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Premise (from writer): A strange old man tells scary campfire stories to two young boys. But who is the man, why are the boys in the stories and where are their parents?
Why You Should Read (from writer): Early in the year, you wrote a couple of posts, the gist being – You want to stand out in the current spec market? You need to take risks. So, I sucked up that advice, threw caution to the wind and the result is this very different little horror script. It takes the sort of structural and narrative risks I normally wouldn’t.
Writer: Ashley Sanders
Details: 86 pages
Every horror film needs it.
But how much atmosphere is too much?
The most atmospheric horror movie of all time is probably Suspiria. Story is placed on the back burner in favor of terrifying imagery and eerie music. And it works like cheese on tacos. You don’t forget that movie after you’ve seen it.
Which I’m guessing was Ashley’s inspiration here. She says in her WYSR that she wanted to move away from convention. As long as you have a solid understanding of storytelling, I encourage this.
But what I often find happens to a writer going off on one of these “experimental” journeys is that they embrace the “fuck it” attitude a little too excitedly. It’s as if they think NOTHING should make sense, less the script fall back into the dreaded “c” word (convention).
But even when you’re writing something different, you still need to follow some rules. Just like if you wanted to build a house that nobody’s built before, there are still some common things you’ll need to add – like walls.
Small Slices walked that line a little too liberally and while there’s some good stuff here, I’m not sure there are enough walls to keep it from falling down.
The script takes place in a forest at night, with a man known simply as “the storyteller” telling two brothers, Mark (7), and Tom (9), (both played by Michael Shannon), a series of scary stories.
The stories center on a family led by shady businessman David and his trophy wife, Sara, who have two kids named, you guessed it, Mark and Tom.
One day, the couple receives a mysterious grandfather clock in the mail. While their initial inclination is to turn it away, the thing looks so old and interesting that they figure it might be worth some money, so they keep it.
Tick tock. Bad move.
Every night at 4:20 AM, the doors to the clock open and some creepy cardboard puppet-kids come out and do a little creepy dance. This is followed by the sound of scratching, which eventually moves beyond the clock and into the walls of the house, resulting in a lot of spooked out family members trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
Occasionally, we’ll break out of this story to come back to the Storyteller, who will tell little side stories about the characters, some of which turn them into different people doing inexplicable things.
One of my favorites was when Sara walks through the park to see a man standing next to tree with a bunch of whining dogs tied up to it. It turns out the man is digging a hole to bury the dogs in. He asks for Sara’s help, and she obliges.
But as the hole gets deeper, the man disappears, and the park’s residents, furious that this woman has stolen all their dogs and was planning to bury them, proceed to bury Sara alive! Yeah, talk about creepy!
Eventually, our family gets rid of the grandfather clock, but by then, it’s too late. The clock’s scratch-happy inhabitant has moved into the walls. And he’s not leaving until he turns a few family members into clock pie.
Just from this synopsis, you can tell there’s some fertile horror ground to play with.
But the script’s over-dependence on dream sequences made it hard to stay interested in. Dream sequences don’t fit well into movies. You should avoid them like gas station hot dogs. The few that succeed, though, tend to be of the horror variety. That’s because you can throw some creepy shit in a dream sequence and people will be scared.
However, if that’s all you’re doing, after awhile, the audience will pull ahead of you. They figure out your trick and get a general sense of what you’re going to do before you do. Once the audience is ahead of the writer, the movie’s dead. You can’t allow the audience to lead the parade.
For instance, we get a late scene where David is on a subway train and you just know he’s going to see something creepy (in this case, a woman with a weird screaming baby-face). Cause that’s how all these dream sequences have been.
1) Character enters location.
2) Something feels off about location.
3) They see something creepy.
The reason my favorite scene in the script was the Sarah-buried-alive scene was because it went against this formula. It was a different scenario that we weren’t used to.
This is something writers should be concerned about across all genres. Are they repeating themselves? Because if you’re repeating yourself in any aspect of the story, you’re giving the reader the opportunity to get ahead of you.
As I’ve said before, your job as a writer is to constantly monitor what you think the reader is expecting so you can give them something different. Use their expectations against them!
There’s a reason The Shining is more popular than movies like Suspiria and Jacob’s Ladder. All three films are good in their own way. But The Shining puts the most thought into its story. I strongly believe that audiences want to be led somewhere. They want you to take them. And if the rules get too blurry along the way, you lose them. Or at least, you lose a lot of them.
You also want to keep in mind that while this would probably make a really cool looking movie (there’s some creepy-ass imagery, that’s for sure), horror directors are experts in coming up with creepy-ass imagery. They don’t need you to achieve this part of the puzzle. What they don’t have, however, is the ability to come up with a captivating story. That’s where they’re weakest and so that’s your main way to tempt them. Give them a story they can’t say no to.
With that said, there’s something interesting about the writing here. There are some strong moments (the aforementioned buried-alive scene). I loved how Ashley SHOWED instead of TOLD in a lot of places. It’s just that, on the whole, it felt a little half-baked. You finish and get the sense that the fireplace storyline wasn’t thought through at all. You could’ve created some real tension in those scenes and punctuated it with a nice end-of-the-movie twist. Instead, the kids just go back into their tents and call it a night.
But hey, nobody said this screenwriting stuff was easy. Ashley’s got the tools. I’d like to see her use those tools to build a better foundation though.
Script link: Small Slices
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Beware the dream sequence in any of its forms. And if you are going to use it, use it sparingly. Most readers/audiences will get impatient if too much of the story is told in a formless state. Solid foundation-based storytelling is the way to go. Trust me!