October 29, 2011

[Unfulfilled Hopes] Deader

Previously published at Hope Lies.

Last month, fellow Hope Lies contributor Rob Girvan wrote a great piece about the direct-to-video market and the occasional gems that can be found within. One of the more interesting aspects of the direct-to-video system is how completely original projects can be retooled under a brand label. Sometimes a completed film will simply have its title changed, as with 8MM 2 or several of the Wild Things entries. Sometimes, as with a few of the American Pie spinoffs, scripts will be bought that can easily be revised to tie them into the franchise. Heck, this isn't exclusive to direct-to-video, as none of the four existing Die Hard films featured the character of John McClane in their original incarnations.

Which brings us to today's subject: Deader by Neal Marshall Stevens. The script is undated and may have been written as far back as the late 90s. In a 2003 interview, Stevens says it's been several years since he last heard from Dimension on the project, so it likely predates his work on the 2001 remake of William Castle's Thirteen Ghosts, and may have been the sample which won him the initial writing job on that project before a handful of other writers (including Todd Alcott and James Gunn) threw their ingredients in the stew. His only other writing credits under this name are the 2010 film Super Hybrid, a short-lived indie comic called Havoc Brigade (another comic, Demon Squad, was announced in 2009 but never surfaced), and work as a writer and "creative consultant" on the early 90s anthology series, Monsters. Added to that are about two dozen credits for extremely low budget schlock films for Full Moon Studios under the name Benjamin Carr; works that include Johnny Mysto: Boy Wizard, Murdercycle, and several installments of the Puppet Master franchise. I can't confirm it, but he may also have been the Jack O'Donnell who co-wrote the film adaptation of Stephen King's The Night Flier.

So, yeah, Neal or Benjamin or whatever his real name is has been around the industry for a while and may even have several additional pseudonyms that haven't been uncovered. But we're not here to talk about that. Our subject is his spec script Deader.

[UPDATE: 5/7/2014 - On a forum a while back, Stevens clarified that Benjamin Carr was a house named used at Full Moon, largely for projects which went through multiple writers, all of whom Charles Band was reluctant to credit as that would mean paying more money. Stevens was head of the studio's script department at the time and did contribute writing to a number of the films under the Carr name, but not all of them.]

Amy Klein is a bitter, sarcastic young woman, often dressed all in black with yesterday's smelly clothes and indoor sunglasses from late nights and the strange company she keeps. She's a spreading name among journalists following an undercover expose on crack dens and drug culture that recently saw print, and her editors drag her down to the office for something they want her to look into. They've found a tape which shows members of the underground Deader society calmly cheering on a woman as she puts a gun to her head and pulls the trigger... then comes back to life shortly after, seemingly unaffected both mentally and physically, despite the gaping head wound. Amy's editors think the video is likely a fake, but send her off to see what it's all about.

Amy tracks the mailing address on the video to the apartment of Marla Chen. No one answers and there's a nasty smell coming from within, so Amy gets the super to open up. Sure enough, Marla is dead, slumped forward on the toilet where she hung herself with a bootlace. The super heads off to call police while Amy quickly searches the apartment for evidence, finding a planner for names and numbers. When Amy tries to reach around the corpse for something in the bathroom, Marla turns and looks at her, trying to speak around her bloated tongue. Amy bolts out of the place, nearly killing herself as she spills down stairs and races out the door.

Amy later tries to call some of the numbers, pretending to be Marla's sister, but the people on the other end pass the phone to someone who gargles in much the same way Marla did. With nothing else to go on, Amy visits a contact from her last story, a druglord named Joey who owns a traveling crack den in the form of a private subway car. He's a little miffed about his portrayal in the article, but still has respect for Amy's attitude, so he gives her an address where the Deaders are known to meet. With it comes a warning that, as twisted as the things Joey has fallen into, they don't hold a candle to the rumors surrounding the Deaders.

Stepping off the train, Amy sees a female figure slumped on a bench in a green rain coat. Amy recognizes the coat as Marla's and notices decay on the visible hands. Amy's attention is then drawn to a piercing man she recognizes as Winter, the leader of the Deaders who she saw on the video. Before she can encounter him, he runs and leaps in front of a train just as it enters the station. Amy turns to find Marla gone. Amy tells the driver someone has been hit and the cops are called, but no remains are found and she's labelled a nut. When she sees Winter and Marla exiting on the far side of the station, Amy tries to pursue, but she's busted by the cops. Her editors show up to spring her from jail.

Amy heads to the address Joey gave her, which leads into the basement of an abandoned industrial building and an extremely claustrophobic, narrowing corridor hidden within a bathroom. After finding herself trapped, Amy discovers yet another hidden door and enters a room where the entire Deader cult is assembled and looking right at her. They stare, but are otherwise not aggressive and Amy is led to Winter's office. He tells her that she's already started down a path from which she can't return, where the truth about reality is that none of it is real, and by mentally accepting this concept, reality and self can be manipulated, even to the point of avoiding death. This is all demonstrated when the table they're sitting at slowly morphs back into the form of the woman from the video in the opening scene.

The woman attacks Amy, but is thrown off by Winter who then hurls Amy through what seems to be a solid wall. Before this, he tells her that Marla is her chosen guide, despite Marla having lost the full acceptance of her condition and being trapped in a flux where she knows she's alive but believes she should be dead, leaving her a decaying thing.

Instead of shattering through a wall, Amy crashes through a pane of glass, finding herself in the shower of her own apartment. Amy calls her editors to say she's quitting the story, then collapses on her bed in exhaustion. As she's sleeping, a figure appears in the room, we hear a small "thud", and then it's gone.

Amy wakes up when she finds a dark fluid trickling down her shoulder. Her and the entire mattress are covered with the fluid. Stumbling to the bathroom mirror, she turns on a light and finds that it's blood. Her blood. Searching for a source, she finds a tiny little point of steel protruding from the center of her chest. Using the mirror to look at her back, she finds a knife embedded there. Amy tries reaching for the knife, going into sobs of shock at both the gruesome thing that's happened to her as well as the realization that she's not feeling any pain and she should be dead given that the knife is going straight through her heart. She eventually manages to pry the knife out with barbecue tongs and recognizes it as a stiletto from Marla's apartment. Just as she realizes this, she sees Marla's reflection in a mirror, beckoning to her. Amy shatters the mirror, but eventually calms down, throwing on clothes and doing her best to bind her seeping wounds with duct tape. Despite this, she continues to bleed throughout the script, leaving a trail of bloody footprints everywhere she goes.

Amy arrives at Marla's apartment and finds the other woman in a corner, squatting in the crime scene that was once her home. Marla's still gurgling until Amy helps her undo the bootlace noose that's still dug in her neck. Marla reiterates the mindset that led to her condition and expresses hope that being a guide for Amy and using the woman's entry into the Deader lifestyle will help her to somehow recover herself. Cracks start appearing in reality, creating shafts of sunlight that reveal police on the crime scene, where no body was found despite the lingering evidence of rot. These cracks increase and Marla says Amy needs to be the one to use her will to find a way out before the sunlight engulfs them. During the day, people are awake and Deaders are assaulted by mass conscious beliefs that can shatter the individual perceptions they create for themselves, so there's a underground Night World for them to retreat to. Amy eventually conceives of an exit point, a door hidden in the bathroom which leads to a flight of stairs. Marla and Amy descend.

They find themselves entering the kitchen of a grotesque restaurant where Deaders consume and are consumed. Amy is separated from Marla and overtaken by a group of bloated chefs, which includes a great moment where Amy brandishes a knife only for a chef to lift his shirt and reveal several blades that have already been snapped off in his torso. Noticing that she won't stop bleeding, a chef binds her and hangs her upside down, slitting her throat to drain into a sauce pan. Hours go by and the bleeding finally stops. Marla appears and tells Amy that's good, that she isn't bleeding because she no longer thinks she has to. Things take a turn when Amy starts to freak out, denying all of this as a dream and wanting to go back to her life. A creature of sewn together limbs tears into the room, taking Marla.

Amy wakes up. She's uninjured and in a hospital psych ward. Her editors are there. Apparently, she didn't wake up with a knife in her back that one night and was instead found unconscious and covered in vomit following a drug overdose. As they leave, Amy is relieved the situation is something she can understand, but then she has a doubt. Reality starts to crack and she's once again in the Night World, wounds to her neck and back once again in place, where she's confronted by Bob, a Deader we've heard mention of, who lost control of his perceptions and keeps shifting into different things. The entire hospital is full of lost Deaders who swarm Amy when Bob says she's new and will know the way back to stability. Amy hides in a closet where she's rescued by Winter. The man tells her Marla is almost lost, that she was the one who triggered Amy's transformation with the knife and Amy must complete the ritual so as to inspire Marla to regrasp her conceptual hold. Amy finds Marla on a slab in the morgue. The increasingly decayed girl can barley move and speak, but still manages to guide Amy through the ritual. Amy takes Marla's place on the slab and begins to recite:

"My skin isn't real. My eyes aren't real. My muscles aren't real. My bones, my heart, my veins and nerves, flesh and meat aren't real. What I see, what I hear, what I taste, what I touch, what I remember, what I think, what I feel, aren't real. I'm not real."

Marla starts to regenerate. Amy is given a revolver. She puts the gun to her head and pulls the trigger.

A month later, Amy's editors are still musing over the tape and wondering what happened to their reporter who disappeared without a trace. One editor leaves and the other keeps watching the tape, toying with the question of what it all means. Amy is suddenly in his office, asking him why he's watching it? What's he hoping to find? He doesn't understand and she tells him not to be afraid. He finally sees her eyes, which are pools of black infinity, as she says, "I'm not real."

I love this script. The central premise of perceptual reality manipulation could have come off campy, but Stevens goes at it with full sincerity and, through the characters of Marla and Bob, demonstrate problems created by the fallibility of the human mind as subconscious fears and doubts can slip in and affect otherwise clear and controlled thoughts. The separate dimension of the Night World is a bit much, and the grotesque kitchen straight out of Beetlejuice is never really explained and over the top, but I like the way this society needs to find ways to shield itself from the influence of the mass consciousness of the woken "real" world which becomes overwhelming once the populace leaves the dream state of their unrestrained subconscious. There's a very Philip K. Dick quality to the idea of reality only being what we make of it, and this script does a great job of bringing it down to a relatable level. Despite what she's going through, Amy keeps chugging along, wrapping her head around concepts simply because she needs to in order to move on, leaving a chilling little trail of bloody footprints in her wake. Marla, the bloated corpse woman, is adorable in her innocent teen girl quality of someone lured into the underworld crowd because they seemed cool, but then gives into her doubts and fears and never fully pulls herself out, leaving her trapped between two worlds.

The script is also beautifully written with crisp dialogue that gives even the smallest of roles some great distinction - like the superintendent who's apologetically trying to cover his own ass for having not investigated the smell in Marla's apartment, or the editors Larry and Bob, or the woman from the video who keeps popping up in strange forms - and the steady, vivid way Stevens describes bizarre happenings accentuates the reality of their unreality, if that makes any sense. As silly as it is, the kitchen scene is a full-throttle nightmare carnival house. The frequent encounters with Marla always remind us of the deteriorating condition she's in and her embarrassment and depression over it. The meeting with Winter takes a sudden turn from dry philosophizing to a surrealistic example of his teachings. The meeting with Joey on the train is both disgusting and amusing as he info dumps to Amy while getting a blowjob and someone keeps track of stops so they can cover all their windows before the car rolls into the next station. And the knife scene. Oh, the knife scene. It goes on for about five pages and is absolutely horrific and gripping as it plays out one of the worst things a person would never even dream of waking up to. That scene is truly one of the best I've ever read.

I'm sure many of you noticed the story does follow a bit of a similar path as The Matrix, particularly the idea of perceptive manipulation and the way Amy is slowly drawn into the mystery of things before encountering a leader who tells her she's crossed the point of no return. We've established that Stevens sold the script to Dimension several years prior to 2003, and he likely wrote it and shopped it around the studios a bit earlier, which could believably overlap the 1999 release date of The Matrix - not to mention the 1998 release of the similarly themed Dark City. I honestly don't know if this was something written as a different take on those films, one of which was an instant cultural icon, or if it had the misfortune of being so similar that it was shelved following their release, much like Corey Mandell's Metropolis, which Ridley Scott was all set to direct before The Matrix stole its thunder. No matter the origins, the script is still a solid read and would have made for an interesting film in the hands of the right filmmaker.

Unfortunately, it sold to Dimension, which doesn't exactly have a great track record of intelligent handling of things (remind me to write about Brendan Hood's They one of these days). The script sat on a shelf until 2004/05, when it was dusted off and rewritten by an electrician grip turned screenwriter by the name of Tim Day. As with Day's first credited script, Deader was retooled as a direct-to-video sequel to the Hellraiser franchise, specifically part seven in a series of nine. (Stay tuned this weekend for a separate piece I'm doing on the entire batch.)

Cinematographer Rick Bota (probably best known for shooting House on Haunted Hill and numerous episodes of Tales from the Crypt) signed on as director and the New York setting was shifted to London and Romania so as to save money on the four million dollar budget. This doesn't really detract from the story as much of the same atmosphere is still present. Amy is played by Kari Wuhrer, an underrated actress often stuck in schlock, who grunges herself up and nails the attitude of Amy. In fact, while a little clunky, the first 60 pages or so of Stevens' script make it to screen almost entirely intact, with Bota mostly capturing the increasing sense of mystery and tension as Amy is lured into a bizarre underworld. Heck, even the scene of Amy waking up with a knife in her back is entirely intact and excellently handled, with neither the director nor actress shying away from the full horror of the drawn out sequence.

There are changes, most of them light in the first half - Amy's yin/yang pair of editors have been combined into one, Joey has a past with Marla instead of Amy - but the differences significantly increase as pretty much everything from the original script that comes after the knife scene is discarded and rewritten from scratch. Joey comes back and is revealed to be a Deader. Marla (Georgina Rylance) is still Amy's guide of sorts, but instead of being an innocent also struggling with her condition, she's much more cryptic and sinister, yanking Amy from one experience to the next. Apparently, as part of the conversion, Amy has to sort out her unfinished business and "solve the puzzle" (I see what you did there) of her life. This is shown through her screaming as she relives the buried childhood memories of stabbing her father to death after suffering his constant abuse and molestations. This adds nothing to her character, is really shoddily shot, and they even try to thematically tie the father's stabbing to Amy's, even though they were under completely different circumstances.

And then the Hellraiser angle comes in.

When she found the corpse of Marla, Amy also recovered the Lament Configuration, the puzzlebox used to summon the guardians of Hell's sweetest torments. AKA, The Cenobites. Apparently, Winter (Paul Rhys, wearing Chris Angel's hair) is a descendant of the puzzlebox maker (see Hellraiser: Bloodline) and has found a loophole in the magical magic that allows him access to the same immortality and invulnerability to pain as the Cenobites, but without being bound to their rules and calling. After Amy solves the puzzle box, Pinhead appears, tells her he owns her soul, and drafts her as a soldier to infiltrate the Deaders. Which she does.

In the big climax, Amy wakes up, still surrounded by Deaders on the day she first met them, revealing everything after that moment (the knife, the Marla quests) to have been entirely in her mind. She's given a knife. Now that she's sorted out her will, it's time for her to stab herself and become a Deader. Instead, she grabs the puzzle box, the Cenobites show up, and lots of light and gore effects come into play as everyone is strung up with hooks.

Just as Pinhead is about to claim her soul, Amy finally plunges the knife into herself. It's unknown if she died or if she managed to complete the process, continuing to live on out there in a state free from death.

It's not a terrible film. The cast is mostly solid (Marc Warren is especially memorable as Joey), the look is surprisingly striking and varied given the budget, the first two thirds of Amy's journey are almost as captivating as they are in the script, but it just can't escape being an unfortunate failure. As I admitted, there were problems in the second half of the script, but this revision didn't fix them. The Cenobites feel shoe-horned into a story that lacks any form of satisfying climax, and the attempts to fuse their mythos with the Deaders just doesn't work. And by revealing much of the story to be a hallucination, they rob scenes like the knife bit and the journeys with Marla of their unnatural power. If they aren't really happening, they have no sense of consequence.

Neal Marshall Stevens wrote a great script that could have been made into something special, but it ultimately fell into the hands of bad producers who tossed it into the direct-to-video slushpile. The crew involved made a valiant effort to save it, but by that point, it had already been broken.

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