Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Script Vs Film: An American Haunting

This film, starring Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek and James D’Arcy, seems to be getting terrible reviews all around. It hasn’t done very well in the States either, just kind of slipping away without trace.

I read the script in March 2004 when William H Macy, Helena Bonham Carter, Joseph Fiennes were attached to star. Interesting to note that they either must have all seen sense to leave the project, or received better offers elsewhere just in the nick of time. Or they could have figured out that the script was indeed a pile of poo.

Some of the quality of writing wasn’t bad but the story was groaning with cliché and didn’t make for a captivating or scary experience. A shame as it’s based on true events. It could have and perhaps should have found its place in the market.

Here’s my logline: “A woman finds a dusty manuscript in her attic, which tells the story of a wealthy family’s terror when they were haunted by an evil entity back in 1818.”

And my brief: “This is as about as scary as Peter Andre resurrecting his singing career: the script is surprisingly, and disappointingly, full of cliché and naff moments, which leads to an ambiguous and unclear resolution.” I wouldn’t ordinarily put in a gag like that but the company I read it for knew me pretty well at this point and I was their only reader so I felt I could be a bit more sassy.

Anyway, here are my comments. Spoilers aplenty but you’re probably not going to see it so it shouldn’t matter very much:

“This is a real corny horror/ghost story and it’s so full of cliché and naff moments that it’s hard to imagine that it’s based on a book by Brent Monahan. It tells the story of a wealthy family in Tennessee in 1818 who are terrorised by an evil entity and its revenge for the sins of the father.

But the story is poorly presented and structured. It opens in the present day where Elizabeth Swann has moved into a new house with her daughter Rebecca. Elizabeth finds a dusty manuscript in the attic and starts to read about the Bell’s ordeal in 1818 when the American haunting took place. So, the story CUTS TO Tennessee in 1818 and the remainder of the plot develops from here. But what we are presented with is hardly a gripping or scary story.

The crux of the situation is that an evil entity has targeted the daughter of a wealthy socialite to teach him a lesson about his previous sins and misdemeanours. This isn’t a bad situation per se but its dramatisation seems twenty years out of date and the spooky moments only have a comic effect. Mainly. Initially, some of the creepy and tense moments are intriguing but then the story becomes repetitive and unimaginative with its quality of fright, and the script starts to disappoint with its particular approach.

Basically, the unseen entity becomes more and more apparent in the scheme of things. It starts to talk to the characters and take on different forms, denying the reader/audience from being truly frightened or interested in its character. Indeed, once the entity introduces itself, it carries on haunting Betsy, the unfortunate daughter, but the implication is that the haunting has become a regular event, so this takes away the pace and urgency of what’s going on.

Sadly, what is going on is never clearly explained. A curse is put on the family over some dispute between John Bell, the patriarch, and Kate Batts, a local witch. But this instance is glossed over in the script, blink and you’ll miss it, and the lead up and implementation of this plot point is weakly done.

It’s blindingly obvious that Kate Batts isn’t responsible for the curse on the Bell family but the entity’s determination to haunt the Bells is never made clear because it changes from terrorising Betsy to terrorising John Bell. Apparently, the entity wants to torture John Bell anyway, no-one else, so why bother spending all that time terrorising the unfortunate Betsy.

The script tries to imply red herrings and shady characters but it all comes to nothing and unfortunately, the script’s explanation of events at the end leaves a bigger question mark than it did at the start. The entity has too much of a presence to be truly scary and all the visions, dreams and use of Ethereal Girls only provide bells and whistles to a fairly flat screenplay.

Some of the scene transitions are quite good and the writing isn’t bad but the more important aspects of plot and scare quality are sadly lacking, and the film distinctly under-performs. There are also one or two characters that have no valid presence or contribution and the script would do well to break itself away from the literary course of the book. What may work fine on the page doesn’t necessarily translate well to the screen. The dramatisation and conviction of this script seems to be somewhat out of date.

It’s not scary and it’s full of cliché. The ending is particularly frustrating because the reason for the entity’s haunting is not decently explained. In addition, the use of Elizabeth Swann in the present day seems completely redundant given her lack of importance to the overall situation. The bookend structure of her moving in to a new home didn’t do anything for the story and her shock of seeing her daughter being taken away didn’t provide a fitting finish. It’s all a bit standard and silly, and does not get a suitable recommendation.”


Lucy V said...

I am so sick of supernatural thrillers - in script form OR film. Seems to me they're full of Wayne's World "Diddly-do, diddly-do!" style flashback and random randomness passed off as reincarnation or "The Other Side..." speaking.

The first script I ever got commissioned on (deferred payment! Argh!) was a Supernatural Thriller. I got no artistic licence and to this day have no idea what the freaking Producer wanted...Apart from random moths big dusty books. With yes, Diddly-do-style flashback. Total nightmare.

Why do you think some writers and/or producers think narrative logic doesn't apply when the supernatural is involved, Danny?

Danny Stack said...

Hmmm, all about intrigue, red herrings and surprise twists I suppose.

Lianne said...

Hmmm, interesting you should say that Lucy - I get lots of scripts with supernatural elements that could work as tight, supernatural thrillers, but never quite hit the mark. I'd actually love to read a decent supernatural thriller though, would make a nice change to all the graphic but not scary horrors I get. A good, old-fashioned ghost story with plenty of suspense, is that too much to ask? ;-)

As for writers and produers forgetting narrative logic on these kind of films, my guess is they probably get carried away with the idea and the imagery, without actually seriously thinking about how to create suspense. Although that good be said of a lot of genre films - often they are just regurgiating the staples of the genre without thinking about the story.

Lucy V said...

Yeah, but you have to SET UP the intrigue, red herrings and twists...else you end up with a mad soup of weirdness, surely? It seems to me loads of films in this genre are just that.

Lucy V said...

Oh, OR, great minds!

I've just realised that tho I call Divine Rites a religious horror, some would call it a supernatural thriller. It has elements of the supernatural in it and hopefully it's a bit thrilling at least...and not a mad soup of weirdness.

Lianne said...

And going back to An American Haunting, isn't Elizabeth Swann also the name of Keira Knightly's character in Pirates of the Carribean?

Grubber said...

This is as about as scary as Peter Andre resurrecting his singing career:

The thing is, that is actually scary.

We gave you Neighbours, Prisoner, and Peter Andre. No need to thank us. :) If you give back the Ashes we can have Andre taken care of :)

Simon Trezise said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful and satisfying review. I agree with every word and am delighted I found your blog.

thatsillygirl412 said...

What the heck happened in the end? I feel like a sneezed and by the time i looked up it was over... Was there something significant with the package on the doorstep that Swann got? Someone explain!! haha

Anonymous said...

i just don't get the film i mean i like it and some bits are disturbing but i just don't get it like how all of it links together it's just so confusing i want to know the links if any one knows please email me with lots of detail to thanks

Anonymous said...

Spoiler alert: I thought the whole point of the ambiguity, that there is no ghost, no entity, is to hide the fact that the father is raping his own daughter? That was how I read it.

Lots of faults in the film but there are some nice visuals and directorial flourishes. The chase after the coach for instance is very well done. But the confused editing (Donald Sutherland's hair and beard changing colour, for instance) is just confusing.

And the bookends were completely unnecessary.