Premise: After their friends run a supposedly haunted red light and suffer horrible deaths, three disbelieving teens run the same red light to dispel small town superstition, only to find themselves the next targets of a sinister figure hellbent on revenge.
About: I’ve been teaching Pre-Kindergarten for seven years now, so trust me — I know horror. Besides wanting to bring the slasher film back for the Z Generation, I’ve always wanted to write a movie that made an ordinary thing seem terrifying. Think of what Jaws did for going swimming, or Shallow Hal for, uh, going swimming.
One night, while sitting at an empty intersection waiting for the light to change, I found myself coming up with reasons not to go through it. A car could smash into me. I could get pulled over. An unflattering photo of me taken from a traffic camera could appear in my mail. But it wasn’t until I convinced myself the vengeful ghost of a woman — a woman wrongfully killed at that very intersection by another red light runner — would follow me home that I knew I had something special.
I’m confident anyone who reads my script will never go through a traffic light the same way again. But don’t just take my word for it. Professional script consultant Danny Manus gave it a strong consider and called it, “A fast and enjoyable read with a solid climax, a couple good twists in the plot, some strong scare moments, suspenseful scenes, and enough gore to satisfy PG-13 horror fans while still having a solid mystery.”
So how isn’t this a movie yet? How am I still without a manager or agent? How did I keep you reading this long without the exchange of payment or sexual favors? Maybe you can educate an educator. I’m hoping you’ll give my script the chance for some extra attention and critique, but more importantly, I just want everybody reading it to have fun. Because I had a blast writing it.
Writer: Chris Shamburger
Details: 103 pages
So, honest first thoughts when I read this logline:
A haunted red light?
Ehhhh… I wasn’t too confident.
It seemed a bit goofy.
But then I thought about The Ring, one of the most popular horror movies of all time, and wondered, “Is it any less goofy than that? A haunted video tape?”
Then again, the great thing about The Ring was that the video tape was the ultimate visual freak fest. What you saw on that tape chilled you to the bone. It really helped you buy into the premise.
I’m not convinced a red light does that. But let’s find out. WAIT! Hold on. Press the walk sign button. Okay… and it’s green now.
We start off with an eclectic mix of high schoolers and college kids. There’s 18 year old Nikki, a young black woman with some sass. There’s Xander, 19 and athletic. There’s Hannah, 17 years old and eager to start going to college parties. And then there’s some periphery players, like Hannah’s older brother Jimmy, who treats her like a misbehaving child, and Rebecca, Jimmy’s bitchy ex-girlfriend.
So Nikki, Xander, and Hannah head to a college party at ASU where the talk is of a recent group of kids who ran a red light and all but one got butchered at a diner afterwards. When Xander hears that the operating theory is that they were butchered by a ghost who’d been killed when hit by somebody who ran the same red light, Xander wants to run the light too.
So he recruits Nikki and Hannah under the pretense that they’ll hashtag it and become internet famous, only to learn afterwards that there may be more truth to the story than he originally thought. When strange things start happening to them, the three each separately start investigating this woman who was killed, and find out some disturbing things about the incident.
Eventually, as you would expect, teenagers start dying, and the question becomes, is this really a ghost, or might it be a real life killer who’s big on road safety.
Okay so, we’ve got a lot of beginner mistakes here and I hope that by highlighting them, I can help Chris as well as other writers out. Remember that readers are quick to pick up on red flags. And red flags are like ants. Where there’s one, there are usually more. And remember when I said I was skeptical of the premise? That tends to be a red flag out of the gate. When the premise isn’t on point, other things tend not to be either. Unfortunately, that was the case here.
Starting with the opening scene where something immediately jumped out at me. Our drunk teenagers are in a car, but instead of acting like drunk teenagers, they’re spouting out functional backstory-laden dialogue such as, “It’s Rebecca.” “I haven’t heard that name in a while.” “We just started talking again.” “Why?” (remember that leading questions are bad!), “She’s the new president of Alpha Omega Pi.”
Does that sound to you like drunk high school kids? I remember the conversations myself and fellow drunken high school kids had and they were nothing like that. There were random screams and woops about nothing in particular. Someone would say out of nowhere, “We should go to New Orleans!” Someone would always mention some girl that someone recently banged and that “we should call her.” There’d be lots of laughter.
You have to honor the truth of the moment. If you prioritize screenwriting conventions over truth, your scene won’t feel honest, and that’s the case here.
Next on the docket is this description: “He’s so lit, you could probably read a book by him.” It took me several reads before I finally understood what the writer was saying. These overly cute descriptions are almost always the sign of a beginner. Pros prioritize storytelling over everything. They don’t want to break the suspension of disbelief and understand that lines like this can do that.
The exception is when they’re built into the style of the script and the writer is REALLY good at it. When cute lines like this appear out of nowhere, they’re lone wolves and draw attention. I’d avoid them.
Next you have the dialogue. One of the genres where dialogue is extremely important is teen movies. Teenagers are often at the forefront of whatever slang is dominating the zeitgeist, and seek to one-up one another with the latest burn or turn of phrase. For these reasons, when the dialogue in a teen movie is boring, it’s a huge mark against the script.
The dialogue here was very functional, very robotic, and didn’t sound like teenagers at all. When Hannah’s brother’s ex runs into her, she says, “And Hannah, when you see Jimmy again, please tell him I said hi.” That sounds like a 35 year old speaking. Not someone in college. The script was littered with dialogue like that. No style, no fun, no slang. There were a few sections that eschewed this, but not enough.
The next red flag didn’t take long to appear. When they go to this party, Matt, the lone survivor from the first gang to run the red light, gets out of jail after being questioned, and goes straight to this party.
So let me get this straight. You’ve just watched your friends die horrible deaths. The police think you may have done it. And the first thing you do when they release you is head to a party by yourself? But it gets worse. The first thing Matt does when he gets there is go to a bathroom, sit in a stall, and cry???
Why did he come to the party if all he was going to do was cry in a stall? Soon after, the stall is burned to the ground with Matt in it, and we have our answer. The writer wanted to kill Matt in this bathroom. He didn’t care how he got the character there, as long as he could have his bathroom killing scene.
This is another difference between amateurs and pros. Pros will find logical motivations for characters to do things. Amateurs don’t care about that stuff. They’ll pace their character through the most illogical set of actions (showing up at a party the second you’ve been released from jail for being a murder suspect, heading to the bathroom to cry by yourself) to get them to the scene they want to write.
This is why when people say that Hollywood movies are terribly written, I chuckle. Yes, there is badly written professional material. But the bad in those movies is “professional bad.” It’s a whole different level from amateur bad.
On the plus side, the premise began to win me over as the script went on. I thought it was clever to make the ghost woman an investigator who was in the middle of trying to find a missing child. It brought another level of mystery to the teenagers’ investigation. I mean who knows. I could see this being a direct-to-digital horror title. Why not? It has a great title. It’s an easy-to-understand concept. However, before you can rope in the people necessary to make this movie, you have to take care of these basic mistakes.
Script link: Red Light
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Another red flag is character descriptions that are purely physical. Here’s Xander’s character description: “XANDER, 19, stands on the front step, newspaper in hand. Lean, athletic build. Strong chin. He’s a six foot tall drink of water.” It’s almost always better to convey something about the character in their description. For example, a simple word like “mischievous” tells us so much more than that “he’s a tall drink of water.”