Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
December 2016

Abattoir

Room to rent

On Abattoir's conceptual virtues, relentless explanation, and abysmal grammar

Abattoir
Momentum Pictures
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Screenplay: Christopher Monfette
Starring: Jessica Lowndes, Joe Anderson, Dayton Callie, Lin Shaye, John McConnell, Michael Pare and Bryan Batt
Rated R / 1 hour, 38 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)

If Abattoir would just keep its mouth shut, it would almost work. Its nifty concept can nearly do the job by itself, and the production design can make up the difference. But then the dialogue has to keep piping up, committed to reminding us how deeply, deeply stupid this movie is.

All due respect to the film's ideas, which revolve around a supernatural figure who collects rooms in which people have been murdered - stacking them one on top of the next as a sort of memory palace, a living nightmare of violence and anguish. And to the filmmakers for following through, blending disparate eras of fashion, architecture, vernacular, genre, an amalgam that reflects the continuum of collected memories piled up over years and years of history.

No, what I mean by stupid is this. The aforementioned supernatural figure - all devilish Southern charm, bowler on his head and cane in his hand - delivering lines like this one: "This town has awaited your return like lambs to the slaughter."

It's not enough that that line makes absolutely no sense whatsoever - it's the sheer breadth of its nonsensicalness. The specific ways in which it makes no sense. It's labyrinthine in its stupidity. Illiterate is what it is. That sentence should be studied in college courses. It warrants an exhaustive research paper - for someone to plumb the depths of its attempted meaning(s) and its genuinely spectacular failure to achieve it. It's like it was written in Mad Lib. That it was written by someone who literally does not understand what the phrase "lambs to the slaughter" means is self-evident. But what gets me is that no one even thought to think about what it meant. With all the people on set, you'd think someone would have raised an eyebrow and asked for clarification.

To make clear how little sense it makes: The line is directed at a reporter, Julia Talben (Jessica Lowndes), who has returned to her hometown to uncover the secret to a series of mysterious real-estate deals. The town does all it can to keep her out, and when she finally discovers the architectural monstrosity at the heart of the mystery, and the demonic old man, Jebediah Crone, very proudly responsible for it, it is only after forgoing chance after chance to escape and leave well enough alone. But now that she's arrived at this dilapidated slaughterhouse, well ...

Anyway, let's examine: "This town has been awaiting your return like lambs to the slaughter."

1. As the saying goes, lambs are led to the slaughter; they do not "await" it. This can be easily Googled. F-minus.

2. In fact, to lead and to await are fundamental opposites. Leading something to slaughter - lamb or otherwise - is an active exercise. Waiting for something to happen - for someone to return, for someone to spontaneously arrive at, say, a slaughter - is entirely passive. The first half of the sentence and the second half are at cross-purposes; the former defeats the whole purpose of the latter. F-minus.

3. The very use of present perfect progressive suggests continuous action - and yet "awaiting" is all the doer has been doing? A slaughter waits for no lamb. F-minus.

4. As previous scenes in the film have made clear, the town does not want Julia there, so the premise that they would either lead her to slaughter or await her is specious at best. F-minus.

5. The phrasing of the sentence aligns "lambs" with "this town" - but in this scenario, it is Julia who would be the lamb. The town is, more or less, the slaughter. This here is just shoddy sentence construction. It's not simply a confusion of subject-verb agreement, but misplacement of the verb (lead/led) itself, replacement of a different verb (await), and structure that makes a sort of linear sense while actually expressing sort of the opposite, action-wise, of what was intended. F-minus.

6. An alternative? If, for example, the speaker had said something to the effect of, Julia was led like a lamb to the slaughter, we might have had something. I mean, it still wouldn't be an interesting line, but at least it would have made grammatical sense. I suppose I wouldn't be surprised to discover that this is exactly what the writer meant to convey. But regardless, it's butchered so badly - and yet delivered so confidently - that it deserves all the scorn for linguistic ineptitude that can be heaped upon it. F-minus-minus-minus.

I know, I know, it sounds like I'm needlessly piling on, focusing on one small, throwaway line. But it isn't just one line. The screenplay repeatedly goes out of its way to sound clever and poetic, and repeatedly embarrasses itself. At their best, Christopher Monfette's similes and analogies are forced or lamely overwrought ("You carry the dear departed around like Atlas bore the weight of the world"); at their worst, they genuinely don't make sense.

The writing basically destroys everything in Abattoir's path. Though the premise isn't particularly complex, the film still resorts to having its bad guy explain everything. That reliance on explanation - which includes Jebediah repeating the same explanations over and over again - completely strangles Dayton Callie's performance. Callie, who gave one of the great underrated television performances in Deadwood, has a strong, eerie presence and actually has an interesting take on the role ... but around the fourth or fifth time the script requires him to explain who he is and what he's doing, he really starts to strain, until eventually all life has been choked out of the character.

The two lead roles don't have the same casting advantage. Both Lowndes and Joe Anderson - as her on-again, off-again cop boyfriend - are rather terrible. Anderson in particular. He's visually and physically modeled after Brad Pitt's character in Se7en - down to the jacket, the facial hair, the bursts of impatient agitation - but he just wildly overplays every moment, desperately trying to pull off the jaded, grizzled, harshly protective cop prototype that he only seems to understand on an external level. It's a bafflingly awful performance. Lowndes' character - who is dressed, hairstyled and written like a crack reporter from a '40s movie - fares marginally better, but perhaps only by comparison.

I'm in a lightly forgiving mood for the film itself if only because, at the very least, it gets to play around with a cool idea, and the production values of its late sections in particular are impressive. The house - and everything in it - is of particular note. A sinister, ramshackle mansion, largely Victorian in nature but with - true to the premise - a variety of other influences. I may have caught a bit of shingle-style architecture, perhaps? (I'm not an architecture aficionado so my frames of reference are limited here, don't @ me.) All of the film's best ideas are contained within that house - including a perpetual cycle of tragic events, played and replayed as ghostly memories, each accompanied by its own sad story. But even a house that big can't make up for this script, which is hopelessly dumb even when - especially when - it tries furiously to sound smart.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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