Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Johnocrypha: Prey

This is the first installment of what I call Johnocrypha, written reviews which will explore unproduced scripts, sequels Carpenter himself wasn't involved in, and tie-in media like novels and comics. First up is Prey

Going into this script, I knew nothing about it. I didn't know the story, I didn't know the production history, I didn't even know when it was written. I'm guessing around 1975-76, because Carpenter's co-writer is James Nichols, who worked on Assault on Precinct 13 as assistant director and post-production supervisor. They may have met on that film and decided to collaborate on this project. Equally possible is that their collaboration on this led to Nichols working on Assault. Hell, they could be old USC buddies, I don't know. The best guess we have for when this was written is the mid 70s. I have reasons to suspect it predates Halloween at least, but I'll get into why below.

The plot follows a trio of women in Tennessee who set out to climb Mount Tobias, a daunting peak with a jagged tear in one side and a troubled history of past expeditions. Elaine is a flashy reporter hoping it'll make for a big local story and boost her to a new timeslot. Rose is a survivalist and sports equipment designer hoping the publicity will showcase her new line of tracksuits and equipment. Kathy is a mom and housewife whose only real escape is in her morning run, who just wants to go out and do something exciting. Being women, their desire to prove themselves is seen as threatening by all the dudes - a rival reporter, a sporting goods store owner, a doubting husband, a sheriff, local yokels - who have little to offer in the way of support but glares and warnings. To be fair, the mountain is a dangerous place some of the men have lost family to, and their concern is sincere, but the way it's expressed, in streams of "why would a gal want to do something crazy like that?" add fuel to the fire which drives the women to succeed.

So, yeah, it's a story of feminism, written by a pair of guys in the 70s. There is good stuff in there, like the women all holding their own as action kicks in in the second half, and things like errors in mapping and sore feet being presented as what comes with the territory instead of something just afflicting their gender. These women are smart, capable people. The most driven, Elaine, is the weakest, but that's because all she wants is the story. Rose is an avid camper and hunter, and Kathy doesn't just jog every morning, she's a trained sprinter who often outruns boys in her neighborhood. So this story gets a lot of points for painting strong women. However, it then rips off two of their tops as they're introduced to the threat.

I'll warn you, things are going to get a little weird here.

At the close of the Civil War, a community of Confederates (I can see a number of you already figuring out where this is going) took to the hills and kept their ways and pure bloodlines alive. Until food started becoming scarce and sickness swept through, so all that's left is one little family in a little shack on the mountainside, scavenging from and feeding off of any poor soul to cross their path. Swain and Grandma are the elderly heads of the house, with their two sons, Otis, a massive slab of muscle with Downs Syndrome (yes, I know that doesn't contribute to great height), and Luke, a feral young man locked in the attic who acts a dog. Swain wants to keep the bloodline alive, and since neither himself nor Otis are capable of seeding fresh crops, the three women are plucked from their camp and led, one after another, into Luke's attic room.

So yes, the feminist story takes a 70s grindhouse turn as the ladies are captured by Confederate mountain men and used as breeding stock for Confederate mountain babies. You can see why the empowering themes don't exactly hold together, and why I believe this script came before Carpenter started co-writing with Debra Hill. It must be said, there is no actual rape. Rose, the muscle of the team, is the first led into the room, and she's killed by Luke after she puts up a strong fight and starts bashing him with a post. With their survivalist gone, Elaine and Kathy have to hold their own, so when Elaine goes up, she's gentle to Luke, which, like a dog, he responds to with kindness and curiosity... until she sticks a flare in his mouth and bursts his head into flames. With him dead and the house on fire, Kathy kills Grandma, and the two women rush into the mountain woods with Swain and Otis on their tail.

The stretch in the shack really is quite weird, with the women roped up like cattle and force fed porridge at a table with a thwack to their legs with a fire poker any time they stand up. What's most chilling about the mountain family is that they aren't leering and prancing and going all crazy. No, they're quiet, they're tired. They know nothing about the outside, seeing it as filled with the monsters who won the war and crushed their people down. There's a sadness to the way they're making one last attempt to keep their way of life alive, anchored by the horror of how little they see the outsiders as actual people, treating the women as meat and beasts of burden. So yes, it's an attempt at a feminist statement where the antagonists literally try to domesticate the ladies they see as beasts of burden. And no, it doesn't work. It feels extremely uncomfortable and misguided and tonally way off.

Thankfully, things pick up in the last quarter of the script. Elaine is hobbled by an injured foot, so she waits at the peak of the mountain for the helicopter which is supposed to come and pick them up, while having to dodge the tracking skills of old Swain. Kathy, meanwhile, full tilt sprints her way down the mountain, covering in a couple hours or so the entire distance they took a couple days to climb, with Otis bulldozing through the woods on her tail. This is the most exciting portion of the script, with the quiet tension of Elaine's evasion intercut with the pounding action of Kathy ripping downhill, around trees and rocks, narrowly avoiding spills and cliffs. Elaine, sadly, doesn't make it. Kathy does.

Kathy reaches the bottom, where the sheriff and the yokels, the very same people who cautioned the women away, are shocked to hear the dangers on the mountain are worse than they ever imagined, and it's touching how they offer compassion and help to Kathy instead of gloating. But we're not done as Swain and Otis burst into town, smashing and slashing their way through people, shedding Kathy of any hope of protection as she leads Otis into a machine shop, taking him on with anything she can grab until she crushes him beneath a hydrolic press. Swain goes much more quietly, silently letting himself be led away in cuffs.

Kathy is the lone survivor of our initial trio. She looks up at the mountain, the horror that took away her friends. But not her. She still conquered it.

As I said, the stuff in Swain's shack, where the women are imprisoned, tortured, then led to Luke one by one, is so out there, so brutal, that it really does overwhelm the script. It's very well executed, absolutely, and I was gripped as I turned every page, but I was also taken out of the story as what kept me plunging ahead was my desperation to see how (even, gasp, if) they'd get away, only to see new horrors continue to unfold. I guess that's the point, and it does succeed in both horrifying me and investing me in the outcome, but wow, what a hard investment. The rest of the script is otherwise a masterpiece, with the steady build of the first half pulling me into the setting, the characters, the looming figures in the shadows of the trees, and when Elaine and Kathy break loose for the third act, it's an absolute rollercoaster ride of thrills and tension and narrow escapes by the skin of their teeth.

This is a near excellent screenplay, and I have no doubt that it would have made for a fine film in the right hands. If this was post 1976, then maybe Debra Hill could have given it some tweaks, lessened the whole breeding stock angle that pushes the attempts at a feminist study off they path they'd been treading quite well up until that point. Because other than that, this script is great, a real lost treasure in the works of Carpenter. The characters are simply but cleverly painted and don't fall into easy tropes. There's a neat red herring in the form of a map surveyor we think will show up in the second half to save the women, but when he arrives as a corpse, it further cements that they're on their own. As I said, the pacing is wonderful as none of the Swain stuff comes into play until the literal mid-point of the script, and by then it's a constantly ratcheting crank of tension that doesn't let up until the very end. Then gives it a few more sharp cranks before ending again.

The only bit of history I've been able to find is that Bob Clark may have been in talks to direct this script. I can't confirm it was this project specifically, but around 1975, he and Carpenter were said to be working on a horror script set in the Appalachian Mountains. Well, this is a horror story, and it's on a mountain, so these very well could be one and the same. Starting in the early 80s, Bob Clark became known for comedies like A Christmas Story and Porky's, and sadly ended his career directing not one, but two installments of the Baby Geniuses franchise. But in the 70s, he was a thriller man, beating slashers to the punch with the crisp, if uneven, Black Christmas, then making what is, to this day, my favorite Sherlock Holmes film as the great detective and Watson track down Jack the Ripper in Murder By Decree. He was a talented filmmaker capable of atmosphere and suspense, and not at the expense of characters and story, so it would have been very interesting to see what he'd do with this material.

Alas, it wasn't to be. By 1978, The Hills Have Eyes came out and brought with it a whole wave of outcast families in the desolate fringes of society who prey on any innocents who wander into their community. This is a very different work than The Hills Have Eyes, but the tropes established in the wake of Wes Craven's film pretty much beat it to the punch. Even a lot of the Otis material would seem redundant within a few more years as the giant Jason Voorhees started slashing his way through nubile victims. Prey is a project which pop culture offered a very narrow window to get off the ground, and when it didn't come to be within that window, it was too late. It would even be hard to dust it off today as The Descent, wherein a group of women gather together for a spelunking trip, echoes much of the setup.

I mentioned that I thought this was written before Halloween, not just because of the lack of Debra Hill, who became Carpenter's co-writer for several years after that film, but because there are direct elements of Halloween which echo this work, and may have been partially recycled when it was abandoned. The dynamic of Kathy, Rose, and Elaine is so similar to Laura, Annie, and Lynda, that these could almost be the women those teenage girls grew into (pending their brutal deaths, of course). And the shadowy figures of Swain and Otis, often silent and still, watching and taking their time, feel like an early draft of what will become Michael Myers. In the first half, they're often just referred to as "the shape".

Overall, Prey is a wonderful surprise, a tantalizing glimpse at a Carpenter masterpiece which could have been. Yes, its attempts at exploring feminism do stumble quite severely, but not in a way that couldn't be smoothed over with a few more drafts. But as a character-driven thriller built around a great exterior setpiece, it's magnificent, and those last twenty pages are so gripping and pounding that I'll long be mourning the fact I'll never get to see them on screen.

1 comment:

Tony Williams said...

Hollywood has a sketchy track record re: its treatment of certain groups, but has anyone had it worse than the Appalachian mountain man?

Personally I think this would've been better without the whole horror/exploitation angle. Toss out the 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' stuff and keep it a story of survival. Maybe have some internal threat within the group. Curious this never got dusted off and made.