Wanna submit your script for a review?: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, along with the title, genre, logline, and finally, something interesting about yourself and/or your script that you’d like us to post along with the script if it gets reviewed. Use my submission address please: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Remember that your script will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effects of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.
Genre: Supernatural Horror
Premise: (from writer) When an angelology professor and his wife lose their daughter to tragedy, they are invited to a mysterious retreat which promises communion with the dead. The cost? Only one of them will survive.
Why you should read: (from writer): “A lean 87 pages, BETH AVEN is written for the $1 million / limited location model. In style and tone, it is THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT meets THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE. It is intensely character-driven, but delivers the actions and scares inherent to the genre. At its core it is the tale of parents who’ve lost their only child, and the harrowing journey to the gates of death that will mark their lives forever.”
Writer: Sean Whitnall
Details: 87 pages
I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to read today’s script. I’m just… tired. This would appear to be bad news for Sean. But it’s also a wonderful reminder that writers are writing for human beings. They’re not writing for robots whose sole purpose is to read through screenplays. Readers are tired just like you. They look forward to finishing work, just like you. They look forward to laying down on their beds, just like you. They dream of being in better places just like you. Which is why nothing less than awesome keeps their interest. Which is why you must write to make the reader forget about the 32 other things they have to do that week. You must dazzle them from the first page and never let go. It’s your only chance really. Anything less and a reader sees you as just another script to finish.
Beth Haven challenges all that wisdom by starting out with a dog murder and a four year old girl with cancer. Not gonna lie. Mental check-out countdown began when I saw that. But the thoughtful Sean Whitnall did limit his script to only 87 pages. Which means he WAS thinking about the reader at least a little bit. Maybe it’s not time to give up on Beth Haven yet.
Darma is the name of the young cancer girl. And she dies immediately after the opening scene, leaving her parents, Daniel and Irma Ventriss, to mourn. The two knew this time was going to come, making church a regular part of their routine in order to give Darma the impression that there was a life after this one.
But neither really believed. It was a just a show. And now that show was over. But then Irma starts hearing voices, Darma’s voice in particular, calling to her. She’s convinced that there’s some crossover going on and begs Daniel to look at alternative ideas. After some resistance, he agrees to go to a secluded retreat where a mysterious woman who claims to have contact with the dead will connect them with their daughter.
Once there, they meet others who are hoping for the same, to speak with their loved ones from beyond. The retreat is led by an eerie hippy-ish woman who refers to herself as “Silver.” Along with her equally trippy assistant, “Blix,” these two inform the small group that there will be a contest of sorts. Only one of them will get to speak to their loved one.
What follows is a sort of game where Silver and Blix force everyone to confront their fears, weaknesses, and failures, blunt-trauma therapy, you might call it. There’s a sex addict, for example, who must learn that his addiction to sex is what’s preventing him from becoming whole, with communicating with the other side. I think. The way these two women talk is so abstract that they could literally be saying anything. Not gonna lie. It was tough to follow.
Eventually, Daniel realizes that the strange pair are tearing him and Irma apart. He’s just not sure why. But Irma, being the more weak-minded of the two, is falling for it, and it seems like only a matter of time before she makes this retreat her permanent residence. That is until Daniel learns that Silver and Blix’s plans for all of them is much more nefarious. I’m not going to spoil anything but let’s just say, there’s demons involved. Like Silver’s going to turn into a demon. And then try to kill them. Will Daniel be able to pull his wife back to the light side and get her out of there before it’s too late? Good question. Check the comments to find out.
Okay, I’m going to start with the obvious here. You probably shouldn’t start your script with a dog murder then a 4 year old girl who dies from cancer. I still don’t even know what the opening dog murder was about or what it had to do with the story.
But it led into one of the script’s biggest weaknesses – that being the writing is too on-the-nose. For example, when you’re selling the sadness of a daughter dying, you don’t want to hit us over the head with, “Does this mean I won’t get to go to kindergarten?” Just a sad look between the two parents is enough. There was way too much of this (i.e. the parents would sleep, sadly, in the dead girl’s room instead of their own). You have to trust that the audience is going to get what you’re saying. Then you won’t feel the need to keep telling them.
Now as for the overall script, its’ a script that on the surface, I should like. It takes place in a contained area the characters can’t leave, which ups the tension. There’s a clear goal – try to communicate with their dead daughter. The stakes are relatively high. We get the sense that this is going to be their only shot at this. And while there isn’t a ticking time bomb, there’s a short time frame. So the story escalates quickly.
But there was something keeping me from getting on board. Honestly, I think it was the parents’ on-the-nose reaction to the daughter’s death. A screenplay is kind of like putting someone under hypnosis. You, the writer, are the hypnotist, and we’re your subject. If you do your job, we stay “under” the whole time. But if anything distracts us, we’re brought back to the real world. As soon as a reader’s brought back to the real world, the gig is up. It’s impossible to get him under again. And after the kindergarten line and the sleeping in her bed, that was it for me. The spell was broken.
So I can certainly critique the rest of the script, but it’s like critiquing something I experienced from a distance. I guess what I’m trying to say is, for those readers who stayed hypnotized, they may not have been bothered by the rest of the things I did. They still believed.
Keeping that in mind, there was something about the dialogue that I wasn’t connecting with. At first I thought it was the rhythm that bothered me. You know how sometimes you’re reading dialogue and the way people speak makes it difficult to read. Instead of a smooth pour, it’s more like a turbulent plane ride. As I looked closer, though, I think it was a combination of using too many big words as well as characters talking for longer than they needed to.
For example, at one point Silver says to Daniel, “You needn’t worry about the box. Something as simple as holding my gaze and yet you find it full of connotations: fears of exposure rife with secret desires, perhaps.” Daniel replies. “Or questioning a deconstructed retreat scenario meant to disarm your guests.” I understand that both of these characters are smart and speak accordingly, and we have to take into account my tiredness here, but reading through an entire screenplay of this back and forth was tough. I’d constantly have to re-read everything to understand what was being said. And the surest way to end a love affair with a reader is to write something they must go back and read again.
And then, as we get towards the end, a full-on monologue party breaks out. It seemed like every time someone spoke, it was 15 lines or more. It was just too much. And oftentimes, it could’ve been streamlined to a sentence or two. For example, on page 59, one of the other retreat members, an actor, confronts Daniel while he’s trying to steal a box. Towards the end of their argument, he says this, “I got fifty pounds of muscle on you easy, so mad props you got the balls to call me dumb to my face. Second, you’re paranoid. I work with some of the brightest minds in the industry. Folks like these are free thinkers. I get that. You don’t. I’m exposed to fringe concepts all the time. I even tweak the scripts before we shoot’em. I may not be a real detective, but my instincts tell me getting in Silver’s favor ain’t a bad thing at this point. I’m here to break through to my brother. Not your daughter. Lock up when you leave smart guy.” That’s a lot of words for not saying very much at all. And there was a lot of this.
So I want to apologize to Sean that I wasn’t full-on one hundred percent while reading this. But I’m pretty sure I’ll wake up tomorrow and still agree with these points. My big notes to him would be to trust the audience more. You don’t have to drill something into their head five times melodramatically for them to get it. Sometimes just a look will do. Also, chop that dialogue down and smooth it out a bit. In the next draft, I’d like the conversations here to be easier to read. Good luck and happy Labor Day Weekend everybody. :)
Script link: Beth Haven
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Sometimes we writers overcomplicate things. Remember that 95% of the time, saying something the simplest way is usually the best. So in that big monologue of Warren’s above, why not just write something like: “You take that box, you’re going to have to deal with me. I’m not letting you screw up my chances to talk to my brother.” Keep it simple!