Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Directorial and Writing Mistakes in The Haunting of Marsten Manor

An early scene in The Haunting of Marsten Manor showcases several errors that filmmakers can learn from. All these errors stem from one problem: the characters behave unrealistically, in ways meant to create drama or to advance the plot, rather then remaining true to themselves and their situation.

We are at the reading of a will. An attorney (Alan Peterson) tells Jill (Brianne Davis) that she has inherited her aunt's house. Jill is surprised, because she'd never met her aunt. 

"Can I ask you a legal question about wills?" says Jill.

The attorney gets testy. "A legal question, huh. Let me guess. Your daddy sent you off to law school, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, out to make the world a better place, mmm? Shoot. First question's on the house. After that, $250 an hour, two hour minimum."

Jill stand up, outraged. "I'm not bright-eyed, because I'm blind. So obviously I can't go to law school or any school. I can't make the world a better place, because I can't see it." 

ERROR: This exchange is silly. The lawyer's sudden rudeness is unmotivated. He went from friendly to snide in an instant, just because Jill asked a normal question. Besides, it is his job to answer any question Jill has regarding the will. Jill is his client's heir. He is the paid executor of the estate. The writers (Dave and Julie Sapp) either don't know, or don't care, about the law.

So why did they write this exchange between Jill and the attorney? I suppose it's to "motivate" Jill's anger. The lawyer is rude not because it's true to his character, or to the scene's context, but because the writers want to Jill to get angry. Alas, they couldn't come up with a realistic trigger. They are treating Jill and the attorney like lifeless props, rather than as characters who behave true to themselves.

The scene continues.

The attorney loudly says, "I am sorry."

"I'm not deaf. I'm blind," Jill retorts.

The attorney says more quietly, "I am sorry. Please sit down. What was your question?" 

Jill says nothing. She's too angry to care about her question.

"Okay then," says the attorney "Then I will give you the keys to your new place." He has a document for Jill to sign. He considers it, then gives the document to Jill's friend, Rob (Ken Luckey). "That's all right if you go ahead and sign for her." 

Jill is angry again. "I can write my name. My hands aren't broken."

"Fine," says the attorney.

 Jill signs the document.

Then the attorney offers the keys to Rob. "Here you go."

"I believe those are mine," says Jill, hand outstretched.

Rob takes the keys from the attorney, then gives them to Jill.

ERROR: If Jill is blind, how did she know the attorney was offering the keys to Rob?

Never mind that after Jill's outburst over the document, the attorney would not offer her the keys. They're just keys. If Jill can sign a document, she can certainly hold keys.

But this error is compounded.

The attorney now says, "Here's a copy of the will. The deed and the address. So forth and so on. Your papers." 

Remarkably, the attorney once again offers the papers to Rob. Once again, Rob takes the papers and gives them to Jill.

I guess the writers really want to belabor that it's very difficult for Jill to be blind. Everyone thinks she's helpless. Well, we got it with the document. I don't buy that the attorney would then mistakenly hand the keys, and then the papers, to Rob.

 The attorney says softly, looking at Rob, "Good luck to you all. And I'm sorry about before." 

"I can still hear you," snaps Jill.

ERROR: How did Jill know the lawyer was looking at Rob, trying to speak confidentially to him? Jill had asked the attorney to speak softly, stating "I'm not deaf." Why would she not assume he was simply ... speaking softly as per her request?

Jill "knew" because the writers wanted her to get angry again. The writers are treating Jill as a prop, making her behave in whatever way advances their plot, without any regard for whether Jill's character would say this do that in any particular situation.

A final complaint. Alan Peterson plays the attorney with a really bad, strong, fake Southern accent. Well, The Haunting of Marsten Manor is a Civil War themed ghost story. I guess the director wanted to establish that we're in the South.

Despite its faults, The Haunting of Marsten Manor is not an awful film. It's a reasonably enjoyable ghost film. It has flaws, as do many indie (and big budget) efforts. But one can enjoy it if one is willing to suspend disbelief. 

For additional examples of bad writing -- where the characters are treated as props, rather than behaving logically and true to themselves -- see my analyses of Prometheus, In Search of Lovecraft, and Deadly Messages, and Dark Floors.

You can also (for now) see The Haunting of Marsten Manor on YouTube. The above scene begins at the 2:08 mark.


For more about writing in horror films, 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.

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