Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Watching Hour

Genre: Horror/Thriller
Premise: A young woman watching over a blind child must protect her when the home is invaded by the unthinkable.
About: The Watching Hour sold a couple of weeks ago. The Van Dykes are related to the great Dick Van Dyke, and there was a big comment war over on Deadline Hollywood that this sale represents nepotism at its best, which made me burst out laughing. Not only is this a ridiculous reasoning for why this script sold, but the Van Dykes have been writing, rewriting, assignment writing, working their asses off for years to get to this point. This isn’t a case of having a name. This is a case of good old fashioned hard work.
Writers: Carey and Shane Van Dyke
Details: 99 pages – undated (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).

Every once in awhile I’ll read a script and I’ll say, “I don’t know if I have an opinion on this one.” The Watching Hour is one of those scripts. The writing is professional, as you’d expect it to be from two veterans like the Van Dyke siblings. But after reading After Hailey, where each page was packed with gobs and gobs of character development, I can’t help but feel that The Watching Hour is too thin, that there isn’t enough going on where you want things to be going on.

However, I do understand why it sold. In fact, if I were telling you to choose between writing a script like After Hailey or The Watching Hour, I would choose The Watching Hour every time. After Hailey is a once in a decade deal – nailing every single emotional beat in a complex character driven drama. It just doesn’t happen often. Whereas with a home-invasion thriller, the marketable premise and genre ensure a buying audience that'll be much more forgiving. If they can see the poster, they’ll invest in fixing your mistakes.

20-something Shelby specializes in providing care for children with special needs. If your child is blind or deaf or physically limited in some capacity, you don’t call up a normal babysitter, you call up Shelby. As 9 year old McKenzie fits this criteria (she’s blind), her parents bring Shelby into their small rural home (far enough away from the neighbors so that they can’t hear you scream – heh heh) to take care of Mckenzie while they’re out for the night.

McKenzie’s parents are a little nervous about Shelby at first, but when they see how quickly she bonds with McKenzie, their fear disappears and they’re off for the evening.

Across town, another family is experiencing quite a different evening. Their 9 year old daughter, Katy, disappeared two weeks ago, and friends and family wade through the house to lend support. The curious thing about Katy is that she’s mute. I say curious because a few years back, another handicapped girl who lived nearby (a paraplegic) was found drowned in a pond. It’s clear that somewhere out there is a sick man snatching these helpless girls up, doing god knows what to them.

Which segues back to Shelby and McKenzie, who begin to receive strange phone calls with distant scratchy 50s music on the other end. This is accompanied by a pair of headlights at the edge of the property, headlights that just sit there, that seem to be watching them. Is this the man who’s been snatching up all the children? Is he coming to get McKenzie?

The answer to that? They wish!

In a nice little homage to Close Encounters, the headlights RISE off the ground STRAIGHT UP INTO THE AIR. And soon we start hearing feet outside, pitter-pattering. Something’s out there. But what? I’ll tell you what. Aliens motherfucker! Shelby and McKenzie are being attacked by aliens. Why they’re here, what they’re doing, what they want? We don’t know. But we assume they’ll do anything to snatch McKenzie away, so it’s off to every crevice in the house to prevent that from happening.

Okay, here’s my main gripe with The Watching Hour. And it’s not even really about The Watching Hour. It’s about these kinds of movies in general. You have the audience in the palm of your hand before the aliens/monsters/whoever show up. But as soon as they show up, the mystery is gone. And what usually happens after that is a series of repetitive chase scenes inside the house/base/building/whatever. If there isn’t enough variety to those chase segments, the audience gets restless, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but I definitely became restless with the repetitive in-house alien chases. Alien pops out, run to another area of the house, hide, alien pops up again, run to another area of the house, hide. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Now the Van Dykes do break up the monotony a little with the occasional hop over to Katy’s house (the other girl who’s missing). The problem with this is, we’re never clear on why we’re in that house. It’s a whole bunch of people grieving, but it’s been two weeks since Katy went missing. Have they been here the whole two weeks? Or if not, why are they here today? Is today special? That isn’t made clear and therefore its entire reasoning for being in the script feels suspect. If there was more going on in this section, it could’ve worked, but whenever we cut back to this house, I kept asking, "Why are we here?"  

There were little things that bothered me as well. The haunting 50s music will definitely play well onscreen, but I hate when “cool” things are forced into the story instead of stemming organically from the situation. Why would the aliens use 50s music? Was this a callback to the time when Roswell happened? I wasn’t sure. You also have what is quickly becoming the single biggest problem in modern day horror flicks – the fact that nobody has a cell phone that works. I can kind of buy it since they’re out in the boonies, but since audiences have become so savvy to this cheat, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Overall, I wanted more meat to this story and these characters. While Shelby becomes three-dimensional in the final ten pages, her and the rest of the characters feel paper-thin during the previous 90. You’re never going to write characters in a thriller that are as deep as characters in a drama, but this script came at a really bad time, since I had just read After Hailey, and that script was a master course in character development. I kept thinking over and over again with Watching Hour, “I barely know anything about any of these people.”

Here’s the thing though. The Watching Hour still gets a worth the read. Barely. And I’ll tell you why. First, this is a great spec premise. A fast paced marketable genre picture with high concept elements. Second, the twist ending. Now I’m not going to spoil the ending here but I’ll just say this. While I had suspicions, I genuinely didn’t see it coming. Is it perfect? No. It’s not The Sixth Sense. But it’s good enough to make us go back and reevaluate everything we just saw.

I get the sense, however, that the Van Dyke’s are resting a little too heavily on this ending. It’s almost like they know that they have an ace up their sleeve so they put the rest of the script on cruise control. The scenes at Katy’s house in particular go nowhere.

I’m going to guess that the younger crowd will like this but the savvy vets will take it to task for its thin characters and plot. We’ll see. :)

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

What I learned: In an interview with the writer of yesterday’s script, Scott Frank, he was asked about twist endings. This is what he said, which I think is good advice: “If you’re writing simply to have a twist [ending] then you’re in trouble. If the twist comes to you organically, then I think you’re on much firmer ground.”  There are parts of Watching Hour where it seems like it's being written just to have a twist ending.