Premise: A college girl must fight off a series of hallucinations stemming from a traumatic childhood baptism.
About: Details about this one are sparse. It is either repped by or was sold to Heroes and Villains Entertainment last month (you can learn more about Heroes and Villains here). Riggs has paved his way into the business as a writer, director, and producer of a number of shorts. Other than that, all I can say is that it’s written by someone with the coolest name ever.
Writer: Ransom Riggs
To quote a certain Scientologist, Black River had me at “Hello.” A trusted source, someone who reads a lot of screenplays himself, thought the script was damn scary and insisted I give it a review. I admit I feel like a bit of an impostor reviewing these horror scripts sometimes. I’m not well-versed in the genre which is why you don’t see me venturing into the dark world much (and why I tend to leave those duties up to Roger). But I do like a good scary movie and, in a sense, probably represent the “mainstream” when it comes to horror films. I’m not sure why I put mainstream in quotes there, but anyway, for better or worse, it’s how I approach the genre.
What I loved right away about Black River is that it starts on a frozen river where a religious congregation is about to baptize an 11 year old girl (Henrietta). I’d never seen a baptism in a frozen river before and yet it’s such a strong image, both beautiful and frightening, that I immediately found myself drawn into the story. It also let me know that I was dealing with a writer who knew his shit. Coming up with a scene we’ve never seen before isn’t easy when you consider there’s 100 years of film history to compete with (though I have a feeling I’ve motivated a few cinephiles to prove me wrong in the comments section).
Anyway, Henrietta is the daughter of a preacher and lives in a town that takes its religion seriously. Which is probably why they couldn’t wait for good ole spring to come around – when I’d think it would be a little easier to baptize someone. The church members dig a hole in the ice, then proceed to dip Henrietta into the frozen lake. But during the baptism, something goes horribly wrong. Henrietta’s shoe gets caught on a branch and they can’t pull her out. She begins to drown, and in that moment, she looks down to realize it’s not a branch pulling her, but some kind of arm. And in addition to Sir-Arms-A-Lot, there’s also a girl down there. A freaking girl! Yikes!
Rest assured they pull Henrietta out and are able to resuscitate her. But the young girl is clearly thrown by the events. Was it all real? Or was it just a hallucination due to oxygen deprivation?
We cut to seven years later. Henrietta has ignored her father’s wishes and ran off to college, a world completely different from the secluded religious town she grew up in. She’s also dropped the “–ietta,” preferring to be called “Henry.” Henry, still scarred from that horrifying day, is more doped up than Zach Braff on the Garden State Special Edition DVD. Her life was a series of hallucinations, and pills are the only thing that keep Arielle from visiting her.
Henry eagerly gives in to college life, a fabulous world of booze and non-stop partying – and meets a fraternity boy named Blake who looks like he’s prowling for his next date rape, but is actually a sweet guy who starts to fall for Henry. In class, Henry’s hefty diet of drugs keeps her drifting in and out of consciousness, seriously hampering her ability to learn. After a little investigation, she comes to the conclusion that her preacher father has drugged her up in an effort to sabotage her college career so she’ll come back home.
In a scene that will leave drug-addicts everywhere livid, Henry flushes all her pills away, quitting cold turkey. And wouldn’t you know it, she feels alive again. The world isn’t in slow motion anymore. As this newfound celebration of life begins, her and Blake head to the bone zone, and then they’re, like, boyfriend-girlfriend soon. Has she done it? Has she really rid herself from the prison that’s defined her childhood?
What do you think?
After a couple of days that would make an Abercrombie ad jealous, Henry’s mermaid friend starts showing up again. I’m a little confused how there’s medication that keeps ghosts away in the first place (Is that benefit listed on the bottle?), but for whatever reason, now that she’s off the juice, homegirl who doesn’t seem to know what a towel is keeps appearing everywhere. Accidents start happening. People start dying. Henry has to convince Blake she’s not insane. And eventually, they go back to her old town to try and figure out the mystery.
Black River may have had me at “hello,” but it said goodbye to me somewhere in the second act. It’s in that second act where the script sorta heads off into the Land of Sparse Plotting. I forgot what it was we were after, and as a result, everything felt like a series of independent vignettes, the focus being more on scaring us than pushing the story forward. I guess I lost site of that throughline that ties it all together (for example, in Ambrose Fountain, the throughline for me was the relationship between the husband and wife). That’s not to say it wasn’t there, but it certainly wasn’t there for me. I just couldn’t find anything to latch onto to keep me turning the pages.
What’s upsetting about it all is that the movie starts out on such an original note, and yet later, we’re hitting up scene after scene that I’ve seen in a million horror films before. Going into the spooky basement, a tragic past event that haunts a town, a disgusting burn victim on life support, and of course, you can’t ignore the fact that we’re basically dealing with yet another dead wet girl. For these reasons my patience began to wane with Black River, and while there is some great imagery here that’s perfect for a horror film, the main character’s journey became lost on me. I didn’t really care what happened to her.
This very well may be one of those horror scripts that went beyond what I was willing to accept. It may not have worked for me personally, but if the premise sounds interesting to you, I’d suggest you give it a shot, because there are some things to like here, and my friend certainly liked it. It just didn’t fit into my admittedly narrow view of the horror genre.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I’m not saying Black River is a big ripoff. That’s not where today’s lesson comes from at all. But the dead wet girl stuff has definitely been done before and got me thinking about a lesson every writer should know: Be inspired, but only to a certain point. We’ve all done it before. We see a movie or read a script that we love, and we immediately think, “That’s exactly the kind of movie I wanna write!” And we go home and we start writing and we’re so fucking inspired that two weeks later we have a finished draft. We give it to our friends, await their praises, but are surprised when they come back with negative feedback. We’ve never been this inspired in our lives! How could they not see the script’s greatness?? Well, what likely happened is that you just wrote a script that was almost exactly like the movie that inspired you. The way they see it, you’ve shown them a not-as-good ripoff of a much better story. This happens ALL THE TIME. George Lucas infamously watched “Heidi” right before the making of the Star Wars Christmas Special and demanded to his writers “make it like Heidi.” The point I’m trying to make is, don’t let a great film intrude upon your own vision. Be inspired, but very conscious that you’re not just writing down a slightly different version of what you just saw. Always be original!