Little Murder

Author: Gerald Di Pego
Genre: Crime/Supernatural/Thriller
Storyline: 4
Dialogue: 6
Characterization: 5
Writer’s Potential: 5

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Recommendation?

Pass

Logline:

The ghost of one of a serial killer’s victims helps a disgraced cop track her killer.

Synopsis:

During the chaos and looting of Hurricane Katrina, BEN CHANEY — white, mid-30s, very athletic — chases a gun-toting lowlife through the rainswept streets of New Orleans. He accidentally shoots a 15-year-old black boy. A year later, Chaney’s ex-partner ‘SANDY’ SANDOVAL visits him at the Baton Rouge Police Academy, where Chaney instructs cadets. Sandy offers Chaney the chance to return to the New Orleans police. Reluctantly, Chaney takes the assignment — staking out a crazy man named DRAG HAMMERMAN. He’s not exactly a suspect, but he’s crazy enough that they could pin a crime on him and make it stick. He may or may not be ‘The Masker,’ a serial killer whose calling-card is placing his victims (all female) in Mardi-Gras style Elizabethan masks. Detective LIPP is heading the investigation, and he doesn’t like Chaney at all — to him, Chaney is a drunk and a loser. He makes Sandy take Chaney to the house they’ll use for the stakeout, an abandoned home across the street from Drag’s.

That night, Chaney watches Drag, muttering to himself. In the middle of the night, Drag goes out. Chaney tries to follow him, but Drag keeps doing strange things — he’ll get to the end of the block, then go back to his house, then go out again, then sneak through neighbors’ yards to get back home. Chaney tries to follow him, gives up, goes back inside, and discovers Drag has put a sign in his front window: ‘GOOD NIGHT, COP.’ That night, Chaney has a nightmare about the boy he killed. He wakes up with a start, apologizing to no one. He gets up, walks through the house — and sees what looks like a body at the other end of the hall. He comes closer and sees the corpse of a YOUNG WOMAN, blood on her hair, dead. He stares, pulls out his cell phone, stops, glances back — the body’s gone.

Chaney looks across at Drag’s house. Another sign says he’s at a bar. Chaney calls the bar, the bartender tells him Drag says he’ll be at the bar until two, then come straight home. Chaney asks the bartender if he pays his bill, the bartender says he’s all right. Chaney hangs up — and the woman’s body is back. Later, he’s in the bathroom and the body appears in the tub. He closes the curtain, but behind it he can hear sobbing. Chaney tells the voice to go away — it does. Later, while in the shower, he sees the young woman’s face reflected in the mirror. Angry, he starts yelling at it — but it turns out to be a young policewoman, sent by Lipp to check on Chaney.

Chaney pours some coffee, then thinks about the funeral for the boy. He attended, with a black detective named HAYES. Chaney has to endure the hateful glares of the mourners. He tells Hayes he wants to apologize, but Hayes says nobody wants to hear it. Chaney steps out on the porch with his coffee. Two KIDS tell him the house is supposed to be haunted. This makes Chaney feel a little better. Chaney goes across to Drag’s house and introduces himself. Drag’s a nice but strange guy who narrates his life into a tape recorder, which he says will become the world’s first “reality novel.” Chaney asks about the haunting, but Drag shrugs it off. He says a musician was murdered, her brother beat her to death over money, but he got off. Drag offers him a beer, which Chaney reluctantly accepts.

Later, he’s drunk and staggering back across to his house — and the body’s back again. Chaney just steps over the body and keeps walking, but the woman — now identified as COREY — starts talking. Chaney ignores her and passes out in bed. Later that night, Sandy calls with some bad news: they’re shutting down the stakeout because another precinct arrested a prime suspect. Corey appears to him again, but Chaney wants her to go away. Eventually, she does — but not happily. The next morning, Lipp and Sandy arrive and find the telescope and binoculars smashed to bits. They blame Chaney the drunk, who denies it. He tells Sandy about the ghost, but Sandy smells the liquor on him and finds a bottle of rum under his pillow.

That night, Corey appears again. Chaney asks what she wants, and she says he needs to catch her killer. Chaney says it was her brother, but Corey knows that’s not the truth. Chaney says he can’t do anything because nobody trusts him. Corey asks why, and he goes into the story about killing the kid. After she breaks him down, Chaney starts asking questions. Corey explains that she played cello at a jazz club along with her best friend, JENNIFER. The next day, Chaney tries to dig up dirt on Corey and her brother. He finds Corey’s brother was locked in a psychiatric hospital. Lipp catches Chaney looking at Corey’s murder file and browbeats him. Chaney goes to visit Corey’s grave, then goes home and pours all his rum down the sink. He offers her some clothes — strangely, Corey can touch him, Chaney can smell her, and she can interact with everyday objects.

Chaney asks Corey to walk her through the night of her murder. It’s the only way he’ll get at the truth. Corey spills it: she was playing in Lafayette Square with her friends and was picked up by her wealthy boyfriend, PAUL MARAIS, who takes her to a country club for a late-night game of squash. She says they tied. Later, while Paul was taking a shower, Corey snuck into the locker room to surprise him — and saw Paul handing a baggie of drugs to her brother, TOM. She confronted Paul about it, suggesting that this was about Paul’s jealousy over the closeness of the siblings. Paul dropped Corey off at home, and she argued with Tom. Corey opened a window and heard Drag across the street, dancing to a Leonard Cohen song — which Corey then sings for Chaney. She says she watched out the window for a long time, thought about calling Paul — she had decided to leave him — when she heard a noise. And that was it.

Chaney goes to the abandoned building where he killed the boy. He tries to talk to his ghost — if he’s there — and apologizes, even though he gets no response. Then Chaney goes to the psychiatric hospital to talk with Tom. Chaney asks Tom to walk him through Corey’s last night. Tom says that yes, he and Corey argued about her drug use, but he got mad at went to bed. Something woke up at two in the morning, but all Tom saw was the back of a man in an elegant suit — running away. The cops got there fast, but nobody knew who called them. Tom’s a little upset — his last words to his sister were “fuck you.” Chaney asks Tom to write down what he wishes he would have said. Tom doesn’t know why, but he does it.

Chaney gives Corey Tom’s note — she’s grateful but upset. Chaney questions Drag about that night, as well. Drag recites it like a novel, but he tells a different story than Corey. Drag points out the bum leg that earned him the nickname — he doesn’t dance. Sandy drives by, sees Chaney and Drag talking, isn’t pleased. Chaney tries to smooth things over by saying Drag thinks he’s just a “new neighbor,” so Chaney’s working “undercover.” Sandy doesn’t believe it. He tells Chaney that the stakeout has to continue. Another body washed up on the river — another “Masker” murder. It’s obviously not the man they have in custody, so the search continues.

Chaney questions Paul, rattling his cage by hinting at Corey’s statements, which are different from what Paul told the police — that he won the squash game, and that he and Corey didn’t argue. Chaney goes to Corey’s jazz club, runs into a waitress, MOLLY, and asks her about the murder. She doesn’t have much information, but she thinks Paul’s paranoia might have caused problems. He was always asking her if Corey was dating other men. Molly went out with him a few times after Corey died, and they did drugs, which made him even more paranoid — borderline psychotic — but she throws some suspicion on Jennifer. Chaney goes to Drag’s house, hands him sheets of paper to let him fill out where he’s going and the times he leaves and returns. He asks Drag to drop them through the mail slot.

Chaney and Corey talk some more about the murder, and she remembers her killer said something — he spoke with an English accent, and even if he faked it, she’s certain it’s not Paul. Corey says Jennifer couldn’t have done it, either, obviously, but that she did call Jennifer and leave a message the night of her murder. Corey thinks if Chaney can get Jennifer to come to the house, Corey can talk through Chaney and convince Jennifer to take the information from Corey’s message to the police. Jennifer comes over and is creeped out by the whole situation. She files a report with the police, which brings Lipp and Sandy down on Chaney.

Later, Paul and Jennifer get together for a squash game. Paul is suspicious that Jennifer knows more than she initially led on and that this is where Chaney got his information. He asks increasingly paranoid questions, which makes Jennifer nervous. Manwhile, Chaney has broken into Paul’s house and searched his bedroom. He finds squash balls filled with an odd yellow liquid. One of Paul’s cronies finds Chaney and knocks him out. Chaney manages to get himself to his car, tries to drive home. Sandy calls to fire him, tells him to get out of the house tonight. Chaney goes back to the house, and Lipp shows up, claiming he’s there to make sure Chaney doesn’t destroy anything when he leaves. They get into a fistfight, and Chaney runs away. He calls Sandy and says he has to finish a job, then he’ll “come in.”

At a hospital, a lab tech tells Chaney the substance on the squash balls is pseudoephedrine, used in making methamphetamine. Chaney goes back to the house, makes sure it’s empty — but Drag is skulking around the yard. He’s dropping off a report. Chaney tells him he no longer has to do that. Drag tries to insist that Chaney go out drinking with him, but Chaney refuses. He meets with Jennifer at a recording studio. She noticed Paul’s weirdness and has decided to believe Chaney. Now Paul has invited her for another squash game, and she’s nervous. Chaney explains there was a drug deal going on at the country club and Paul must think Corey saw too much, which is why he killed her. Chaney tells Jennifer to play it cool, say she’ll go, but he’ll go in her place.

Drag — whose leg is magically healed, and who is dressed in an elegant suit, and who is speaking in a British accent — has stumbled upon Molly, who’s excited about becoming a part of his novel. Jennifer is waiting in Corey’s house, and she sees Drag and Molly go into his house across the street. He turns on the Leonard Cohen song.

Hiding in the shadows, Chaney watches a drug deal go down. He takes out Paul’s cronies, then confronts Paul about the murder and places him under arrest. Paul starts swinging squash balls at him, pummeling him pretty good, but they don’t stop him.

Chaney chases Paul. Jennifer watches Drag put an Elizabethan mask on Molly. She knows something bad’s going to happen. She hopes Chaney will get back soon. She sees someone write “9-1-1” on fog on a mirror. She knows Corey is there, tries to dial 911 — but her cell phone battery is dead. Drag has seen Jennifer watching his dance with Molly, and now he’s come to kill her. She struggles to defend herself.

Paul and one of his cronies chases Chaney into the garage. Chaney manages to get to his car, but the garage door won’t open. He tries to back a stolen car out through the door, but it doesn’t budge. Chaney hops out of the car, dials Jennifer on his cell phone, but she doesn’t answer.

He tries Drag’s house instead. Molly tries to pick up the phone but drops it. She tries to shut off the answering machine, but the message continues — Chaney hears the combination of Drag speaking with an English accent and the Leonard Cohen song, and he puts it together. Chaney shatters the glass main door of the country club and runs to his car. He reaches Corey’s house just in time to see Drag about to kill Jennifer. He shoots him in the chest. Grateful, Corey watches from the house — and disappears.

Later, a cop finds all the scalps from the Masker victim’s bodies, plus a bunch of additional masks. Sandy tells Chaney that Paul confessed to everything about the drug deal. Everyone’s impressed with his detective work. The next day, walking through Lafayette Square, Chaney is surprised to see a portrait of Corey, playing her cello. He hears melancholic cello music and walks away, smiling.

Comments:

The idea of a ghost helping to solve their own murder is not exactly a new story (see 1990’s Ghost), and here the writer doesn’t do all that much to put a unique spin on the proceedings. It’s a gritty crime thriller set in post-Katrina New Orleans, but it’s the same bland cop-movie clichés with the same cardboard-cutout characters. Even Chaney’s alcoholic, washed-up cop who finds himself through the love of a good (if dead) woman is something that has been seen many, many times.

The script also suffers from a severe lack of action in the first and second acts. It’s a very talky, procedural-type storyline. The writer tries to enliven this with flashbacks, but at the end of the day, it’s just people sitting in a room, discussing a murder. Chaney only has one scene where he uses his detective skills in a capacity that doesn’t involve merely interviewing suspects and/or witnesses. I’m not saying don’t interview anyone — but the second act seems to be little more than six interviews in a row, with a few scenes with Drag and Sandy to break up the monotony.

Here’s the absolute low point of the story: we’re supposed to be on Chaney’s side as he pursues Corey’s killer. We’re supposed to say, “Go on, neglect the stakeout assignment you have because finding her killer is more important.” Then Chaney convinces himself it was Paul, and he puts all his eggs in the Paul basket — except it’s not Paul. It’s Drag. And if he had actually done the job he was assigned, and done it competently, they would have prevented at least one murder and he wouldn’t have put Jennifer or Molly in harm’s way. Granted, they would not have found out about Paul’s meth dealings, but when all the pieces of the puzzle are put together, it sort of makes Chaney look like an idiot for shirking his duty. (It also makes me wonder why the other detectives didn’t take Drag more seriously as a suspect.)

A better approach, which would give this a brisker pace and more action, might be to show what Chaney really wants — to get his detective groove back and earn back the respect of his colleagues. This is barely even alluded to in the script, but it would give his character a much stronger arc and would give the ending more impact. Corey should almost be a symbol of his detective instincts — she’s portrayed as real, but maybe things would be more interesting if we were questioning it. Of course, in order for that to work, he would have to be right about things in a non-accidental way. I wanted to root for Chaney, but the more that came about the case and the less that was revealed about him as a person, the more frustrating he became.

The New Orleans setting might also pique the interest of those who have not seen the city since Katrina. It’s a straightforward procedural with a bit of a romantic ghost story thrown in. Police procedurals are incredibly popular on television, but why would audiences pay $10-15 for something that isn’t much different than what they can see for free? Still, the supernatural element may bring in fans of horror movies or romantic movies. This concept has worked in the past, so it could work again. A better script would help, though.

Posted by D. B. Bates on September 26, 2008 6:35 PM