Genre: Horror
Premise: After learning her deceased mother might still be alive, a young woman traces the mystery to an abandoned farmhouse occupied by eerie mannequins – mannequins that move when no one’s looking.
About: Haunted dolls/puppets/mannequins. Staples of the horror genre for decades. But here’s my problem: most of the time, the real threat turns out to be something else — like ghosts or a masked killer. Did Annabelle even blink? Of course, there’s the “Child’s Play” and “Puppet Master” movies, but those are closer to black comedies. “Human-Like” is my attempt to create a sincere, creepy film that delivers on the promise of inanimate objects coming to murderous life. The story was inspired by the John Lawson house in upstate New York, a supposedly abandoned residence with oddly dressed mannequins on the porch. When I read that, I knew immediately – horror film! Thanks for your time and I appreciate any thoughts you might have.
Writer: Michael Cahill
Details: 104 pages

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It’s a Blade Runner weekend. I’m going to be all over that nine hour cinematography porno. Review coming Monday. In the meantime, we’ve got to get prepped for Halloween, right?? It’s only 25 days away. But you don’t have to wait that long to be scared. I hope you’re okay with inanimate objects trying to kill you. Time for some… hummmaaaaaan liiiiiiiiiiiiike…

Bridget Walker has had a tough life. When she was seven years old, she watched her mom die in a house fire, plunging through a collapsing floor just as the fireman arrived to save Bridget.

Now, 23 years later, at 30, Bridget is the primary caregiver to her dementia-ridden grandfather, Declan. Just as Declan’s symptoms from the disease are worsening, he suffers crippling heart failure and must endure emergency surgery. Declan survives surgery, but doesn’t last much longer. On his death bed, he delivers some shocking news, “Your mother is still alive.”

Bridget starts digging through Declan’s old things and discovers letters written to him over the years, letters that were written by her mother. But there’s something eeire about these letters. They’re written in shoddy 2nd grade penmanship. Which makes Bridget question their validity.

She’s intrigued enough to dig further though, eventually finding the name of the man whose home the letters were sent from: Dorin Yuval. Against the recommendation of her cousin, Harper, Bridget drives out into the country to question Dorin.

Once she gets to his farmhouse, she notices that the entire exterior is populated with life-like mannequins, most of them posed in various forms of gardening. After endless knocking and no one answering, she retreats to a neighbor’s home, Sean, who’s living with his teenaged daughter, Olivia.

Sean tells Bridget that Dorin has always been a bit eccentric, and that he believes the mannequins, which have only been around for a few weeks, are his latest art experiment. The divorced Sean becomes a somewhat witting accomplice to Bridget’s investigation, and the more digging they do, the more creepy this mannequin experiment gets.

For example, why do the gardening tools the mannequins are handling always seem to be caked with fresh dirt? Determined to find out what happened to her mom, Bridget blankets the town to find out anything she can about Dorin, only to discover that he has a very dark past. Will Bridget find her mother? Will her and Sean develop a romance? And what’s up with those creepy human-like mannequins? Why does it seem like they’re holding a secret as well?

I was into this for a good 30 pages. Despite the beginning being one continuous string of heartbreaking scenarios (mom dies in fire, grandpa has dementia, grandpa has heart attack, grandpa has surgery, grandpa dies), the writing was strong and descriptive, and Michael made me care enough about Bridget and the mom mystery that I genuinely wanted to find out what was going on there.

However, once we got to the town, the foundations of this script began to crack. It seemed oddly convenient that the mannequin presence began just weeks before Bridget showed up. I mean, her mom’s been missing for 23 years. What are the chances that right when you show up to the house she’s supposedly at, dozens of mannequins start posing outside? I know this is explained later. But, at the time, it seemed awfully coincidental.

Sean and his daughter were way too helpful. From the second this mysterious woman shows up on their doorstep at midnight, he’s more than happy to tell her anything she needs to know and give her anything she needs. As we’ve spoken about in previous Scriptshadow posts, you don’t want to say ‘YES’ to your character. You want to say ‘NO.’ You want people to be skeptical of them. You want them to have to EARN their help. They shouldn’t be rolling out the red carpet just because your hero says, “Hi.”

But the biggest problem here is that we’re not in danger enough. And that’s what I was worried about as soon as Bridget set out to find her mother. I thought, “How is Michael going to keep Bridget in mannequin danger for the next 75 pages?” It turns out he didn’t. Instead, we stay outside of the mannequin house and the story becomes more of an investigation that takes us all over town.

Keeping your hero inside of danger for an extended period of time in horror films is a topic we just discussed with “It.” When you don’t lock your hero inside a setting in the horror genre (Alien), your workload becomes exhausting, as you must repeatedly look for ways to drum up scares. Horror works best when there’s no way out. It makes me envious of how clever movies like Poltergeist were. The family couldn’t leave the house because their freaking daughter was locked inside of it!!

Another common debate in the horror community is jump scares. There are all these people who say they hate jump scares. They’re liars. Everybody loves jump scares. What they hate is bad jump scares. The difference between a good jump scare and a bad one is how organic it is to the story. Staying with Poltergeist. The fact that we set up the clown doll on the chair early in the movie. Then we set up that a poltergeist was haunting the house. Then, one night, when the son looked over to see that the clown was no longer in the chair, and we played out the suspense until it popped up to attack him – that’s an organic jump scare and it will work every time.

Here in Mannequin, Bridget checks into the motel, goes to her room, and then, just as she opens the door – A BUNCH OF MANNEQUINS ARE STANDING THERE – causing her to jump back, look again, only to realize it was her imagination. That’s a cheap jump scare. The rules of this universe don’t dictate that these things can travel into your mind and convince you they’re in front of you. It’s just a cheap attempt at a scare and those types of jump scares should be avoided.

But Human-Like did something most writers don’t do, which is make me care about the main character’s situation. I was genuinely heartbroken for Bridget after she lost her mother. That’s why, even when some of the scaffolding on this story started to crumble, I was still eager to find out what happened next. It’s a testament to how important it is to get the characters right.

Script link: Human-Like

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

What I learned: One of the telltale signs of an amateur or beginner screenwriter is that they keep hitting the same tonal beat over and over again, not realizing that the reader needs balance. So here, when mom dies in a fire, grandpa has dementia, grandpa has heart attack, grandpa has surgery, grandpa dies – I knew as soon as I read that sequence that there’d probably be script trouble down the road. You have to balance things out with upbeat and happy scenes in between the sad ones. OR don’t write that many sad scenes in a row to begin with. Cut some out. An endless string of sadness usually leads to an endless string of badness.

  • Alex Winter

    Whoa, a newb’s first? I feel so honored.