Screenplay Review — Hen’s Teeth

Fiction Affliction #3 — A review of spec screenplay Hen’s Teeth, by Krishan Patel

“Tara.” Made with Midjourney

Genre: Body Horror

Logline — A woman must escape the medical facility awakening reptilian traits recorded in her DNA from our distant evolutionary ancestors as a full scale transformation takes effect.

About — This is a screenplay a writer sent to me to review. The following review is an edited version of my feedback.

Writer — Krishan Patel

Length — 86 pages

For amateur screenwriters, or really for any type of writer, one of the best ways to learn the craft is to trade scripts with other writers, and provide critiques. Or at least read a lot of scripts and novels, both pro and amateur. As Stephen King said in On Writing, “Read a lot, write a lot.”

Hen’s Teeth is the second screenplay I’ve reviewed by Patel, and it inspired a good deal of feedback. That may be because it’s within a genre I enjoyed a lot in the past—body horror. Though nowadays, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more squeamish about things like gore, disease, and violence. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have an occassional glimpse at the grisly genre. So, here’s my review of Krishan Patel’s Hen’s Teeth.

Hen’s Teeth is basically a body horror thriller in the vein of Cronenberg’s The Fly, 2009’s Splice, or more recently, the 2019 horror film Eli. Stylistically, it leans more psychological and clinical instead of showing excessive gore/physical horror, though it certainly has its share of visual shocks and surprises.

The story is centered on a young woman named Tara Steventon, who since birth has suffered from an unusual affliction/illness that has made her different from other people. This difference is not necessarily readily apparent, but something people, including her own mother, pick up on more unconsciously. Due to this subtle strangeness, she’s shunned by schoolmates and peers. And even somewhat by her own mother, who keeps her distance, and doesn’t even have pictures of her daughter in her house. Tara’s one friend is the loyal and good-hearted Melanie Watkins, who grows up with Tara, and helps her to live a “normal” life. This includes going out clubbing, where in the beginning Tara is picked up by a male suitor. But prior to engaging in a one night stand, the male pulls away, and abruptly leaves, evidently put off by Tara’s uncanny different-ness. Tara vomits up something unnatural, and then ends up in the hospital. The medical staff can’t make heads or tails of her condition, and it becomes evident Tara has made her rounds in the hospital before.

Desperate to fix, or at least understand her “illness,” Tara goes to a resort/medical facility advertised online (and seen earlier on her computer), with her best friend Melanie tagging along. Upon arrival, she is greeted by Eleanor, an elegant and dedicated scientist who runs the facility/“temple retreat,” who appears to know more about Tara’s condition than she lets on. Eventually, Tara comes to learn that she’s “suffering” a form of atavism, which is, as Eleanor puts it is a “reemergence of our biology of traits from our animal ancestors.” This has caused Tara to reclaim reptilian/lizard characteristics, such as vomiting up an inhuman fluid, having an unusually-shaped skull, and possessing traces or components of venom in her blood. But rather than “curing” Tara, Eleanor has the more sinister goal of perfecting or enhancing Tara’s specialized DNA. Through the use of treatments and medical therapy, Eleanor is able to induce a radical transformation in Tara’s body that seems to work in stages. At about the midpoint, Tara goes through a major transformation, losing her skin just like a snake. However, this is only partial progress, and Tara is left a human/snake/reptile hybrid inside a vivarium, awaiting Eleanor’s final phase. The eccentric doctor intends to take Tara’s transformation all the way, by turning her into a human-snake creature, including surgically removing her limbs and fixing her spine so that Tara can slither and function just like a real snake would. At the same time, Eleanor intends to transform (or become “realized”) herself alongside Tara.

Meanwhile, Melanie wanders around the temple, where she encounters various “patients,” who call themselves the “Brothers and Sisters of Hen’s Teeth.” A group of people who operate similarly to a cult, and who evidently are in various stages of transformation to mammalian, rat-like creatures. However, Eleanor sees these earlier experiments as mere stepping stones to her grand opus, Tara. After framing Melanie for torching the mammalian creatures, Eleanor tries to win Tara over by convincing her to go through with the transformation in accordance with the mad scientist’s grand vison. But Tara turns the tables, and outmaneuvers the doctor, leaving her to die, while using her reptilian abilities to save her friend, who is injured by the mammalian creatures. All the while, a young girl named Sian, a former test subect of Eleanor, and the doctor’s daughter, interviews Tara and Melanie’s family’s to gather information, and returns to the temple under the guise of needing lodging, while in reality trying to warn the two best friends of her mother’s sinister agenda.

Overall, I enjoyed Hen’s Teeth. Body horror and the medical thriller genres appear to be in Patel’s wheelhouse. Hen’s Teeth fits the type of tone you’d expect in a body horror type movie. Patel has mentioned being a big fan of Cronenberg and other similar directors. And this story is much in that style that the writer/director is so famous for. I’ve not seen his latest film, Crimes of the Future, though the synopsis for that movie dovetails with Hen’s Teeth somewhat.

In Hen’s Teeth, I could understand for the most part what Patel was going for. It has the requisite scares and visual horror elements that you want to see in something like this. It builds slowly. There is the initial glimpse of the hen with teeth, then the mother with the multiple rows of nipples. Finally working up toward Tara’s snake-like transformation at the midpoint. Then the mammalian attacks on Melanie where she’s forced to flee with the fire extinguisher. And finally the glimpses of Tara’s “final form,” as imagined by computer screens, at the end. In addition, I felt that Patel generally staged the different scenes pretty well, especially with the temple layout. Cleverly, he tied in the atavistic scientific component thematically with the visual design of the temple, which combines the old and the new.

But most importantly, he centered the story around two best friends looking out for another, whose relationship is nearly torn apart by Tara being seduced into Eleanor’s grand scheme.

Eleanor, by the way, is a good character, being deceptive, but also a maniacal “mad scientist” type. I also liked Sian, Eleanor’s sort of daughter, who wants to stop her mother, but is internally conflicted.

“Eleanor.” Made with Midjourney.

Where I struggled with Hen’s Teeth was chiefly in understanding Eleanor’s motivation, and the purpose of her experimentation. In Eli, for instance, Eli is being subjected to the procedures in order to (spoilers if you haven’t seen it) suppress his demonic side, as he’s the literal son of Satan. In effect, his parents and the facility are trying to save the world from him and his father. In Splice, the couple is trying to create new hybrids for medical use, and for fame. In The Fly, the fly transformation is accidental, of course. Seth is really trying to perfect teleportation. Seth later attempts to merge himself with the pregnant Veronica as a crude means to hold on to his lost humanity. “More human together than I am alone,” as he hauntingly says. Eleanor states that she wants to be “realized,” while preparing to conduct the final process on Tara. She clearly is obsessed with atavism and inducing old DNA to resurface in her subjects. But to what end? Does doing this enable these people to live longer? Does it give them any real benefit over remaining human? It appears her treatments actually hurt more than help. No matter how sinister her plan might be, there should be some underlying logic to what she’s doing. It appears she’s more doing it out of obsession and a kind of scientfic fetishism. Which wasn’t enough for me. It would make sense if atavism led to medical breakthroughs. Or added decades to someone’s life span. Or if Eleanor had some deeply personal motivation. Think of Dr. Frankenstein’s numerous encounters with death that drive him to understand the nature of death and dying, and how to overcome it. Without that needed dimension to Eleanor’s plan, the story loses a lot of substance.

Another aspect that hampered the story for me was Sian’s investigation into Tara and Melanie’s background by visiting their parents. These scenes added some important info about Tara’s childhood, yes, but in mostly an expositional manner that slowed down the narrative. Is there a more visual way to share this information? There was also something I found questionable. The story about Tara’s peers actually giving her vomit to drink, and Tara not noticing, was confusing. Why would Tara having suppressed reptlian DNA make her unable to detect that she was consuming human vomit? Reptiles and snakes eat bugs and small creatures like mice and rats. It would make more sense if Tara had been seen eating a bug or rodent by the others girls. And also, I would expand on exactly why the mother and the girls don’t like Tara. It’s stated that they sense something is off about her. Tara doesn’t have a normal “baby smell” to the mother, for instance. But if Tara has reptilian DNA that occassionally assets itself, this could be shown in a more explicit and understandable way.

Also, when introducing characters, it’s important to try and establish their relationships right away. I didn’t realize that Ruby was Tara’s mother when she visited her in the hospital. I initially thought Ruby was a nurse, or an aunt (due to her age). It wasn’t until later it’s revealed she’s her mother.

Even though there are some good visuals in this script, I don’t think it goes far enough. And that’s mostly because there are many instances where it falls back on exposition instead, or showing something on an iPad or computer. Going back to The Fly, that has a really shocking final sequence, where Seth fully transforms into his fly self. Or you think of An American Werewolf in London, where there’s the violent and climactic Piccadilly Circus sequence with the werewolf. In Eli, the boy eventually is able to defend himself, and fights back against his captors, and frees himself, though the ending in that one does peeter out somewhat. Hen’s Teeth ends rather anti-climactically, as well as ambiguously. I’m not sure what Tara and Melanie’s outcome is at the end.

Regarding the temple, I also wasn’t sure exactly why and how Tara came to know about it, and why she was drawn specifically there as a possible cure. Nothing is stated about it that would necessarily indicate that this is the place she should go. So it comes off as more as coincidental that it just happens Eleanor is running the place. It would make more sense if Eleanor is a widely known geneticist or something with a public reputation. A celebrity scientist, if you will, who is working on the cutting edge of biology research and such. Maybe Tara sees an interview with Eleanor on TV. Or perhaps Sian acts as Eleanor’s emissary, seeking out candidates for her mother’s research, and after recruitng Tara, the girl suffers a bout of conscience when she realizes her mother’s full agenda.

I would lean in more on the relationship between Melanie and Tara, which is the main emotional core of the story. I’d develop that relationship further, as well as the characters. The characters act more now as functionaries of the narrative. Existing to move the plot points along, or serve as exposition vehicles. But they should have their own motivations and background that fully flesh them out.

But overall, I’d encourage Patel to keep going with rewrites, and consider submitting this to contests or sites like Scriptshadow. Best of luck to him.

I Love ‘Avatar’ and Haters Can Choke

Source: Official ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Poster from 20th Century Studios via WDW News Today

“Avatar is just Fern Gully in space.”

“Avatar is just Pocahontas in space.”

“Avatar is a white savior movie…in space.”

Avatar left no pop culture footprint.”

Avatar is the most successful failure ever.”

“Avatar has phenomenal CGI but a terrible story and stock characters.”

Yeah, yeah, go fuck yourselves.

You know, for a movie so many people keep insisting sucks and was evidently “forgotten” after premiering in December 2009, you’d think they were talking about something like Delgo. That weird, creepy-looking animation from 2008 that became one of the biggest box office bombs in history, making barely a million bucks against a $40,000,000 budget.

Delgo, like Avatar, is set in a mythical fantasy land where conflict arises between two warring alien clans, and features two lovers from opposing sides trying to find romance despite their differences in heritage.

But then the two films diverge quite massively, as Delgo legit blows, while Avatar is a bonafide masterpiece and a technical milestone that made nearly $2.7 billion in its initial theatrical run.

Avatar kicks ass, and I’m tired of people pretending that it doesn’t.

The same losers who shit on Avatar are the same ones who made Star Wars: The Force Awakens the number one highest grossing U.S. domestic release in box office history. And that JJ Abrams-directed fan fiction is nothing but a bigger budget remake of Episode IV, and has about as much creativity as an elephant fart. You know it and I know it.

Oooh, ooh, instead of a Death Star, we’re going to have a planet-sized Death Star this time! And instead of blowing up just one planet, it’s going to blow up several! And we’re going to make a FEMALE as our protagonist. A female lead? OMG that’s unprecedented! And we’re even going to have a black guy in it as a lead too (though in sequels we’re going to reduce his importance until he’s buffoonishly inconsequential so much the actor wants nothing more to do with the franchise). Never been done!

So which is it, idiots? Avatar’s just a ripoff of Fern Gully and Pocahontas using a familiar hero’s journey template, but Force Awakens is somehow the greatest thing ever put to film? You can’t have it both ways.

Source: Screenshot of Google results for “Avatar is…”

I’m not going into all the technical details about why Avatar’s CGI and motion capture technology was so ground breaking. It’s all been said before, I’m pressed for time, and I’m not that much of a dork to get into the nitty gritty tech stuff.

I will, however, compare Avatar to a jury of its peers — other massive science-fiction/action film franchises — which is how everyone should appraise James Cameron’s movie.

First, some blunt honesty.

Avatar is obviously not The Godfather. It’s not some deep A24 indy film about some guy’s existential middle-aged crisis or something. It’s a finely crafted popcorn flick with phenomenal special effects, with some superficial environmentalist themes. That’s about it. I love it because it’s a transportive amusement park ride, and executes its story just about perfectly. A rare feat few movies accomplish. Avatar is still the best and most immersive movie theater experience I’ve EVER had. It does everything a sci-fi/action film should do, and way more. Yet for some reason everyone judges Avatar harshly, while giving substantially lesser franchises an easy pass.

People only hate Avatar at this point becuse they think they’re supposed to. It’s cool and hip to be anti-Avatar because it’s so popular. And I get it. Sometimes popular stuff does indeed suck ass. God knows I’ll never understand the appeal of Twilight or Fifty Shades, but I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m better than people who like those franchises. Most times, things are popular for a good reason. They connect with people in a visceral and profound way.

Anyway, we’ve already peeked at the new Star Wars films, Avatar’s closest competitor that’s also within the massive Disney ecosystem. And what do we see? A disorganized mess with no vision, no scope, no outline, no coherency, and no theme. Seriously, what the fuck are the newest Star Wars products even about? Empire bad, robed people good? LOL, GTFO! They stand for nothing!

Whether you hate Avatar or not, it’s virtually impossible to walk away from seeing that film and not get the pro-environmental and anti-imperialist messages, however hamfisted those themes are handled. And whether you agree or disagree with those themes, the fact that a writer/director is able to inject his vision into a spectacle film about giant blue people in a coherent and frankly meanginful way is honestly pretty impressive.

Now let’s take a look at another competitor — the Marvel films. I will grant you that some of the Marvel installments like Infinity War, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and even the first Guardians of the Galaxy, are pretty good. The mocap technology used to bring Thanos to life is incredible. And I have no idea how producer and plot captain Kevin Feige manages to interweave so many characters and storylines together between so many directors and writers. But for the most part, your typical Marvel movie is servicable, without saying much or doing much to stick with you. Really, do you remember anything from Iron Man 2, or Captain Marvel, or The Incredible Hulk? I don’t. And nowadays, the Marvel mega-franchise has become increasingly watered-down and impossible to follow with all the Disney+ stuff and about ten films released every year. Marvel is proof there is sometimes too much of a good thing. I’ve given up on the superhero soap opera simply because there’s too much to keep track of. Marvel used to feel special with maybe two releases a year. Now it feels forgettable and paint-by-numbers.

Meanwhile, James Cameron took 13 years — 13 years! — to make Avatar: The Way of Water, the sequel to the 2009 film. Could you imagine any other franchise taking that level of care and patience when it came to producing a sequel? Could you even imagine any director delaying an Avengers film for almost a decade and a half until the tech was “right?” Of course you couldn’t. And that’s because Marvel films, for all their occassional creativity and spectacle, are mostly business products at the end of the day. They are there to enhance Disney’s bottom line.

But what is Avatar: The Way of Water? According to the creator himself, it’s the “worst business case in movie history.” TWOW apparently has to gross almost $2 billion just to break even. Or like one sixth the current market cap of Dogecoin. Its budget is a bloated potential time bomb to Disney’s already floundering stock price. A cathedral to one director’s massive ego to make the biggest film of all time thrice.

And you know what? That’s awesome. Not many artists are willing to go all in on their own work time after time again, costs be damned. Hell, most people aren’t even willing to invest 10% of their money without making sure it’s in a properly “diversified portfolio.” And most artists can’t sell themselves for shit, and have as much confidence as a teenage boy with a face full of acne standing in front of his high school crush. Not James “Big Balls” Cameron, who’s hit a grand slam twice in a row with Titanic and Avatar both taking up the number one wordwide box office crown, and declared himself the “King of the World.” Can he do it a third time? Time will tell.

So, what mega sci-fi franchise is next? Jurassic World? Ha ha. Yeah, right. Each installment has devolved so much it got to the point where the 2015 hit was basically a meta joke of itself, and is mostly known for its lead actress unrealistically running around in heels the whole time. Seriously, Bryce Dallas Howard, what’s your deal? Even Debbie Reynolds wore flats for some of the dance routines in Singin’ in the Rain. And her dance partner was Gene Kelly. Who was your co-star again? Oh, yeah, this goober:

Source: Parks and Recs (via Den of Geek)

Jurassic Park is a brilliant novel and film, without a doubt. But looking at the franchise collectively, and you can’t help but but feel exhausted by its purely business-driven cynicism. It’s like looking at a giant Excel spreadsheet with a T-Rex pasted in the corner. Pass.

Now what? Transformers? The cinematic equivalent of what a 13-year old kid would puke up after binging all night on Mountain Dew and Snickers bars? A franchise filled with robot on robot action scenes so messy and convoluted you need shock therapy to recover after seeing them? It’s kind of amazing that for a franchise that ran for 11 years, it only produced one decent film — Bumblebee. The last of the live action Transformers films since its release in 2018, and actually made the least amount of money. Which is a bad look for the once mighty audience of this franchise, as when they were finally presented a sequel of quality, they turned their noses up to it.

Oh, but I’m sure Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is totally going to rejuvenate the franchise when it comes out next year. Can’t wait for that one.

The Matrix? You talk as if there are sequels to the 1999 groundbreaking bullet-time hit. Maybe one day there will be. But for now, we’ll just have to keep waiting.

The Terminator franchise, aka the Old Arnie Show? Even as a big fan of the original two Cameron films, I can’t bring myself to acknowledge the sequels/reboots/remakes/reimaginings/whatever you want to call them, even as fun escapism. And as far as artistry or filmmaking craft go, they are obviously woefully short of the original and Judgment Day.

It’s not all negative, though. Avatar does have franchise peers in its genre.

The Alien Franchise, including the two Ridley Scott Prometheus/Alien: Covenant films, is probably the closest to Avatar in terms of special effects and directorial vision. Not to mention polarization among audiences, with many still split on the thematically muddled messes the last two Scott films have presented. But unlike Avatar, with its colorful, lush world, the Alien films are restrained to their bleak and nihilistic horror settings. Not exactly a fair comparison. And while the latest films to feature the creature with acid for blood haven’t been knock outs, they’re far better crafted than 99% of what you’ll find in your typical horror/sci-fi genre.

Another peer franchise to Avatar would have to be the new Planet of the Apes films, with the next sequel Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes scheduled to premier in May, 2024. But unlike Avatar’s blowout box office numbers, Apes has largely flown under the radar, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (the franchise’s highest-grossing film to date) only grossing under one quarter of what Avatar did. It really goes to show how hard it is to find an audience these days, even when you have groundbreaking special effects, great writing, a classic IP, and a strong cast, which the Apes films have in spades.

Will Avatar: The Way of Water become another smash hit like the original when it comes out on December 15? There’s no way to know for sure. But I do know that it’s one of the few films I’ve actually been looking forward to seeing for a long time. And I’m damn sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Put against its rivals, Avatar stands head and shoulders above most of its competition in every categorical measure. Special effects, story, cast, box office draw, vision, and yes, even impact and legacy. Who exactly is still talking about Transformers? No one’s even discussing Jurassic World: Dominion, and that movie came out this year. But everyone will be talking about the new Avatar sequel. Not to mention seeing it again and again.

I love Avatar and haters can choke.