted house story in space, the only exit was the airlock. And Ripley didn't escape out of it. Instead, she blew the creature out of it. In the novel House of Leaves, the house had doors, but they became unreachable as the architecture of the house elongated and shifted to keep its victims inside, lost forever.
To make the island even more atmospheric and sinister, there's a gnarled tree, a gatekeeper's cottage and a family graveyard.
It seems that Mrs. Drablow was unorganized, and Arthur has given himself a week to hunt down and find all the appropriate documents, and it doesn't help that the house is in ill-repair and that there's a malevolent specter following his every move.
This Woman in Black seems content to just watch him, but by the time he returns to the town, his job still unaccomplished, children start to die in gruesome and creepy fashion. Not only do they start to die around Arthur, but the townspeople start to blame him for stirring up the town's dark past and blame his arrival for the deaths of their little ones.
To further raise the stakes and give the situation a ticking clock, Arthur keeps a calendar that his son Edward drew. He crosses off the days till Edward arrives in Crythin Gifford with his Nanny. Since no one in the town owns a telephone, and the only telegraph is situated in the post office that always seems closed for business, Arthur has no way of communicating with the outside world.
With the help of Samuel Daily, he must uncover the town's secrets and put this ghost to rest, lest his own son be put in lethal proximity to this phantom child killer.
Does it work?
Hell yes. A good ghost story is all about creating suspense and atmosphere. Insert a character into this atmospheric scenario that we care about and feel sympathy for, who has an impossible task with some high stakes, and you've got a recipe for unsettling, creepy goodness.
From a grotesque sequence featuring Samuel Daily's wife being possessed by a dead child that wants to communicate with Arthur to bizarre tar baby-like apparitions climbing out of the marshes to terrorize our characters, there are many twisted and powerful scare scenes that pull us, leading us with dread, through this mystery.
The script is also peppered with sorrowful touches and images that build the atmosphere and tone of the world. Birds are a motif. A fireplace with a nest full of dead baby birds is a striking detail that's impossible to forget. Arthur's grief for his wife is reflected in his scene with a Mynah bird that has mimicked his dead wife's voice, "Again. Say it again."
But, what I liked best was the ending.
I'm not going to spoil it, but it was so layered and fantastic and heartbreaking and satisfying, that I might have shed a tear or two.
My verdict? "The Woman in Black" might be better than The Sixth Sense, which I regard highly. One of the best ghost stories I've had the fortune of reading. Can't wait to see this on the big screen. It's gonna be a classic like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

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

What I learned: Setting. Are you telling a story about a haunted locale? Well, this is a genre that's been done to death, so you're gonna have to make your setting memorable and original. And, it's going to have to fit in the world you build. I've never quite seen or heard of anything like Eel Marsh House, this creepy old Gothic structure that exists on an island in the middle of a vast marshland that's only reachable at certain hours of the day. It's gloriously Romantic and Victorian. This setting, coupled with the strange phenomena we saw in the marshlands, reminded me a lot of the weirdness and the unsettling tricks of perception that were used in the great Algernon Blackwood story, "The Willows".