Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Screenplay Review - Psycho Killer

Genre: Dark Thriller
Premise: Often told through the point of view of the killer himself, Psycho Killer is about a serial killer who believes he must kill as many people as possible in order to receive preferred status in Hell.
About: Andrew Kevin Walker is, of course, spec sale royalty, as his script "Seven" was one of the most popular spec scripts in Hollywood history.  It eventually went on to be directed by David Fincher, starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, and Kevin Spacey.  Walker would struggle a bit after that sale, eventually writing and selling another script, 8mm, for 1.25 million dollars.   Unfortunately, the studio deemed that work too dark and encouraged director Joel Schumacher to sanitize it.  The results were so bad that Walker disowned the movie and has refused to watch it since, even to this day.  Psycho Killer is a script he penned four years ago.  Not sure where it stands at this moment.
Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker
Details: 113 pages.  July 4, 2008. This is a SECOND DRAFT.  So take that into consideration.

Another famed serial killer.

While Andrew Kevin Walker remains spec sale royalty due to his screenplay masterpiece, Seven, lighting up Hollywood back in the 90s, it still remains unclear how the script sold.  I could've sworn  the script was found in a production slush pile.  But people also say Walker gave the script to A-list screenwriter David Koepp, who he reportedly had a friendship with.  Koepp then passed the script on to New Line, who purchased it.  If anyone can clear this up for me, that would be great.  Because hey, the story's definitely more inspiring to the average writer if the the script was discovered on talent alone, and not through an A-list Hollywood contact.

There's this sort of unofficial age-old debate that has gone on about which sick dark fucked up movie is better, Seven or Silence Of The Lambs.  Personally, I've always been a Lambs guy.  I just thought the character work in that script was a lot better.  Seven wins on atmosphere for sure.  But I just didn't find the characters as compelling as I did in Lambs.  Of course, that could've been due in part to Pitt's acting. :) Anyway, that's a nice segue way into today's script, because what keeps this script from connecting with the reader is a somewhat distant character dynamic.

Psycho Killer has a freaking awesome opening.  Imagine a...um...well Psycho Killer popping out of his car on a highway, walking over to a man who's changing his tire, bashing his head into smithereens with a sledgehammer, chasing his wife down the highway, seeing a semi baring down on them, hurling the sledgehammer at the truck with all his might.  The sledgehammer goes through the windshield.  The incapacitated driver loses control of his truck, which jackknifes, turning the fleeing woman into road gravy, before finally coming to a stop.  All in a day's work for our Psycho Killer, who's in the middle of an 8 state killing spree.

What sets Psycho Killer apart right away is that we take the POV of the killer himself.  So we're the bad guy for the entire first act.  I thought we were going to be the bad guy for the entire movie, but when Psycho Killer (yes, his name is actually "Psycho Killer") kills a cop in front of his fellow cop wife (Jane), the POV turns to a traditional third person narrative and we follow Jane as she tries to avenge her hubby's death.

To me, this was when the script sort of lost its appeal.  Although it was disturbing, what made it unique was watching a killer through a killer's eyes.  Once it became a straightforward procedural, it didn't hold up because I didn't feel anything for the characters.  I guess I should've felt something since Jane watched her husband die, but there was just something standard and unexciting about her character.  I don't know.  She just felt too...normal.

But we do occasionally cut back to Psycho Killer's life, which seems to be consumed by these nightmares of hell.  Psycho Killer is convinced that he has some higher purpose and will be rewarded in hell, as long as he keeps killing people.  This leads him on a search for a secret group of fellow satan worshippers, who he eventually finds after putting a code message in the New York Times (huh?).

The story finishes with a rather strange choice, sending Psycho Killer on a much larger mission to kill way more people than the inefficient one at a time he kills every day.  I'm not going to spoil it, but I'll just say the movie turns from a serial killer movie into, basically, a terrorist movie, and that didn't feel right.

I'll give Psycho Killer this - it *is* a little bit different.  Just putting us inside the body of a serial killer was creepy enough and made for some great dramatic irony moments.  Remember, dramatic irony is when we know something one of the characters in a scene does not.  So in this case, we knew Psycho Killer was about to kill some poor unsuspecting soul, and that we couldn't warn that soul.  So that made for some tension-filled scenes, if not some majorly fucked up ones!

And ya gotta love how Walker decided to name his character PSYCHO KILLER.  Lol.  I mean how great is that?

But the rest of the script - and obviously this has something to do with this still being a second draft - feels exploratory.  We have these random dream sequences where Psycho Killer imagines himself in Hell surrounded by demons.  They feel like kick ass scenes for a director to play with but, storywise, they're glorified film school writing, where every tenth page is yet another "trippy" dream sequence.

I suppose it comes together later when Psycho Killer joins up with some satanists and they talk about Hell taking over earth and all that jazz.  But that was a concert I wasn't interested in going to, and to be honest, it all felt a might confused, again probably due to the exploratory nature of the second draft.

What bothers me is that I couldn't figure out why I didn't care for Jane at all.  Just the other day, with Desperate Hours, I was talking about how effectively loss creates sympathy for a character.  The reason we're on board with Frank Sullivan right away is because we feel his pain in losing his family to the Spanish flu.  So then why don't I feel a thing when Jane loses her husband to Psycho Killer?

I can't figure it out but I suppose part of it is that she just seemed so mechanical.  Her personality was non-specific, basic, and just boring.  It almost felt like she wanted to find Psycho Killer not because she was deeply affected by losing her husband, but because the script needed her to want to find him.  And that's when a story falls off the rails, when things are happening because the writer needs them to and not because the characters need them to.  I don't know.  Am I the only one who thought this?

Since I'm obviously not going to root for a Psycho Killer, that meant I had no one to cheer on.  If you don't have any characters to attach yourself to in a movie, then the movie's dead to you.  Doesn't matter how clever the plot or the twists are, I'm not emotionally invested and therefore not interested in the story.

That's a shame.  I still think Walker is a great screenwriter but I would've loved to have had someone to root for here.  I hope Walker's since fixed this problem.

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

What i learned - This scene ALWAYS WORKS.  Put your character in a car with something he's hiding, then have a cop stop him.  It is virtually impossible to screw this scene up.  We see it here when Psycho Killer gets stopped.  We see it in Fargo when the cop stops Carl and Gaear.  Just make sure you milk the suspense.  The audience loves wondering what's going to happen, so feel free to draw it out as long as you'd like.