Wednesday, November 07, 2007

"Mustang Sally" film illustrates an important screenwriting device (in horror, sci-fi, mystery)

The horror film “Mustang Sally’s Horror House” presents a pretty good example of how sequencing and presentation decisions in the screenwriting process can affect the way characters (or maybe even the actors who play them) are perceived, as well as the impact of the story.

The DVD (no rating but would normally correspond to “R”) offered in 2006 by American World Pictures (it did not show up on Netflix until early this year) has that title, but the original title appears to have just been “Mustang Sally,” which is how it is carried on imdb. In fact, it apparently had a “full studio theatrical release” from New Line Cinema in 2005, but it seems to have been lost. The film is directed and written by Iren Koster. There is a 1992 novel by this name by Edward Allen and I don’t know if there is any relation. It appears that American World may distribute some controversial genre releases for New Line (much as Roadside Attractions does for Lions Gate sometimes).

The movie plot, on the surface, follows the model of the famous classic “House of Wax” (which Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow remade in 2004). People go into an establishment looking for thrills and, well, they “get it,” most of them, at least. (Even the original “Halloween” fit this model.) Here, six college age young men go to a house of ill repute in the San Bernadino Mountains. (I believe that I have driven through a tunnel shown in the film once in a rental car about 25 years ago.) Now “Mustang Sally’s” house is no “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (which was kind of fun, wasn’t it!) and Mustang Sally herself (Elizabeth Daily) is no Dolly Parton. But five of the young men act more like the braggy frat boys of freshmen dorms, the kind that brag about their heterosexual conquests, the kind that the military would depend on for unit cohesion. The ring leader, Josh Henderson (Massachusetts raised and educated Mark Parrish, very much in the shadow of Damon, Affleck (both of them) and Wahlberg (again, both) – with quite a bit of stage experience in college, too) is just a bit different, to the point of being a little more calculating, reserved, if not “different.”

So I come to the point. The movie opens with him lying apparently in a hospital bed, ready to recollect and tell the story of his misadventures in the horror house. We know right off that he survives in reasonably good shape. (In fact, according to imdb, Parrish broke is leg during filming in a minor off-set accident, and finished the shoots in a cast – much like what happened to Brad Pitt in filming Se7en (Pitt wears an arm cast in some scenes --- it was real!). The movie soon cuts to the main “story” and starts like a road movie, with a train and tunnel, etc. Soon they find the hideaway, and our morbid erotic curiosity is heightened during the “introductions.” It isn’t too long before very bad things happen to the boys – the movie is torture porn in reverse, with the men as “victims.”

Henderson, however, seems to have his partner under “control” and it seems as if there really could be a genuine (heterosexual) love relationship. The rest of the movie sets Henderson’s character apart from that of the other five boys, to the point that we really wonder why he went on such a foolish venture.

Parrish had played a somewhat charismatic character Thomas, leader of a mountain commune, in an earlier film "Jerome's Razor" discussed on this blog in April 2006. In that film he does not appear until the second half and there is genuine suspense as to what will happen until toward the end.

I wondered how the movie would have come across had the story been told in straight sequence. Screenwriting classes tend to encourage spec scripts to be straight-line, with just the story (the “beginning, middle, and end” you know, which breaks down into more parts in Hague’s guide, or the idea of point of recognition in novel writing). Then there would be genuine rooting interest in Josh, and you would not know until the end if he was going to make it.

Another curiosity about this film struck me: there are twelve “major” characters --- a lot for a low budget film that has to follow SAG per diem rules. (I’ve heard that New Line and some other companies work differently, I don’t know the details; a visitor could comment on this.).

Another moderately well known independent film with a plot sequencing controversy is "Keane" (2004, Magnolia Pictures, written and directed by Lodge Kerrigan). Here William Keane (Damian Lewis), as the movie opens, has apparently lost his young daughter in the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. As the movie progresses, we quickly learn of his mental illness. But Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) edited a shorter version of the same movie (offered on the DVD) in a totally different sequence, where we do not know at first that Keane believes his daughter has been kidnapped. The story takes on a totally different meaning, much truer to “reality.”

I use the “Mustang Sally” trick in one of my own (unmade) scripts called “69 Minutes to Titan.” The title of the proposed movie is based on the length of time it would take light (and therefore an email, perhaps) to get from earth to the most interesting moon of Saturn (actually it’s a little longer, probably). I have a number of scripts on the Internet (the scrplys directory of, and this one has among the higher page request volumes.

In the opening scene, an older gentleman whom I call Clem is being visited in prison by a couple of much younger friends, and we learn that he may soon get out. The point is to make the moviegoer wonder how such a man wound up in prison and reassure the viewer that the character will reach some kind of “success” The interest in the younger characters is first born, too.

The movie then goes back about six years to tell its story. Although Clem did something foolish, it turns out that his imprisonment that then the goings-on after his release can have apocalyptic consequences indeed.

A somewhat abbreviated version of the treatment and script is available online as noted above. For certain business reasons, I do not show all of the details of the full story (as in my own private hard drive versions), a few of which can be extremely sensitive and misinterpreted if found and misconstrued online.

Update: Nov 9

I saw "Darfur Now" today but I put the review with "The Devil Came on Horseback" on the Sept. 12 issue on this blog.

No comments: