Screenplays-a-Go-Go

Latest update: January 25, 2022

Here is a list of scripts I currently have in circulation. Don’t let the date at the top of this post fool you–I’m updating it regularly. I’m including the scripts’ loglines (one or two sentences that push the characters and conflict) and what, if any, honors they’ve garnered so far. If you are a producer, manager or other industry professional interested in materials related to any of these scripts, please contact me at landrew42@gmail.com.

FEATURE SCRIPTS

  • Agave Agape (horror, sci-fi)
    • When a young gay man rents an apartment in a house where an eccentric scientist lives with her daughter, who has an odd relationship with the poison plants in their garden, he must resist taking part in their murderous designs or lose control of his life completely.
    • A loose adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic 1844 short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” now set in contemporary Los Angeles
    • Quarter-finalist, ScreenCraft Horror Screenplay Competition, 2022; semi-finalist, Other Worlds FF / Under Worlds FF, 2021
  • Birthday Beta (sci-fi, drama)
    • On the night before a cyborg expects to become the first “human” artificial lifeform, several time travelers visit to explain disasters that follow whether he does or doesn’t accept the upgrade, complicating his choice and the notions of “choice” and “humanity” themselves.
    • With a single location, a limited cast, and relatively few FX, this script is designed to accommodate a low- or ultra-low-budget production.
    • Selection, Bloodstained Indie FF, 2021
  • Boy in the Lake (teen horror)
    • An imaginative black teenage girl encounters a beautiful, supernatural, white young man who lives in a lake, but as she pursues him, she unwinds a history of occult activity tied to the lake and to the multiplying copies of the young man wreaking havoc all around her.
    • Semi-finalist, Hollywood Dreams IFF, 2021; quarter-finalist, Page Turner Screenplay Competition, 2021
  • Calling Cards (drama, thriller)
    • A lonely ex-professor receives a visit from a charming former student who performs a magic card trick that shows different ways, delightful and disastrous, that the evening could reshape their lives.
    • Finalist, The Great American Script Contest, 2021; selection, SoCal Film Awards, 2021; Best Feature, Psychological Thriller, Silver State FF, 2020; quarter-finalist, Screenwriters’ Network Screenplay Competition, 2020
  • Come Alive (comedy, adventure, sci-fi, LGBTQ)
    • A middle-aged gay couple’s attempt to rekindle their relationship turns into an absurd, hormone-fueled quest to defeat alien invaders and save a new LGBTQ society.
    • Hear professional actors read the first act or check out an interview with me that has some background about Come Alive, both thanks to the LGBT Toronto Film Festival!
    • Finalist, South Carolina Underground Film Festival; semi-finalist, RAINBOW Cinema Awards, 2020; selection, AOF Megafest, 2020; winner, live reading, FEEDBACK LGBT Toronto FF, 2020
  • Crash Café (thriller)
    • When a deranged but calculating man takes the customers in a café hostage by poisoning them and withholding the antidote, a strong-willed woman must lead the other hostages through a series of mind games so they can make it out alive.
    • With only one location–a single-room café–this script offers all the tension of a more demanding production without the demanding budget.
    • 2nd Place, Fade In Awards Thriller Competition, 2020; selection, Hollywood Dreams IFF, 2020
  • Crazy Time (horror, dark urban fantasy)
    • A traumatized woman’s belief that she suffers from a Biblical curse launches a quest in which she follows psychics, Satanists, preachers, and corporate executives toward an apocalyptic showdown with God.
    • Finalist, FilmQuest, 2020; selection, Shockfest FF, 2020; semi-finalist, Zed Fest FF & Screenplay Competition
  • The Dark Tetrad (horror, psychological thriller)
    • A gay man whose life is already in shambles attracts the interest of a young female serial killer who murders people around him, focusing suspicion on him while forcing a reckoning with his dark impulses.
    • Best Thriller/Horror Script, Hollywood Dreams IFF, 2021; finalist, Boston Screenplay Awards, 2021; quarter-finalist, Miami Screenplay Awards, 2021; selection, Marina del Rey FF, 2021
  • End of the Book (teen horror)
    • After unleashing monsters from cursed books, six teenagers must fight to survive a night locked in the shifting aisles of a labyrinthine haunted library.
    • Best YA Horror Feature Screenplay, Golden State FF, 2021; finalist, Best Feature Screenplay, The Thing in the Basement Horror Fest, 2020; semi-finalist, Los Angeles Crime and Horror FF, 2020
  • Familiar (horror)
    • When a black woman’s nephew is murdered by police, she uses an enchanted necklace that links her to a monstrous “familiar” who grants her wish for vengeance but creates an escalating cycle of violence.
    • Selection, LA International Horror FF, 2021; semi-finalist, Los Angeles Crime and Horror FF, 2021; quarter-finalist, Chicago Screenplay Awards, 2021
  • From the Walls (horror)
    • When a new arrival at a mental institution joins other patients in tracking down what they believe is a conspiracy involving the hospital staff, a mysterious basement, and shared hallucinations, she becomes part of mind-shattering and deadly events that could consume her.
    • Selection, Lit Scares International Horror Festival, 2021; selection, Shockfest FF, 2021
  • Idolatry (horror)
    • When a naïve college student becomes fixated on the leader of a notorious literary magazine, he risks getting lost in a world of decadent brutality and stylized murder.
    • Best Horror Feature Screenplay, Austin After Dark FF, Spring 2021; semi-finalist, Hollywood Dreams IFF, 2021; selection, LA International Horror FF, 2021; Honorable Mention, WriteMovies Fall 2020 Screenwriting Contest
  • Interview with an Alien (sci-fi, dramedy)
    • A woman who shares her body with a collective of microscopic aliens tells a life story intricately woven into sixty years of history, explaining why she will or won’t turn her back on Earth.
    • Runner-Up, Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy Script, Action on Film Megafest, 2021; Best Alien-Encounter Feature Screenplay, Miami International Science Fiction FF, 2021
  • Leanne’s Man (comedy)
    • As two nervous gay dads see their bright daughter through a series of dates from high school to college and beyond, they must balance their absurd overprotectiveness with recognition of her growing independence.
    • Semi-finalist, Filmmatic Comedy Screenplay Awards, 2021; quarter-finalist, ScreenCraft Comedy Competition, 2021; semi-finalist, 25th Annual Fade In Awards Comedy Competition, 2021; Gold Award, LGBTQ Unbordered IFF, 2021; selection, Action on Film Megafest, 2021.
  • The Masses (horror)
    • As the people of a small town succumb to infectious tumors that change their behavior, a strong-minded woman tries to save her children from the fascist nightmare that her husband and other townsfolk are creating.
    • Selection, Underground Indie FF, 2021; selection, Shockfest Horror Library, 2020; Honorable Mention, Hollywood Horrorfest, 2020; selection, Austin After Dark FF, 2020; Honorable Mention, The International Horror Hotel, 2020; selection, Shockfest FF, 2020
  • Miasma (horror)
    • As foul fumes fill their house, a couple in a strained marriage must fight through sickness, hallucinations, and violent impulses to save their children and escape.
    • Set in one location, a house, with only five characters, this script offers low-budget horror with high-octane thrills.
    • Finalist, Best Horror Feature Screenplay, Austin After Dark FF, spring 2021; semi-finalist, Filmmatic Horror Screenplay Awards, 2021; nominee, Best Feature Script, Independent Horror Movie Awards, 2020; selection, AOF Megafest, 2020
  • The Middle Reaches (horror/dark fantasy)
    • When five friends reunite to seek the truth about the otherworldly place where their high school friend disappeared more than a decade earlier, they journey into a dark realm of sex, violence, and creatures hungry to keep them forever.
    • Best Horror Script, Hollywood Horrorfest, 2021; semi-finalist, Stage 32 5th Annual Sci-Fi/Fantasy Screenwriting Contest, 2021; Honorable Mention, The Santa Barbara International Screenplay Awards, 2021; Best Feature Script, Bloodstained Indie FF, 2021
  • The Neighbors (thriller/horror)
    • When an insurrection led by white nationalists affects the entire United States, an interracial couple in the suburbs must fight off deadly attacks from their neighbors.
    • Selection, Shockfest Film Festival, 2021; selection, New York City International Screenplay Awards, 2021; nominee, Best Thriller/Horror Script, Action on Film Megafest, 2021; selection, Hollywood Horrorfest, 2021
  • The Phantom Cuckoo (drama)
    • Diverse members of an extended family attempt to adjust to changes in where and how they live while personal and political differences threaten to tear them apart.
    • Set in one location with an ensemble cast, this script does away with other budgetary concerns to focus on performances.
    • Selection, Filmmatic Drama Screenplay Awards, 2020
  • Sam the Rhino (mystery, thriller, noir, LGBTQ)
    • A trans private eye’s search for his missing mother leads him into a web of intrigue with a wealthy family who may kill each other—and him—before they can help him find his mom.
    • Best Overall Screenplay and 1st Place, Suspense-Thriller, Indie Gathering International Film Festival, 2020/2021; Silver Award Winner, LGBTQ Unbordered International FF; Gold Award Winner, L.A. Neo-Noir Novel, Film, and Script Festival, 2020; semi-finalist, RAINBOW Cinema Awards, 2020; semi-finalist, Action-Adventure, Creative World Awards, 2020; semi-finalist, New York City International Screenplay Awards, 2020
  • The Teenage Tasting Collective (drama)
    • When the soul of their group disappears, five teenage friends embark on a “summer of dissipation,” trying to stay together while grief is tearing them apart.
    • Quarter-finalist, SF Indie Fest Screenplay Competition, 2022; quarter-finalist, The Great American Script Contest, 2021; selection, The Thinking Hat Fiction Challenge, 2021
  • Their Father’s World (horror)
    • After they naively try to resurrect their father by opening a door between worlds, three long-sequestered sisters face supernatural and psychological attacks based on their family history while trying to escape their haunted house.
    • Visit this script’s custom website, which links to where you can buy the script on Amazon or view the script’s nifty trailer, also on YouTube.
    • Finalist, Best Horror Feature Screenplay, Oregon Scream Week Horror FF, 2021; selection, Screamwriting Festival, 2021; Finalist, 13Horror.com Film & Screenplay Contest, 2020; semi-finalist, Stage 32 7th Annual Search for New Blood Screenwriting Contest; semi-finalist, Lit Scares International Horror Festival 2020
  • Trouble at Home (drama)
    • When troubled siblings return to their childhood home to visit their mother, they confront her about a lifetime of abuse, but when she becomes violent, they tie her to the bed, pushing acrimony to life-threatening extremes.
    • Best Screenplay, Conquering Disabilities with Film IFF, 2021; semi-finalist, New York International Screenplay Awards, 2021; quarter-finalist, Filmmatic Drama Screenplay Awards, 2021

  • Undying (horror)
    • A white supremacist terrorizes a neighborhood. No matter how hard a diverse group of would-be vigilantes tries to stop him, the murderous bigot refuses to die.
    • Selection, Hollywood Dreams IFF, 2020; finalist, WriteMovies Horror Award 2019; finalist, 13HORROR.COM Film & Screenplay Contest, 2019; finalist, Big Apple FF, 2019
  • Unreal Anthony (drama)
    • A young man with a mental illness follows advice about trying to connect with new people, but his mind puts up barriers, ranging from the comic to the disastrous, that keep pushing connections out of reach.
    • Selection, AOF Megafest, 2018; 2nd Place, Drama, Indie Gathering International Film Festival, 2018
  • Wonder Drugs (drama, contemporary fantasy)
    • A woman with a mental illness tries new drug therapies and goes on a hallucinatory journey—through a giant garden, a mall in the clouds, a live volcano, and more—in search of a whole, stable sense of self.
    • Best Feature (Written Word) and Overcomer Award, Conquering Disabilities with Film IFF, 2020; selection, Hollywood Screenings FF, 2020; semi-finalist, Los Angeles CineFest, 2020; selection, Marina Del Rey FF, 2019; selection, Chicago Screenplay Awards, 2019
    • For a three-minute reading of a scene, compliments of the AOF Megafest, click here.

Some of my short scripts have also gotten some love on the festival/competition circuit, so I’ll mention them:

SHORT SCRIPTS

  • Charlie’s Mother (extreme horror)
    • A sadistic kidnapper teaches a self-involved young man a grotesque lesson in family values.
    • 3rd Place, Outré, Hollywood Horrorfest, 2019; selection, Shockfest FF, 2020
    • Based on a story from my collection Leaping at Thorns
  • Complicity (supernatural / surreal horror)
    • When a man starts accepting mysterious payments through the mail, he also starts sleepwalking–and people in his neighborhood start losing their eyes, ears, and tongues.
    • Semi-finalist, ScreenCraft Shorts Competition, 2019
    • Based on a story from my collection Leaping at Thorns
  • Hidden Subjects (thriller)
    • When a middle-class couple has dinner with a colleague fired for sexual harassment, double entendres thinly veil a darker secret.
    • Semi-finalist, Filmmatic Short Screenplay Awards, 2020
  • Selfie Stick (psychological horror)
    • A disillusioned millennial records and uploads intimate videos of himself, charting a decline into madness and murder.
    • Finalist, 13HORROR.COM Film & Screenplay Contest, 2019
  • Silence (supernatural / surreal horror)
    • After an insecure woman visits an unusual house, the people in her life gradually disappear.
    • Finalist/Nominee, Best Writing, Close Up: San Francisco Short Film Festival 2021; Semi-finalist, Your Script Produced! Studios: Season 2, 2021; 2nd Place, Supernatural Short Script, Hollywood Horrorfest, 2020; finalist, Hollywood Just4Shorts Film and Screenplay Competition, 2019
    • Based on a story from my collection Leaping at Thorns
  • Tapestry (supernatural / surreal horror)
    • Knowing her turn will come soon, an ambitious young woman watches her co-workers succumb one at a time to a malady she suspects is connected to the tapestry in her boss’s office.
    • Finalist, Hollywood Just4Shorts Film and Screenplay Competition, 2019
    • Based on a story from my collection Leaping at Thorns

CRAZY TIME and Flannery O’Connor

Horror, surreal distortions, absurdity, and religion: these are fundamental building blocks of my novel Crazy Time, and even though I don’t stand on any clear moral ground, since Flannery O’Connor was a master of using these building blocks in her fiction, I think I can safely claim her work in my book’s ancestry. However, I want to point out a closer connection with O’Connor, a tie of direct inspiration between her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Crazy Time’s first chapter.

You can read Crazy Time’s first chapter in the Amazon Kindle preview: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09QCVHRBJ/

In O’Connor’s first paragraph, the grandmother, who doesn’t want to go on the family trip to Florida but will go anyway, reads in the newspaper about an escaped convict, The Misfit, also headed toward Florida. She argues that the coincidence is a reason not to go. As she and the family travel, the grandmother thinks about how trips make her son “nervous,” and she brings up The Misfit again when they stop for lunch. The family and the restaurant’s proprietors generally discuss the world’s lack of trustworthy people and the fact that a good man is indeed hard to find.

Back on the road, the family soon gets into an accident and lands in a ditch. Toting guns, The Misfit and his two cronies find them. Conversation that is a delicate battle for the family’s lives ensues. As the criminals shoot members of the family, The Misfit, cold and detached, shares with the grandmother how he came to the conclusions that “‘crime don’t matter’” and that there is “‘no pleasure but meanness.’” By the end of the story, all the family members are dead, and the criminals move on.

One spark of inspiration for Crazy Time was a news article (unkept) about thieves deliberately sideswiping cars on the road so they would pull over. The thieves could then pull over with them and rob the cars’ passengers (or do worse) in isolation. The article struck me as good fodder for an urban legend, and the idea of criminals isolating victims on the roadside for terrible acts reminded me of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I’d loved the story since my teens, and I wanted to craft something with the same kind of tension and brutality. Crazy Time’s first chapter began to take shape.

The first thing I realized was that O’Connor’s story recalls (or perhaps predicts) more than one urban legend. Like many a legend’s late-night travelers who hear about an escaped criminal or lunatic on the car radio and later have a (typically deadly) encounter with the escapee, O’Connor’s characters reading about The Misfit in her story’s opening seems to seal their fate. Thus, when Crazy Time’s characters in the opening chapter—Lily, Eric, Kris, and Mia—notice that a pickup truck on the highway seems to be toying with them in their car, they think of urban legends and deadly outcomes with a kind of prescience.

Tension escalates as Lily and friends continue to imagine the worst, similar to the way O’Connor builds tension by having characters continue to discuss The Misfit and reflect on nervousness and the bad state of humanity. In both tales, the promise of the urban legend’s warning phase gets fulfilled when the protagonists’ cars end up on the roadside. In Crazy Time, the pickup truck sideswipes Lily and the others, and they end up trapped on the roadside with the men from the pickup, sadistic murderers who tease with conversation and certainly seem to believe that “crime don’t matter” and that there’s “no pleasure but meanness.”

The killers in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Crazy Time’s first chapter all display a sociopathic indifference to the pleas and suffering of their prey, but they behave differently (Crazy Time’s killers are much more enthusiastic), and the situations take different turns and have different outcomes. If my chapter is successful, though, it shares with O’Connor not only a vicious brutality but also a feeling of emptiness, a senselessness that might carry more global significance. I leave that determination to you.

Again, read Crazy Time’s first chapter in the Amazon e-book preview: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09QCVHRBJ/

A highway predator from Crazy Time… or an urban legend

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: The Library of America, 1988. 137 – 153.

Countdown to CRAZY TIME

Crazy Time: A Bizarre Battle with Darkness and the Divine is a strange beast, a literary horror novel, a dark, surreal, contemporary supernatural fantasy that offers scares and suspense but seeks to terrify more on the level of concept, filling your head with thoughts and images that don’t fit right and perhaps shouldn’t even be.

The blurb on the back cover about the story is brief:

Lily Henshaw, an agnostic, suffers from increasingly bizarre traumatic events that convince her she’s in a crossfire between God and Satan reminiscent of the Book of Job. She doesn’t take sides: preparing to confront even the Almighty, she follows psychics, Satanists, preachers, and corporate executives toward an apocalyptic showdown.

Don’t get the wrong idea from the God and Satan stuff. Although the novel deals with some of the Bible’s most disturbing material–extensively with Job, also with the Book of Revelations–its perspective would likely offend (or, put another way, be way too horrifying for) a supremely devout Judeo-Christian reader. Lily goes through so much trauma that, by the time swarms of locusts and prophesying ghosts/hallucinations bring her around to a religious way of thinking, she’s so pissed off at the universe that her stance toward divine involvement is perhaps irreversibly hostile. Her quest for relief from her suffering and for answers to the question “Why me?” does little to improve her opinion. Satan isn’t the hero of her story, but God certainly isn’t either. She is.

Crazy Time will be coming from Outskirts Press in the next two to three weeks. Outskirts is a company that helps people with self-publishing, so Crazy Time, my eleventh book to be published, will be my first (kinda) self-published book. I suspect I will write again about this publishing experience, so I’ll only make a few comments here.

Why Outskirts? There’s an entire book on Amazon dedicated to bashing them, and other bad reviews aren’t hard to find, many resurrecting the term “vanity press” to focus the (hopefully fading) stigma against self-publishing in general. However, the actual criticism of the company seems to come from people who didn’t know what they were buying… so far I’ve gotten exactly what I’ve wanted from people who have been friendly and professional, but I’ve had experience and research to guide me through choices that might make others whine. Yes, they do upcharge significantly for things that one can do on one’s own. One pays them to avoid the hassle of doing things on one’s own. That’s why I hired them. Otherwise I… would do everything on my own.

Why (mostly) self-publish Crazy Time? No, the book hasn’t been rejected by a long list of publishers. In fact, since I first drafted it in mid-2016, I haven’t sent it to any publishers at all. Although I’m not as avid a reader as I used to be, I haven’t read or read about anything in the horror genre coming from traditional presses in recent years that didn’t seem formulaic and/or familiar (and keep in mind that I specialized in horror for my Ph.D.). Story-wise, but also structurally and stylistically, Crazy Time is the kind of horror that I think many smart readers will enjoy but that traditional presses would poo-poo for being bad product. As for small and indie presses, though I did use one for my 2018 quasi-novella-in-verse The Great Sonnet Plot of Anton Tick, my experiences with them have not generally been the best, and they end up requiring financial investments, too. Ergo, the moment seemed right to try the “self” route. Who knows? It could work.

Why Crazy Time now? Since 2016, I’ve written two other novels I haven’t tried to publish as well as more than 30 award-winning screenplays (one of which is an adaptation of Crazy Time, my only adaptation so far of a novel-length work). Quite simply, Crazy Time is one of my favorites, if not my favorite, on the list of my writings. I was not well when I wrote it, dealing with a host of problems, notably depression and PTSD, the latter of which the novel is in some ways “about.” As a result, the book is an emotional and intellectual maelstrom, still a layered experience when I visit it, even when double-checking galley proofs (which is almost pure drudgery, for those unfamiliar with such processes). Also, I adore Lily Henshaw, certainly one of my best characters, even though she told me when I finished writing the book that she’d never speak to me again (and after what I put her through, no one could blame her). Crazy Time is as relevant to potential readers now as it was five and a half years ago, and I’m sharing it now because I’m ready and because I believe it deserves to be shared.

I expect to write more about the Crazy Time‘s genesis, the screenplay, and other issues I’ve mentioned here in passing. The book has yet to be born. It’s coming soon, in print and on the Amazon Kindle. I hope you’ll join in the fun.

Adapting “Charlie’s Mother”

I’ve published… ten?… books, but I’m still relatively new to screenwriting. Before a few weeks ago, I had written two features. One of them went out to two festivals: it was an official selection at one, and it placed second in the drama category at the other, so I got pretty lucky. The other went to a production company, got read (yay!), and got rejected (boo). And that was it until, recently, I started a mission to adapt several stories from my collection Leaping at Thorns, due to be republished soon by Three Bitches Press. I figured that getting the stories some exposure in the film world might help out the book, so I should try my hand at some short scripts. The collection starts with a story called “Charlie Mirren and His Mother,” one of the most horrific things I’ve ever written, so I figured there was no reason why the adaptation couldn’t start there…

Well, there was one big reason. In the original story, the title character, Charlie, is kidnapped, and something unthinkable happens to him. Later, something even more unthinkable happens to Charlie and his mother, Sharon. The original story is locked in Charlie’s perspective, so a lot of what it narrates takes place deep inside Charlie’s head. When events begin, he doesn’t know what’s happening, so he imagines different possibilities. When events involve his mother, he thinks about his relationship with her, reflecting on key moments from their past. All this thinking and imagining occurs, of course, with no dialogue or present-moment imagery. It’s a natural way for Charlie to escape what’s happening to him, but it’s not at all screen friendly.

Charlie’s past and his imaginings ultimately give his fate much more power, so I knew I needed to bring them to life somehow in the screenplay. I had to break down my prose and start over, building up a script. Luckily, with the help of an old gift certificate, I had recently acquired a copy of Final Draft software, and it has a handy mode that allows you to represent your story ideas as “beats.” I took my story and tore it into pieces, separating chunks of text into beats representing crucial moments or possible scenes. I then color-coded beats from Charlie’s past–using ROY G BIV to show their chronological order–and lined them up next to beats from the story’s present. With the story cut up in terms of time instead of consciousness, I figured out a way to run it so that the impact might unfold in a viewing audience’s mind like I had presented it unfolding in Charlie’s mind for my original readers. For instance, I took one of the earliest chronological moments, a tense-and-then-tender moment between Charlie and his mother, and made it the script’s starting point, whereas it appears in Charlie’s mind about halfway through the original story. While a couple of scenes from the past might play like flashbacks, overall they have more autonomy. To give them that, I had to flesh out the dialogue and characters more. Charlie’s past became more immediate, more real. I think the story might be better in script-form as a result. In any case, the audience gets more of him as a person, as well as more of Sharon, who hardly has a name in the original story.

Another major obstacle to adaptation was the original story’s tendency to lavish description on Charlie’s extremes of psychological terror and disgust. A good actor could do a lot with those emotions, but I needed more than acting. The solution I decided on was to have Charlie’s kidnapper observe his distress and talk about it with him, savoring the details. The kidnapper was already a sadist, but this new dialogue makes his sadism even more distinct. Again, by bringing the inside outside and detailing it, I think I have made the story more potent–I leave “better” to the judgment of readers or viewers who experience the sadism for themselves.

All in all, adapting was a good experience, far more creative than I anticipated. I’m happy with the results. I hope someone will come across them and want to film them… in capable hands, I think “Charlie’s Mother” could be an unforgettable horror show.

Suspiria 2018: New Blood in Nightmares of Power

Dario Argento has said in several interviews, including the one I had with him, that he saw no need for a remake of Suspiria (1977) and was generally opposed to the idea. I’m generally in favor of remakes of films I like, but I took Argento’s point. Remakes can’t harm their sources, and they might do impressive things with already-proven concepts—however, I assumed that a remake of Suspiria would suck. Argento’s Suspiria doesn’t offer much in terms of story or character to work with; in its greatest moments, it is almost pure style. In remaking such a film I saw a strong temptation to imitate, but I saw little room for productive play. In other words, I didn’t see where a remake could go, so I expected it wouldn’t go very far or accomplish very much.

I am happy to say I was wrong about Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018), which manages excellence by straying far from its namesake in some respects while staying tethered at key points. The look, sound, and pacing demonstrate the relationship succinctly. In place of Argento’s shocking palette of primary colors and assaultive sounds by the prog-rock band Goblin, the new Suspiria offers hypnotically drab greys and browns and the lulling experimental tones of Thom Yorke. The two approaches are almost inversions of one another, but they both result in dream-like atmospheres, in nightmarish worlds where witches seem likely to lurk.

 

Attached to Argento’s assaultive aesthetic is a tendency to pile one bizarre or violent set-piece onto another, leaving little room (or need) for character and story and allowing the film to come in at a tight 98 minutes. Guadagnino’s more meditative approach is almost an hour longer, 152 minutes, and it uses that time to provide what the earlier film denies. The new film uses the older film’s characters’ names and gives many of them the same or similar roles in a famous Dance Academy, but for a setting it trades in Freiburg and the fairy-tale-archetype-filled Black Forest for 1977 Berlin, which has a hard and specific reality underscored by news reports about terrorism and many lingering shots of the Wall. In their new setting, characters start over, developing backstories and nuanced emotional relationships that their more archetypal counterparts wouldn’t recognize. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is still an American newcomer to the Academy, but now she’s an untrained former Mennonite from Ohio who has issues with her mother that inform several dimensions of the film. Her backstory is perhaps especially important to her relationship with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), still the functional leader of the Academy and now a dark maternal figure for Susie. No longer campy and two-dimensional, Madame Blanc is prominent in the post-World-War-II dance world, having given the definitive performance of Volk (“people,” a politically suggestive title if there ever was one) in 1948. She treats Susie at times as a daughter and at times an apprentice, grooming her to take the role she once defined on stage and preparing her for a different role in a witches’ conspiracy.

Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc

 

What the witches—the teachers who run the Academy— are conspiring about is exceptionally vague in Argento’s film. Argento keeps their meetings offscreen (we overhear bits), but Guadagnino shows the coven in session, casting votes and revealing divisions as they choose either Madame Blanc or Helena Markos (also Tilda Swinton), the unquestioned head in Argento’s version, to go on as leader. Guadagnino’s witches are searching for a young woman to play a part in a ritual that somehow sustains the coven, which in turn sustains the women within it (the coven has protected the women through World War II and other catastrophes). The exact nature of the ritual is mysterious at first, but it does become clear. If, as several critics have argued, the earlier film’s coven provides a murky view of authoritarian power and violence, the new film imagines such power wielded by and for women who have specific goals—but their power is unstable. Resolving this instability becomes a major motivator for the plot and allows for multiple conflicts to unwind at the conclusion, providing an ending far grander in scope than the earlier film’s.

 

A central question for any viewer coming from the graphic violence of the 1977 Suspiria is likely, How does the witches’ power look on screen? The infamous opening sequence of Argento’s film, which culminates in the gruesome deaths of two young women in glorious Technicolor, is gone, but the 2018 Suspiria is anything but tame in its depictions of violence. Whereas Argento relies on camera movements and editing to suggest magic, Guadagnino exploits his source material—dance—and makes physical movement the stuff of spellcasting. Thus in one of the film’s most memorable and cringe-inducing sequences, Susie tries dancing the role Madame Blanc defined in Volk, and, as she channels the witches’ will, each of her jerky motions results in violent bends and breaks in another young woman’s body.

Dance works dark magic

At other moments, touching and hand motions pull off magical feats—bones shatter, arteries explode. While not as vibrant or elaborate, the violence of the 2018 film is just as extreme, and it’s located at the heart of the women’s profession, linking their physical power to their supernatural power. In this version, then, witches’ power—and perhaps women’s power—is deeply embodied, and their politics are literally and figuratively a dance that can break bodies apart. The breaking of bodies recurs in the setting, a broken Berlin, and makes resolving instability in the coven (and the larger political world) more urgent. The film’s trajectory drives toward a unity and stability whose cost is purification through violence, a heavy imprint of the fascism that the coven’s exercise of power ultimately reflects.

The dance troupe–a vision of unity through violence?

 

If the power the witches wield is ultimately fascistic, it is a sublime alternative to the power on offer by the patriarchy. Men get little representation in the 2018 Suspiria. Two police detectives stop by the Academy to investigate and get completely brain-wiped by the witches (who stop to fiddle with one of their absurd-looking penises just for kicks)—these men are a joke. The important male character is Dr. Klemperer (also played by Tilda Swinton), a psychoanalyst who makes the mistake of dismissing Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a student who flees the Academy and its witches at the beginning of the film, as delusional. Years earlier, he also dismissed concerns about Nazis pressed by his lover Anke (Jessica Harper, who plays Susie in Argento’s film), which caused him to lose her. He sets off on parallel investigations, searching for Patricia and Anke, and as a result he gets caught up in the witches’ conspiracy, taking on a role that demonstrates the relative weakness of psychoanalysis and male judgment before the power of the women who lure him into their rites. Suspiria (1977) and Suspiria (2018) are nightmares about witches, and thus they are nightmares about powerful women. The more recent film uses Dr. Klemperer to show how utterly a man might be diminished by the consolidation of a nightmarish form of female power, diminished not just in the present but in the revelation of a lifetime of impotence.

Tilda Swinton as Doctor Klemperer

 

On the surface, Guadagnino’s Suspiria looks and sounds almost unrelated to Argento’s, and a viewer looking for a repeat of Argento’s masterful sensual assault will leave the new film disappointed. What I found in the 2018 version is a film invested in the earlier version’s DNA—nightmarish reflections on power—combined with characters and storylines well-worth following. In addition to not wanting a remake of Suspiria, Argento has expressed dissatisfaction with contemporary horror. I don’t know if he has seen Suspiria 2018 or gone on record about it, but I think if it were a film of a different name, he might like it. It takes the art of horror film seriously, and it gets impressive results. That’s Argento’s legacy, and Guadagnino’s film, for all its deviation from Argento’s templates, fits perfectly.