This one won't be for everyone.
Timothy Visentin's WHERE DEATH FOLLOWS is a dark and often brutal script, but there's genuine talent here. Of the submissions I read for my competition, this was the one I agonized over the most. No script had me as compelled at the start as the first four pages of this one did. It was a scene that in the wrong hands could have easily made me toss the script away. And yet...
I'll set the scene for you - we open on a hunter, Mason, walking through the forest with his 17 year-old son Michael. It has the feel of a father-son coming-of-age outing, as Mason points out their target and talks his son through lining up his shot and waiting for his moment. You can almost feel the fatherly pride as Michael says, "Got him." Yet when they go to collect their kill, all they find is blood, indicating a wounded quarry. Mason says they don't leave wounded, and insists his son finish the job. Michael tracks through the woods... and finds a man laying in a pool of his own blood.
Yes, father and son were playing out "The World's Most Dangerous Game." Even though I had read the logline "When the FBI guns down his father, the teenage son of a serial killer goes on the run from a relentless and unstable Federal Agent who will stop at nothing to see him dead" when I selected the script, it was completely out of my mind when I opened the PDF. I was completely blindsided by not just the reversal, but by the craft in revealing it.
(I can understand how a scene like this would push a LOT of buttons in a post-Newtown world. In all honesty, some of the material later in the script left me similarly conflicted. But I can still see this as a movie, particularly considering the low budget necessary to produce it.)
Before long the authorities come for Mason, who turns out to be a serial killer with dozens of victims under his belt. He provokes the cops into killing him, allowing Michael a chance to get away. FBI Agent Gabriel Reilly has been hunting Mason for a while and isn't about to let his son slip away - and it looks like we've got the trajectory for our script.
The resulting story isn't quite as much a cat-and-mouse game between killer and cop as I might have hoped, but it's still plenty compelling in it's own right. The script explores the moral compromises that Gabriel is willing to make to stop a demented killer, even as Michael befriends some college age kids who have no idea how dangerous he is.
Visentin is brilliant at generating tension on the page. There are a number of "Oh shit!" moments that ensure the reader will be at a loss if they're looking for a moment to set the script down for a break. Perhaps my strong investment in the first half explains my disappointment in one aspect of the back half.
This aspect would be Michael's relationship with Hailey. I never quite warmed up to Hailey as a character. She's a perpetual victim and around the time some thugs rape her, I felt the script had made a choice that was too conventional. When she was victimized (and later revealed to have a history of the same) it seemed beneath the script. Mostly, I was disappointed that once again a script resorted to raping a female character mostly as a way of motivating the male character.
Why didn't this same issue raise my hackles in CHAMBERS? This is partially because the storyline there made a female victim more logical. If a hack writer is going to kidnap someone as research for his novel, he's probably going to bow to cliche and make it a young woman. That's also offset by the fact that the victim in CHAMBERS wasn't the only prominent female role, with one of the other major roles being the female sheriff. Here, the treatment of Hailey felt less inspired and less justified and it was a struggle to buy into some of her actions late in the script.
And yet, I find it hard to totally dismiss the script on the basis that the second half of the story makes different choices than I would have made in the writer's place. The Hailey material is a minus for me, but absent that, the script makes choices that are sound and reasonable. Sticking to judging the script for what it is rather than what I want it to be, the back half rates AT LEAST a 7. With the first half coming in at a 9, I figure it's fair to average that out to an 8.
(The Black List reader rating came out as a 9, which strikes me as fair. Having read the comments of that reader, I mostly agree with them and I feel like they effectively represent the script's virtues to any curious industry users.)
Visentin is repped by managers Jennifer Au and Adam Marshall at Caliber Media, which is interesting because I've come to know Caliber Media as a place that often submits fantastic material that likes to test the audience's tolerance for violence. I've read at least two prior submissions from Caliber where I've thought, "This is a fantastic concept, great writing... it just goes a little too far on the brutality." From what I've learned, that's by design. I can appreciate the wisdom of that (after all, the memory of those specs still stands out among the hundreds other I've seen since them), even if I think in some cases those scripts would have been an easy sale had the writers been willing to tone thing down.
For me, while some of this material walks up to the line and even crosses it briefly, its virtues are far more plentiful. There's too much right with this script for me to hobble it based on those points. It's not for everyone, and though I'd prefer certain elements had not been included, my own taste cannot be the first and last word on this. I wouldn't be doing my job as a "first filter" if I got hung up on one element that's relatively easy to solve with a rewrite.
Click here to download WHERE DEATH FOLLOWS on the Black List.
Also, you can find the other two BSR- endorsed scripts: CHAMBERS and H8RZ on the Black List, or look up the reviews I wrote for them.
I'm afraid these are the only spotlight reviews I'll be writing for this batch. 3/8 is a pretty good ratio, and I'll add that I rarely give 3 considers per every 8 submissions even when I'm reading stuff submitted professionally. You guys did good. In fact, I enjoyed it so much from my end that I hope I can do it again some time. I hope some good things come from these reviews, and if not, we'll try again in a few months.