Waiting For The Green Light
From July 2017 until very recently, it was my job to read and review scripts and consider them for their viability as potential future movie productions. While I was working within very narrow strictures- I was primarily looking for horror scripts, and horror scripts with a very specific sensibility at that, in addition to gritty genre thrillers – I had the privilege of reading a diverse array of projects from a wide variety of individuals. On average, I read about nine scripts per week (yes, really – @moviemakingrach can confirm); by my calculation, as of June 2020, I’d read something in the neighborhood of around 1,400 scripts. Some were good, some were bad; yet every once in a while- maybe about twice a month or so- I’d come across a script that wasn’t simply enjoyable and well written,Iconsbut that really stood out– something so engaging, or unique, or why-hasn’t-anyone-ever-done-this original that it made me sit up and take notice and remind me why I wanted to do development in the first place.
One of the bummers about being the low man on the ladder is that for all of your enthusiasm about a project, it’s got a lot of rungs to climb to make it to the top, and nothing ever came of 99% of the scripts I championed, for reasons too multitudinous and irrelevant to get into here. The point is, there are dozens of fantastic writers with amazing scripts out there just waiting for someone to dump a bag of money in their lap and get their project made. My purpose in this list is to try and draw some attention to them, and maybe get some wheels turning during quarantine so that some of them might finally see the light of day when filming resumes. If nothing else maybe a spotlight can finally get shone on some deserving writers.
Please note this is not a definitive list and I’ll probably either add to it or write another down the road; and please don’t be offended if you know I’ve read something of yours and don’t find it here. I have a good memory but not THAT good– remember, 1,400 scripts and all, and I haven’t got all of my old emails.
So, people of the genre world, please find below the best unproduced scripts I’ve had the pleasure of reading.
ICONS by Chris & Kathleen van der Kaay (@ckvanderkaay)
I encountered a lot of ugliness in my time reading but this is a script that’s always stuck out to me for its sweetness and ingenuity. Especially in an era in which fan culture has become increasingly toxic and problematic, Icons is a warm-hearted love letter to the better angels of horror fandom. The script is a sort of riff on the Christopher Guest school of mockumentary by way of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: a documentary crew follows Barbra Crampton, Jeffrey Combs, and other 80s-90s horror luminaries on the convention circuit, exploring the highs and lows of celebrity life when the cameras aren’t rolling. Trouble ensues when they learn that- due to a cosmic slipup- their icon status has led to them becoming _literal_ godlike entities, necessitating a Beetlejuice-Esque journey into the bureaucracy of the hereafter to set things right and regain their humanity. By turns funny, engaging, and keenly observant on the fleeting nature of cult celebrity, Icons has the potential to be a broadly-accessible tribute to the genre itself and the ersatz family that’s sprung up around it.
DEAD AIR by Chris la Vigna (@Chris_LaVigna)
There’s a genre of horror movies I’ve only ever been able to describe as “Night of the Comet Films.” Movies like Comet, Night of the Creeps, Vamp, Monster Squad – movies that exist in their own self-contained worlds with their own set of rules and their own unique ambience. Dead Air is one of those movies. Decades after she was murdered by her corrupt manager Eddie, 80s one-hit-wonder Roxanne returns from the grave as an undead ghoul when a hapless DJ decides to play one of her records during his all-night Halloween show. Not simply content to seek revenge on Eddie, Roxanne cryptically sets her sights on a trio of sisters who have to reunite and band together to figure out why they’ve been targeted for death- and how they can break Roxanne’s spell to survive the night. With great set pieces at a drive-in theater and a punk club besieged by the undead- not to mention the primary narrative unfolding in a now-possessed radio station – Dead Air has got the potential to join the canon of Friday-night popcorn horror flicks.
LOCK-IN by Brea Grant & Kit Williamson (@breagrant)
A nominally single-location horror script that’s primed for post-COVID production, Lock-In is a beautiful homage to the 90s slasher cycle with some contemporary touches that serve to make it a simultaneously nostalgic and culturally relevant. In 1990s East Texas, a girl and her closeted best friend find themselves forced to fight for their lives – as well as those of their classmates – when they’re the only people to realize that a group of hooded figures have begun slaughtering the attendees of the church lock-in they’ve been forced to attend for “misbehavior.” Grant’s got her thumb firmly on the pulse of 90s-era youth-group culture, and anyone who came of age during the Evangelical resurgence of the 1990s and early 2000s will surely find a lot to love and loathe here. What I thought was especially intriguing is that the script is both a searing indictment of right-wing religious hypocrisy and a serious study of the nature of faith and how it can exist outside of corrupt human institutions. Set almost entirely within the confines of a megachurch, the script’s a logistically simple and inexpensive shoot with excellent roles for a diverse cast. Especially with the 90s nostalgia vibe it strikes, this one’s got the potential to go down as this generation’s “I Know What you did Last Summer.”
YANKEE ROSE by Mitch McLeod
Emerging as something of a cross between The Witch and The Neon Demon, Yankee Rose is a surprisingly affecting story about growing up, moving on, and the beautiful love that can form between a coven of witches. Susan is a fifty-something, unhappily divorced coroner still reeling from her breakup with coarse, alcoholic Roy, whose stint in AA has only turned him into the kind of self-righteous, self-satisfied hypocrite who’s traded the addiction of booze for the addiction of religion. Trying to find solace in a string of unsatisfying one-night-stands, Susan finds herself feeling the first true stirrings of love after she happens to meet the mysterious and empathetic libertine artist Allison, who introduces her to the joys of witchcraft. As Roy begins making overtures towards a reunion– and sinking deeper into the unique brand of toxic masculinity his new church cultivates– Allison counterintuitively finds herself contemplating a fresh start for herself, a loggerhead that becomes a countdown to tragic consequences. Can an intervention from Satan herself save the day? Thematically rich and deep, the script serves as a fascinating look at the patriarchal dominance inherent in both mainstream Christianity and American society as a result, with witchcraft and the feminine divine as the antidote. Told in something approaching the manner of a David Mamet play- an acid-tongued diatribe given by Roy after falling off the wagon stands as one of the best monologues I’ve ever read – Yankee Rose pays more attention to characterization and interpersonal dynamics than most scripts I’ve read, and the results are truly arresting.
THREE BLIND MICE by Kerry Douglas Dye (@kddye)
I enthusiastically described this as being a fantastic Southern Gothic tale that’s equal parts Flannery O’Connor, Tales from the Crypt, Carson McCullers and Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Set in an indeterminate period between the 60s and the 80s, the script follows a trio of criminals – father Carter and sons Rayell and Billy – who troll the backroads of rural America in search of the next big score; although dad is a cold-blooded killer with no compunction when it comes to whacking motorists just to have a new set of wheels, Billy is growing tired of the mindless cruelty and wants to break free of his old man to pursue a career as a writer. Realizing they’re near the farmstead of one of his old cellmates, Carter decides to stop by and call in an old favor. As it turns out, Elmer isn’t quite the criminal Carter remembers, having degenerated into an alcoholic wreck who relies on his wife, Mercy, to care for him and their beautiful teen daughter Juliette. As a romance quickly blooms between sensitive Billy and the sheltered Juliette, it slowly emerges that Elmer and Mercy are keeping a ghoulish secret, and what should have been a simple job becomes a journey into a uniquely Southern hell. Equal parts gruesome and gut-wrenching, romantic and elegiac, Three Blind Mice hits lots of notes at once and hits them with aplomb. If you ever wondered how Texas Chain Saw would’ve ended if Sally had fallen for Leatherface, here’s your answer, and it’s more genuinely touching and satisfying than you’d imagine.
THE DREADFUL by Natasha Kermani
Remakes/reimaginings can be very hit or miss; Natasha Kermani’s reconceptualization of Onibaba as a medieval folktale about a peasant woman succumbing to lust, paranoia, and isolation falls into the latter category. Set against the haunting beauty of the Cornish cliffs, the script tells the story of Anne, who lives with her mother-in-law, Morwen, while her husband, Seamus, fights in the War of the Roses. Cut off from the rest of the outside world, the women have resorted to building a false signal light on the cliffs to lure sailors’ ships onto the rocks below, pillaging the wrecks for goods and food and killing the survivors. When Seamus’s handsome, single, childhood friend, John, returns home to inform her that her husband was killed, Anne enters a period of mourning that quickly morphs into erotic fascination. As the couple’s forbidden affair heats up, they face a pair of insurmountable-and deadly- obstacles: Morwen, who sees Anne’s potential departure as the end of their shipwreck scheme; and a demon of the literal variety who’s begun to stalk everyone involved. Told with eerie minimalism and eye for atmospherics, The Dreadful is an example of retelling an old story with some new twists, and it would make a killer A24 production.
REWIND by Tyler Clifton
Tyler took the direct route by sending me this script via snail mail as part of something approaching a loot crate – inside the box was a “blood-splattered” envelope containing the script and a postcard ostensibly slipped into a serial killer’s mail by the victim chained in his basement. Of course I was intrigued, and the gambit paid off. An enjoyable throwback to the days of early-90s SOV horror, Rewind is retro done right, telling the tale of a trio of horror-obsessed teens in late 80s suburbia who get more than they bargained for when their rental of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on Halloween night turns out to be an actual snuff film. As it turns out, a local serial killer is also a horror movie fan, and got his tapes mixed up when he returned them in the ultimate case of not being kind and not rewinding. What results is an all-night flight for their lives as the kids come to realize the killer has gone on a clandestine killing spree, picking off everyone who’s rented Texas Chain Saw in recent days, using a pilfered rental catalogue as an impromptu hitlist. With a cool double-climax set both in a suburban torture chamber and a neighborhood haunted house, it’s an excellent low-budget homage to low-budget horror that lands in a great sweet spot between pushing the nostalgia button and adding an author’s own personal twist to a subgenre.
KEPT by Emily Bennett and Justin Brooks
What if the ghosts haunting your boyfriend’s ancestral home weren’t trying to scare you, they just really, really sucked at communication? That’s the situation facing the protagonist of Kept, a recovering drug addict whose grandmother’s accidental death on her watch scares her and her boyfriend into cleaning up their act. When he learns that he’s inherited his parents’ beautiful woodland estate, the pair decide to use it as an opportunity to get a fresh start, intending to sell the place and use the money to finance a much-needed move. As it turns out, the house comes with not one but two unexpected guests: boyfriend’s brother, a sweet-natured but dangerously unhinged creeper who was supposed to have moved out long ago; and the bevvy of ghosts that roam the grounds at night, and who take a sudden interest in our heroine. A sort of rural American take on Crimson Peak, Kept does gothic right, a damn hard task in the modern age. Cool bonus points: Bennett based the elaborate house in the script on her family’s own estate, where she plans to shoot the film. If you’ve ever felt that US horror cinema needed more family gothic epics, this one’s for you.
THE ADVENTURES OF RAT GIRL by Nicolas Curcio (with thanks to @RebekahMcKendry)
Imagine if Scott Pilgrim were re-imagined by Diablo Cody as an acid-tongued, female science geek and you have something of an idea of the wonderous joy that is Rat Girl. Coming to life as something of a cross between Mystery Men and Heathers, the script concerns the titular heroine, whom we first meet being carted out of a destroyed aquarium on prom night while decked in full-superhero costume. From there we backtrack to her humble origin story as the new girl in school who quickly discovers that her love of STEM puts her at odds with a Mean Girls-style group of queen bees who call themselves The Betches and exploit social media to ostracize POC, the LGBT community, and anyone who crosses their paths. Discovering her kindred spirits in the form of the other students who’ve run afoul of The Betches, Rat Girl rallies the school’s underclasses into an impromptu junior superhero squad who find their voices and their identities by telling stories in which they fight supervillains based on their real-life foes. As the painful realities of adolescence and growing up begin to seep into their fantasy world, though, the group find themselves forced to step up and apply the lessons they’ve learned about themselves to fight some very real threats. @RebekahMcKendry brought this to my attention about two years ago and it’s never left me. With all the potential to be the Millennial (Gen Z?) Heathers, this is a movie that needs. To. Be. Made.
BLOOD LAW by Adam Simmons
New Hollywood homages are hard to do right, and it’s very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that all you need are 70s aesthetics and retrograde attitudes. Adam Simmons’ Blood Law intuitively gets the ethos of New Hollywood cinema, while simultaneously stripping away the seedier aspects of the era. Set between the dying 1970s Southwest and the glitz and glamor of the Carter-era Hollywood it seeks to memorialize, Blood Law tells the story of disaffected Vietnam vet John Rainbird, a Lakota Sioux who returned home with scars of the physical and metaphorical variety. Having drifted in and out of trouble with the law, he finds himself on his last legs when he intervenes in a domestic dispute at the drive-in where he works and dispenses a little too much justice on a man beating his girlfriend. Awaiting trial, his father – the chief of the local Lakota reservation – bails him out and offers to use his political connections to spare him a stint in prison, on the condition he tracks down his missing teenage niece, who’s recently fallen in with a rough crowd. As his father admonishes him, though, there’s a chance the girl is dead, in which case he’ll have to put family honor ahead of fears of incarceration. Boasting a taciturn hero who’s more heartful – and strangely wholesome – than the cold-blooded bruisers he’s playing up, Blood Law is Rolling Thunder for the Netflix generation, beautifully paying homage to the works of Scorsese, Raffelson, and Altman at the same time the script playfully namechecks them.
FILTH by Paul Salamoff (@PaulSalamoff)
Speaking of New Hollywood homages, Paul Salamoff’s Filth answers the intriguing question of what would happen if Travis Bickle were a bit more well-adjusted and truly altruistic. The script concern sheltered mama’s boy Kevin, who’s finally decided to break free from the ultra-religious strictures of his small midwestern town by going to college in the big city. Once there, he agrees to check in on his estranged cousin, who dropped off the radar after making a similar flight for freedom. Not only does Kevin discover she’s been surviving by working as a call girl, she’s recently gone missing after accepting a gig working for a local businessman with a shady history. Discovering the police less than sympathetic to the plight of a missing sex worker, Kevin soon finds himself working the case with the help of his cousin’s best friend, Reyna, a worldly-wise streetwalker for whom he finds himself developing the first stirrings of love. The script has a psychological realism and complexity to it that’s refreshing, and both Kevin and Reyna spring to life as fully-formed, fully-realized human beings whose developing relationship never smacks of Manic Pixie wish fulfilment. Equally daring in its willingness to be brutally uncompromising and sweetly sentimental, it’s a movie that would’ve had 70s-era Paul Schrader salivating.
THEY TOOK THE KIDS by Josh Capps and John McNally
Nic Cage was interested in this at one point prior to COVID, if that tells you anything. An ageing martial arts instructor uses his dojo as a place to train the children of his town to defend themselves after his own daughter was abducted and murdered decades ago. When his students are kidnapped one day in an elaborate operation carried out by trained professionals, he sees a chance at redemption and sets about a one-man campaign to get them back, slowly unravelling a complex murder conspiracy in which the missing children are being used as blackmail pawns, calling upon some of his now-adult former pupils to employ their skills in aiding him. What’s so great about this script is that it weds some nicely conceptualized action sequences to a genuinely twisty and unpredictable mystery that’s never as simple or easily untangled as it seems, along with some great attention to characterization that puts our Sensei outside the bland scope of “ageing taciturn tough guy.” Bonus points for a subplot involving the missing kids attempting to orchestrate their own escape attempt, utilizing the skills they’ve learned to gruesome effect against their kidnappers.
DOGBITE by Paul Holbrook (@holbrook99)
I struggled to come up with the right analogy to describe this movie and the best I ever came up with was “John Waters meets John Woo” and even that doesn’t do this uniquely insane script justice. The closest I’ve come to a genuinely original script that at once pays homage to the gritty, over-the-top West Coast grindhouse films of the 70s, Dogbite tells of a middle-aged biker who takes his wife, baby, and delinquent son to an isolated desert town in the hopes that it’ll prove a fresh start for them after Junior ran afoul of drug dealers back home. It’s not long before he finds himself falling back in with a seedy element, although “seedy” here belongs to a different dimension. As it turns out the town is de facto run by Billy, an obese, rotten-mouthed cowboy drug lord who rules with an iron fist from a palatial estate in the mountains. With a penchant for worming his way into people’s heads and slowly breaking them down for his own amusement, Billy sets his sights on making Junior his latest “project,” instigating a one-man war between a proud papa and the forces of darkness itself. One of the most uncomfortably funny scripts I’ve ever read – the dark humor and taboo-breaking here goes neck-and-neck with Pink Flamingoes and The Greasy Strangler – it’s also one of the most heinously violent and surreal, featuring such set pieces as a shootout that lasts for weeks (told via time-lapse and title cards) and a samurai sword fight involving a guy in his tighty whiteys. A classic of subversive trash cinema waiting to happen.
RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL by Craig Richards
What if Donnie Brasco was sent undercover to infiltrate Tony Montana’s coke ring, but everyone involved was a woman? That’s the question that “Running with the Devil” poses, and the answer is “it’s awesome.” After her father is murdered while investigating cartel activity, journalism student Kim is offered a unique opportunity when the FBI informs her that another young woman in her economics class, Gloria, is, in fact, the beloved cousin of Rosa “The Cocaine Queen” Gonzales, the very jefe who ordered his death. Agreeing to buddy-up to her in an effort to pump her for information and potentially get close to Rosa, Kim finds her loyalties divided when the women develop a sisterly bond and she comes to learn that Gloria hates her cousin as much as she does. After they survive an assassination attempt by a rival cartel, they’re whisked away to Rosa’s compound, where – away from the safety of her FBI handlers- Kim is forced to improvise to stay alive. With the relationship between Kim and Gloria forming the backbone of the story, the script buys itself goodwill to indulge in some fantastic action sequences as we enter the final act, including an “SUV Ballet” in which dozens of identical armored cartel cars play a high-speed shell game to fool pursuing feds and some stuff involving helicopters and tigers. Still, it’s the complex and often complicated interpersonal dynamics that make this one shine.
Preston Fassel is an award-winning novelist, journalist, and development executive whose work has appeared in Screem Magazine, Rue Morgue, Fangoria, and on Cinedump.com. His debut novel, Our Lady of the Inferno, won the 2019 Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for Horror. He is the author of the first published biography of British horror star Vanessa Howard, published in the Spring 2014 issue of Screem.
You can follow Preston on Twitter @PrestonFassel