Monday, October 25, 2010

Open Grave

Genre: Horror
Premise: A group of 20-something’s find themselves out in the middle of the forest with dead bodies everywhere and no memory of how they got there.
About: This a script from the ’0-SIX Black List. It received SIX votes. And today is the twenty-SIXTH. Get it? 666. Hey, Halloween’s coming up. Work with me. In addition to its Black List pedigree, the script also landed on the 2009 “Blood List” which is an unofficial list of the best horror scripts. The writers, Eddie and Chris Borey, recently got a gig to rewrite the Japanese horror film, “The Neighbor Number 13,” about a boy who becomes psychologically disturbed after an extreme case of bullying. That picture will be helmed by Final Destination director James Wong.
Writers: Eddie Borey and Chris Borey
Details: 98 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Sometimes when I’m trying to decide what to review, I poke inside a handful of scripts, giving each a couple of pages. This isn’t some universal approach I’m trying to endorse. I’m merely performing a quick preview to see if I’ll like something. Most of the time there isn’t enough information to make a surefire decision, but scripts that start strong right off the bat definitely have an advantage. Open Grave was one of those scripts.  I was onboard halfway through the first page.

The story starts out with a guy named John stuck in a pit with no memory of how he got there. This is not an ordinary pit. It’s a pit full of gooey mangled tangled bodies. Some of them are decomposed. Others are fresh. Many of them have a hole in the forehead. Which is a curious detail since John finds that he is holding a gun.

For those of you who have also been in this situation, you know it can be pretty harrowing. Pits of dead bodies are particularly hard to get out of.  And while John’s trying to pull it all together, he sees a young Asian woman (who we’ll know as “Brown Eyes”) peer over the pit. He screams for help but she’s either too scared or too busy to comply.

Meanwhile there’s a cabin full of fellow amnesiacs nearby who are also trying to figure out what the hell is going on. There’s Logan, a take-no-prisoners dickhead. There’s the neurotic obsessive babbling Michael. There’s the caring Sharon. There’s the mysterious Nathan. And, of course, Brown Eyes, who seems to know the most out of everyone but can’t communicate it since she doesn’t speak English.

And to really add to the suckage. No internet.

When they hear John yelling from the pit, the group is split on what to do. The lone man in a pit full of dead people has a gun. Aren’t many convincing arguments to save the guy. But while everyone else goes back to the cabin, Brown Eyes drops a ladder down for John and he crawls out.

John joins the group and after a lot of infighting and accusations, they decide they have to work together to figure out what they’re doing here and what’s going on. So they begin exploring the surrounding forest to get a lay of the land and immediately run into some compounds. These metal shacks look like they’ve been built recently. The question is for what.

We find out pretty quickly as inside one of them, they find a woman tied up. Unfortauntely she’s one step down from the crazy homeless people you see on Lincoln Boulevard, deliriously babbling something about the number 18 (or any combination of numbers that add up to it). They notice a surveillance camera in the shack. Someone’s been watching this woman. What the hell is going on??

Madness descends as each of the characters begins to suspect one another as the responsible party for the dead bodies and makeshift compounds. Even John starts to wonder if he’s responsible. All of this will lead to the most pressing question of all: What in the world is going on out here in this forest, and how did they all get involved?

Open Grave starts out great. But maybe a little too great.  Like I've pointed out before, a good concept gets you through the first act, but after that, it’s up to you to tell a story. Jerry Seinfeld used to say that whenever he went out on stage, he could say anything he wanted for the first five minutes and people would laugh because he was Jerry Seinfeld. But after that, after the thrill of seeing Jerry Seinfeld dies out, he has to start being funny or he’s dead. Same idea with a great concept. It makes the reader pay attention.  But at some point, you need to start telling a compelling story.

I think my biggest problem with Open Grave is that the emerging storyline is more shock than substance. There’s some great imagery here, such as this old woman tied up in a shack with a bucket of her own waste placed underneath her. Gross, eerie, scary. But in the end she’s no more than a scare-tactic, someone whose involvement has very little to do with the actual plot, and more to do with freaking out the audience.

This approach is epitomized by a scene at the midpoint where Brown Eyes looks over and sees a group of small kids eating the body of a dead man. It’s a wonderfully spooky image. But when she tries to point it out to the others, the kids have turned into dogs. This visual, while arresting, has nothing to do with the plot at all. It’s simply there because it’s freaky.

Contrast this with one of my favorite scary movies of all time, The Others. (This is a major spoiler if you haven’t seen the film) One of the freakiest images you’ve ever seen has Nicole Kidman’s character walking in on her daughter, her back turned to us, dressed in a wedding dress, singing to herself. Kidman approaches her and the daughter turns around, only to have an old woman’s face with milky white eyes, speaking to Kidman in her daughter’s voice. It’s horrifying. But it’s also perfectly logical within the context of the story. The old woman turns out to be the medium who’s searching the house for ghosts for the current tenants, who we realize were the “ghosts” our characters had been seeing all along.

This leads us to the explanation for our characters predicament in Open Grave, which unfortunately isn't very original, and a lot of that had to do with the writers writing themselves into a hole, no pun intended. If you wanted all of this craziness to make sense, it was really the only direction you could go. And I think the reader senses that, which is why they’re not surprised when it’s revealed.

Now the script does bring into play one of those things that screenwriting teachers will tell you never to use because of its overuse – amnesia. But I thought the collective amnesia was one of the better parts of the script and was the key element that made the opening work so well. I would’ve liked it to have been better explained, but it worked for me here.

In the end, I liked this more than a similar script I read a few weeks back – Vanishing On 7th Street. And if you’re a fan of Jacob’s Ladder or those types of freaky nonsensical imagery type films, then you should check this out. You might like it. It just didn’t come together for me.

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

What I learned: One of the mistakes we often make when writing complicated plots is patting ourselves on the back just for tying everything together at the end.  Weaving multiple mysteries, subplots, and chracters into a cohesive whole is actually one of the hardest things to do when telling a story.  Unfortuanately it's also expected.  It's not unlike all the hard work (lighting, make-up, focus, camera movement, blocking) that goes into just putting a good-looking shot together. But nobody in the audience cares about that because it's expected.  So just tying all the pieces together so they make sense at the end isn't enough.  You have to then look at your story from the reader’s perspective. Have you satisfied them? Have you surprised them, tricked them, made them think? That’s the ultimate goal. Once you get to the finish line, work on making the finish line great.