Premise: Fifteen years after the witch trials, the scars of Salem are reopened when young women begin showing up dead. Desperate for answers, the town elders turn to a man of science to uncover the truth.
About: This one comes from flashy upstart studio/prodco STX, responsible for last year’s awesome, “The Gift,” and more recently, the bold first-person flick, “Hardcore Henry.” The script, which also landed on last year’s Black List, was penned by upstart writing team, Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richard.
Writers: Mark Bianculli & Jeff Richard
Details: 108 pages – 2nd Draft
A lot of people are comparing this project to the recently released hit indie film, The Witch. I’m about to get a little controversial here, but I just have to say it. The Witch sucked. That movie was garbage. Don’t get me wrong. It was wonderfully directed and the acting was great and the score was amazing, and the atmosphere was intense. But there was one, oh, minor problem. NOTHING EVER FUCKING HAPPENED!!!
I kept waiting for something to happen in that stupid movie and it never did. And finally, we get to the end where I’m hoping we’re going to finally get some sort of payoff for all this time and energy we’ve put into this. And instead we’re treated to the most vague b.s. nonsense climax in the history of cinema. It made me want to throw my TV into the ocean.
Yeah, but other than that, I loved it. :)
No, I bring this up because Salem Village taps into the same world as The Witch did. It just does so way better. There’s an actual story here. And it’s one of the better horror stories I’ve come across in awhile.
It’s the early 1700s. The town of Salem is slowly recovering from their witch trials, an event whereby the town clergy hanged a group of women believed to be witches. It’s been 15 years since, and Salem thinks of itself as a bit more progressive. So when a young woman in town starts exhibiting witch-like symptoms, they call in famous doctor, Robert Curtin, a man of science, to figure out what’s wrong.
The confident, and at times, arrogant, Curtin, arrives at the town Inn, run by a beautiful pregnant young woman named Anna, who’s been forced to run the Inn by herself as her husband has been away at sea.
Curtin goes to inspect the supposedly afflicted young woman, who lays in bed all day and acts possessed n shit. And just when he thinks he’s figured out what’s wrong with her (she’s been eating rotten grain), she dies. This is followed by the mysterious deaths of two other women, one of whom was plastered to her ceiling via a pitchfork. Sweet.
Some townspeople think nasty spirits are at work here. Others find it suspicious that these women started dying right when Curtin arrived in town. Curtin does his best to preach the gospel of science – that there has to be a logical answer to all this. But when a few more women turn up dead, his pleas fall on deaf ears.
Eventually we realize what all these women had in common – they were accusers of the witches who were executed. And Anna, the Inn Keeper and Curtin’s closest ally, reveals to him a secret – that she provided an off-the-record accusation of the witches as well. Which means she could be next.
As the town is whipped further into a frenzy, Curtin will have to decide whether they are too far gone to accept a logical explanation for all this. Then again, Curtin is starting to have his own doubts about logic. Could there really be otherworldly forces at play here?
I’m about to blow your collective geek minds here. And I don’t want to oversell this. But Salem Village was like The Wicker Man meets Seven meets The Exorcist. There, I said it. Expectations have been set. But I’m serious. On the Seven front, some of the death scenes in here were amazeballs. There’s a scene where rats eat a woman alive. How awesome is that?
So what makes this so good? I always tell you guys that the scripts that impress me the most are the ones where I don’t know where the story is going next, yet when the story goes there, it still makes sense.
Let me explain that in more detail. Anybody can write a screenplay where we don’t know where you’re going with it. I can write some stream-of-conscious bullshit that starts with a man stealing a car and ends with that same man turning into an alien and running a burger joint on the moon. You would have had no idea I was going there, but the lack of connective tissue between where I started and where I ended results in the experience feeling random and unsatisfying.
What’s MUCH harder to do is to create a series of unexpected plot choices that still make sense. So for example, I thought this was going to be a possession movie. Our doctor was going to come in try and figure out what was wrong with this woman. But then the woman dies at the end of the first act and it’s like, “What now?” And “what now” is that women start getting murdered. So now we’ve moved from a possession movie to a serial killer movie. And yet, the writers manage to keep it all under the same roof. Explanations eventually come up that allow all of this to make sense.
To find that balance and to pull those bold plot changes off seamlessly is hard to do.
Another strength here was the scene-writing and I want to highlight one scene in particular that really sold me on these writers. It had to do with tension. You want to create tension in your scenes wherever possible. But it’s practically required in a horror script.
So the large majority of the people in Salem don’t want Dr. Curtin here. They think science is bullshit and want him gone. One of the first scenes, then, has Dr. Curtin going to inspect the possessed girl. Of course, all the major town players (the reverend, the Mayor, the judge) all come with him as they want to see what he’s going to do.
We’d previously established that this woman attacked and maimed a young nurse. So we know she’s dangerous.
Now here she is, laying on this bed, staring at the ceiling, completely still. Dr. Curtin is forced to lean down over her, get very close to her face, so he can examine her. It’s a classic horror set up. You know that at any moment this woman could leap up and attack Dr. Curtin. So each moment his face is down there, inches from hers, you’re on the edge of your seat. There’s tension oozing out of every pour of the page.
And you know what? If the writers would’ve kept it at that, it would’ve been a fine scene. But what makes the scene great is all the men behind Curtin. None of them believe in him. They think science is bullshit – that otherworldly factors are at play here. So you feel THEIR TENSION as well.
And so you had this great moment where there’s tension IN FRONT of Dr. Curtin and BEHIND Dr. Curtin. And even though it’s one of the quieter scenes in the movie, that SQUEEZE provides the moment with tons of energy. It’s just so intense.
The one strike against Salem Village, and the thing that almost stole an “impressive” from it was the ending. Now there’s a twist here. It’s pretty good. It maybe could’ve been better. But it wasn’t the twist itself that was the issue. It was the explanation afterwards that I had an issue with. It was one of those “good but not great” moments. And really, it’s a victim of its own awesomeness. The rest of the script was so damn good that the ending had a lot to live up to. I’m still happy with it. I guess I wanted a little bit more though.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Look to create tension in a scene from multiple angles. Tension in front of your character works great. But if you can add tension behind them or to the side of them, or even from within them, that’s going to make the scene even better.