Sunday, November 21, 2010

Underground (Roger Review)

 Hey, how bout that?  It's Turkey Week!  Again, for those outside the U.S., we have a holiday this Thursday where everybody thanks themselves.  Or each other.  Or someone.  For reasons unknown to I, we need an entire day to do this thanking, so even though my own personal thanking will last a total of 25 seconds, I will be utilizing the other 23 hours, 59 minutes and 35 seconds to prepare for the chaos that is Black Friday (by the way, if you're going to do your Christmas shopping, don't forget to get either this or something from here for your screenwriting friends).  So no review this Thursday unfortunately.  But that still leaves four reviews, which include a contest winner, a sci-fi spec that made some noise, and maybe an amateur script (I haven't figured out if I'm doing Amateur Friday this week or next).  Right now, Roger brings us another Blood List script, and one of the crazier sounding ones at that, Underground. 

Genre: Horror
Premise: An ambitious young chef ventures into the terrifying underbelly of extreme cuisine.
About: Underground was on 2010's Blood List with 2 votes, but before that list was released, the script got some press in the trades back in August when it was reported that Neil Marshall ("Dog Soldiers", "The Descent", "Doomsday" and "Centurion") signed on with Ozla Pictures to direct. Taka Ichise ("The Grudge"), Jeremy Platt ("The Haunted World of El Superbeasto") and Erin Eggers ("The Hoax") are the producers.
Writer: David Cohen
Details: Draft dated February 13, 2009 (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).

You know, sometimes I don't understand Neil Marshall's schizophrenic editing style, especially during action sequences. It worked in "The Descent" because the setting was so claustrophobic, and fear and terror were the emotions that reigned in both the characters and the audience, but I get all discombobulated and frustrated when I see it in one of the duels in "Doomsday". Makes me wonder if the director is agoraphobic, afraid to film wide open spaces without chopping it up and reassembling it like some William Burroughs protégé playing with celluloid.

However, I think the style will induce nausea if he manages to nail David Cohen's "Underground", a ghoulish and delightful tale of gourmet horror. I can see the glistening frames of sweetbreads and human organ meats assaulting the viewer now.

Bon appetite.

Does this script read like the bastard child of Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club" and Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential", Rog?

That's definitely what came to mind when I read the logline, and when I read the script I felt the same type of visceral thrill, the same type of forbidden titillation like I was reading something I shouldn't be, like I was feeding the twisted homunuculus on my back that needs to consume dark and seedy details and stories.

However, this script is more of a modern "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" with its snobby supper club backdrop and the world of perverse gourmands it explores, and not only did it peripherally remind me of Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover", but by the time I got to the second half I thought this could be the third movie in Eli Roth's "Hostel" franchise.

Who's the ambitious young chef?

Charlie Dover is waiting tables at Crudo, a monument to international renowned chef, Seamus Hanley. Charlie's boss is not only a nod to hothead Scottish chef, Gordon Ramsey, but for some reason I thought of the poet Seamus Heaney and his poem, "The Underground". The restaurant is what you'd expect from a slick celebrity chef and he rules his kitchen with a no-nonsense iron fist. The atmosphere amongst the kitchen staff is hushed and tense, and the veterans know that their chef can be prone to violence and histrionics at any moment.

Charlie works here because he wants to be closer to Seamus, as he's a burgeoning talent himself. He lives with his pastry chef girlfriend, Quinn, and they're both preparing a menu for a supper club event that they hope is going to attract investors and benefactors so they can open their own restaurant together.

While Charlie may be a gifted chef and he talks a good game, he's not the brightest of waiters when he talks up the Wagyu beef to a diner and discovers that Crudo is out of the Wagyu beef. To make matters worse, the diner is Henry Talbot, the food critic for The Times. This incites the wrath of Seamus as he is now in danger of losing a star, and he tells Charlie his life is on the line and berates him to suggest an alternative, trying to humiliate him in front of the kitchen staff.

Charlie surprises Seamus when he begins suggesting dishes not on the esteemed geniuses' menu, "Or, I'm thinking a braised liche nut soufflé with a dried roe dressing. Or..." Seamus tells the waiter to get out of his kitchen as he thinks about what to do, and at the same time, a clumsy Fry Cook stumbles and he ends up forearm deep into a fryer.


Seamus has an idea. He prepares chicaron over creamed cartilage coulis. Charlie serves the food to the critic, and Talbot is a bit puzzled as to why he's being served pig skin. Or wait? Is it really pig skin he's eating?

So, what happens?

Although Charlie is tempted with working in Seamus' kitchen when a new fry cook position opens, his girlfriend, Quinn, helps him stay focused on what was always their goal: Opening their own place together.
They throw a dinner and supper club at their friend Nikki's loft, and it quickly fills up with hipster-friends-turned-waiters, partygoers and curious diners. And, hopefully, the rich entrepreneur and investor the sexy Nikki has lured to the event.

Of course, Seamus shows up and scopes out the place and the people, and surprisingly, he seems impressed by the food. Not wanting to have an employee-turned-competitor in Charlie, he approaches him after the event. Yes, Charlie and Quinn bag the billionaire investor who runs two hedge funds, but Seamus plays to Charlie's pride and his need to be accepted by a famous mentor figure.

Will a little kitchen with a little menu really satisfy Charlie? Or, is he capable of much more? Seamus tempts Charlie again, says that he has a challenge for him.

Does Charlie accept?

He does, but he keeps the challenge a secret from Quinn. To raise the stakes and complicate matters, Quinn discovers that she's pregnant the morning as Charlie leaves to meet with Seamus. Instead of talking about it with her, Charlie gets the location text from Seamus so he opts to leave Quinn, confused and angry.

Honestly, this part felt a little rushed. I understand that Charlie was in a rush, but dude, he just found out his girlfriend's pregnant! I'm not saying that they have to talk about it, but the circumstance and the way in which it was written felt a little too easy. It should have been harder for him to get away from Quinn. It doesn't really cripple the script, because you still want to know what happens next, but I do think it needs to feel more believable.

And, I suppose that's my main criticism for the script. It moves at such a fast pace, and it's a fun and twisted page-turner, but the character moments and logic feels shoe-horned into the plot. I would have liked to see smoother moments for the story where the plot doesn't take over, but I think it's all fixable stuff.

The strength of "Underground" is not only its foodie backdrop (loved all the details of kitchen life and the effort into creating believable culinary characters and settings), but the sinister dread and the moments of disgusting horror that will make you cringe and want to brush your teeth. The sense of dread and anticipation in the first forty or so pages is enough to warrant a gander at this script, and I think there's stuff to learn from it.

What is Seamus' challenge?

Charlie shows up to the warehouse district and a faceless building, its only discerning features are its dilapidation and its security cameras. The inside exists in stark contrast, pristine and well-guarded by men with guns.

The kitchen gleams, and Charlie notices some of the kitchen staff from Crudo manning their stations.
Discussing the rest of the script gets into heavy spoilers after this part, but let's just say Charlie is put through several chef trials with different ingredients with Seamus hovering over his shoulder. This sequence is juxtaposed with what's going on with Seamus' butcher, the aptly named Sawney Beane (which will give everything away for those who recognize the name) and his "livestock".

In the dining area, we meet the wealthy and weird foodies, who have seemed to have paid a hefty sum to buy a plate at this table. There's a senator and his wife, a wealthy Russian woman, and a Takashi Miike-esque Japanese weirdo. We watch as waiters serve the various courses, and as we watch them eat we get a little sick, if we're not already from watching Charlie (who gets more and more suspicious) prepare the dishes.

By the time Quinn rolls up to the building (how she finds the location I'll let you discover and think about for yourself) to yell at the security cameras because she wants to talk to her man, we're all but aware that we're experiencing those stomach-churning moments before we know a train-wreck is about to happen.

What happens next thrusts the story into "Hostel" or "Saw" territory, and it's pretty disgusting, and some fates are rather inventive in a culinary horror type of way (especially the foie gras torture), but I found it pretty familiar. Oddly, I was reminded of another spec, a horror script called "Pet" by Jeremy Slater.

Does it work?


If you're a fan of New Wave French Horror, you'll dig this script. There's some shocking stuff in it, even if it does seem a little familiar. The chef's world angle perhaps makes it fresh enough to serve such familiar fare, but despite my criticism concerning events seeming too forced, I found it a chilling and a perverse page-turner. I think this a good example of material matching up perfectly with a director and his cinematic sensibilities.
Will scare meat-eaters into vegans.

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

What I learned: Dread. The anticipation that something horrible is going to happen to a character you care about. If you want to create moments that truly terrify (you are aiming for terror, not horror, which are two different things), learn how to create dread. Charlie is a smooth-talking wanna-be chef. I suppose his likeability can be argued, but I cared about him because I liked his relationship with Quinn. I was interested in their goal, which was their dream to open up their own restaurant and build a future together. Orbiting this couple was Seamus, a threat who wasn't above serving fried human skin to a food critic. We know that Seamus was into bad, nasty stuff, that there was a monster within him lurking. We were waiting for the moment for this monster to reveal itself. Stakes are raised when we find out that Quinn is pregnant with Charlie's child, and our minds can't help but wonder, "Is this unborn child going to be put in danger? And not only that, but what kind of danger?" Because the writer put the elements of characters we care about in the orbit of a perverse monster, we anticipated a collision of the two worlds. That anticipation is dread, and it not only does it create unease and gets the imagination thinking unpleasant thoughts, but it keeps the reader wanting to know what happens next. You want to write good horror? Dread should be the bread and butter of your horror scripts.