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Mortis Rex

Author: Peter Briggs
Genre: Action/Horror/Historical
Storyline: 5
Dialogue: 5
Characterization: 2
Writer’s Potential: 4

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Recommendation?

Pass

Logline:

In 122 A.D., Roman soldiers and a druid tribe must fight an enormous monster in the wild of Northern England.

Synopsis:

In the woods at the “Pictish border of Caledonia” (now called Scotland), some Roman scouts survey the land. Near a 15-foot-high stone crucifix cluttered with Celtic symbols, they are both killed by a massive, never-seen monster (referred to in the script as “Mortis”). SYRUS PETRONIUS is told about this and disturbed — they’ve had 11 mysterious deaths in only a few months. He writes a letter to the Capitol, begging for their best military leader. Senator CORNELIUS NASO has CASSIUS VIRIUS sent from a battlefield back to Rome, where he discusses a construction outpost sent to build a wall. He tells Cassius of the deaths and their requests for defense. They believe this will lead to another Druid uprising.

Cassius travels from Rome to the “Briga Magna” fort in Caledonia. Meanwhile, BREACA (a Briton tribeswoman) has sex with a Roman soldier, then spies on Cassius as he surveys the area with the large crucifix. She loses her footing, causing rocks to fall on Cassius below, and she flattens, narrowly avoid being seen. Cassius is taken to the infirmary to discuss the mysterious deaths. An insane man, FESTUS, raves about “Mortis Rex.” Cassius is told to ignore him. That night, the monster strikes again, killing a group of tower sentries. Petronius meets with VOTAN, a Druid Briton, and accuses him of terrorism. Votan denies having anything to do with the death. Later, Petronius explains the lay of the political land to Cassius: 60 years ago, Rome wiped out the bulk of Druid followers. The remainder scattered to Caledonia, and now that Rome moves north, they’re holding on to their civilization and beliefs by trying to fight back.

Cassius asks Petronius about the unusual wording of his letter — referring to something attacking, not someone. Petronius is flattered that Cassius actually paid attention, but he admits everybody who’s seen the thing is dead, except Festus, who went mad. There’s no consistency to attacks, except the grotesque deaths. Between Petronius sending the letter and Cassius arriving (about two months), the deaths have nearly tripled. In the morning, the Druids wake Cassius and Petronius with a noisy hunting ritual. Cassius asks about the crucifix, which is an unusual sight in Britain. Petronius explains that a Roman-turned-missionary erected it generations before, but few Druids converted. Cassius and Petronius explore the forest, looking for clues to hint at Mortis’ origins. They see border markings of the Druids’ village, Nematon, but Cassius insists on pressing on. In a hidden cave tunnel, they find a stone obelisk littered with bones that look melted and fused together somehow. As they leave, Mortis reveals itself within the cave, but the Romans don’t see.

Strolling through the forest alone, Cassius comes upon Votan and a few other Druids attempting to rape Breaca. They tear off her crucifix pendant and mock her religion. Cassius and Breaca fight the men, killing everyone but leaving Votan (barely) alive. Cassius drags him back to Nematon, where Chieftain BADVOC (Breaca’s father) is cordial but suspicious. He urges Cassius and the other Romans to leave. Petronius catches up with Cassius and tells them the scouts have found something — smoking rubble, corpses of Druid women, and tracks of the beast. Cassius tells the soldiers to burn the wreckage to the ground. Badvoc meets with Breaca in secret. He reveals that the Druids have attempted to control the beast, but now it’s grown wild and out of control. Badvoc regrets attempting to control it. Breaca argues that the power of the cross can save them, but Badvoc doesn’t believe the old stories about that.

Cassius mentions Breaca to Petronius, who mentions she spends much of her time getting it on with the troops. The surgeon beckons them both, showing them casts made by the armorer at the site of one of the deaths. Scratches they thought were done by wildcats turn out to have an engraved look, with subtle tribal markings, the likes of which none of them have ever seen. The surgeon attempts to show them specimens from a previous death, but it’s turned into a disgusting, maggot-filled jar, and when the surgeon opens it, they scatter and transform into strange, beetle-like creatures. Everyone’s baffled. Cassius orders the surgeon to destroy all the samples and cremate everything. Cassius dreams of the monster attacking. The monster kills more people, witnessed by Petronius’ dog, who slinks back to her master, then slowly dies in his lap. Speculation is she died of fright. Cassius and Petronius decide to prepare the troops to battle Mortis.

Cassius and Petronius discuss the afterlife; Cassius admits not being philosophical enough to believe, but Petronius mentions a lostlove who was poisoned, and Petronius believes they’ll meet again. The night before the Romans’ planned attack, Mortis slaughters the entire Druid village, then comes after Briga Magna, showing the border guards’ apparitions of lost loved ones to let their guards down. Although he kills many of the guards, the soldiers barely manage to lock the gates around their outpost, keeping Mortis out. The next morning, Breaca goes to the Nematon and finds everyone dead. The Romans attempt to shore up their defenses after the previous night’s near-miss. Petronius leads the troops out into the forest after the creature. Cassius rides to Nematon to urge Badvoc not to interfere with their battle. He finds them dead.

Senator Naso shows up, deciding to personally lead the assault, frustrating Petronius. When night falls, Mortis reveals itself — still unseen by us, but attacking them savagely. An extensive battle ensues. Petronius leads the attack but is taken out quite quickly. Cassius arrives and attempts to save Naso from Mortis; instead, he ends up bashing his head on some rocks and lying, presumed dead, face-down in a river. The soldiers give it their all, but Mortis kills everyone. A dream sequence, laden with both Roman and Druid imagery and symbolism, follows. Cassius wakes in Breaca’s hidden cave, in great pain but still alive. Breaca tends to his wounds and mentions he shouted things in his slip — all different cultures’ names for death. Cassius notices Breaca wearing Badvoc’s distinctive ring, realizes she’s his daughter. Breaca fears Mortis will keep moving until he’s killed everyone. Cassius believes it can be killed, but Breac isn’t sure — but she does have an idea of how to fight it.

In the ruins of Briga Magna, Cassius and Breaca find Petronius, alive. He mentions he sent the dozen or so other survivors to a stronghold to the south. Cassius enlists Petronius’ help in this plan, but Petronius thinks Cassius is nuts. Breaca explains that Badvoc sacrificed women in an effort to control Mortis. They set up a trap in the grove where the sacrifices took place. Night falls, and they sound a horn to call Mortis. Petronius sees his lost love waiting for him. Mortis creeps behind it, but Petronius’ horse senses this and throws Petronius clear, running for dear life as Petronius cowers in terror. From their hidden killzones, Breaca and Cassius listen in fear as they hear the beast approaching. Breaca clutches her crucifix while Cassius readies a spear. Cassius rides like the devil to confuse Mortis, who is too big to adjust to the rapid movement. It ends up stuck in chains they’ve erected to hold it. Breaca fires rigged crossbows into Mortis, who howls wildly, but its acid blood eats through the restraints. Cassius’ deathblow spear is trapped in Mortis-created ice. He continues to confuse Mortis as Breaca attempts to free it. Finally successful, Breaca tosses the spear to Cassius just as Mortis is closing in on him, but it goes over his head and rolls down the other side of a hill. Cassius manages to get a rope around Mortis, who appears to fear the crucifix pendant given to him by Breaca. Cassius backs away to grab the spear, which he plunges into one of Mortis’ tentacles, bursting it into flames. Mortis howls. The spear gets away from Cassius again, and as Mortis closes in for the kill, Petronius appears atop a cliff, spear in hand, and dives into the beast’s mouth, aiming the spear as he goes.

Mortis is destroyed in a white-hot explosion that somehow doesn’t hurt Cassius or Breaca; it leaves behind a pile of ash and a cracked spearhead. Later, Cassius and Breaca have erected a Christian monument dedicated to Petronius’ sacrifice. Cassius tells Breaca he’s been ordered back to Rome for reassignment. Breaca tells him she intends to travel to other places. Cassius offers to take her back to Rome, and along the way she can regale him with Christian stories. They take off on their horses together.

Comments:

The writer does a meticulous job of evoking period detail, which is no easy feat considering the ancient setting. However, this attention to detail gives the story an unintentional leaden pace, making it a distracting and difficult read when it ought to be fast-paced action/horror. The period also doesn’t have much to do with anything, other than trying to piggyback on the success of movies like 300 and, to a lesser extent, Troy and Gladiator. The writer doesn’t use the period to reflect on contemporary problems; Mortis Rex doesn’t serve as any kind of metaphor (e.g., the coming rise of Christianity within the Roman Empire). It’s just a mediocre, been-there-done-that story trying to distinguish itself with its setting.

The vivid detail should have been devoted to the characters, by far this script’s weakest element. The writer spends the first 30 pages introducing us to what feels like hundreds of characters (probably more like 20 or 30, but believe me, that’s more than enough), but he doesn’t have enough time to let us get to know them. Since only three of the characters have any major importance, and maybe three to five more have minor impacts on the story, why are we spending so much time with people who don’t matter? This sacrifices time that would be better spent getting to know Cassius, Petronius, and Breaca. The extraneous characters die in the attacks on Nematon and Briga Magna, and their deaths have no emotional impact; even Petronius, sacrificing himself to kill Mortis Rex at the end, lacks the emotional punch it could have if we actually cared about these people. Cassius and Petronius take time to have a lot of quiet conversations, but none of these enhance the characters; they’re just story beats (or foreshadowing future story events) buried in pseudo-philosophical babbling. Knowing these people, getting to know the Roman lifestyle and the Druid lifestyle through these characters, would take this story from mediocre to above-average.

The theme, which feels a bit tacked on, seems to be this idea that the power of Christ will vanquish all evil. The idea of religious faith conquering evil is interesting, but at a time when Christianity was largely defined as a cult and persecuted as such, the writer should have explored this idea much more — really showing us both the Roman and Druid attitudes toward the religion. The writer doesn’t seem to want to confront religious persecution head-on, but it left me wondering why the Christian faith, instead of Druid or Roman beliefs, is the only thing that they can use to destroy Mortis. Such a development makes religion significant to the story, so the writer’s decision to relegate it to the background doesn’t make much sense. Defining the religious conflicts more clearly, and perhaps transforming Mortis into a symbol of belief systems being crushed by the cross, would actually give this story enough complexity to make it something more than a dull action/horror flick.

Posted by D. B. Bates on October 29, 2008 12:20 PM  |   | Print-Friendly  | Professional Script Coverage

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