Films go through a long process between the screenplay that sells and what gets released in theatres. With Script to Screen, we want to examine how the the development and production processes impact a film. Did a bad script yield a good film? Would the filmmakers have been better off shooting the script they bought rather than rewriting it into something more generic? We hope to answer questions like these. Since the column is more analytical in nature, it will contain HUGE SPOILERS for the scripts and films discussed. Do not read on if you haven’t seen Sorority Row.

In a lengthy but effective sequence, the screenplay by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger establishes the characters and the stakes. It starts with a not-so-harmless prank: to get revenge on Chugs’s (Margo Harshman) date-rapist brother, Garret (Matt O’Leary), the sisters of Theta Pi give him some pills to slip to Megan (Audrina Partridge), which will simulate an apparent drug overdose. Our heroine, Cassidy (Briana Evigan), looks on with disdain as Chugs follows along with queen-bitch Jessica (Leah Pipes), geek Ellie (Rumer Willis), and token Asian sister Claire (Jamie Chung) as they terrorize her deserving brother. They drive out to the middle of nowhere. Jessica pretends to get lost, and they end up near an abandoned mineshaft. While the sisters fake an argument about whether or not to take Megan to the hospital or drop her down the shaft, nobody notices Garret flip out and plunge a tire iron through Megan’s torso. Now she really is dead, and Jessica realizes everything uttered in their scripted argument remains true. Cassidy insists she won’t go along with it, so Jessica wraps Cassidy’s jacket around Megan’s body and dumps her down the shaft. Despite Cassidy’s reluctance, she’s left with no choice but to keep their secret.

Nine months later, at a graduation party, people involved in the murder start dying in grotesque ways. A slasher movie is born.

When I originally had to read the script for this remake of Mark Rosman’s 1983 slasher film The House on Sorority Row, I dreaded it. Although slasher fans have revised history and turned the original into a Golden Age classic of the genre, it’s a terrible film. Cheap, cheesy, exploitative — okay, it’s actually not much different from many slasher movies, but it lacks the scares and depraved psychological insight of true classics like Halloween or Black Christmas. However, Hollywood has run out of good slasher movies to ruin with unneeded remakes. They’re scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point.

Yet, Sorority Row has a lively, winning screenplay. Maybe my lowered expectations colored my reaction, but I enjoyed it for a number of reasons. It has a great setup, a set of characters who rise above their stereotypical roots, and a surprise-filled third act that doesn’t suffer from the M. Night Shyamalan movie-ruining twist. Even better, Stolberg and Goldfinger understand the slasher genre. The screenplay has a lot of fun twisting genre conventions and audience expectations, starting with a tone-setting opening sequence in which the traditional sights and sounds of a horror film — a slow tracking shot to a dark, gloomy, old house, accompanied by the sounds of crashing glass and a screaming girl — gives way to the revelation that this is a wild sorority party in full swing. Okay, so it’s not art, but it’s fun and funny.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex. The rating changed from PG-13 (the draft I read contains numerous specific references for keeping the sorority sisters’ bras on and violent acts just out of frame) to R, and the filmmakers used this change as license for silly exploitation, instead of something ironically commenting on the silly exploitation of classic slasher films. The reasonably believable description of the opening party in the screenplay becomes a music-video slow-motion pillow fight featuring sexy girls in underwear and a ridiculous snowstorm of feathers. Garret goes from a cheerfully sociopathic asshole to a twitchy, skittish basket case (even before his accidental murder). A miscast Briana Evigan’s attempt at a sultry alto (which alternately sounds like a bad case of laryngitis and a trucker with an 18-pack-a-day habit) seems more befitting of bad-girl Jessica than good-girl Cassidy.

On the surface, none of these changes seem significant, but they speak to larger problems. What reads like believable human behavior in the script is played by all the actors as incredibly arch, robbing the characters of the surprising nuance and subtlety on the page. The same goes for the overall story: on paper, the only thing that felt over-the-top is the eleventh-hour James Bond villain speech from the unmasked killer. For most of the script, these characters feel like real people leading normal lives that get shaken up by abnormal murders. That really impressed me, and I looked forward to seeing a movie that would go back to the straightforward slasher classics instead of the cartoonish crapfest they became.

Then I saw the movie. Cough.

As one might expect, the script faces twin problems from style-over-substance director Stewart Hendler (proving yet again that not every director who starts in commercials and music videos will turn into Spike Jonze or David Fincher) and hammy performances. It’s as if everyone but Stolberg and Goldfinger thought this was a straight-up comedy. The writers do insert some intentional laughs and some winking references to previous slasher movies, but overall it’s not a comedic script. Approaching every scene with a comedic tone robs the movie of any sort of suspense or sympathy, and by design the script doesn’t have the laughs to sustain the total lack of intrigue. To quote Rainier Wolfcastle, “It’s not a comedy.” It frustrates me to know that a good script got ruined primarily by a tone-deaf director who spent more time setting up variable-speed tracking shots and too little time keeping the actors’ performances grounded.

Sorority Row is a bad film, but it didn’t have to be. It’s a textbook example that cinema is not a director’s medium — it’s collaborative, and if everyone’s not on the same page (no pun intended, I swear), a good script can easily turn into a flaming turd.

(Ironically, Stolberg and Goldfinger went on to write the Piranha remake, much loathed by Matt, in part because of its tone-deaf director.)

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

— Reviewed September 10, 2010

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