Author: Huck Botko & Andrew Gurland
Writer’s Potential: 7
A fraudulent evangelical preacher investigates a supposed demonic possession in Missouri, and what he finds forces him to question his faithlessness and disbelief.
(The entire story is scripted as a faux-documentary, which includes a lot of people talking to the camera.) COTTON MARCUS, 40s, watches videos of botched exorcisms. He debunks them by pointing out the physical and psychological ailments afflicting the “possessed,” offering that they need doctors, not priests. A title card and archive footage explains that Cotton is a fourth-generation evangelical minister who found fame at a young age as a youth preacher. He and his father, EARL, both non-believers, scripted everything they did, but Cotton of the present explains that his mother’s death caused his father to find Jesus, which caused a bit of a rift. Cotton attempts to help his sons, RANDY (7) and LEWIS (11) with their homework and plays poker with them. Cotton’s wife, FIONA, explains the purpose of this documentary project: Cotton’s finally coming clean as a fake and a con artist, participating in this documentary to show what he’s really like, how he’s exploited people, before retiring. Cotton shows his fan mail, which consists mainly of people begging to help remove demons from family members. He picks one at random—Oliver Sweetzer. Ivanwood, Missouri. Cotton visits his father’s congregation, then has dinner with him.
Cotton mentions going to Ivanwood and asks for “the book”—an old tome cataloguing demons. Earl warns Cotton to be careful, which Cotton shrugs off. Cotton drives into Missouri, stops to ask locals where to find Ivanwood, then stops Ivanwood locals to ask where to find the Sweetzer farm. He finds it, passes a couple of “No Trespassing” signs—and is forced off the road by a wild young man in a pickup truck. OLIVER, 40, angrily runs out of his house with a shotgun. Cotton introduces himself and shouts at Oliver about the pickup that tried to kill him. Oliver shrugs it off—that’s his son, TYLER, who continues to glare at Cotton.
Oliver is appreciate of Cotton’s help but doesn’t like all the cameras. Working his grifter magic, Cotton explains that this movie is all about helping people believe, so if Oliver doesn’t want to help preach the word to millions of people with his story, that’s his decision. Oliver immediately agrees to participate. They film Oliver giving a lesson to 13-year-old NELL, whom he home-schools to avoid negative influences found in public schools. Afterward, Cotton praises Oliver for what he’s doing with his daughter, but Oliver turns it back around, ranting that he couldn’t have done too fine a job since there’s a demon in her. Cotton’s confused, having thought Oliver was the afflicted. Cotton doesn’t want to work with a child. He excuses himself, and a female voice off-camera (TRACEY) asks why he’s so uptight about it. Cotton explains the dangers of hypnosis on younger minds. Tracey points out that, considering the way Oliver and Tyler are, doing nothing may be worse for Nell. Cotton asks Oliver for details. He explains that livestock keeps dying, and when Cotton suggests the possibility of a jackal, Oliver points out that this killer only takes the heart. Cotton asks if Oliver has any proof Nell did it. Oliver shows him a blood-stained dress.
Cotton asks Nell what she feels. Nell complains of nausea and extreme fever, ranging around 115-116 degrees. Cotton fills a basin with water, places her feet in it.. The water begins to boil as soon as she sets her feet in, but Nell complains about her feet feeling cold. After consulting with the book, Cotton identifies the demon as Abalam—the only one that affects body temperature. According to legend, every thousand years, Abalam selects a young virgin and possesses her soul. The book says, without an exorcism, the “vessel” Abalam possesses must die. Oliver blames himself, saying he joined up with a cult-like religion that he firmly believes is involved with this possession. Cotton placates him.
Cotton talks to Tyler for the first time. He says he tried to kill them because he doesn’t believe Cotton can help. He thinks everything Cotton’s doing is just a trick. Cotton doesn’t deny it but doesn’t confirm it, either. Tyler eases off a little and says he thinks Oliver himself is the one mutilating the animals. He has a drinking problem and tends to lose control and black out. Oliver interrupts them, and Tyler tells him he thinks Cotton will do some good. Privately, to the camera, Cotton thinks he has it figured out—an alcoholic blaming all his problems on the supernatural. He creates an elaborate show for the exorcism ritual, showing the camera an invention of Earl’s, “serpent bites,” which are thumb rings with hidden wires leading to small batteries in Cotton’s pocket, providing a little shock that has caused people to vomit or speak in tongues. With Oliver and Tyler gathered before Nell, Cotton puts on a dramatic show, saying he will take in the demon himself if it cannot be destroyed completely. He shocks Nell with the serpent bites and then collapses, feigning unconsciousness until the right moment to announce the demon is gone for good. Steam billows from a hollowed-out crucifix filled with foot-warming powder. Oliver is amazed.
Talking to Oliver later, Cotton mentions a belief that the devil’s in him, too—in the form of a bottle. He encourages Oliver to quit drinking and take care of his kids. As Cotton eats dinner in town, he explains to the camera the phenomenon of supposed possession, that people use it as something to blame when they don’t want to blame themselves. Cotton talks to his kids on the phone, then talks to his wife. To the camera, he mentions his priorities once he had kids, shifting from fame and money to health insurance. Later, the crew bursts into a baffled Cotton’s room. They lead him back to the crew’s room, where he finds Nell lying. She has a beer and says some provocative, alarming things before passing out. Cotton laments her youth, then sticks her in his van to drive back to Oliver’s house. Nell wakes up, acting normally, and is horrified when she finds blood on her dress. Cotton didn’t notice it, either. When they get to the farm, Oliver automatically runs from the house and grabs Nell. Cotton follows them inside, where they find Tyler passed out on the couch, various bloody bandages covering most of his face and torso. Oliver’s livid, because Cotton told him he removed the demon. Cotton changes the subject, demanding Oliver take Tyler to the hospital while Cotton stays with Nell. Oliver’s dubious, but he goes along with it. Tyler slips Cotton a note reading, “Don’t let him hurt her.” Later, Cotton hears Nell screaming. He finds her in the basement, her foot chained to a pipe. The crew urges him to take her, but Cotton reminds them that’s kidnapping.
Nell doesn’t know what he means and doesn’t remember anything she did earlier. As night falls, Cotton wonders what happened to Oliver. He waits for Nell to sleep, then snoops. He finds a strange notebook next to Nell’s desk, which has page after page of the same drawing—a cave, with each drawing more detailed than the last. Cotton’s both confused and disturbed. He hears a squealing and runs for Nell’s room. She’s gone, so he tries to find the source of the squealing. He goes out to the barn, hears panting behind a stall door, and just as he’s about to open it, Nell darts out, running right past him, revealing a dead horse inside.
Cotton follows Nell through the woods, past a stream, to a waterfall, behind which is the cave from the drawings. Cotton catches up to Nell, calls to her, but her eyes are rolled back in her head and she doesn’t even seem to realize he’s there. He follows her into the cave, where a bunch of half-eaten animal hearts are strewn. She collapses on the floor, then wakes up “normal.” Cotton carries her back to her room, and as he puts her into bed, he realizes she’s pregnant. He asks her about this, deciding the only likely candidate is either Oliver or Tyler. The next morning, Oliver returns. Cotton breaks the news, and Oliver insists it’s Abalam’s baby. Cotton tries to gently convince him this is a human baby. Oliver excuses himself to talk with Nell. Later, he beckons them to come upstairs. Nell tells them about the cult coming for her three months earlier, taking her out into the woods and performing some sort of strange ritual. Cotton doesn’t believe her, starts packing her thinks to take her to the hospital. Before he can, Oliver pulls a shotgun on them, trapping them all inside the house. Cotton forces Oliver out. They barricade the doors with furniture.
Oliver patrols around the house. Cotton tries to flee out one of the windows but fails. Nell’s feverish again, and Cotton realizes the thermometer is broken—that’s why her fevers were so high. Nell acts possessed, knocking Cotton over and running away. Cotton tries to get control, but the only thing they can do is tie her to the bed. The next morning, Oliver continues his perimeter patrol. Nell is acting normally. She asks him for ham for breakfast. He slices from a big slab, but she takes the whole thing and eats it, then goes to the compost bin and gnaws on bones. Nell starts bleeding again, so Cotton shows Oliver, pleading to take her to the hospital. Oliver insists it’s a demon, grabs Nell and turns on the others, taking her away and shooting at the rest of them. Suddenly, strangers appear, knocking out Oliver. They act helpful and claim to have been sent by Tyler but quickly reveal themselves as cult members. They grab Nell and take her to the cave, Cotton following. Nell has the baby. They worship the baby and use Nell as a blood sacrifice, so Cotton pounces, grabbing Nell. In the chaos, the cultists disappear. Cotton performs a real exorcism. The camera man runs away before he finishes. Later, Cotton gets Nell to the hospital. Cotton goes back to the cave, shines a flashlight into a hole, drops a stone, waits for the sound of it hitting the bottom. It never comes. Time passes, and Cotton plays this documentary for his followers and explains how this incident helped him gain real faith.
The writer has constructed a solid story here—effectively creepy, well-structured, and always playing with the “rational explanation for everything,” until the last few scenes. Even the documentary conceit works to create an extra layer of reality, giving the story an additional eerie quality it would otherwise lack.
Cotton’s big arc needs work, however. The fundamentals work, but his path to religious faith is an unnatural progression. He spends 7/8ths of the script as a non-believer, then sees some freaky shit in a cave and is willing to embrace Jesus wholeheartedly and cast the demons out. There’s room in this material to let Cotton slowly embrace the reality of this situation; as evidence builds, he should believe more, but the problem is, the writer hasn’t found any other way to convey what Cotton is feeling than letting him talk to the camera. He stops doing that for most of the third act, so in the chaos, we’re left wondering what he’s thinking. At the end, he explains it all in a monologue, but we don’t see this progression in his attitude or feelings at the time.
This leads directly to the primary weakness of the dialogue: although the documentary conceit gives a nice sense of atmosphere, the writer uses the ability to talk to the camera as a crutch. Cotton spends much of the first and second acts stating every emotion he’s feeling to the camera. The writer does a pretty good job with the rhythm of normal conversation, but every time Cotton turns to address the audience, it stops feeling natural and starts feeling like he can’t find a better way to reveal Cotton’s thoughts and emotions.
These are fairly big problems, but everything else in the script—the Sweetzers, Cotton’s family and backstory, the demonic possession, the cult—is pretty solid.
This one is interesting because, while it will certainly appeal to horror fans, it may also lure a broader base of moviegoers who enjoy suspense/psychological thrillers because of its emphasis on questioning whether or not this is “reality” or a supernatural force.