Premise: After the arrival of a mysterious Christmas present, a troubled young woman finds herself trapped inside her apartment building with three ghastly spirits hell-bent on forcing her to confront the horrors of her past, present and future.
Why You Should Read: Believe it or not, horror fans really love Christmas! Sure, Halloween is our big day, but there’s just something liberating about the holiday season that nicely offsets our darker sensibilities. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many movies out there that successfully bring those disparate aspects of our personalities together. GREMLINS and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS are kind of the gold standard in this arena, but both of those are family films and don’t exactly qualify as horror. We need more good Christmas horror flicks that we can revisit each year, damn it! — ‘DO NOT OPEN’ started out as a short script. But, thanks to the November writing challenge that a few of us took part in, I’ve expanded that set-up into a modern day, horror re-imagining of a certain Dickens holiday classic. The result is basically ‘A CHRISTMAS CAROL’ meets ‘IT’. — Thanks for taking a look. I can only hope that it’s as much fun to read as it was to write!
Writer: Nick Morris
Details: 84 pages (micro-script! – Nick’s pressing all the buttons today)
Christmas 2017 may be over. But I’m already on to Christmas 2018. Which is why I’m reviewing the WINNER of December 15’s Amateur Offerings, “Do Not Open,” a Christmas-themed el special from perennial Amateur Friday threat, Nick Morris. Gotta get this in shape for the end of the year!
I have to say, before I start, that I admire the layered approach Nick took to titling the screenplay. What’s the first thing anyone does when they see the words, “Do not open?” Yeah, duh. I opened. Here’s what was inside…
24 year-old Holly, who lives in a small one-bedroom apartment, is a heavy proponent of the no-pants rule. That means, once you’re in your apartment, no pants allowed. This made me an immediate fan of Holly.
Unfortunately, Holly’s got issues that go well beyond her pant-dislike, starting with a severe case of agoraphobia. Even simple errands can become a battle. Luckily, Holly finds something outside her door this morning to distract her. A box that has a simple message on it: “Do Not Open.”
Holly kicks the box inside and places it under her Charlie Brown Christmas tree, choosing to abide by the box’s rule. After her girlfriend, Marlene, stops by and forces Holly to open the box, they’re disappointed to find out there’s nothing’s inside.
After Marlene leaves and midnight hits, everything goes to hell, as the building becomes eerily still. Holly checks out the hallway, which is also too quiet. It’s like the world has… turned off. She tries the elevator. Nothing happens. Tries to take the stairs. The door won’t budge.
Eventually, Holly finds her way down to the second floor where she sees her dead sister who perished in a fire as a child standing in the hallway. Seeing dead sister. Always a good sign. We then transport back to that fateful fire, after which Holly’s parents join a cult to deal with the pain.
Holly reemerges from the “dream” on the second floor, where she’s able to find her way down to Floor 1. It’s here where Holly sees herself in the present. A lonely scared girl who stays in her apartment all day. Oh, and every tenant on the floor turns into a demon and she has to blast them into black goo with a bat.
Finally, Holly makes it down to the ground floor – what we now know as Christmas Future – and it’s here where we learn that Future Holly is a drug addict at the end of her rope. And that she’s got to kill more demons, of course. After Holly emerges from her demon-slaying Christmas nightmare, she’s able to acknowledge her metaphorical demons, and finally commit to a life of growth instead of one of stagnation.
It’s been awhile since I read Nick’s last script so I don’t remember it well. But I know I like this one better. It takes a while to get going as its 25 page first act could arguably be condensed into 10 pages. The word “filler” kept flashing through my mind as I was reading it.
For example, there’s a whole 10 page section where we’ve got this box sitting there that says “Do Not Open” and Holly’s not opening it. Technically, this is suspenseful. But there’s a difference between technical suspense and real suspense. I didn’t feel real suspense because the only reason Holly wasn’t opening the box was because the writer didn’t want her to. Any person in their right mind is going to open that box. Or, if they’re not, we have to be convinced why.
Suspense only works when it’s invisible. Not when the writer is clearly pulling the strings.
There also seemed to be too much sitting around. Too many pages going by that were either repeating information or not giving any information at all. Holly lives alone in this apartment that she hates leaving. I understood that by page 5. Why am I still being told that 20 pages later with the only additional information being that she has a girlfriend?
However, once we hit the second act, where our concept emerged, the script became considerably better. I loved the scene where Holly tries to work her way down the trash chute to escape the building and then some freaky ass monster’s arms appears below her. Haven’t seen that scene in a horror movie before!
I also liked the ghost of Christmas Past scene in the church. I was surprisingly affected by how intense the family confrontation was and 100% believed that they’d really lost their daughter. That was the hook moment for me. Before that scene I was like, “Eh, I could go either way here.” Which goes to show, it isn’t the flash (the scares) that pulls the audience in. It’s those human moments. The ones that help us connect with the characters.
The Christmas Present stuff was okay but could’ve been better. It relied too much on gore (this is the section where Holly must beat everyone to a pulp with a bat) as opposed to character development. There was a moment in this section where Holly walks into her apartment and is able to see herself in the 3rd person and it freaked me out. How would you react if you watched yourself all day? What would you think of that person? It got kinda trippy. I wanted more of that. But instead we got more gore and scares.
The Future Stuff needs more development as well. The idea is good. If Holly continues on this path, she’ll die. But that wasn’t set up very well in the first act. And as I pointed out, it’s not like you don’t have plenty of time to explore it. If we could see a hint of her turning to drugs due to not being able to overcome her past or her condition, then the Christmas Future stuff plays out much better.
I also have a suggestion for Nick. Stop using scares from other horror movies. ESPECIALLY generic horror movies. The people with the dark faces and the beaming bright eyes – I’ve seen that a ton. And people turning to our protagonist and screeching with a high-pitched noise. Come on. I can find ten IFC Midnight films right now that do the same thing.
I say this kindly but I’m a little upset about it. Nick reads this site all the time and one of the big things I hit on is that you got to do the hard work and go beyond the obvious choice. If you’ve seen a particular scare in two movies, don’t use it. Or only use it if you’ve honest-to-God spent five hours trying to come up with a new fresh option and you couldn’t think of anything. Because every obvious choice like that makes the reader think “generic.” And it takes fewer generic choices than you think it does before a reader labels your entire script “generic.”
So anyway, I thought this was fun. But due to its repetitive first act and the work it still needs on the Christmas Present and Christmas Future sections, I can’t give it that ‘worth the read’ label. But it was close!
Script link: Do Not Open
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Your first act is going to have the most information in it of all the acts. This is where you’re laying out your characters, your world, your plot, and providing setups that you’ll later pay off (such as the potential addiction to drugs I wanted a better setup of). If your first act is thin and breezy, you probably aren’t utilizing it in the correct way.