Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Poor Scriptwriting in Deadly Messages

Inept writing, a problem in all film genres, often manifests in lame dialog and poorly motivated characters who behave illogically.

The weaker a script, the harder for an audience to suspend disbelief -- which is especially critical for fantastical genres such as horror. If you introduce an unnatural element into a horror story (e.g., a Ouija board or a ghost), logical writing helps to ground the rest of the story in reality. A ghost anchored among solid characters will be more believable -- and thus, more frightening -- than a ghost adrift among silly caricatures.

I've discussed poorly motivated characters in Dark Floors. Poor character motivation results when writers treat their characters as puppets. Writers have the characters say and do whatever pushes the story forward, never mind if a character in such a situation would do that. 

Clever writers create situations that motivate characters toward the writer's goal. Inept writers push characters toward a goal despite a contrary situation.

In Deadly Messages (1985, aka Ouija), Cindy contacts a ghost through a Ouija board. Soon thereafter, Laura (Kathleen Beller) sees a mysterious man murder Cindy. Laura phones the police. When they arrive, they see no body and immediately dismiss Laura as a nut. They even threaten to prosecute her the next time she calls in a false alarm.

This is nonsensical, bad writing. Laura gave the victim's identity to the police. A responsible cop would at first investigate the alleged victim, Cindy -- Does she exist? Is she missing? -- before accusing Laura of fabricating a false report.

Why the bad writing? Most likely the writer wanted to heighten Laura's tense situation and vulnerability. How much worse for Laura, after seeing Cindy murdered, if the police don't believe her. If they instead accuse her of a crime. Who will protect her if the killer returns? 

Additionally, the writer likely thought the scene would be more dramatic if the cops don't believe Laura. An opportunity for the actors to shout and argue and emote dramatically.

Films are full of such phony, manufactured "drama." The writer should have kept the characters -- and their current situation -- in mind while writing the scene. Actors call this being in the moment. Reacting to surrounding people and events in a logical fashion, rather than behaving in a manner disconnected from reality.

More bad scripting arises in Deadly Messages when Laura's doctor reveals Laura's brain diagnosis to Laura's boyfriend, Michael (Michael Brandon), and lets Michael break the news to Laura -- if he wishes. The doctor even confides his suspicion to Michael that, based on the test results, he thinks Laura has had electroshock therapy in the past, and has kept this hidden from Michael.

Again, this is nonsense. A professional physician is obligated to maintain patient confidentiality. Laura and Michael aren't even married. Yet the writer has the doctor blabbing Laura's medical secrets to her boyfriend. Why?

Because it's more dramatic. Rather than keep the characters' current situation in mind -- being in the moment -- the writer likely thought it more dramatic for Michael to learn about Laura's secret first, and then have him surprise her with the news.

The writer had also established that the doctor was Michael's friend, and wanted to protect Michael from the possibly mad Laura. But this is no excuse for the doctor betraying his patient's confidence. At the very least, the doctor should have raised the issue of patient confidentiality, and offered a plausible excuse for breaking the confidentiality. It would have made the whole scene, including his betrayal, more believable.

Overall, Deadly Messages is a reasonably entertaining woman-in-peril, suspense mystery (with some supernatural elements). But, as is typical of TV movies, logic suffers for the sake of phony drama, hindering suspension ofdisbelief


For more information, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.