In his introduction to this scattershot collection of film and TV horror scripts, Dean Koontz is quick to point out that “a screenplay is not meant to be published and read by the public.” He’s absolutely right, but the apologetic underpinnings of that statement can’t be ignored; after all, nobody made excuses for TWISTER or FOUR ROOMS when those scripts were allowed to pollute bookstore shelves everywhere.
Collecting several horror screenplays in one volume was a great idea, but the seven scripts filling out Screamplays offer no sense of urgency at all. "The Legend of Hell House," by Richard Matheson, was filmed 36 years ago, and Stephen King’s “The General” -- about a cat protecting a little girl from a murderous gremlin -- was the third tale in the 1985 movie CAT’S EYE. Several of the scripts included here were never even filmed, and one of them -- "Track Down" by Ed Gorman -- isn’t even a horror story! Aside from indicating which scripts are based on the authors’ past novels or short stories, the book provides no introductions or histories for them, which would have added some badly needed context.
After a promising start, the late Richard Laymon’s serial killer story "The Hunted" degenerates into a tepid wilderness survival tale, with a major plot twist lifted from JUST BEFORE DAWN. "Dead in the West" comes across like RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD meets HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER; writer Joe R. Lansdale certainly keeps the blood ‘n’ gore flying, but his obsession with fecal imagery is more frightening than any moment in the script (a typical character description: “He looks like he could eat a bucket of tacks and shit you a toolbox”).
“Moonlighting” and “Killing Bernstein,” two short teleplays by Harlan Ellison, are easily the high points. The tales are fast, funny and suspenseful, and Ellison seems much more at ease with the screenplay format than any of the other featured writers. Sharp characterizations and crackling dialogue save Gorman’s "Track Down" from being just another tired revenge drama, but why it was included here, in a “collection of spine-tingling scripts by the titans of shock storytelling,” is beyond me.
Screamplays is ultimately done in by its lack of focus; if editor Richard Chizmar had narrowed his scope a bit more -- to a particular decade, studio or screenwriter, for example -- there would at least be some consistency to the collection. As it stands, Screamplays is just another missed opportunity -- and we have enough of those cluttering up bookstores already.