The Sharpest Knives In The Drawer
By Nathan Allen
Copyright 2017 Nathan Allen
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ALSO BY NATHAN ALLEN
The War on Horror: Tales From A Post-Zombie Society
All Against All
Hollywood Hack Job
Part One: False Icons And Sacred Cows
Part Two: The Honey Trap
Part Three: The Sharpest Knives In The Drawer
Available now for free download.
HOLLYWOOD HACK JOB
THE SHARPEST KNIVES IN THE DRAWER
The Santa Monica headquarters of Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company were exactly as Cameron Knight and Eric Haas had pictured them. It was as if a thirteen year old boy had won first prize in the lottery shortly after he stopped taking his Ritalin medication. The walls were covered with one-sheets from his many blockbuster films – Armageddon, Bad Boys, Transformers, The Rock – alongside framed photographs of the director posing with a who’s who of Hollywood royalty.
Four life-sized Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stood watch in each corner of Michael Bay’s main office, a room bigger than many family homes. A row of vintage pinball machines occupied space against a far wall. Glossy catalogs advertising the very latest in luxury sports cars were spread across a coffee table that doubled as a retro Galaga arcade game. His MTV Movie Award and a gold-plated Optimus Prime figurine both adorned his mantlepiece. His Saturn Award took pride of place at the center of his solid Balinese cedar desk, while his two Golden Raspberries doubled as paperweights.
Cameron and Eric were still a little overwhelmed by the sensory overload of their garish surroundings, and had failed to notice that the A-list director, who was also producing the film they had been hired to write, had reached the final page of their completed screenplay. It wasn’t until they heard the dull thud of it landing on his desk that they realized he had finished.
An uneasy silence gripped the room. Eric’s stomach knotted as he awaited Michael’s response. Cameron eyeballed the floor in front of him.
“Well,” Michael began. “I can honestly say I’ve never read anything quite like that before.”
Half-smiles appeared on both writers’ faces, until the ambiguity of the preceding statement became apparent. Was he saying he liked it? Hated it? It was impossible to tell; the vacant look on Michael’s face gave nothing away. It was an expression of pure ambivalence, the same one he wore when he played Candy Crush Saga on his phone.
“Much of the writing here is very good,” Michael continued. “Exceptional, even. But I have to be honest with you; it’s not exactly what I had in mind.”
Cameron and Eric traded sideways glances.
“I’m not quite sure what you mean by that,” Eric said.
“Well for a start …” Michael flicked through a few pages of the script. “It’s a little full-on with the highbrow literary references, don’t you think? Proust, Dante, Camus, Kafka, Greek mythology. You guys really threw everything in there.”
“Sure, but our aim was to write something a little more intellectually stimulating,” Cameron said. “Too many films these days speak down to their audience. They treat them as fools with low IQs and infinitesimal attention spans. It’s a trend that’s been ongoing for some time, and we were hoping to arrest that slide.”
“I can appreciate that,” Michael said. “I’m just not sure it’s right for this particular film. You know … a horror film.”
“We acknowledge we haven’t delivered what might be termed a traditional horror narrative. What we’ve attempted is more of a …” Cameron paused as he tried to conjure up the appropriate adjective. “… a more impressionistic take on the genre.”
“The horror is implicit rather than explicit,” Eric added. “Which, in our opinion, makes it all the more terrifying. See, at the beginning of the film our protagonist enters into a kind of Faustian pact. She wants to be successful. She craves fame. There’s nothing she’s not willing to do to make this happen. And then it does happen, only it happens in a way she could have never predicted. So by the end of the film, when she’s being followed by news cameras and hounded by the press, she comes to realize the true cost of this unadulterated celebrity. Her humanity was lost in the process. Great wealth and worldwide fame may be coming her way, but she sold her soul to get there. The ultimate tragedy of the story is that she’s now going to die alone.”
Michael leaned back in his chair and heaved out a lungful of air. Cameron and Eric were both intelligent guys – talented writers, Ivy League graduates – but they were a little slow to pick up on what he was trying to say. He saw that he would have to be a little more direct with his words.
“Guys, it’s great that you’re trying to do something different,” he said. “There will always be room in Hollywood for creativity and original ideas. But you have been hired to write the screenplay for Wrong Turn. It’s not a reimaging of Shakespeare or Chekov, or whatever else you studied previously. It’s a movie about horny co-eds getting drunk and getting it on in the woods before being terrorized by a bunch of inbred cannibals. It’s a remake of a film starring that chick from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that other chick from that one Hinder video. It’s dumb, unpretentious slasher stuff. You know, spikes penetrating heads. Bones being snapped in half. Hot young women disrobing, then being dismembered and disemboweled. In other words, a film your average fifteen year old boy wants to watch with his friends. Not one that reminds him of his homework.”
Seconds passed as Cameron and Eric took this all in.
“We were only trying to raise the bar a little,” Eric said.
“With all due respect, you’re looking at someone whose films have grossed seven-point-three billion dollars worldwide. That didn’t happen by any bars being raised. That happened by knowing what the audience wanted to see and then giving it to them. And I get that you both dropped six figures on your college education and you now want to show off everything you’ve learned, but there’s a time and a place for that sort of thing and it’s not here.”
“I think this is exactly the place to do it,” Cameron said, a defensive tone entering his voice. “Maybe there are fifteen year old boys out there sick and tired of being served up the same thing week in week out.” His volume increased. “Maybe they want something that won’t insult their intelligence for a change.”
Eric jumped in before Cameron could work himself up any further. “I think what Cameron is trying to say is that we wanted to respect our audience.”
“Like I said, if you really want to respect your audience you should give them exactly what they want,” Michael said. “Not what you think they should want.”
“You know what, Michael, maybe you’re the one who’s out of touch with modern audiences,” Cameron said. “Our friends have read this script, and they all thought it was brilliant.”
Michael smirked. “I’m sure they did. But I doubt there’s a great deal of overlap between the people you socialize with and the typical cinemagoer. Your friends won’t be lining up for tickets on opening weekend. The Comic-Con crowd will be, and so that’s the demographic we have to cater to.”
Painful silence was followed by more painful silence as Michael’s blunt assessment sunk in. Cameron and Eric could only squirm in their seats as the sense of defeat descended upon them.
“Look, this isn’t the end of the world,” Michael continued. “This is what first drafts are for – experimenting with new ideas, seeing what works, ironing out the kinks and so on. Now we just have to throw out everything that doesn’t work, which is most of it, and take another stab at it.”
He chuckled at his unintentional pun.
“Let’s see if you can come up with a script that doesn’t require Cliff Notes to understand. Aim for something that’ll play at the multiplexes rather than the art houses. Get the page count down to under one-twenty, because this …” He lifted the two hundred and seventeen page doorstop up off his desk. “This is basically unfilmable. I may as well put fifty million dollars in a pile and set fire to it.”
The door opened and Michael’s assistant, a willowy young blonde, poked her head inside. Eric recognized her as the woman they had encountered shortly after they arrived. She was in the car park, washing Michael’s Porsche 918 while wearing a skimpy pink bikini.
“Michael, you have a delivery you must sign for,” she said in a lilting Russian accent.
“Not right now, Liliya,” he said.
“It is that new robot butler you have ordered. It has arrived now from Japan.”
“What?” Michael leaped out of his chair. “Why didn’t you say so? Send it it, send it in!”
He power-walked to the door.
“And for God’s sake, take all that religious symbolism out of your script,” he said before leaving. “Trust me on that. Religion is the one hornet’s nest you definitely do not want to poke.”
Platinum Dunes had recently purchased the intellectual property rights to a stack of horror titles, many of dubious quality, including Wrong Turn, Urban Legend, Re-Animator, Candyman, Hellraiser, Final Destination, Child’s Play and Leprechaun. Michael Bay planned on producing an entire a series of films that took place in an interconnected world he dubbed the Platinum Dunes Cinematic Universe. Heroes and villains from the various titles would cross over and make cameos in each other’s films, and a preview of the next release in the series would appear during the post-credits sting.
This was part of a wider industry trend, described by some commentators as a new and exciting way of immersing the audience and extending the boundaries of traditional storytelling, and derided by others as a gluttonous cash-grab and the death knell of original cinema. Wrong Turn was scheduled to be the first release as part of the Platinum Dunes Cinematic Universe.
Remakes and reboots had become increasingly common in recent years, to the point where it was almost impossible to get any film produced that wasn’t already associated with a recognizable brand. Horror films in particular were often repackaged and resold with little regard for quality before being hawked to undiscerning viewers. The fact that remade horror movies rarely matched or improved on their source material – it was difficult for a film to build tension and scare an audience when a familiar plot was being rehashed – did not deter studios from attempting to revive many classics of the genre.
The 1980s was an especially fertile period that had been mined over and over. Remakes of films from this era were often aimed at millennials, whose limited knowledge of the world outside their own made them ignorant of anything pre-2000, and unaware they were watching reheated entertainment.
However, the biggest market for these remakes was actually their Generation X parents, who were part of an aging demographic stubbornly resistant to new experiences. The nostalgia boom had reached supernova levels in recent years, and had now morphed into a genre in itself. Few could have predicted that an entire generation of eighties-reared children would grow up to lead such empty and unfulfilling lives that it would create this unprecedented collective yearning for simpler times. Life had become an endless series of disappointments for many who came of age during the Reagan era, and as adults they desperately clung to their warm childhood memories rather than taking the risk to seek out something new or different.
Less common in the subgenre of horror remakes, but with several notable successes, was the English-language adaptation of foreign films. Asian cinema in particular was often reshaped and remolded to be made palatable for Western audiences. These films were given a quick coat of Hollywood gloss, removing elements that Americans may find objectionable – subtitles, restraint, pacing, and provocative or confronting themes – and adding a cast of recognizable stars. The remade films often had plots that were less confusing, as the American director and screenwriters would spell out any ambiguous story points or resolutions that may have previously been left open to interpretation. White audiences also had less trouble following the story now that all the characters no longer looked alike.
A look of demented pleasure was plastered across the killer’s abscess- and wart-ravaged face as he taunted the terrified cheerleader with the red hot poker. He grinned a toothless smile, amused by her futile attempts to free herself. He knew she wasn’t going anywhere. The rusty spikes driven through her hands would see to that.
“Please …” she begged, tiny rivers of mascara running down her cheeks. “Please let me go … I promise I won’t tell anyone …”
The killer paid no attention to the cheerleader’s desperate pleas. He let out a laugh of pure evil as he forced the glowing poker into her eye socket.
Cameron felt his stomach contract at the moment of impact. His nerves were in ribbons. He had to physically force himself to not look away as the camera zoomed in on the blood and puréed eyeball gushing down the cheerleader’s face.
He glanced across to Eric, sitting beside him on the couch, clutching a cushion the way a toddler might hug a favorite blanket. He looked in even worse shape, with the pallid complexion of someone who had involuntarily swallowed a gallon of curdled milk.
“Are you okay?” Cameron said. “You don’t look too good.”
“Do people actually enjoy watching this stuff?” Eric said.
“These kind of films make money, apparently. This one made almost two hundred million off a three million dollar budget, so I guess that means someone’s watching.”
Eric swallowed, forcing down the bile pushing at the back of his throat. “I’m not sure I have the constitution to handle this level of gore,” he said. “I honestly have no idea how anyone could derive pleasure from something like this.”
“Maybe it’s not meant to be enjoyed. Maybe it’s more like an endurance test. See if you can make it through to the end without vomiting or passing out.”
They watched in silence a little while longer. Cameron absentmindedly tapped his pen against his notepad. So far he had “IDEAS” written at the top of the page, underlined twice. Beneath that was blank, save for some doodling scrawled in the margins. Attempting to write anything would have been pointless anyway, due to the debilitating tremor that had taken over his hands ten minutes into the movie.
Following on from their disastrous meeting at Platinum Dunes, Cameron and Eric realized they would have to do some extensive research into the genre they were meant to be writing about before attempting the next draft. Their first task was to go through the Netflix library and review as many horror titles as they could, one by one. They began with the slashers of the seventies and eighties; mostly trashy exploitation flicks with amateurish production values and plots so interchangeable they may as well have been the same movie with different titles tacked on. Next up was the post-modernism and arch irony of nineties horror, where it became acceptable to laugh at innocent people being brutally slaughtered if the characters occasionally winked at the camera and made reference to how the events surrounding them resembled that of a horror film.
Found footage films, the turn of the millennium fad that proved to be a goldmine for studios, came next. This gimmick allowed films to be produced and released into cinemas without having to worry about budgets, proper scripts, professional equipment, cinematography, high production values or competent actors.
They then reached the genre’s nadir with the early twenty-first century subgenre known as “torture porn”. If nothing else, the label was accurate – sitting through one of these cinematic abominations was about as much fun as being waterboarded, and, as with actual pornography, the filmmakers left very little to the imagination.
The past few weeks had been nothing short of brutal for the two writers. Along with rewatching all seven Wrong Turn’s, they had suffered through three Hostel’s, eight Saw’s, five I Spit On Your Grave’s, three Human Centipede’s, three The Hills Have Eyes’s, and countless other Halloween’s, Friday the 13th’s and Nightmare On Elm Street’s. At one point they decided to broaden their palette and sample some Japanese horror. They figured that Asian directors might offer something a little more nuanced and less grotesque than what they’d subjected themselves to up until then. They were wrong. The Japanese, as they soon discovered, were every bit as deranged as their Western counterparts. And that was before they stumbled across the collective works of a certified psychotic by the name of Takashi Miike. After viewing several of Mr. Miike’s films, Cameron and Eric decided that filmmaking in Japan may actually be a form of therapy for deeply disturbed mental patients.
The emotional toll of all this murder and mutilation was starting to show. Both were having trouble sleeping at night, and they worried what effect these films were having on their sanity. Watching such extreme violence for entertainment purposes was surely detrimental to their mental health. They could only imagine what was going through the minds of these writers as they dreamed up all this depravity.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This was not what they wanted to be doing with their lives. They had journeyed to Hollywood with plans on shaking up the industry. They had seen what passed for writing in modern cinema and decided they had the talent to blow everyone else out of the water. Most movies these days appeared to have been penned by barely-literate hacks who couldn’t tell the difference between a predicate and a preposition.
Their plan was simple but ambitious. They would spend five years whoring themselves out to the major studios, churning out a few formulaic scripts and making a couple of easy million, then leave while they were still on top. The money would allow them to spend the next decade or so doing what they really loved, which was writing their epic literary novels. Eric dreamed of following in the footsteps of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Stein by writing in Paris. Cameron planned on making Moscow his muse.
But it wasn’t long before the harsh realities of life as a Hollywood screenwriter set in. Countless hours were invested into their spec scripts, and although everyone who read them agreed their writing showed flashes of brilliance, they were unable to convince any studios to take a chance on them. They kept hearing the same excuses over and over – they lacked the experience, the spec market had all but dried up, anything not based on a comic book or preexisting brand was a hard sell. They were unemployed, their trust funds were shrinking, and they were eventually forced to consider the unthinkable – working for Michael Bay.
They rejected the idea outright when their agent first raised it. Michael Bay was one of those populist directors they had always sneered at, despite neither one having seen any of his films (they took a similar attitude to the writing of Dan Brown and the music of Nickleback). It was only when they were reminded that they had yet to receive any paid work in the three years since arriving in Hollywood that they reluctantly agreed to take a meeting.
Much to their surprise, they found Michael easy to like. He was friendly, his enthusiasm for cinema was contagious, and he flattered them endlessly by praising their talents as writers. Even though they considered it beneath them, they eventually agreed to take on the job of writing Wrong Turn. The money was decent, and they figured it couldn’t be that hard to crank out a generic slasher script in the space of a couple of months. They only needed one hit to springboard their career, that one produced film with their name on the credits, and the rest of their plan would fall into place.
Only now were they discovering that writing the script was not quite as simple as they initially imagined.
On the TV, the killer dragged the cheerleader’s now headless corpse into the basement. He placed her alongside his other victims, then disrobed in preparation for the necrophilic orgy.
“Do you think this is doing us any good?” Eric wondered aloud.
“I feel like it’s helping,” Cameron said. “We just have to give it time.”
“It feels to me like an exercise in extreme masochism.”
“Well sometimes Eric, if you want to succeed, you have to do things you don’t necessarily want to do,” Cameron said, shifting his position on the couch. “Step out of your comfort zone once in a while. Push yourself further than what you thought you were capable of.”
Eric reviewed the list that he and Cameron had compiled during their month-long movie binge. It ran to seven pages, and included the following:
Cell phones with dead/dying batteries and/or poor reception.
Vehicles with engines that refuse to start at the worst possible moment.
The killer making a sudden appearance in the mirror.
Unhelpful and/or incompetent police officers.
Loud noises when trying to escape or avoid the killer (e.g. creaking floorboards, accidentally knocking something over).
A death scene that turns out to be a bad dream.
Falling over when trying to outrun the killer.
Jump scares every eight pages.
Female nudity every twelve pages.
A killer who refuses to die, no matter how much punishment (s)he takes.
A last-ditch, long-shot plan that the protagonist only just manages to pull off.
A false ending that sets up for a sequel.
The revelation that the killer is actually a manifestation of the protagonist’s dissociative identity disorder.
The full document contained all the necessary elements for a commercial horror screenplay. This wasn’t how they usually worked, and they preferred not to write with such narrow constraints placed upon them. But they felt this would be the best way to produce the kind of film that fans of the genre, as well as Michael Bay, would approve of.
They’d suffered through enough simulated gore to last several lifetimes. The time had come to put everything they’d learned into practice.
Eric opened his laptop and created a new Final Draft document. “Okay, where should we begin?” he said
Cameron peered over his shoulder. “I think ‘Fade In’ is usually a good starting point.”
Eric cracked his knuckles, then began to peck away at the keys.
[* EXT. WOODS -- DAY *]
We open on WILDERNESS. Miles and miles from the nearest town. The camera glides from above until we come to a DIRT ROAD, leading to a SMALL CLEARING among the thick terrain.
A group of five COLLEGE-AGED CAMPERS unload their gear from a silver SUV. SCOTT, 21, ruggedly handsome and the only one in the group who appears to know what he’s doing, HAMMERS tent pegs into the hard grou
They were two minutes into the writing session when a deep thumping sound broke their concentration. Cameron and Eric both let out quiet groans. This was their new neighbor – some frustrated rock star who had moved in a couple of weeks earlier. In the short time he had been living there he had quickly become the neighborhood’s number one irritant. When he wasn’t inducing migraines and raising blood pressure levels by bashing away on his drum kit at all hours of the day and night, he was keeping the whole street awake by hosting wild parties that would rage for days on end.
Cameron got up and pulled all the windows closed. This did nothing to block out the noise. He stood at the window and looked out over the fence with his hands on his hips.
“What do you think we should do?” he said.
Eric tapped his fingers against the table. “Maybe it’ll only be a short session this time.”
A few more minutes went by with no further words committed to the page. Eric rose from his seat and walked to the door.
“I’ve had enough of this,” he said. “I’m going over there.”
“Eric, don’t bother,” Cameron said. “You know it won’t do anything.”
“We have to make a start on the script, and we can’t concentrate with all that going on in the background.”
“Just leave it. He’s usually done after about an hour, anyway.”
“If we put it off for another hour, something else will come up and we’ll never get any work done.” Eric pulled on his blazer and slid his feet into his Hudson Pierre loafers. “We’re working to a deadline, and we’re already falling behind. We have to stop making excuses and get this done.”
“Do you really think he’ll stop playing just because you ask him to?”
“I don’t know, but he definitely won’t stop if we just sit here and complain about it. Maybe if I ask nicely he’ll see to reason.”
“Sure, and maybe you’ll get the door slammed in your face.”
Eric shrugged. “We’ll never know unless one of us goes over there and finds out, will we?”
The neighbor’s front lawn was a mess, strewn with soggy pizza boxes, fast food wrappers, beer bottles, discarded items of clothing, and other assorted detritus. This was the remnants of last weekend’s party, the epic three-day rager that prevented anyone within a two mile radius from enjoying more than a few hours’ sleep per night. The one where the guests thought it would be a good idea to rev up a chainsaw at three o’clock on a Monday morning and cut open a beer keg.
Eric stepped through the gate and came to the front door.
After a moment of hesitation, he rang the doorbell and waited. There was no answer. The thump-thump-thump from inside continued. He tried again, and had the same result.
He pressed his finger to the doorbell and held it down. After two minutes of constant ringing, the drumming finally stopped and the door flew open.
“What?” the neighbor screamed.
The first thing Eric noticed about his neighbor was that he was about ten or fifteen years older that what he initially assumed. Up until now he had only ever seen him from a distance, and it was difficult to estimate his exact age. Now he saw that he was at least forty, maybe even older – although he appeared to be doing everything in his power to hide this fact. He still dressed like a twenty year old, with black drainpipe jeans and a tight tank top that showed off his heavily-inked arms and the beginnings of a middle-age paunch. Large black gauges stretched out both his ear lobes, and a red bandana covered what Eric suspected was a receding hairline. The smooth, pinched skin around the edges of his slightly puffy face suggested a fondness for Botox injections.
Eric thought he could guess this guy’s life story with a fair degree of accuracy. Here was someone who had come to LA years ago to make it as a rocker. He played in bands that enjoyed some fleeting success, gigging up and down Sunset Strip coupled with the occasional West Coast tour, but his career never really progressed beyond local legend status. Some of the other bands and musicians he supported would have gone on to bigger and better things, but ultimate success had always eluded him. Any money he made likely disappeared via his nostrils. Twenty years then flew by, and he was still plugging away in the vain hope that his big break was just around the corner. Desperation was slowly creeping in as his opportunities diminished, along with the growing realization that he was completely unqualified to do anything else with his life except play the drums.
“Are you gonna say anything?” the neighbor sneered. “Or are you just gonna stare into space like you’re the world’s ugliest Ryan Gosling impersonator?”
“I-I was just wondering … if it’s not too much trouble …” An unexpected stammer had infected Eric’s voice. He didn’t know what it was about this guy that made him so nervous. Maybe it was his clenched fists and bug-eyed stare, affectations he seemed to have adopted to make it look like he was ready to fight at the slightest provocation. “If you w-wouldn’t mind keeping the noise down …?”
The neighbor looked at Eric like he had just asked to borrow a large sum of money.
“It’s just that I’m a writer … we’re both writers actually, my roommate and I, and, well, we have this big deadline coming up … the noise, even though it sounds terrific, really tight and all that … it, it kind of interferes with our creative process …”
The neighbor displayed no reaction. Eric felt his face burn up. He pressed on.
“I’m sure that as an artist yourself y-you can appreciate how difficult it can be–”
The door closed before Eric could say any more. He felt the wind brush against his face as it slammed shut.
He briefly contemplated ringing the doorbell again and making a second attempt. This guy looked like he might enjoy the films of Michael Bay. Perhaps Eric could exploit that angle to sway him. But in the end, he decided it wasn’t worth the effort. He slowly wandered back to the house.
The drumming resumed moments after he walked through the front door.
“So, did he see to reason?” Cameron said. He was stretched out on the sofa, flicking through that week’s issue of Variety.
“Maybe we should wait until he’s finished,” Eric said.
“Good idea.” Cameron tossed the magazine on the coffee table. “I wonder why we didn’t think of that earlier?”
Eric grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl. “I’m sure he won’t be at it for too much longer.”
The two of them sat and waited as the noise continued for five straight hours.
Eric focused all his energy on controlling his rising nausea as he sat in the bowels of Michael Bay’s $80 million luxury yacht. He wasn’t sure why Michael had insisted they meet here; nor did he know why he and Cameron had spent the entire journey thus far in the boat’s onboard cinema, watching test footage from the forthcoming Transformers: Echoes of Bedlam, rather than enjoying the sunshine and ocean view up on the deck. But here they were, sitting in front of the giant screen alongside the two dozen studio suits variously credited as the film’s co-producers, executive producers, co-executive producers, associate producers and supervising producers.
On the screen, the film’s heroine delivered a withering put-down to her now-sentient Dodge Challenger as they both narrowly avoided annihilation. One of the suits cackled out loud.
“She’s hilarious, isn’t she?” he said, slapping his knee and elbowing Eric in the ribs.
“Who?” Eric said, struggling to keep his breakfast in place.
“Emily Ratajkowski! I mean, I knew she was hot. But I had no idea she was so funny!”
“I think the people who came up with those jokes are funny,” Cameron said. “She’s only reciting lines as they have been written for her.”
A booming explosion drowned out Cameron’s comment. The suit jumped to his feet and punched the air as an evil Decepticon was obliterated in spectacular fashion. “Yeah!” he shouted. He high-fived his ponytailed colleague, and the two of them commenced a “U-S-A!” chant.
The door opened, and Michael Bay’s assistant Liliya entered. “Michael will see you both now,” she said.
Cameron and Eric followed Liliya down a narrow corridor. Neither one could say they were disappointed to leave the screening room before the film’s conclusion.
Liliya led them to Michael’s office, a room almost as big as the one he had on dry land. Michael greeted them like old friends, and they settled into the plush leather sofa opposite his desk.
“So, what did you think of the Echoes of Bedlam footage?” he said.
“It was … impressive,” Cameron said.
Michael grinned and nodded, but looked like he was waiting for Cameron to elaborate.
“The effects were awesome,” he continued, mustering as much enthusiasm as he could. “The explosions look really cool.”
“I should hope so,” Michael said with a knowing wink. “The budget for this one is over $300 million.”
His attention then turned to Eric.
“Oh, uh … I liked Emily Ratajkowski,” Eric offered. “She’s hilarious.”
“Isn’t she?” Michael beamed. “We all knew she was hot, but who knew she could be so funny as well?”
He leaned back in his chair and chuckled at a joke, one that Cameron and Eric were apparently not privy to.
“So, Michael,” Cameron said. “Our second draft. Have you had a chance to read it yet?”
“Ah, yes. Just one moment.” He sifted through the pile of documents on his desk until he located their script. “First, the bad news. The bad news is that your screenplay is awful. Terrible. One of the worst things I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. And that’s coming from the guy who greenlit Ouija.”
Cameron and Eric felt themselves deflate like a punctured tire. This was the last thing they wanted or expected to hear.
“So … where exactly did we go wrong this time?” Eric said.
“The question should be where didn’t you go wrong. For a start, this is quite possibly the most unoriginal piece of writing I have ever come across. It’s a one hundred and eighteen page cliché, completely lacking in creativity and imagination. The plot is about as predictable as a Zimbabwean election result. To be honest, it looks like you’ve just copied a bunch of scenes from other scripts and pasted them into this one file.”
“But that’s exactly what you said you wanted!” Cameron said with more than a hint of exasperation. “We gave you something original and you rejected it. You said it needed to be more like the other horror films out there.”
“Yes, I wanted it to be more like the other horror films out there. The problem is, this reads like every other horror film out there. What you’ve written is something we’ve already seen a million times over. There are so many hackneyed horror tropes in this you may as well give it to the Wayans brothers and have them turn it into one of those stupid parody films.”
The disappointment was written across the two writers’ faces. This wasn’t easy for them to hear. Both had been high achievers for most of their lives, in addition to being members of the Excessive Praise and Participation Award Generation. Failure and criticism were two things they had largely managed to avoid up until now.
“So what’s the good news?” Eric said.
“You began your critique with, ‘First, the bad news’. That implies good news to follow.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” Michael quickly ran his eyes across a few of the pages. “Well, it is properly formatted. Presentation is always important. It’s an easy read. You make great use of white space. And your spelling and grammar is exceptional throughout. You wouldn’t believe the amount of scripts I read from writers who have no idea what they’re supposed to do with an apostrophe.”
“Look, Michael.” The yacht crashed into a wave at the exact moment Cameron went to stand. His legs faltered, and he collapsed back into the sofa. “You knew from the start that horror wasn’t really our thing. Between the two of us, Eric and I had watched maybe ten horror films before we agreed to take on this assignment. And if I’m being brutally honest here, I didn’t really care for any of them. I think most of them are cheap, nasty, exploitative trash, written by people who have no business calling themselves writers–”
Eric quickly interrupted. “Cameron and I have always been more comfortable writing what I guess you would call, quote, serious fare. Historical dramas, social reality examinations, that sort of thing. This is a little outside our wheelhouse.”
“Well I hate to be the prick to burst your bubble, but if you guys want to work in Hollywood you’ll need to make it part of your wheelhouse,” Michael said, poking at the Mark Wahlberg bobble-head on his desk with a pen. “You’ll be expected to handle all sorts of genres, and you won’t always have the chance to write what appeals to you personally. Look at me – I didn’t set out to be the director of incredibly awesome action films. I actually wanted to direct musicals, believe it or not. But then the opportunity to do Bad Boys came along and, well, eight and a half billion dollars of pure Bayhem later, here we are.”
Cameron let out a long sigh. “I’m just not sure we can be who you want us to be,” he said. “Maybe it’s best if we cut our losses now and walked away. Let someone who knows what they’re doing take the reigns.”
This proposal was met with a vacuum of silence.
“I would strongly advise against that,” Michael said. “You guys are just starting out. If you bail on this now you’re only going to annoy a lot of powerful people, and neither one of you has the credits in the bank to be able to do that. This town is a lot smaller than you may realize, and reputations count for everything.”
Cameron and Eric both looked at their feet. The feeling of dejection and shame, in addition to their ever-increasing seasickness, was overwhelming. Michael could sense their despair.
“Look, I know you’re not horror geeks. But that’s why you were hired in the first place – so you could come up with something completely different. Something that announces ‘Written by Cameron Knight and Eric Haas’ on every single page. But this …” Michael held up the script in his left hand. “This could be any number of unsolicited manuscripts we get sent from unemployed losers who live in their parents’ basement and can quote the entire Halloween series verbatim. I don’t want that. I want something different, something no one has seen before. I want what you have.”
He leaned forward in his seat and offered an encouraging smile.
“I know you have an original voice somewhere inside you. It’s just that sometimes you need to spend a bit of time digging around to find it.”
The two writers rose slowly from their seats, still trying to reconcile the fact that Michael’s latest notes directly contradicted everything he told them in their previous meeting.
“Oh, and get rid of all those dumb jokes,” he said before they left. “Never mix horror with comedy. The two just don’t go together. You’ll only end up with a cinematic spork.”
A spork is a hybrid form of plastic cutlery consisting of a handle, a spoon-like scoop, and two, three or four fork tines. They are often distributed with fast food orders, airline food and prepackaged meals.
Sporks are widely derided as a useless utensil due to the fact that the spoon scoop is too shallow to use for liquids, and the fork tines are too short to adequately hold solids. By attempting to perform two functions at once, it fails at achieving either.
It is for this reason that films in the horror-comedy genre are sometimes referred to as “sporks”. The amount of violence and gore in such a film can be off-putting for viewers who might otherwise enjoy the comedic element, while the presence of humor in a horror film often lessens the impact of any tension or genuine scares.
Rare exceptions include Evil Dead II, Scream and John Dies At The End.
The blinking cursor on the blank Final Draft page continued to taunt Eric. He stared at it in the desperate hope that inspiration would strike from the clear blue sky and stimulate the flow of creativity. But after two hours of limp brainstorming, still nothing. Not even one solitary sentence. They were no closer to completing their next draft than they were a week ago.
The past few days had been an empty void of despair and disillusionment. Cameron and Eric honestly didn’t know where they could go from here. They had done their best – twice – and failed miserably on both occasions. They had made a crucial error in assuming that a commercial horror film would be easy to write. It turned out that nothing could have been further from the truth.
Their confidence was further shattered when they discovered an online petition had been set up by hardcore Wrong Turn fans demanding the reboot not go ahead. The petition claimed a substandard remake would harm the legacy of the original film, and that it would destroy the fans’ adolescence. Michael Bay advised them to ignore the backlash and not allow such criticism to affect their work. “Remember, those who can, do,” he told them. “And those who can’t, tweet.” But with so much online vitriol being hurled in their direction, it was hard not to take at least some of it to heart.
A ghost of an idea formed in Eric’s head. “Hey, how about if we open with–”
Just as he spoke, an errant backpack smacked into the side of his head. He looked behind to see a rambunctious group of high school kids pushing past their table.
“You were saying?” Cameron said.
“Oh, I was just going to suggest, uh …” Eric trailed off, opting not to follow through with his thought. “Never mind.”
“Maybe another refill will stimulate our imaginations,” Cameron said. He drained the remainder of his coffee and headed to the counter.
Eric didn’t know why Cameron insisted on coming to this Starbucks outlet for regular writing sessions. He claimed that working in a public place was an effective way of drawing inspiration from your surroundings and writing about real people, but Eric questioned whether it did anything to help them at all. The place was always crowded, the noise distracting, the background music terrible, and the customers far too obnoxious or dull to be a useful source of material. It was an environment entirely unsuited to long periods of writing.
He suspected Cameron came here for the same reason thousands of other aspiring writers across the city flocked to places like this, pounding away at their Macbooks while wearing cardigans and non-prescription horn-rimmed glasses – they wanted to show girls that they were artists. As a writer, it was difficult to use your talents to impress members of the opposite sex. Simply telling someone you wrote for a living wasn’t all that impressive, given that basically anyone who occasionally pushed a pen across paper could make the same claim. Musicians had a much easier time of it; they could just sing a few notes or strum a few chords on a guitar and instantly appear more attractive. Writing was more of a solitary pursuit, and as such it was harder to exploit as a pick-up technique.
Cameron returned a few minutes later, holding a vanilla bean frappiccino for Eric and a skinny venti extra dry latte for himself. “Any luck?” he said.
Eric shook his head. “Nothing yet.”
They each took a sip of their drinks and resumed their staring contests with their laptop screens.
A quarter of an hour went by without any further progress. Eric lapsed into a kind of trance, the blinking cursor having an almost hypnotic effect on him.
“Maybe we’ve been approaching this whole thing the wrong way,” Cameron said.
Eric snapped back to the real world. “How do you mean?”
“Michael was right. We tried writing like everybody else. Is it any wonder that all we ever produced was mediocrity? Our biggest advantage was that we don’t write like anyone else.”
He rapped his fingernails across the table as he tried to verbalize this sudden rush of ideas, triggered by five jumbo-sized caffeinated beverages.
“Our first draft didn’t work because it was too self-indulgent. Our second draft didn’t work because it was too unoriginal. We need to locate that middle ground. Stay within the parameters of the genre but without losing our own unique voice and idiosyncrasies. Create a singular piece of work no other writer could possibly conceive of.”
“Okay,” Eric said, not quite sure where Cameron’s present train of thought was taking him. “That’s a lot easier said than done.”
Cameron paused for a moment. “You know what I’m thinking of right now? That script you wrote. The one that got you your agent.”
A few years earlier, Eric had written a spec script entitled Rodney Luther King. It was regarded by many who read it as a truly groundbreaking work; a daring hip hop musical and alternate history drama that reimagined Rodney King as a revolutionary civil rights leader, rising up from the ghetto to unite the downtrodden and oppressed minorities in a society torn apart by bigotry and intolerance. It had featured on the Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays, and such luminaries as Spike Lee and Cornel West had described it as one of the finest pieces of writing they had ever laid eyes on. But so far, all this buzz had amounted to naught. Instead of gathering awards and acclaim, as many predicted it had the potential to do, it only gathered dust on the desks of development executives. The major studios all had a blockbuster-heavy mentality that was extremely conservative and pathologically risk-averse. None of them would ever dare go near such potentially volcanic material.
“Yeah?” Eric said. “What about it?”
“You worked on that script for years and years, and it never really went anywhere. Anyone who read it could see that it had something special, but it was still missing a certain indefinable quality. That x-factor separating a good screenplay from a great one.”
Eric nodded. “They said it lacked authenticity.”
“Right. So what did you do to make it more authentic? How did you elevate your writing and take it to the next level?”
Eric cast his mind back to that time, a couple of years prior. Frustrated by the lack of progress he was making with Rodney Luther King, he took the drastic step of moving out of their shared Hollywood Hills pad and into a lower-class urban neighborhood. During this time he met with and befriended members of the African-American community, drawing from their shared history and experiences to add depth and nuance to his writing. He attended cookouts and house parties, smoked blunts, watched Scarface, played street craps, and briefly joined a hip hop crew. He dropped his g’s when speaking and disregarded traditional grammar conventions. He even witnessed what he believed was a drive-by shooting, only to later learn it was just a lowrider with a backfiring exhaust.
“That whole experience helped your script immeasurably, didn’t it?” Cameron said.
“Of course,” Eric said. “Those three weeks were invaluable. But I don’t see what that has to do with our current situation. Unless you’re suggesting we go party in the woods with with a bunch of horny college kids?”
“That wasn’t what I meant, although …” Cameron stopped for a moment to consider this. “No, no, I didn’t mean it like that. I was thinking more about the villain than the protagonist, since the bad guy is the most important character in any work of fiction. See, that was the biggest problem with our previous drafts – the killer was far too bland. The hero can only be as heroic as the villain is monstrous, and ours was like every other generic antagonist in every other generic horror movie. We have to create one that’s unforgettable. A force of nature.”
“Sure, no problem. You don’t happen to know any inbred cannibals we can hang out with for a couple of weeks so we can study their ways, do you?”
“It doesn’t have to be quite that literal, Eric. Maybe we can find some other way of getting inside the mind of a killer.”
“So what are you suggesting? We should go to the library and read up on serial killers or something?”
Cameron shook his head. “We have to go beyond that. You can’t get inside another person’s head by reading about them in a book. We have a duty to our audience to become method writers. We need to dive head-first into the subject matter.”
Eric made a face like he had swallowed something bitter. “I don’t know. Is that something we really want to do?”
Cameron took a large gulp of his coffee, then forcefully placed the empty cup down on the table. “Look. We have to face up to the fact that we’re not the best writers out there. We’re good. We’re very good, even. But we’re not the greatest. Not even close. So we have to take it further to reach our full potential. We have to do the kinds of things no one else would ever think to do. Go to places everyone else is unwilling to venture. That’s what you do if you want to produce great works of art.”
Eric stared into his drink for a long time. None of this really appealed to him. The prospect of swimming inside the murky mind of a depraved killer wasn’t something he really wanted to contemplate. But the way Cameron put it to him, he made it sound perfectly logical.
“Okay,” Eric said. “I’m in. Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.”
All Eric wanted to do when he arrived home late Tuesday evening was sink into his comfortable recliner in front of their seventy-five inch Sony Bravia 4K Ultra Smart TV and unwind with a stiff drink in his hand. He had just spent the day suffering through another pointless meeting with another clueless studio claiming to show an interest in finally putting Rodney Luther King into production. But it ended up going exactly the same as every other meeting he had ever taken. They never went anywhere, since none of these knuckleheads could wrap their feeble minds around such an original and daring concept. So he was forced to sit there for five hours, listening to the same inane questions and comments that every other studio executive had thrown at him over the past two years. “Could you make it a comedy?” one of the executives asked him. “Films about race don’t test well with women over forty,” another claimed, before adding that it would be difficult to sell a film like this to the emerging Chinese market. The head of the studio, a former Burger King CEO, told him they were unlikely to greenlight any film with such limited merchandising opportunities.
Eric had to excuse himself midway through, then locked himself inside an empty room and waited until he had calmed down a bit. Surrounded by so many philistines intent on destroying his masterwork, he was at serious risk of opening up one of the windows and swan-diving thirty stories to the pavement below.
Once again, he found himself questioning his chosen career path and wondering whether all this pain and suffering was ultimately worth it. When he wasn’t being told by a bunch of imbeciles that his magnum opus was unfilmable in its current form, he had the director of Pearl Harbor telling him he couldn’t even churn out a simple horror script. The thought crossed his mind, not for the first time, that it might be time to admit defeat and move on with his life. Hollywood and Eric Haas didn’t appear to be such a good fit. Maybe he would be better off turning Rodney Luther King into a stage play, or perhaps remove the musical element altogether and expand it into a novel. That would be preferable to handing it over to these vision-deprived bean counters and allow them to completely dilute the central message.
He closed the door, then kicked off his shoes and loosened his tie. Less than a minute later, the insufferable thumping from next door began. Eric cringed. This was all he needed right now. It was the fourth time in the past week his neighbor had started drumming immediately after he arrived home. That couldn’t be just a coincidence; he had to be doing it on purpose. He probably spent his whole day watching through his front window, waiting for Eric to appear, knowing that it was driving him insane. If he knew this was going to happen just because he’d made a simple request to keep the noise down, he never would have gone over there in the first place.
He had only just sat down and flicked on the TV when he heard Cameron’s voice. “Eric? Is that you?”
Eric looked around. He didn’t even realize Cameron was home. “Yeah? Where are you?”
“I’m down here. In the basement.”
“What are you doing in the basement?”
“Come and have a look. There’s something I want to show you.”
Eric reluctantly got back on his feet and walked over to the basement door.
In the three years he and Cameron had lived in the house they had only ever set foot in the basement once, shortly after they first moved in. It was dark and musty and filled with cobwebs, and smelled of stale potatoes and urine. Water leaked in when it rained, causing the wood to rot. Their skin crawled just by being in there. They decided to forgo the extra storage space and declare that area of the house off-limits.
The first thing he noticed when he made his way down the steps was the plastic. Sheets and sheets of clear plastic, covering the floor and every surface. The second thing he noticed was the smell – or the lack of smell. Gone was the scent of stale potatoes and urine, and in its place a faint antiseptic odor of chlorine and disinfectant.
In the middle of this all stood Cameron. He wore a disposable orange protective suit, the type sanitation workers used when dealing with putrid material, and a pair of safety goggles.
“So you’ve finally decided to clean this place out?” Eric said, both impressed and amused. “When did you do all this?”
“It’s something I’ve been working on these past few days. When you were busy with all your meetings.”
Eric couldn’t help but smile. “Cameron, I know you can be the world’s biggest procrastinator, but even for you this is going to extreme lengths to avoid–”
He stopped mid-stride when he saw that they were not alone. The smile vanished from his face.
In the corner of the room was a pale, heavyset fifty-something man with a walrus mustache. His hands and feet were in shackles, chained to the wall behind him. His mouth was sealed shut with a strip of tape. His face was drooped, like all the muscles had given up trying to function. His eyelids hung heavy over his eyes.
To his right, laid out neatly on the workbench, was every sharp knife from Cameron and Eric’s kitchen.
It took a moment for Eric’s brain to process just what his eyes were seeing. He blinked several times to make sure this wasn’t some hallucination brought on by an excessive amount of stress and Eli Roth films.
The full horror of the scene finally registered, and he beat a hasty retreat back up the stairs.
Cameron raced to catch up with him. He put his hand on Eric’s shoulder. Eric spun around.
“Look, Cameron. I’m sure there’s a very good reason why you have a complete stranger chained up in our basement,” he said. “But right now I’m struggling to think of one.”
“Promise me you won’t freak out,” Cameron said.
“I will not promise that,” Eric said, his voice rising.
“Okay, calm down. Let me explain.”
“What are you doing? Who the hell is that down there?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it all planned out. We’re safe. No one knows he’s here. His name is Robert Maxwell Faulkner. He’s on trial for murder, and he’s going to help us.”
“Help us? How, exactly?”
“He can help us do what we discussed,” Cameron said, speaking in a low half-whisper. “You know, last week? At Starbucks?”
Eric’s face was blank. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Remember what we said about gaining first-hand experience? Well, we now have an opportunity to do just that.”
“You’re suggesting that we use this guy, we make him one of our victims,” Eric said, speaking slowly and clearly to avoid any further misunderstandings. “So we can draw from the experience to improve our writing?”
Cameron nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.”
“Right.” Eric didn’t speak for a long time. “That is not what I thought you talking about in Starbucks last week.”
“What did you think I was talking about?”
“I don’t know … I thought you meant we should speak with some experts in the field. Like a homicide detective, or a criminal psychologist. Or that maybe we should interview a prisoner who has been convicted of those sorts of crimes. It honestly, never in a million years crossed my mind that you meant we should literally do it ourselves.”
Cameron took a moment to consider this. “Okay, now I understand why you reacted the way you did when you saw all this. That makes sense. But you know why we have to do it this way, don’t you?”
“?!?!?!” Eric said.
“If we did it the way you suggested, with research and interviews and whatnot, we would only experience it third-hand. At best. The details, the true minutiae of the act of killing, it would all be lost. We need to live the experience ourselves.”
“No.” Eric shook his head back and forth. “This is insane. You are insane.”
“Yeah, well, most geniuses are a bit crazy, aren’t they?” Cameron said, trying but failing to suppress a sly grin.
“No, most geniuses are slightly eccentric. This is the wrong side of crazy. The sanity train has well and truly left the station.”
“Give me one good reason why we shouldn’t do this.”
Eric coughed out a stunned laugh. “Are you serious?”
“I am. Just one reason.”
“Well … for a start, there’s a legal process that needs to be followed. You can’t grab anyone you like off the street and dish out your own form of vigilante justice. You don’t even know for sure if this guy’s guilty of what he’s accused of.”
“I do know that, because he’s already confessed. He’s going to plead guilty as part of some deal. He was a drunk who beat his wife to death in a jealous rage after subjecting her to years of abuse. Trust me, if anyone deserves to die it’s this guy. We’ll actually be saving the state millions of dollars in legal fees and prison expenses.”
A low groan seeped out from the basement. The tranquilizer pills Cameron had fed his captive were wearing off, and he was slowly reemerging from his unconscious slumber.
“Uh-uh,” Eric said. “There’s no way you can ever convince me this is anything but a bad idea.” He headed for the kitchen and threw open every one of the cupboards, desperately searching for something with a high alcoholic content. “I’m willing to do just about anything to get this screenplay finished, but I have to draw the line somewhere.”
“So you’re not prepared to do what it takes?”
“I said I’d do anything if I thought it would help. You don’t really believe this will make us better writers, do you?”
“If we want our screenplay to be the best it can be, and if we want to strive for a level of authenticity and realism no other writers out there could possibly come close to, yes, I do believe that.”
“I’m fairly certain no one has ever murdered someone else to improve their craft.”
“Exactly! We’re breaking new ground here. We will have taken method writing to levels no one else has ever dreamed of. We will be to screenwriting what Daniel Day Lewis is to acting. No, scratch that. We’ll be beyond Daniel Day Lewis. He’ll look like a fraud by comparison.”
Eric uncovered a bottle of gin with a tiny amount remaining. He quickly gulped it down. “I’m really not comfortable with any of this,” he said. He grimaced as the alcohol burned its way down his throat.
“I’m not all that comfortable with it either, but that’s why we have to do it. We’ve been stuck in our comfort zone for far too long. We need to push ourselves out of it. Remember what we agreed on the other day, about how for this script to be exceptional it needs a memorable villain? Well, this is what we have to do if we want to create the ultimate monster. We have to step into his shoes and view the world through his eyes. We need to become that monster.”
Eric’s head dropped. He knew exactly what Cameron was trying to do here. He was wearing him down, little by little, like he always did. He knew that no matter how many times he said no to something, Cameron would keep going on and on about it until he finally surrendered.
He tipped the gin bottle upside down and shook out the last few drops.
“Let me ask you something,” Cameron continued. “Have you heard of a guy by the name of Leo Tolstoy?”
“Yes, of course I know who Leo Tolstoy is,” Eric said.
“Right. And what about Nicholas Tolstoy? Ever heard of him?”
Eric said that he hadn’t.
“Nicholas Tolstoy was Leo’s older brother, and some say he was every bit as talented as Leo. Imagine that – two brilliant writers from the one family. So why do you think Leo Tolstoy is remembered for producing some of history’s greatest pieces of literature, while Nicholas is nothing but a footnote?”
Eric spied a bottle of cooking sherry in the far corner of the cupboard. “I really have no idea,” he said.
“Tolstoy said it was because his brother didn’t have the same drive to succeed that he had. He may have had the raw talent, and he may have been born with the same opportunities, but he lacked that burning desire to take it further and become one of the all-time greats. Tolstoy called it the ‘necessary bad qualities.’”
“Necessary bad qualities?” Eric unscrewed the lid and swallowed a mouthful of the sherry. He soon regretted it. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Basically he was saying that if you want to be successful, if you want to rise above the competition and achieve greatness, you have to be prepared to push yourself further than anyone else. Do things no one else will do. Venture into places no one else is willing to go.”
“And you’re saying we can only do that by murdering someone?”
Cameron let out a long sigh. “You don’t seem to get it. Nobody ever becomes successful by being a nice guy. You have to be completely and utterly ruthless. You have to tap into the absolute worst parts of your psyche. It’s not a question of talent. It’s a question of how much you want it. That’s why sociopaths often flourish and become CEOs and presidents. They don’t have the burden of a conscience holding them back.”
Eric collapsed onto the sofa and buried his face in his hands. After the kind of day he’d endured, he just wanted to relax and forget about his troubles for a while. This was the last thing he felt like dealing with.
Cameron sat down beside him. Neither one spoke for a moment.
The drumming from across the fence changed tempo, ramping up to a frantic speed metal beat.
“I know this is confronting,” Cameron said. His voice was gentler now. “And I know it’s not something either one of us really wants to do. But you understand this is our last chance, right? If we fail on this draft, it’s all over for us. I don’t just mean with Wrong Turn. I mean with everything, our whole Hollywood adventure. It’s over. We can kiss our careers goodbye and look forward to a life of regular nine-to-five jobs. And I don’t know how confident you are about finding meaningful employment, but we’re both about to turn thirty. We have BAs in creative writing and basically zero real work experience. We screw this up, by the end of the year we’ll be asking morbidly obese guys in Hawaiian shirts if they want fries with their happy meals. Or writing for Buzzfeed.”
Eric didn’t say anything in response. But he didn’t leave or voice his objection in any way, either. He just had a look of resignation on his face. Once again, Cameron was able to wear him down and talk him into doing something he didn’t want to do. He hated how easily he could be manipulated. It was his worst character flaw.
But in some weird way, he could see his point. They had spent their whole lives getting to where they were now. They just needed to take that final step. If they didn’t, all their years of hard work would be for nothing. It would be like running a marathon and giving up with the finish line in sight. Slaughtering another human being to further their writing careers was something unpleasant they would just have to do. Otherwise he was at serious risk of ending up like their idiot neighbor, still chasing some futile pipe dream well into middle-age.
“Come on,” Cameron said. “Let’s get this over with.” He retrieved another orange protective suit from a drawer and tossed it into Eric’s lap. “Like everything else in life, I’m sure the first time will be the hardest.”
“The script is coming along,” Michael Bay said, as a waiter from his favorite Pico Boulevard Chinese restaurant placed a serving of Kung Pao chicken in front of him. “There were a few minor issues to begin with, but we’re working to resolve those. I have faith that Cameron and Eric will deliver a brilliant piece of writing in the end.”
“Let’s hope so,” said Martin Krauth, sitting opposite. Martin was the head of Paramount Pictures, a one-time B-movie lackey who had shot up through the ranks to become the company’s superstar CEO and chairman in record time. Along with Michael, he was responsible for orchestrating the entire series of films in the Platinum Dunes Cinematic Universe. “We don’t want a late script holding up production. We’ve already started the casting process. Bella Thorne’s agent has been calling me non-stop for the past two weeks. Apparently she’s dying to play the lead.”
“Bella Thorne?” Michael struggled to pick up a piece of chicken with his chopsticks. “I thought Hailee Steinfeld was our first choice?”
“Hailee’s a fine actress, but I feel Bella can bring something more to the role. Seventeen million more, to be precise.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those are her Instagram numbers. She has seventeen million followers, most of whom are in the prized sixteen to twenty-five demographic.”
“I don’t know, Martin. I’m sure she’s a perfectly capable actress, but should social media numbers influence our casting decisions?”
“Listen, Mike.” Martin leaned forward in his seat. “I know you’re the undisputed king of the box office. Your films have taken, what, seven, eight billion dollars?”
“Nine-point-two billion worldwide,” Michael said with a modest smile. “But who’s keeping score, right?”
“Right, so I get that you have a track record that’s second-to-none. You obviously know what you’re talking about. But you have to trust me on this. If we cast actors with significant online followings, that gives us direct access to a massive audience. It’s the equivalent of a hundred or one-fifty mil in marketing dollars. I know it might be different from how you’ve cast your films previously, but it’s the way of the future. New media is here to stay. We can either embrace it or get left behind.”
“I guess you’re right,” Michael shrugged. “To be honest, I’m a little out of touch with most of that stuff. I don’t really understand it.”
“You don’t need to understand it. That’s my job. I can relate to young people. I know how teenagers think.”
“Great. Bella it is, then.” Michael used a napkin to wipe some sauce from his mouth. “So what about the role of the farmer? I was thinking Samuel L. Jackson would be perfect.”
“Yeah … I don’t think that’s going to work out,” Martin said.
“Really? I know Sam can be a bit selective when it comes to what films he agrees to–”
“I don’t mean it like that. I was talking more about the character of the farmer, and how he fits in with the context of the story. Think about it. He’s a mysterious figure of indeterminate origin who helps the young people overcome the evil threat.”
Michael nodded as he chewed his food. “So … what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that certain racial implications come into play if we cast an African-American actor in such a role. An uneducated but wise black man who rescues the white protagonist, and who ends up dying to save the lead girl? That has Magical Negro stamped all over it. The PC police will eviscerate us if we go down that road. You know what it’s like once the Twittersphere latches onto an issue and every self-righteous moonbat with a smartphone and a half-formed opinion throws in their two cents’ worth. The last thing we need is that kind of negative publicity poisoning the first film in the franchise.”
“Right, right, sorry.” Michael went for an egg roll. He made several failed attempts with the chopsticks before placing them to one side and using his fingers. “So how about this? What if we make the farmer white – someone like Chris Cooper, or Jackie Earle Haley – and the college kids black?”
Martin shook his head. “I’ve thought about that and it won’t work either.”
“No. If the farmer is Caucasian, the character then becomes a White Savior – the heroic white man who ultimately finds redemption by saving the lives of the minorities. Meanwhile, the supporting black characters are only there to get killed off one by one. There are people in this world who love nothing more than to be offended, and if we go down that path we’ll be giving them plenty to get off on. We’ll probably have Jesse Jackson and Armond White picketing the premiere.”
Michael frowned. “Do you really think anyone will notice something like that?”
“Are you serious?” Martin nearly choked on a dumpling. “Of course someone will notice! Do you even know what Twitter is like these days?”
“Well, um …”
“That’s all anyone ever does on it now. They scour the universe with a fine tooth comb, looking for the most minor infractions to be offended by. Even if it’s completely innocuous, they’ll leap on it and ‘call it out’ just to make themselves feel better. Extreme outrage is basically the new form of entertainment.”
“But we have the best of intentions here. We’re trying to do the right thing. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“I’m afraid there’s no such thing as the benefit of the doubt anymore. Our intentions are irrelevant if someone can twist it in a way that suits their own agenda.”
Michael took a moment to consider all this. He made another attempt at his Kung Pao chicken and rice, before setting his chopsticks aside and using a plastic spork.
“So why don’t we remove the issue of race altogether and make it an all-white cast?” he said. “That will avoid any unintended racial slights. Won’t it?”
“Oh, God no!” Martin looked around to make sure none of the other diners had overheard. “No. Whitewashing is the worst crime of all. That’s just asking for trouble.”
“Oh. Okay then.”
“You may as well make a pro-Hitler anti-Oprah film. That’s how serious it is.”
“Alright, calm down. We’ll just do the complete opposite then. We’ll cast the most diverse group of actors ever assembled on screen. Every color and hue and ethnicity will be represented: black, white, albino, East Asian, South Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, Eskimo – sorry, Inuit, if we can find one. No one could criticize us if we did that.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Martin said. “No one could criticize us. But only because barely anyone would see the film you just described.”
“You really think so?”
“Oh, I know so. A cast like that would be box office kryptonite. The public will think it’s some weird Sundance art house experiment. Middle America would freak out at such an extreme display of onscreen diversity.”
Michael tossed his spork down and leaned back in his seat. He could feel a headache coming on. “I give up then,” he said. “Seriously, is this all worth the trouble? We’re trying to do the right thing here, but everything we do is either unintentionally racist or commercial suicide.”
Martin nodded. “It’s hard, for sure. If it was easy there would be no need for those seminars.”
For the past year Michael Bay and Martin Krauth, along with several other prominent Caucasian film industry figures, had taken part in Ava DuVernay’s bi-monthly Racial Sensitivities and Privilege-Checking Workshop (also known as the “Woke Shop”). This was a gathering for filmmakers fully committed to producing progressive films that, in addition to the usual explosions and action sequences, conveyed a positive message of tolerance, diversity and inclusivity. But this was never easy. There were so many rules that had to be taken into consideration, and the rules were always changing. What was acceptable three years ago may now be considered offensive, and many of these rules contradicted each other.
A bowl of fortune cookies sat in the center of the table. Michael reached for one.
“The Chinese are our second-biggest market,” he said as he cracked the cookie open. “Maybe some of their ancient wisdom will guide us on the path to enlightenment.”
He unfurled the piece of paper inside. It read:
We are born alone, and then we die alone. Anyone you give your love to will ultimately betray you. The end.
Michael read the fortune several times over. “That’s an odd message to find in one of these things,” he said. “Don’t you think?”
“If you ask me, I think we’ll have better luck finding the answer at the bottom of a bottle of Armand de Brignac,” Martin said. He snapped his fingers to summon a waiter.
“You go ahead, but I’m not drinking,” Michael said. “I have a Pilates class after this.”
“Suit yourself, but this is an issue that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later. The longer we leave it, the harder it’s going to get for us.”
Martin ordered a bottle of the six hundred dollar wine, and the waiter scuttled off to fetch it from the bar.
Minutes passed without either one speaking. Michael played with his food, pushing it around the plate with his spork. The clattering of plates and sizzling of woks from the kitchen provided the background ambiance. He scooped up another mouthful of his chicken.
Straight away, he knew something wasn’t right. Within seconds he felt the inside of his mouth burning up. It started on his tongue and quickly spread to the rest of his mouth, nose and throat. The level of discomfort approached nuclear levels. He must have inadvertently bitten down on a concentrated clump of chili and spices.
Tears welled in his eyes as he reached for his glass of water. He emptied the glass in half a second then refilled it. He was well aware that water did nothing to extinguish he burning, but he still continued to do it.
“You okay there, Mike?” Martin said.
Michael nodded. He opened his mouth to speak, but his voice was now a silent rasp. He dabbed his eyes with his napkin and wiped the sweat from his brow.
And then something strange happened. The pain and discomfort lessened, and he was able to think with greater clarity. His headache was gone. All the issues that had been troubling him seemed to evaporate. He felt as if his mind had expanded, or his brain had been cleansed. As bizarre as it sounded, he believed he had reached a higher state of consciousness.
Martin immediately noticed the change. Michael seemed like a totally different person. There was a light behind his eyes that wasn’t there before.
“What is it?” Martin said.
Michael cleared his throat, and his voice returned. “I think I have the solution to all our problems,” he said.
Li Qiang cut a desolate figure as he sat slumped in his chair, alone in the basement of the Shan Xi Chinese restaurant, ninety minutes into a ten hour shift. He was supposed to be working, but there was no way he could concentrate on the task at hand. Not with everything that was happening. Not with his whole word falling apart.
He refreshed Yu-jun’s Facebook page. They had broken up two months ago, but he couldn’t help himself. Every thirty seconds, again and again, an OCD-like need to check for updates. He had to find answers. Why did she leave him? What had he done wrong? How could she have moved on so quickly? Not only that, but with his best friend? Wing Wei had been like a brother to him. They had known each other since childhood. He would have taken a bullet for him, and vice versa. Now they would never speak again. This was an act of betrayal that would haunt him until his dying days.
Heavy footsteps came clomping down the stairs. He knew who it was, and he knew how furious he would be. But he didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore. Life was without meaning.
“Li Qiang!” his father shouted. “The next batch of cookies is ready! I need those fortunes now!”
Li Qiang expelled a deep sigh. “Yes, father.”
He refreshed Yu-jun’s Facebook page one more time, then switched off his phone. He pulled his chair up close to the typewriter.
The massive armory of weapons on display at the Second Amendment Hunting and Fishing store in rural California was truly a sight to behold. There were enough pistols, rifles, shotguns, knives, machetes, crossbows, arrows and samurai swords hanging on the walls and encased in glass cabinets to supply a small African militia. It was a militarist’s paradise, but a little confronting for the two writers nervously examining the store’s merchandise.
“I’m not sure about this,” Eric said. He spoke in a hushed tone, as he would at a library.
“Neither am I,” Cameron said. “But we’ve passed the point of no return. There’s no going back from here.”
He continued on down the aisle. Eric trailed a few steps behind, dragging his feet and staring at the floor like an unruly child brought along by his mother whilst running an errand.
“It’ll be okay,” Cameron said, sensing Eric’s consternation. “This is something we need to do. In the end it’ll all be worth it. Trust me.”
“You know, ‘trust me’ are the two least comforting words in the English language,” Eric muttered to himself.
Eric was still shaken by the events of the previous night, where their attempt at experiencing first-hand violence and executing bloody vengeance on Robert Maxwell Faulkner was nothing less than an unmitigated disaster. As the instigator and architect of this deranged scheme, it was decided that Cameron should go first. He selected the largest of the available kitchen knives and, after several shots of vodka to calm his nerves and strengthen his resolve, he stepped forward and jabbed the knife out at his target. The tip of the knife struck Faulkner directly on his hip bone, and the flimsy blade snapped in two. Faulkner grunted a deep animalistic moan, even if his heavy sedation blocked the majority of the pain.
Eric became woozy at the sight of the relatively small amount of blood spilling from the wound. Cameron quickly patched up the abrasion with duct tape, then shoved a couple more painkillers down Faulkner’s throat to knock him out again.
This was their first lesson learned in stabbing: a simple kitchen knife was designed for chopping vegetables, and was not meant to be used on living humans. They would need something a lot sturdier and with a little more heft if they wanted to get the job done.
As soon as the sun came up they jumped in Cameron’s Jeep and drove two hours to this small-town hunting store in search of an implement more conducive to their needs. They could have visited any one of the dozens of stores closer to home, but they didn’t want to run the risk of bumping into anyone they knew. They even went so far as to adopt elaborate disguises, donning fake beards, plaid shirts and trucker caps, as well as using lower-class speech patterns, to avoid standing out in a place like this.
“These look dangerous,” Eric said as he viewed the wide range of weaponry on sale, some of which appeared sharp enough to cut you just by looking at them.
“I certainly hope they’re dangerous,” Cameron said. “They’d be pretty useless knives if they weren’t.”
Eric fidgeted with the mullet wig beneath his cap. “Are we even allowed to purchase these? It doesn’t seem right that we can just walk in off the street and buy something like this. What if it’s illegal?”
“You’re right, Eric. Maybe it is illegal. Maybe this is all one big sting operation. I’m sure the police are watching from a van parked across the road, waiting to arrest anyone the moment they try to purchase something.”
They moved along to the next glass case. Inside was a machete the size of a squash racquet.
“But what if they ask us what we’re going to do with it?”
Cameron let out a dramatic sigh. “Why in God’s name would they ask us that? Think about it, Eric. Interrogating their customers would probably not be good for business.”
“Yeah, but what if they do? We should have an answer prepared, just in case. It’ll look suspicious otherwise.”
“Then we’ll tell them the truth. We’ll say we have a murderer chained up in our basement, and we plan on chopping him up into tiny pieces all in the name of art.”
Eric’s face turned a shade of white. “Don’t even joke about that!”
“Or we could say that we’re going hunting this weekend,” Cameron said, stroking his fake goatee. “You think they’ll buy that? This is a hunting store, after all.”
“Okay, but what about follow-up questions? What are we hunting? Where are we going to do it? Is it even hunting season now?”
Cameron didn’t respond. He had stopped listening the instant he laid eyes on the Bowie knife displayed on the wall in front of him.
“Now this,” he said, gently lifting the weapon off its rack. He was surprised at how lightweight it felt. “This could do some serious damage.”
The knife was almost the length of his forearm. It boasted a gleaming serrated blade and a hand-carved wooden handle. It looked like it could gut a moose – or eviscerate a bunch of movie teenagers – with the slightest flick of the wrist. The attached price tag valued it at $599, but that was immaterial. The most important factor was it looked like something an iconic slasher villain would use to carve his epic trail of destruction.
Cameron tried it out a few times, thrusting and twisting it into the air as he sliced up his imaginary victim.
Eric tugged nervously at his sleeves. He looked around the store, growing more and more uncomfortable the longer this ordeal dragged on. He didn’t want to be here, and he definitely didn’t like the demented smile that had appeared on Cameron’s face as he handled the deadly weapon.
The smile was still there as Cameron brought it over to the counter for purchase.
“You fellas plannin’ on doin’ some huntin’?” the store owner asked as the they pooled their cash together.
“Something like that,” Eric nodded, a little too quickly.
The terror was reflected in Robert Maxwell Faulkner’s eyes as Cameron slowly removed the newly-purchased knife from its sheath. The effects of the OxyContin had diminished significantly since their last encounter, and the further the numbness receded the more his fear increased. His jaw moved as if he was attempting to speak, but the duct tape covering his mouth allowed nothing more that the occasional muffled grunt.
Eric affixed the camcorder to the tripod. Lucidity struck him for one brief moment, and he struggled to comprehend just how he had come to be here. Cameron could be persuasive, he knew that, and he was accustomed to getting his way. But how he managed to talk him into something this insane would forever remain a mystery. One day, with the benefit of hindsight, he might be able to adequately explain the precise sequence of events that led to this very moment. He assumed that when this day came he would probably be wearing a straightjacket, relaying his story to a criminal psychologist.
“Remember to pay close attention to everything you see here,” Cameron said. “No matter what happens, no matter how uncomfortable this becomes, do not look away.”
Eric responded with a quick nod. He focused the camcorder, zooming in until Faulkner’s bare-chested body filled the entire frame.
“Even though we’re recording this, we can’t rely on the footage,” Cameron continued. “That’s just for backup. We need to make a mental imprint of every detail as it happens. Every sight, every sound, every smell. The look on his face as the blade goes in. The sound it makes as it cuts through human flesh. The smell of blood as it drains from his body, and the shade of red when it hits the floor. Someone should be able to read our screenplay and it would be like they’re right here in the room with us.”
Eric glanced up from the viewfinder and briefly locked eyes with their captor. It was only a fleeting moment, and he immediately looked away, but it was enough to communicate a desperate pleading. Faulkner had been so doped up during their earlier attempt that he probably didn’t have the slightest idea of where he was or what was happening. Now he was slowly figuring out who these guys were and what they planned on doing with him.
“Maybe we should give him another dose of pills,” Eric said.
Cameron looked across. “Why?”
“Look at him. He’s almost fully conscious.”
“Good. That’s what we want.” A smile formed around the edges of Cameron’s mouth. “He should feel this.”
A shiver crawled down Eric’s spine. “Don’t you think that’s a little cold-blooded?”
“The characters in our script won’t be high on painkillers when they get butchered, will they? It’ll be the most terrifying moment of their lives. And it should be no different with him. We want this experience to be as authentic as possible.”
Eric went to protest further, but the words never came. He could only stand by and watch as Cameron stepped forward with the Bowie knife in his hand and a look of steely determination flickering in his eye.
The bottle of vodka, partially consumed during their previous attempt to help calm their nerves, remained untouched on a shelf in the corner. They were to be one hundred percent sober this time, to ensure the full sensory impact of the experience.
Cameron took a deep breath.
“Hold up a minute,” Eric said.
“I …” Eric was silent for a long time as he tried to make sense of all this. “I don’t know if we should do this.”
“Oh, come on,” Cameron groaned. “We’ve been through this already. We have to do this. If we want our writing to have the highest possible level of authenticity, and if we want to create cinema’s ultimate monster, this is something we simply need to do.”
“I … I don’t think … it’s not too late to back out. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Of course it’s too late. What, do you think we can just let him go and hope he won’t tell anyone about everything that’s happened here?”
“What if we just give him some more Oxys and then dump him somewhere?” Eric knew he was grasping at straws, but he soldiered on. “He doesn’t know where he is. His memory will be hazy, so I doubt he’ll be able to properly identify us. And it’s not like the police are going to care too much. We haven’t done anything that bad. Not yet, anyway. Nothing that can’t be undone.”
Cameron considered this for a moment. “That’s a good point.”
Eric exhaled out his relief. “Thank you. Now I think we should put a stop to this before–”
Without warning, Cameron jabbed the tip of the blade half an inch into Faulkner’s chest and sliced in a downward motion. A thin diagonal line of blood formed from his left shoulder to his right hip. A high-pitched, swine-like squeal seeped out from behind the duct tape. The skin on his chest and abdomen split open as if a zipper had been yanked down.
Eric’s jaw hit the floor as the trickle of blood grew to a steady stream. “What the hell was that, Cameron?” he screamed.
“I guess there’s no turning back from here,” Cameron said with a shrug. “We may as well finish what we started.” He pointed the knife at the deep wound bisecting Faulkner’s torso. “Unless you know how to fix that.”
Eric’s vision turned to static as the room shifted around him. He steadied himself by holding onto one of the benches. He zoned out, and time moved in random fits and starts. One second he was watching the blood drip from Faulkner’s exposed chest onto the clear plastic sheets covering the floor. The next he was standing before the victim, and the knife was in his hand. He had no idea how it got there. There was no logic or reason to any of this. He had zero control over his movements. He was fast losing his grip on reality, and there was little he could do to hold on to it.
He looked up at Faulkner. His eyes were as large as golf balls. His breathing was heavy, his crimson-soaked chest rising and falling in rapid motion.
“You’re up,” he heard Cameron say. “Do what you need to do. Rise up to that next level.”
Faulkner shook his head back and forth, silently begging him not to.
Eric lifted up the knife, then lowered it again. “I … I can’t do this,” he said.
“Of course you can,” Cameron said. “There’s nothing to it. Human beings are inherently violent creatures. We’ve been doing this sort of thing to one another since the dawn of time. It’s in our nature.”
“No. No. This isn’t right.”
“You know what this man is guilty of. He deserves everything that’s coming to him.”
“I … I can’t …”
“I’m not asking you to chop his goddamn head off. Just a tiny cut. Stick it in his thigh if you want.”
Eric’s throat filled with something that choked him. His hands began to shake. There wasn’t a single muscle in his body that wanted to do what Cameron demanded of him.
“This is too much,” he said. “I can’t do it.”
“Then maybe you don’t have what it takes to be a great writer.” A touch of anger had come into Cameron’s voice. “Maybe you don’t want it enough.”
“No … I do …”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Then show me.”
Eric tried forcing himself to move, but every joint in his arms and legs had locked up.
“You know what I think?” Cameron said. “I think you’re satisfied with being average. You don’t want to be extraordinary, because the thought of it intimidates you. It frightens you. I think you’re comfortable being good enough.”
Eric squeezed his eyes closed. He could see what was happening here, and he hated it. Cameron knew which of his buttons to press. He knew exactly what to say to get under his skin.
Cameron took another step closer. “Maybe you don’t have the necessary bad qualities required to succeed,” he whispered into Eric’s ear.
Eric felt the growing resentment simmering inside him as the words burrowed deep into his psyche. They were both a challenge and a taunt, the same words he had said to himself when he was alone at night, wondering if he’d ever make anything of his life. The pressure continued to build and build until he could no longer contain it.
And with that Eric snapped, pouncing forward like a coiled spring. He aimed for the chest, intending to slash the knife across Faulkner’s torso the way Cameron had, except in an upwards rather than downwards motion. But his eyes remained closed, and so his aim was slightly off.
He sensed contact of some sort. But this time there were no muffled screams of pain. Just a couple of seconds of gurgling, and then silence.
He pried his eyelids open and saw Cameron’s face. It was frozen in shock, and entirely devoid of color. He didn’t know what he had done, exactly. He only knew that it must have been horrendous.
He slowly turned to face his victim.
The knife had somehow missed Faulkner’s chest and struck at the underside of his jaw. The blade had entered beneath his chin and gone all the way through. He had skewered his head like a shish kebab, straight down the middle. Three inches of blade stuck out the top of his skull. It only stopped when the knife’s crossguard reached the jaw line.
Eric’s heart stopped beating. For a near-eternity, neither one said a word.
A river of warm blood flowed from the entry point, trickling down onto his hand, still wrapped around the handle in a tight death grip, unable to let go.
“That was over a little faster than I had anticipated,” Cameron finally said.
The enormity of what he had done hit Eric like a sucker punch to the nose. He let go of the knife and stumbled backwards. His legs turned gelatinous, and his internal organs flipped inside out. This was too much for him to handle. Up until now he had lived his life by the book. He was a model citizen who had never knowingly broken the law. A vegetarian pacifist who deplored violence, had never been in a physical fight, and went out of his way to avoid confrontation.
And now, with this one swift action, he had committed an act of vengeance that could never be undone. He had crossed the line separating normal human beings from cold-blooded murderers.
His victim stared back at him, his face petrified in terror. Alive twenty seconds ago, now deceased by Eric’s hand. His wide eyes followed his killer around the room like some sort of macabre optical illusion.
A tidal wave of distress crashed down on top of Eric. He felt himself leave his body, disassociating from the brutal act he had just performed. He floated up towards the ceiling, observing the scene from above as his earthbound avatar backed away from the warm corpse, then turned and stumbled up the stairs. He watched himself trip on the top step, landing face-first on the polished floorboards, before scrambling to his feet and hurrying for the bathroom.
He burst through the door and rushed to the sink, but stopped as soon as he reached it.
That same intense feeling remained, but it wasn’t nausea or panic. It was something else. Some otherworldly sensation he had never experienced. An indescribable electric haze swirled inside his head and filtered down to the rest of his body, shimmering in the tips of his fingers.
His spirit drifted back down to earth and reentered his body.
Eric slowly retreated from the bathroom. His breathing had calmed, and his pulse had returned to normal. The crippling tremor that had hijacked his body a minute ago had disappeared. A whole new feeling of serenity had taken over. Something incredible was happening, something he could neither explain nor control. An otherworldly force was being channeled through him of which he was just the vessel. There was only one thing he could do.
He pulled up a seat in front of his laptop. He peeled off the top half of his orange protective suit and began to type.
Angus Donahue’s feet rested on the counter at the Second Amendment Hunting and Fishing store as he flicked through a decades-old issue of Penthouse he’d discovered at the back of a cupboard. An open can of room temperature beer was by his side, just out of view from potential customers. He came to the final page of the magazine, then dropped it into the wastepaper basket next to him. He drained the rest of his beer and crushed the can in his hand.
He stretched his arms above his head and let out a gaping yawn, then glanced at the clock. It was 4:38 p.m. Not quite five o’clock, but near enough to. Business had been slow all day, and if it wasn’t for those two city boys who came in earlier – the ones who, for some reason, were wearing those ridiculous disguises – there would have been little point in opening at all today.
He stepped out from behind the counter and flipped the sign on the door over to closed.
He was midway through packing away the display merchandise when he heard the door open and the bell ring. He stopped what he was doing. He was sure he had locked the door immediately after turning the sign around. Obviously he hadn’t.
“We’re closed,” he said.
“The sign says you’re open,” a voice croaked.
He grimaced when he saw who had entered his store. Whoever this man was, he was not a customer. He looked like a escapee from an old folk’s home, or, more probable, an insane asylum. There was an unhinged look in his eye, like the wiring in his brain had short-circuited many moons ago. His clothes were filthy rags held together with pieces of string and safety pins, while his decomposing, mismatched shoes were more rubber bands and electrical tape than leather and rubber. The odor emanating from his body was so severe it almost produced cartoon stink lines.
“Well I say we’re closed,” Angus said. “And I outrank the sign.”
The man either failed to hear, or he ignored him completely. He wandered through the store, casually browsing the merchandise like a prospective customer at a used car dealership. He was obviously heavily intoxicated, his body swaying back and forth like an inflatable air dancer.
“Did you hear what I said? You have to leave.”
The vagrant came closer. He hacked out a cough, and Angus caught an involuntary whiff of his rancid whiskey breath. The man lifted his right arm to aim a crooked finger at a display case.
“I’ll take it,” he said.
Angus didn’t move. He looked the old man up and down, sizing him up and wondering how much more of this he was going to tolerate. “Just get out of my store before I call the cops,” he said.
The old man kept his stare fixed on Angus and his finger directed at the cabinet. “I’ll take it,” he repeated, this time with slightly more menace.
Angus fought the urge to put this crusty old time-waster in a headlock and toss him out on the street. He decided to try humoring him first. “You are pointing at a Smith & Wesson model .500 Magnum. It’s a revolver that could take down an elephant from a distance of two hundred yards. And you see this here?” He tapped a knuckle against the handwritten sign directly beneath the weapon. “You see how it has a dollar sign, followed by a one, a six and two zeroes? That means it costs sixteen hundred dollars.”
The man nodded along as if he understood, but said nothing.
“So that’s what it’s gonna cost if you wanna purchase this particular firearm.”
“Uh huh,” the man grunted.
Then silence. Angus folded his arms as he waited for more.
“Do you happen to have a spare sixteen hundred dollars on you?” he said, speaking slowly and clearly in case the man was a little dense. “Because if you don’t, you can’t have it and you have to leave.”
The old man’s grime-encrusted hands disappeared into his trouser pockets. They came out clutching two fistfuls of crumpled hundreds and fifties. He held the bills in front of Angus’s face. “Will this be enough?” he said, flashing a black-toothed smile.
Angus took a half-step back. He stared at the wads of cash. He could only imagine how a derelict like this got his hands on that sort of money. It was probably best not to know. Money was like processed meat, as the old saying went. You should never ask where it came from.
He unlocked the cabinet and removed the pistol.
“Do me a favor, buddy,” the wino slurred as Angus rang up the purchase at the counter. “This is a gift. For a friend. I need it wrapped.”
Angus eyed the stranger for a moment. The notion that this was all some kind of practical joke had crossed his mind on more than one occasion. “Do we look like the kind of place that offers a gift wrapping service?” he said.
“Here. I’ll pay extra if that’ll help sweeten the deal.”
Two more scrunched-up hundreds were pulled from the vagrant’s pockets. He tossed them on the counter. Both bills were slightly damp. One was marked with spots that could very well be blood. Angus picked each one up by its least-soiled corner, careful to ensure minimal skin contact.
He looked around his immediate area. “I don’t have any wrapping paper on me.”
“That’s okay,” the stranger said, nodding towards the wastepaper basket at Angus’s feet. “Just wrap it up in that girlie magazine you have down there.”
The two writers had turned out the script’s first fifteen pages before rigor mortis had even set in. There was no doubting that something incredible was happening here. After struggling for so long to get words on the page, they had entered a zone where it seemed nothing could halt this intense rush of creativity. It was an unstoppable force, gushing out of them like blood from a severed artery. All the pressure and frustration that had been building for the past three months was finally released in one endless stream of inspiration.
Cameron paced the room, tossing out new plot points and lines of cracking dialogue as they came to him, unable to remain still for more than a few seconds. Eric was perched in front of the laptop, his fingers dancing across the keyboard as he desperately tried to keep up, translating Cameron’s words and ideas into cinematic brilliance. The screen and keys were smeared with blood, but they didn’t care. They were writing, at long last, and it was better than anything they had ever done.
Neither one could possibly understand or explain what had come over them. They only knew that some higher power, some indefinable creative spirit had taken control of their minds and bodies. The slaying of Robert Maxwell Faulkner had awakened something inside them, tapping into a deep reservoir of artistry they had no idea they even possessed.
Ninety minutes after they began, Cameron paused to collect his thoughts. “Where does that bring us to?” he said.
“Carly has just stripped down to go skinny-dipping when she discovers the hitchhiker’s body,” Eric said. “That marks the first act turning point.”
Cameron nodded and took a breath. “I think we should go back from the start and read through what we’ve written so far.”
Eric scrolled back up to the top of the page.
[* INT. WOODS -- NIGHT *]
The midnight hour. A Jupiter-sized FULL MOON is suspended in an ink-black sky, providing partial illumination for this dense thicket of inhospitable terrain.
The camera glides through the foliage like a marauding hawk, closing in on a TERRIFIED FIGURE running in the distance.
We draw nearer, and the figure comes into focus. It takes the form of a nubile YOUNG FEMALE. Barefoot, her legs and arms wreathed in raw abrasions, dressed only in underwear and a small t-shirt that clings to her lithe body, she scrambles through the relentless landscape from an unseen predator.
The camera reaches her, as does the troglodyte she was fleeing.
He is THREE FINGER. He is human, but only just. His grotesque face is a twisted abomination molded by generations of inbreeding and exposure to toxic chemicals. A row of sharpened YELLOW TEETH protrude from his festering mouth.
Air fills the girl’s lungs, and she expels an EAR-SPLITTING SCREAM.
SMASH CUT TO:
[* INT. TEENAGER’S BEDROOM –- NIGHT *]
The SCREAM carries over as the girl awakens from her night terror. She sits bolt upright in bed. Her hair is a tousled bird’s nest, her face wet with perspiration.
[_ She is JESSIE BURLINGAME. She is nineteen, bookish, a straight-A type. There is a marked innocence to her. Despite her distress, her beauty is evident -- in a girl-next-door, pretty-without-realizing-it kind of way. _]
A moment passes before she catches her breath. Her ALARM CLOCK tells her it’s 2:34.
[_ Jessie flicks on her LAMP. Her bedroom shows her to be a typical teenager –- messy clothes blanket the floor, open school books on her desk. Posters of David Bowie, The Clash and Jack Nance in ] [“Eraserhead”] [_adorn her walls. A well-worn copy of “The Catcher In The Rye” sits on her dresser.]
A CALENDAR hangs on her door. 29 June is circled, with “CAMPING TRIP!!” written in the center.
“Hold on a second,” Cameron said.
“What is it?” Eric said.
“Remember what Michael told us about putting in too many highbrow or esoteric references?”
Eric used his sleeve to wipe a droplet of blood from the laptop screen. “You think Eraserhead and Salinger are highbrow?”
“I don’t, necessarily,” Cameron shrugged. “But we’re writing for the audience, not ourselves. And our audience are more or less cultural illiterates. You know how upset people get when they’re exposed to some reference or allusion they don’t understand.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Eric said, tapping away at the backspace key. “It’s probably safer to err on the side of ignorance.”
[* INT. TEENAGER’S BEDROOM –- NIGHT *]
The SCREAM carries over as the girl awakens from her night terror. She sits bolt upright in bed. Her hair is a tousled bird’s nest, her face wet with perspiration.
[_ She is JESSIE BURLINGAME. She is nineteen, bookish, a straight-A type. There is a marked innocence to her. Despite her distress, her beauty is evident -- in a girl-next-door, pretty-without-realizing-it kind of way. _]
A moment passes before she catches her breath. Her ALARM CLOCK tells her it’s 2:34.
[_ Jessie flicks on her LAMP. Her bedroom shows her to be a typical teenager –- messy clothes blanket the floor, open school books on her desk. Posters of Beyonce, The Chainsmokers and Chris Evans as Captain America adorn her walls. A well-worn copy of Amy Schumer’s ] [“The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo”] _sits on her dresser.
A CALENDAR hangs on her door. 29 June is circled, with “CAMPING TRIP!!” written in the center.
The body of Robert Maxwell Faulkner was placed inside the 9.6 cubic ft. chest freezer that Cameron had purchased in the days leading up to the kidnapping and mutilation. He remained there until frozen solid, at which point he was removed and divided into twelve separate pieces with the aid of a high-powered circular saw. Freezing the body made it harder to move, and much more difficult to dismember, but it also avoided the extreme mess often associated with dividing a corpse into smaller, more manageable portions.
The various frozen body parts were encased in plastic wrap before being transported late at night to a remote area of desert near Vasquez Rocks. They were taken to a secluded location far from passing traffic or potential hikers, where they were unwrapped and left for the coyotes to dine on. Vultures took care of any remaining forensic evidence the coyotes left behind.
Police made a few perfunctory enquiries after learning of Faulkner’s disappearance before choosing to allocate no further time or resources to the investigation. They initially suspected him of fleeing town to avoid sentencing, but later dismissed this as unlikely – all his belongings remained undisturbed at his house, and his bank account and credit cards had not been accessed. Even though foul play was suspected, it was ultimately decided that solving the case would remain a low priority.
From: Martin Krauth
To: Michael Bay
Subject: I have cancer
Sorry about the subject line. Its not true, by the way. I just know how tardy you can be when it comes to opening your emails and I wanted you to read this asap.
Anyway, I bring god news. Your revolutionary plan has come to fruition! The entire cast have all signed on to do Wrong Turn .
So without any further ado, your cast is as follows:
(… drumroll …)
Jessie: Bella Thorne
Carly: Vanessa Hudgens
Lauren: Zoe Kravitz
Francine: Demi Lovato
Evan: Zayn Malik
Scott: Max Minghella
Hitchhiker: Olivia Munn
Officer Shannon: Jesse Williams
Officer Goode: Jessica Alba
The farmer: Vin Diesel
I know Ive told you this like a billion times before, but your a genius! A supporting cast made up entirely of ridiculously hot biracial actors? Brilliant! All our diversity issues are solved in one fowl swoop, and without alienating the mainstream audience! If the naacp doesnt award you there highest honor the whole process is rigged!
We have also secured the talents of Eryk Wiszniewski, the young Polish director, to helm the film. Hes the guy who made that documentary “Gorilla Warfare”, the one about armies in war-torn countrys that use trained baboons as armed soldiers.
(I havent seen it yet but it won some big award at the Cannes Film Festival. Rex Reed described it as “the most important debut documentary film since Zapruder”.)
Its such a relief to finally have all these problems taken care of once and for all. For a while there I wasnt sure if we would be able to reach a solution, but in the end you delivered. It just goes to show what can be accomplished once we put our minds to it. Its like what they say about bumblebees and how they are actually physically incapable of flight, but the simple bumblebee doesnt know this so it disregards the laws of physics and takes to the skies.
You and I are the bumblebees!
Peace and a bottle of hair grease, M.K.
From: Michael Bay
To: Martin Krauth
Subject: Re: I have cancer
That’s fantastic news about the cast and director. Super excited about Wrong Turn. I think we could really be on the verge of creating something groundbreaking with the Platinum Dunes Cinematic Universe.
Still no ETA for the shooting script, but don’t panic. I emailed Eric Haas yesterday and he said they were tearing through it at a rate of knots. They’ll send us the first 20-odd pages sometime in the next few days to give us an idea of where they’re at.
P.S. I’m not sure that bumblebee analogy makes a whole lot sense. The bee doesn’t know it’s not supposed to fly but ignores physics and does it anyway? How does that work? A guy tripping on acid doesn’t know he can’t fly when he jumps out the window of a twenty story building, but no matter how hard he flaps his arms around he still plummets to the ground below, doesn’t he? Or does he?
Days bled into nights, and Cameron and Eric continued to make further progress with their Wrong Turn draft. Their butchery of Robert Maxwell Faulkner had ignited something inside of them, providing that spark of inspiration they desperately needed. They found themselves churning out the pages like never before; act one was complete in less than a week, along with a solid thirty-page outline for how the second and third acts were to unfold. Their story would contain many of the familiar plot points fans had come to expect from films in the horror genre, but subverted in such unique and original ways to create a singular piece of work unlike anything else in the marketplace.
They were often dumbfounded by what they managed to come out with. They would review what they had written days earlier and be blown away, almost as if they were reading the work of another writer. They never knew they were capable of this level of excellence.
But by the tenth or eleventh day, both their enthusiasm and the quality of their work had begun to decline. The elements of the killing – the sights, the sounds, the smells and all the visceral emotions they aroused – were gradually fading from memory. They were finding it more and more difficult to separate the words on the page from the actual physical experience. They tried to recapture the spark by rewatching the video, but after a handful of viewings it felt like they were sitting through just another schlocky low budget found footage movie.
They did their best to plow on through, telling one another that they obviously had the talent to do this and just needed the motivation, but it was no use. The door was closing on their creativity and there was nothing they could do to stop it.
It wasn’t long before lethargy kicked in, and the two fell back into old habits. They found themselves using any excuse to avoid writing, from complaining of mild headaches to being distracted by the God-awful racket created by the neighbor’s six-hour band rehearsals. Eric spent less time at his laptop and more time in front of the television, frittering his days away catching up on all the quality HBO, Showtime and Netflix dramas he had fallen behind on. Cameron, meanwhile, had taken to loitering in and around various Starbucks outlets, flirting with the clientele and doing his best impersonation of a successful writer, albeit without doing any actual writing.
Entire days would go by without either one contributing a single word to the screenplay. Their impending deadline drew nearer and nearer, hanging over their heads like an execution date.
Until one Thursday afternoon, when Cameron rushed home from another unproductive writing session at his favorite corporate coffee hangout. Eric could sense his excitement from the moment he burst through the door. He immediately hit pause on the episode of Stranger Things he was partway through watching.
“I have a brilliant idea!” Cameron said. “And I think it could be the solution to all our problems.”
Eric sat up in his seat. His face immediately brightened. “You do?”
Cameron nodded enthusiastically. “I just ran into Warwick Wilson at Starbucks,” he said, taking off his Bouclé-Check Double Breasted overcoat and carefully folding it over a chair. “He came in for a caramel macchiato. I went over and introduced myself.”
“Warwick Wilson?” Eric said.
“Am I supposed to know who that is?”
“You’ve never heard of him?”
“No. Should I?”
“He only runs one of the most high profile casting agencies in town. You’ll find his name in the credits of some of the biggest films from the past decade.”
“Oh, okay. So what does he have to do with our situation?”
Cameron kicked off his shoes and took a seat on the sofa. “Well, in addition to being one of the industry’s biggest star-makers, Warwick Wilson has quite a reputation. For years he’s been the subject of plenty of rumors and innuendo.”
“What sort of rumors?”
“Rumors about how he frequently takes advantage of his clients. His younger clients in particular. And about all the sordid favors he demands in exchange for career advancement.”
Eric’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you serious?”
Cameron nodded. “Absolutely. He’s a serial offender.”
“So how is he still in business? Why hasn’t he been, I don’t know, arrested or sued or something?”
“I guess, like most predators, he’s fairly selective in who he targets. He preys on the desperate. The ones who are the most vulnerable and will do just about anything for their shot at fame. They know that if they made a complaint it would destroy any chance they ever had of a successful career. Plus …” Cameron lowered his voice as if the house might be bugged. “Some say he’s part of that weird Hollywood cult. You know, the Dawn of the Two Divides? If you’re a member, you can pretty much get away with anything and the cult protects you from any scandals.”
“Oh, come on Cameron,” Eric groaned. “You don’t really believe that exists, do you?”
“Who knows? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But the stories about him being a certified creep are absolutely true. Ask any young actress who’s ever had to audition for him and they’ll almost certainly have a story. It’s more or less an open secret in the industry.”
Eric was silent for a moment. “I’m still a little confused by all this.”
“What part confuses you?”
“A lot of it confuses me. But mostly it’s the part where you think that befriending a known sexual predator will somehow assist us in finishing our screenplay.”
“Oh, right.” Cameron chuckled to himself. “Sorry. I got a bit ahead of myself, didn’t I? What I was thinking was that perhaps we should invite Mr. Wilson over here to discuss some future projects that he could be involved in. And then maybe …” He let the idea hang in the air for a moment. “Maybe … that will help resolve some of these problems we’ve been having of late.”
Eric finally caught on to what Cameron was suggesting here. “Oh, no. Uh-uh. That’s not a good idea.”
“I know. It’s a great idea.”
“No way. One time was more than enough.”
“Was it enough? It gave us a good start, but we haven’t even reached the halfway mark yet.”
Eric lowered his eyes. “We still don’t know if we’re in the clear from the last time. And if we do it again, we double the risk of getting caught.”
“We won’t get caught, Eric. If someone ever gets caught it’s because they kill in the heat of the moment and don’t think it through. We just have to take all the necessary precautions, like we did last time, and we’ll be fine. We can do this.”
“I just think …” Eric took a moment to compose his thoughts. “I think if we can be disciplined about our writing habits and keep working at it, we can figure this out.”
“Maybe you’re right, but there’s also a chance that we’ll never progress any further than where we’re currently at. Is that what you want to happen?”
“Of course not, but we don’t have to go there again.”
“Eric, we have to be realistic about what’s happening here. Whatever mojo that first one gave us is long gone. The buzz has worn off, and if we don’t act soon it may never come back.”
Eric swallowed. He could feel the nervous tremor returning to his voice. “I … I understand what you’re saying,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s necessary. Look at what we’ve done so far. That came from us. We’ve already proven we can write something extraordinary, and there’s nothing stopping us from doing it again. If we stick with it for just a little while longer I’m confident it will all work out in the end.”
“Hey, I’m just putting it out there,” Cameron said. “But the clock is ticking. Just ignoring these problems won’t make them magically disappear.”
Eric promised he would give the idea some thought, although this was the last thing he really wanted to do. He was adamant they didn’t need to go down that particular path again. Their output from the past couple of weeks proved they had what it took to get the job done. They just had to forget about trying to find shortcuts or quick-fix solutions and do what every other writer had done when they found themselves stuck in a rut. They had to put their heads down and write their way out of it.
But then two further unproductive days stretched out into five days, which then became ten. Nothing they came up with for the second act was anywhere near as good as what they wrote during those frantic few days of effortless creativity. Every attempted writing session only seemed to make their screenplay worse. Eric had to begrudgingly admit that Cameron might be right, and that drastic action was required.
Cameron was the one who made the call. He told Warwick Wilson they had been hired to write and direct a remake of the film Bugsy Malone, and invited him over to discuss the possibility of him working on the project. He told him that several of the young actresses under consideration for the lead roles would also be in attendance.
Eric handed Warwick a glass of brandy shortly after he arrived. Ten minutes later, they were hauling his flaccid body down to the basement.
They wasted little time in getting to work, each one taking turns at smashing Warwick’s right foot in with a hammer until every bone was shattered. Cameron then moved in with the cordless drill to create multiple trepanning holes in his skull. Eric used pliers to extract his fingernails, then took care of the remainder of the fingers with a pair of bolt cutters.
A butane torch was held to the sole of his foot – the one they hadn’t pulverized with a hammer – for a period of several minutes until the skin blackened and the flesh burned. A pair of garden sheers was used to give him a forked tongue. His mouth was superglued shut, and then his nostrils, before a hole was drilled into his trachea to prevent suffocation.
Both writers found they were much less squeamish this time around. It still wasn’t easy, and they expected their actions to come back and haunt them at some point in the future, but they would deal with those demons if and when they came.
They also took great care in deciding where the various implements were inserted. They consulted a copy of Gray’s Anatomy to avoid vital organs and major arteries, which ensured the experience lasted a lot longer than their first attempt.
In between these barbaric acts they went to work on the script, with every scream of agony and plea for mercy giving them a fresh surge of inspiration. They managed to improve the sub plot involving the two police officers investigating the campers’ disappearances, and fleshed out Francine’s character to give her additional depth and greater motivation. The dialogue was polished to make it sound more naturalistic and less like a stage play, while the farmer was provided with a more detailed and compelling backstory and a satisfying narrative arc. Many scenes from the first act were rewritten to give the film a stronger opening and a less-contrived inciting incident.
Eric finally put Warwick out of his misery after three days of relentless torture, slicing through the carotid artery and creating a blood geyser in his neck.
By the time the coyotes had stripped the last of the flesh from Warwick Wilson’s bones, Cameron and Eric had reached the eighty page mark.
Cameron Knight & Eric Haas
Based on characters created by Alan B. McElroy
* * *
[* INT. CABIN -- NIGHT *]
Evan fights the excruciating discomfort as he continues with the Sisyphean task of freeing himself. His arms twist like a contortionist’s, trying to loosen the thick rope binding his wrists together.
He yanks his arm with everything he has. His THUMB DISLOCATES as he attempts to squeeze his hand through an impossibly small gap. Miraculously, it comes free.
He pulls his other hand out, and the rope falls away.
Despite the agony of his DEFORMED HAND, he scrambles to untie the rope from around his ankles.
He gets to his feet, unsteady, punch-drunk from the earlier blow to the head.
He grits his teeth and twists his dislocated thumb until it SNAPS BACK INTO THE JOINT. He bites down on his tongue to stop from screaming out in pain.
[_ Freedom now beckons through the FRONT DOOR, a mere fifteen feet away. Only the living room -- and the sadistic cannibal currently occupying it -- stands in his way. _]
He creeps forward, carefully placing one foot in front of the other, going to great lengths to be AS QUIET AS POSSIBLE.
He reaches the living room. Saw Tooth rocks back and forth in his chair, facing away. He GNAWS on Carly’s SEVERED ARM.
The remainder of Carly’s SUPPLE NAKED BODY lies in the center of the room.
A beat passes before Evan summons the courage to take another step. As he does, the FLOORBOARDS give off a treacherous CREAK.
Saw Tooth stops, mid-chew. He spins around. RAW HUMAN FLESH hangs from his mouth.
No one is there.
ANGLE ON: [_ Evan -- hidden behind a shelf. Holding his breath. Sucking in his stomach, his back pressed hard against the wall. Doing everything humanly possible to avoid being seen. _]
ANGLE ON: A VASE, at the top of the shelf. It WOBBLES PRECARIOUSLY.
ANGLE ON: Saw Tooth. He watches a moment longer, then returns to his meal …
… as the vase TOPPLES OVER and PLUMMETS TO THE GROUND!
… only to land in Evan’s hands, an inch away from SHATTERING ON THE FLOOR!
Evan swallows, forcing his hypertrophied heart back down from his esophagus. He carefully places the vase on the floor and sneaks out the front door.
[* EXT. CABIN -- NIGHT *]
The SUV sits in the middle of the yard.
Evan slips away from the cabin. He checks that the coast is clear, then creeps over to the vehicle. He silently opens the door and climbs behind the wheel.
[* INT. SUV -- NIGHT *]
He searches for his cell phone. He checks the backpacks, the glove compartment, the floor. It’s not there.
He leans forward and runs his hand underneath the front seat. He finds it! He quickly dials 911.
[_ But the screen goes blank -- THE BATTERY IS DEAD! _]
[_ He tosses the phone aside in sheer vexation. He had to decide -- stay in the vehicle or make a run for it. He moves his hand to the door handle, but reconsiders and pulls it away. _]
He rips open the panel below the ignition. He pulls out a CLUMP OF WIRES and sets to work on HOTWIRING THE CAR.
He strips the insulation from TWO WIRES, then presses them together. The engine COUGHS and SPLUTTERS. His foot PUMPS THE GAS. But the car fails to start.
The sense of escalating PANIC is splashed across Evan’s tortured face. A single bead of PERSPIRATION trickles down his forehead.
He looks back to the cabin. He expects to see the cannibals coming for him at any moment.
He tries again and again. There’s further spluttering, but it simply refuses to turn over.
And then, incredibly, the engine ROARS TO LIFE.
Evan allows himself a smile at this rare moment of good fortune. He wipes away the sweat, then puts the car into reverse and adjusts the REAR VIEW MIRROR.
In the mirror’s reflection is the GROTESQUE FACE OF THREE FINGER!
EXTREME CLOSE UP: We see the WHITES OF EVAN’S EYES …
… as Three Finger pounces forward! A set of SHARPENED YELLOW FANGS clamps down on Evan’s neck.
[* EXT. CABIN -- NIGHT *]
The SUV lurches backwards and SLAMS into the trunk of an old OAK TREE. HOWLS OF TERROR echo throughout the surrounding woods.
The engine cuts out. A SCARLET GEYSER paints the windscreen from the inside.
“Oh my God!” squealed Kaycee, the helium-voiced bottle-blonde clutching a strawberry daiquiri she looked barely old enough to legally consume. “Do you really know Michael Bay?”
“Oh, sure,” Cameron said. He took a sip of his scotch and soda, trying to affect a casual pose like it was no big deal. “He’s a good friend of mine. We’ve been collaborating on this script for the past few months. I’ve been on his yacht and everything.”
“I am such a huge fan.” Kaycee leaned in closer, raising her voice to be heard over the band playing in the background. “His films are the whole reason I decided to become an actress in the first place.”
“You’re an actress?” Cameron tried to sound genuinely surprised. He could have guessed she was an actress, given that they weren’t particularly uncommon or hard to spot. Especially not here, inside the VIP section at the Coachella Music Festival, where pretty much everyone was an aspiring something-or-other, be it an actor, singer, model, artist, fashionista, or some combination of all of the above. “You know, the film we’re working on at the moment, it’s part of this whole series of films called the Platinum Dunes Cinematic Universe. Another eight or nine more movies will be released over the next three years. It’s going to be huge.”
“Oh, I would do anything to be in one of those!”
“Hey, I’m sure I could get you an audition. They’re actually looking to cast unknowns in the lead roles rather than hiring established stars.”
“Could you really do that for me?” Kaycee’s already high-pitched voice was nearing glass-shattering levels. Being in such close proximity to an alleged Hollywood insider had her on the verge of hyperventilation.
“Sure,” Cameron shrugged. “I’ll bring it up with Mike the next time I speak with him. I’ll even put in a good word.”
Kaycee’s eyes appeared to double in size. “That would be amazing!”
He took his phone from his pocket. Kaycee was so eager to punch in her number she almost snatched it from his hands.
As she did this, Cameron finished his drink and took a moment to soak in his surroundings. Here he was, at one of the world’s biggest music festivals, lounging around in the air conditioned comfort inside the exclusive cordoned-off area, rubbing shoulders with LA’s hippest and most beautiful people. This was definitely the place to be right now. It felt like he was at the center of the universe.
This short vacation was his reward for finally finishing Wrong Turn. Not only was it done, but they had managed to complete it in record time – twelve days was all it took to knock out the second and third acts, almost two weeks ahead of their deadline. It was their best work yet; an original, compelling story that pushed the boundaries artistically while still remaining accessible to a mass audience. It had a strong narrative, and it ended with a killer twist. They emailed the first twenty pages to Michael to give him some idea of their progress, and he went nuts for it. He told them it was exactly what he wanted.
He had tried to convince Eric to come along with him on this trip, saying they both needed time away to blow off some steam after everything they had put themselves through over the past few months. Eric declined, opting to stay back and work on the script some more, since they still had a few more days before it was due. Cameron tried to tell him the script was good enough as it was, but Eric had always been something of a perfectionist. He said it made sense to use up all their allotted time to ensure their work was the absolute best it could be, and that they should no longer be satisfied with simply being “good enough”.
Cameron thought he was wasting his time, but he didn’t say anything. If Eric wanted to spend the next two weeks tweaking and rewriting and shuffling the words around, that was fine with him. But he was done with it. A huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and he was determined to take some time out to enjoy himself.
Kaycee handed him back his phone. “Call me,” she said with a flirtatious smile.
Cameron promised to do just that, before wandering over to the viewing area.
The band playing on stage was typical of those on the bill this year – Cameron had never heard of them, and he didn’t really care for their music. He watched them play their mundane brand of miserablist indie rock for a few minutes before returning to the bar and ordering a pina colada.
Along the way, he spotted one of the general admission peasants sneaking past security into the VIP section. He quickly alerted one of the guards and had the intruder kicked out.
Four weeks had passed since Warwick Wilson was lured to Cameron and Eric’s home under false pretenses before leaving inside six separate garbage bags. There had been several mentions of his unexplained disappearance in the press, but as yet no suspicion had been cast in their direction. They had gone to great lengths to cover their tracks and ensure nothing could connect them with Warwick. The same went for Robert Faulkner. When the police looked into the case and began interviewing those who knew him, they would most likely conclude that Warwick Wilson’s shady past had finally caught up with him. It would never occur to them that the disappearance of a casting agent with a dubious reputation was in any way linked with that of an alcoholic wife-beater on trial for murder.
What they did to reach such a high artistic summit was no doubt unpleasant, but it was also necessary. Great sacrifice was always required to achieve anything worthwhile, and in the end no one was hurt. At least, no one who didn’t deserve it.
Cameron drove home from the airport eleven days later and pulled into the garage. It was just before midday. As much as he enjoyed his week and a half vacation, he was glad to finally be back.
His three-day trip to Coachella ended up lasting a little longer than he’d initially planned when he and a group of friends heard about a wild street festival happening in the Bahamas and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to fly out there for a week. He hesitated at first when they asked if he wanted to come along, since it meant he wouldn’t be arriving home until two days before the Wrong Turn deadline. But he ultimately decided to go. He justified the trip by telling himself that writers needed a steady stream of quality input to produce quality output, and had to expose themselves to new life experiences in order to nurture their craft. Anyway, Eric seemed to have everything under control back home.
He switched off the engine and heard the faint sounds of drumming. This was hardly unusual, given the Tommy Lee wannabe from next door was known to bash away on his kit at all hours of the day and night. But something about it was off. Even to his untrained, heavy rock-averse ears, it didn’t sound quite right. It was an unfamiliar style, and not the abrasive rhythmic pummeling he had become accustomed to hearing every day for the past three months. It was a more unsophisticated, slightly out of time pounding.
The noise grew louder as he walked through the front door. That was the other strange thing – it wasn’t actually coming from next door. It was coming from down in the basement.
He didn’t know why, but the hairs on the back of his neck were sticking up. It wasn’t anything he could put his finger on. It was more of a sixth sense or a gut instinct. It was with a great deal of trepidation that he opened the door to the basement and descended the stairs.
He didn’t have the slightest idea of what he thought he might find when he reached the bottom. But never in a million years did he expect to be confronted by a scene like this.
There was a man, strapped to a bench. Or about eighty-two percent of a man was strapped to a bench. The other eighteen percent was nowhere to be seen. He was alive, but only just hanging on. His face was battered and bruised, and his left ear was missing. As was his right hand. A blood-soaked bed sheet was wrapped tight around his torso like a tourniquet, covering up untold injuries and abrasions.
Both legs had been severed at the knee. The cauterized wounds appeared to be fresh.
In the middle of the room, and oblivious to Cameron’s presence, Eric pounded away on a drum kit. What he lacked in technical proficiency he made up for in sheer enthusiasm. There was blood up to his elbows and covering much of his clothes.
Scattered around the room were his various instruments of torture: a tomahawk, a hacksaw, a knitting needle, a box of six-inch galvanized nails, a container of sodium hydroxide.
The man on the bench lifted a stumpy arm when he saw Cameron enter. He let out a groan, a desperate cry for help. It sounded like an animal caught in a trap. Eric stopped his playing and turned around.
“Oh, hi Cameron,” he said. “When did you get back? I didn’t hear you pull up.”
“Eric …” Cameron choked on his words as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. “What’s going on here?”
“Just a touch of poetic justice, that’s all.” Eric twirled the drumsticks around in his fingers. “Our good friend here has spent many months torturing us with his drumming. I figured it was time we returned the favor.”
Only now did Cameron recognize the unfortunate soul strapped to the bench. It was their disruptive neighbor, the aging tattooed rocker.
Eric resumed playing. He closed his eyes and attempted a frantic Bonham-esque drum fill. It sounded like a stack of pots and pans tumbling down a staircase. He stopped after about thirty seconds.
“Hey, you can join in if you like,” he said. “I have some maracas here. You can play those.”
He picked up the cocktail mixer by his side and gave it a shake. Cameron didn’t need to see inside to know what produced the percussive sound. He only had to look at the neighbor’s swollen face, which was the color and shape of a giant plum, and the bloodied claw hammer on the shelf next to him, to know it could only be filled with freshly-extracted teeth.
He tried to speak, but nothing came out.
Eric tossed the shaker over to him, then counted himself back in and slammed his sticks into the snare. He gestured for Cameron to join in, but Cameron could only stand there and watch, doing all he could to make sense of this unfathomable madness.
“What did you do, Eric?” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Well …” Eric halted his playing. He pushed his shoulders back and stretched out his stiff back muscles. “Let’s see. This all started on Friday morning …”
Eric went on to recount the events of the previous few days, filling Cameron in on all that had happened in his absence. He explained how he had been hard at work rewriting the script’s climactic scene, struggling to close a few minor plot holes while at the same time elevating the dramatic stakes, when he was again distracted by the interminable clatter coming from across the fence. He ignored it for as long as he could tolerate, but after several frustrating hours he decided that he’d had enough. He knocked on the neighbor’s door and made another polite request to keep it down, but this was again met with hostility. That was when he saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.
He returned ten minutes later, this time armed with the taser he had purchased recently from a seller on the internet.
“I figured if he loved drumming so much the most appropriate thing would be to turn him into a drum kit.”
Cameron was so bewildered by everything he had seen and heard in the past few minutes that he initially failed to catch on to what Eric was telling him. It was only when he took a closer look at the drumhead, which appeared to be made from some kind of thick beige material, then looked across at the neighbor with the bloody sheet wrapped around his body, that he made the connection and deduced that it was human skin stretched across the rims of the snare and tom drums.
His eyes then zeroed in on the two drumsticks Eric held in hands. They were long and white and irregularly-shaped. They looked suspiciously like fibulae bones.
A blanket of stunned silence fell over the room.
“Now we won’t have to worry about that infernal racket bothering us day and night,” Eric said. “And it’s inspired me to come up with this whole new ending. I’ve found a way to really ramp up the tension in the final ten pages. It has this insane twist that no one will ever see coming. The audience will be totally blindsided. I won’t tell you what it is though. I want you to read it for yourself and let me know what you think.”
The words spilled out of Eric in one long excitable stream, but none of it seemed to register with Cameron. He was unable to look away from their disfigured neighbor, the legless sideshow freak who, despite being partially skinned alive, was still somehow clinging on to life.
“This is just wrong,” was all he could say. A creeping sickness was taking over as the full horror sunk in. He held onto the wall to steady himself. “This is so very wrong.”
Eric placed his shinbone drumsticks to one side. He looked at Cameron like an inquisitive child. “How do you mean?”
“I mean, you can’t do this to someone just because they annoy you, Eric. The ones from before, Robert Faulkner and Warwick Wilson – they were horrible people, and they were guilty of heinous crimes. We were doing the world a favor by getting rid of them. But this guy – he doesn’t deserve all this, just for disturbing our sleep patterns. And you can’t drag people down here whenever you feel like it. Especially not when they live next door to us.”
“Because it’s way too close to home, that’s why not! The police are going to knock on every door on the street when he’s reported missing. They’ll ask his girlfriend if he had any problems or arguments with anyone. Do you see what I’m getting at here?”
“I understand what you’re saying,” Eric said. He stood up from behind the kit. “You’re saying we have to bring his girlfriend down here, too.”
“No!” Cameron pushed him back onto the milk crate he was using as a stool. “No. I’m saying we have to put a stop to this before it gets even more out of hand than it already has.”
“Cameron, you need to relax,” Eric said, dismissing his concerns with a casual wave. “We’ll get away with it. We always do.”
“We have twice. And both times we were extremely careful. We put a lot of thought into what we were doing, and we made sure we covered our tracks. There was nothing to connect us with those two people. I wouldn’t call what you’re doing here being careful.”
A sheepish grin appeared on Eric’s face. “And I wouldn’t say it’s been only two people, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean … there might have been a few more that you don’t know about. That’s all.”
Cameron felt a jolt pass through him. “How many more?”
Eric paused a moment to think. “I couldn’t tell you the exact number. Take a look in the freezer if you really want to know.” His grin grew wider. “But only if you really want to know.”
Cameron could do little else but stare at the ceiling as he lay on his bed in a near-catatonic state. He searched his mind for answers, doing his best to block out the nightmarish sounds coming from down in the basement. He wanted to know how this could have all gone so wrong. How Eric could resort to such extreme depravity. How everything could spiral out of control so quickly.
But if he was being honest with himself, none of this should have really come as a surprise. He had read all the drafts from the past few weeks, and he had witnessed the remarkable improvement in the quality of the writing. It was their most accomplished work to date, far beyond anything either of them had ever produced. And the majority of it sprung from Eric’s mind; he had taken on the lion’s share of the writing duties in the final weeks, while Cameron’s role was mostly to review and offer feedback.
He knew Eric couldn’t possibly have written anything that good without some sort of outside assistance. He must have been getting his material and his inspiration from somewhere. But he didn’t ask any questions. He chose to remain willfully ignorant.
Keeping his head in the sand would no longer be an option. Not after what he had just seen.
There weren’t any bodies inside the freezer, which is what he expected to find when he lifted up the lid. But there were heads. Seven or eight frozen heads, arranged in a neat row. Men of all ages, sealed inside plastic bags, looking up at him with wide-eyed death stares.
He pulled the first few out, and discovered there were more underneath. And beneath those, even more still. The bodies that were once attached to these heads were nowhere to be found. They were most likely coyote food by now, left out in the desert somewhere for the wildlife to pick over. But their perfectly preserved heads were here inside the freezer. He didn’t know how many in total. At least twenty. Maybe thirty. Possibly even more. Heads kept as trophies, testaments to Eric’s unparalleled dedication.
The hapless victims, he would soon learn, had been lured to the house after Eric set up a fake Tinder account where he pretended to be an underage girl. The way Eric explained it, anyone who responded to his messages was up to no good. That gave him the green light to do whatever he wanted, and so that was exactly what he did. The men received a taser to the neck as soon as they walked through the front door, and found themselves chained up in the basement before the feeling returned to their bodies.
This all took place over a seventeen day period. This was a time when Cameron began showing less interest in contributing to the screenplay he was being paid to write and more interest in enjoying the assorted lifestyle perks that came with being an up-and-coming Hollywood ink-slinger. That fact alone was enough to boggle the mind. Not only had Eric transmogrified to become one of the most prolific serial killers in recent history, he had done so in less time than it takes most people to complete a first aid course.
The demonic drumming came to a stop, giving way to the high-pitched buzz of a cordless drill.
A heavy weight pressed on Cameron’s chest as the neighbor’s howls of pain rang in his ears. His breathing became strained. He couldn’t believe this was happening to him. Just when there was a light at the end of the tunnel, when it looked like he was finally going to make it after enduring so many years of struggle, something like this had to happen. Everything he had worked so hard for would be snatched away just when the ultimate reward was within reach.
He caught a glimpse of the headlines that would scream from the front pages of tabloids when this whole sordid saga was made public, as it inevitably would: “HOLLYWOOD HACKS’ HOUSE OF HORRORS”. He envisioned the relentless media blizzard that would follow their arrest and trial. He imagined the trashy Ryan Murphy-produced TV movie made in the aftermath, and the distressing realization that Michael Cera, in a bid to stretch his acting range, would probably be cast to play him.
But worst of all was that this was all his fault. He didn’t want to admit it, bit it was an inescapable fact. This whole method writing strategy was his idea to begin with. He was so deathly afraid of failure, and so single-minded in pursuit of his career, that he was willing to do just about anything to achieve his goals. He had forced Eric to participate against his will, and this was the fallout. Eric may have tumbled head-first into the abyss of madness, but Cameron had been the one to nudge him over the edge.
He thought back to when he first pitched the idea, several months ago at Starbucks. They were back at square one, desperately brainstorming for new ideas after yet another disastrous meeting with Michael Bay, when he spoke of the importance of writing a great villain. “The bad guy is the most important character in a work of fiction,” he told Eric at the time. “We have to create one that’s unforgettable. A force of nature.”
Only now did he see how successful his plan had been. He and Eric had created the ultimate monster, and it was potentially one of the most terrifying creatures in the history of horror fiction. It was such a force of nature that it had taken on a life of its own, and so powerful they could no longer contain it. The monster had leaped from the pages of their screenplay and entered the real world.
And now it lived inside Eric’s body. Eric had become the ultimate monster.
The remainder of Cameron’s day was spent locked inside his room as he furiously wrote and rewrote his most important piece of fiction yet. It was the story he was about to give the police.
He would tell them, with a tremor in his voice and a haunted look in his eyes, of how Eric had become very withdrawn and secretive during these past few months. How he would spend days on end sequestered away in the basement, barely sleeping, watching one sadistic horror movie after another. About the change in his behavior as he struggled to deal with his failing screenwriting career, and the difficulty he appeared to have in separating the real world from the fictitious one.
The signs were all there, he would tell them. He was becoming increasingly concerned about the state of his mental health, and what might happen without some sort of intervention. But never in a million years did he believe Eric could be capable of anything like this.
He took a moment to review everything he had written, memorizing key points and making sure he had left nothing out. Most of it was true, more or less. There were only a handful of embellishments, as well as one or two select omissions.
He would take no pleasure in betraying his oldest friend like this, but Eric had left him with little choice. The sheer recklessness of his actions meant it was only a matter of time before the law caught up with them. If he did nothing he would just be delaying the inevitable. His only option now was to get on the front foot and alert the police, and if that meant Eric had to be the one to take the fall – and that Cameron would be left to claim sole credit for writing Wrong Turn – then so be it.
Besides, if he didn’t take immediate action it was only a matter of time before his own head ended up as a frozen block entombed in plastic. Cameron had inadvertently unleashed the latent psychopath lingering deep within Eric. That was part of his psyche unlikely to go away anytime soon.
He had the whole story worked out by early evening. He knew what he was going to say and how he was going to say it. He also knew how much of a risk he was taking, since he could potentially incriminate himself for his role in the murders of Robert Faulkner and Warwick Wilson. But the fact that he was the one to report the crimes, coupled with the overwhelming evidence in the basement, should be enough to convince the police that Eric was the sole perpetrator here.
He was ready to make the call.
Only he couldn’t find his phone.
For the life of him, he couldn’t remember where he’d put it. It should have been on the dresser in his bedroom, but it wasn’t. Nor was it on the bookshelf or the coffee table, or in the kitchen, the bathroom, or his jacket pockets.
He racked his brain, mentally retracing his steps as he tried to recall the last time he’d used it. He prayed to God that he hadn’t left it on the plane, as he’d done on two previous occasions. Maybe he’d done it again. He couldn’t remember using it since then.
On second thoughts, he had used it. He had it at the airport, when he fired off a quick text to his agent shortly after disembarking. And he had it in the Jeep, when he streamed an NPR podcast as he drove home.
The Jeep. It must still be in there.
He checked to make sure Eric wasn’t lurking nearby, then slipped out the back door. He crept over to the garage and climbed behind the wheel.
His phone wasn’t where it should have been. He’d left it in the holder mounted to the dash, but that was empty. A shiver of panic raced through him. He checked in his backpack, then in the glove compartment. He looked everywhere he could think to look. Nothing.
He took a deep breath and reminded himself not to panic. His phone was in here. It had to be in here somewhere. It couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. It was just a matter of finding it.
He reached forward and ran his hand beneath the front seat. There was some loose change that must have slipped from his pockets, and a couple of discarded candy bar wrappers. The floor felt dirty, with a surprising amount of gravel and tiny pebbles stuck under there. He made a mental note to have the whole car cleaned out at the first available opportunity.
His fingers then landed on a smooth rectangular object, and a wave of relief washed over him.
He pulled the phone out and switched it on.
Five seconds later, the screen went blank. The battery was dead.
“Goddamn it!” he muttered to himself.
He punched the steering wheel. This was the last thing he needed right now.
He quickly ran through his options in his mind. His phone was dead, and the charger was inside the house. He knew exactly where it was, too. It was plugged into the wall socket, next to the television. It would take less than a minute to go back in and retrieve it. But doing that meant he risked crossing paths with a man whose sanity was dangling by the finest of threads. At this moment, he would not be entirely comfortable until he put as much distance between himself and Eric as possible. The only sensible thing would be to leave now and find another phone to make the call from. If there was one thing he took away from all those terrible slasher movies he forced himself to sit through, it was that if you happened to find yourself in a house when a crazed psycho was on the loose, it was best to leave at your earliest possible convenience.
He put his seatbelt on and pressed the ignition button. The engine belched out a sick-sounding croak, and then died.
Cameron could only laugh at the growing absurdity of this living nightmare he found himself trapped inside. Everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong. His Jeep had been running fine just a few hours ago. Now it sounded like it was on its last legs. He tried the ignition again, with the same result. And again, hoping and praying for a miracle. Still nothing.
No, no, no, he said over and over. This cannot be happening. This all felt like an elaborate joke the universe was playing at his expense.
He vaguely recalled hearing some news item a few months back about faulty starter motors in certain models of Jeep. Something about cheap parts being used during the manufacturing process. He didn’t know the precise details. He cursed himself for not paying closer attention at the time.
He tried again, pumping his foot on the accelerator. He had no idea if this would do anything to help it start. “Come on, come on,” he begged. “Please don’t do this to me.”
He glanced over at the door to the garage. He half-expected to see Eric emerge at any moment. He pictured him waving a meat-cleaver around, covered head-to-toe in blood. He was ready to jump out and run at the first sign of movement.
He pressed the button once more, and the engine suddenly roared to life.
Cameron exhaled in sheer gratitude. He could not remember ever hearing a sweeter sound. He even managed a smile, despite the grim circumstances. He knew now he would make it out of there alive.
He put the car into reverse and adjusted the rear view mirror.
Looking back at him in the mirror’s reflection was the smiling face of a madman.
The deranged killer, the one who had been hiding in the back seat this whole time, pounced forward. He held Cameron in place, pressing his forearm against his windpipe. Cameron struggled to free himself but he was pinned to the seat, unable to move. His assailant’s strength seemed almost supernatural.
“Wait … no …” he gasped, trying to fight him off.
He felt two prongs press against the side of his neck, followed by fifty-five thousand volts rocketing through the length of his body.
The Jeep lurched backwards. It slammed into the garage door, and the engine cut out.
Cruising at thirty thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean, Michael Bay was completely and utterly mesmerized. His eyes had been glued to the page for over an hour. He could barely believe what he was reading. This was no ordinary screenplay he held in his hands, with basic stage directions and perfunctory dialogue. It was an exquisitely crafted piece of literature. A bona fide work of art. Every word leaped off the page, invoking such incredibly visceral imagery that the film appeared to play out right before his eyes. It was unlike anything he had ever read in his life. If the finished product was even half as good as what he thought it could be, Platinum Dunes would undoubtedly have another huge hit on their hands.
“This is remarkable,” Michael said. He hurriedly turned the page, eager to find out what happened next. “It has everything you could ever want in a horror movie. It’s brutal, it’s violent, it’s suspenseful, it’s original. It has all the classic hallmarks that fans of the genre have come to expect, but it executes them in such innovative and unexpected ways that it feels completely fresh. The characters are distinct and three-dimensional, and they’re ones the audience will care about. I have to say, this is about as close to perfect as a screenplay gets.”
Eric sipped from his glass of Teeling single malt whiskey. “You have no idea how relieved I am to hear you say that,” he said. “I really put a lot of effort into my work. I was so determined to come up with something outstanding.”
“Well, the extra effort definitely shows on the page,” Martin Krauth said. He was seated up near the cockpit, reading from his own copy of the script. This was Martin’s private jet they were flying on, a luxury Gulfstream IV, en route to Shanghai for the world premiere of Transformers: Echoes of Bedlam. “This really is something else. You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished here. I truly believe this has the potential to be a future horror classic.”
“See, I knew you could do it,” Michael said, beaming like a proud parent. “I knew the story and the talent was somewhere within you. You just needed to convince yourself of that.”
Eric gave a bashful smile. “Do you really think it’s that good?”
“Are you kidding me? This is brilliant on so many levels. I’m terrified just sitting here reading it now! And I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a realistic depiction of cannibalism before.”
“Oh, I know!” Martin said. He flicked back a few pages to find the scene Michael was referring to. “That one part where they force Scott to eat pieces of Carly.” He shuddered as he spoke. “The writing was so vivid and striking it was almost like I had the taste of human flesh in my mouth.”
“And that lesbian sex scene!” Michael said enthusiastically. “I mean … wow!”
“Oh, I concur one hundred percent,” Martin said. “That was such a brilliant addition to the story. Not only will it send the men in the audience wild, the dialogue between the two women means the film passes the Bechdel test. That’s two important demographics catered for at once – the fanboys and the feminists. Pure genius!”
Eric finished off the rest of his drink. Michael’s robot butler zoomed across to top up his glass.
“But more than anything, it’s the villain that makes the story as good as it is,” Michael said. “You can have as many gruesome death scenes and unexpected plot twists and cool lines of dialogue as you like, but none of that matters if your bad guy is dull. A boring monster equates to a boring movie. But the villain in this, the main bad guy, he’s someone the audience won’t forget in a hurry. He’ll be giving kids nightmares for years to come.”
“Not to mention the potential merchandising opportunities this opens up,” Martin added.
“Absolutely,” Michael said. “I have no idea what sort of dark places you had to visit to come up with a character so terrifying. To be honest, I’m not sure I want to know!”
Eric reclined his seat back until it was at forty-five degrees. He let out a long, slow exhale, and all the tension and anxiety that had been building up over the past few months melted away. He felt that despite everything he had to endure to reach this point, the literal blood, sweat and tears he’d invested into his work, it would all be worth it. After spending so many years in the proverbial wilderness his career was finally on track. He was a legitimate writer, and he would soon have that all-important produced credit to his name. He had proven that he had what it took to make it in such a cut-throat industry. Martin had even hinted that he was interested in putting Rodney Luther King into production, at long last. Eric had heard similar promises from studio chiefs over the past three years, but something told him Martin was different from all the other CEOs out there. He seemed like the kind of guy who could make things happen. The kind who wasn’t afraid to take risks.
“As someone whose films have grossed eleven-point-four billion dollars worldwide,” Michael continued, “I can honestly say this is one of the best screenplays I have read in my life. It might even become one of those rare horror films, like Psycho or The Exorcist or Silence of the Lambs, that can transcend its genre restraints and become a classic film in its own right.”
The sign to fasten seatbelts flashed on. Michael, Martin and Eric all buckled up, just as the bright lights of Shanghai came into view.
“It’s a shame things didn’t work out with you and Cameron, though,” Martin said as the aircraft began to make its descent.
“Yeah,” Eric said. “That is too bad.”
“Although in hindsight, maybe when he dropped out of the project it was for the best,” Michael said. “Don’t get me wrong. Cameron is definitely a good writer, and I’m sure he’ll enjoy plenty of success with whatever he chooses to do in the future. But after reading this I’m beginning to suspect he was the one holding you back.”
Eric nodded. “The pressure was really starting to affect him, and I’m not sure he knew how to handle it.” He paused momentarily before adding, “He’s in a much better place now.”
Just as he said this, Eric’s stomach produced an audible growl.
“That’s how it goes sometimes,” Michael said. “Not everyone is cut out for this industry. You can have all the talent in the world, but talent isn’t enough on its own. You need that relentless drive, that burning ambition to succeed.”
“You have to be prepared to do whatever it takes,” Martin added. “If you’re not willing to sacrifice everything else in your life to get ahead there isn’t much hope for you.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Eric said. He raised his glass to his lips and took a generous gulp. “You won’t make it very far if you don’t have the necessary bad qualities.”
THE SHARPEST KNIVES IN THE DRAWER is Part III of , a three-part story. Part I, FALSE ICONS AND SCARED COWS and Part II THE HONEY TRAP are available now.
The full novel will be released later in 2017.
Cameron Knight and Eric Haas arrive in LA seeking fame and fortune, but quickly discover the realities of being a Hollywood screenwriter don’t quite match with what they imagined. Their dreams of living the high life have fallen by the wayside and they find themselves hopelessly out of their depth, struggling to knock out the lowbrow horror gore-fest they have been hired to write. Desperation sets in as opportunities slip away and their failures mount up, and they begin to ask themselves the hard questions. Do they have what it takes to make it in Hollywood? How far they are willing to go to succeed in such a cut-throat industry? And when you have no limits, how do you know when you’ve gone too far?