The Case is a charming short film that appears in the credits of J.J. Abrams’ 2011 film Super 8. Much of Super 8′s narrative involves the making of The Case as an entry for a film competition. Tragically, the 48 Hour Film Project I was involved with turned out nothing like this.
The Case was written, directed and shot by the young cast of Super 8 (and I’m sure with the loving guidance of Abrams himself). The Case is such an endearing piece of storytelling that I have chosen it to introduce a new section to cmyplay.
With Telling Stories, we will unpack and identify the narrative elements of some of my favourite stories. Seeing how successful stories are told is key to understanding how to construct successful stories. Before you point out how much I sound like the Sphinx, let’s get started.
Act 1 Scene 1: The murder
The Case follows the classical 3 act structure – although the story opens deep into the first act. Detective John Hathaway enters the scene, there is blood on the floor and the outline of where a body was found. Hathaway questions an unnamed witness and uncovers a clue that was dropped by the attacker.
At this stage the story has skipped over much of the exposition and Hathaway has answered the Call to Adventure of the Heroes Journey. He is already investigating a crime. In his interview with the witness, Hathaway lets on that some dead bodies have previously come back to life. This does a good job of quickly setting up the genre of the story and establishing Hathaway as the competent protagonist.
The clue that Hathaway uncovers is a security card for Building 47 at Romero Chemical – the number 47 is a continuous in-joke in J.J. Abrams’ other work. The name of the chemical company is a reference to George A. Romero – writer and director of classic horror films Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. This hints that the film is a Zombie story.
The clue that Hathaway receives from the witness is the Amulet bestowed upon him by a Helper. It propel the story forward by giving him the information necessary to progress in his investigation. Finding this is the inciting incident that points Hathaway in a specific direction and gives him a kick in the ass to follow it.
Act 1 Scene 2: The President
Hathaway meets with the President of Romero Chemical. This interview reveals that several of Romero Chemical’s employees have been attacked and that they have come back from the dead. Hathaway’s character comes out more here as he stands up to the powerful business leader because of his conviction to do the right thing. Hathaway’s intelligence also shines through when he gauges the President’s reaction when Building 47 is mentioned.
A moment of dramatic irony is introduced once Hathaway has left the room. The President makes a phone all which reveals that elements within Romero Chemical know about the reanimated corpses and hints that they know what the cause of the outbreak is. This increases the tension and further builds the viewer’s investment in Hathaway’s character.
Act 1 Scene 3: The first confrontation
Hathaway makes his way to Building 47 where he is attacked by a Zombie. Tension is introduced when the audience learns of the Zombie’s presence before Hathaway does. This is heightened through the action when Hathaway loses his weapon and has to impale the Zombie’s head on some nails that are sticking out of a support beam.
This confrontation acts as the first plot point of the story. Now Hathaway has experienced a Zombie attack first-hand. His life has changed and he has Crossed the Threshold into the unknown.
Act 2 Scene 1: The phonecall
Hathaway has triumphed over a Zombie. He is a little shaken, but his determination to see an end to the situation has intensified. His focus now is on protecting his wife.
The delivery of the dialogue overall during The Case captures the quality of a home-made film perfectly. The best piece of dialogue is when Hathaway delivers “I just love her so much”. In the larger narrative of Super 8, the actor playing Hathaway tries earnestly to capture an emotion that he may not yet have experienced himself.
This scene deepens Hathaway’s character by exposing the emotional vulnerability that is present beneath his commanding attitude. Now we find out that he has something to lose.
Act 2 Scene 2: The train crash
Mrs Hathaway is introduced to further ground the detective’s character in these exceptional circumstances. These two care for each other and the viewer’s investment in them and their relationship grows deeper. They are at the train station because Hathaway is trying to protect his wife by getting her to leave town.
Mrs Hathaway urges the Detective to abandon his quest and to flee with her to a safer location. Hathaway refuses, he is bound by duty to stay and complete his investigation.
At the end of this scene, there is a massive train derailment.
Act 2 Scene 3: The aftermath
Cut to the following day, the Hathaways observe the results of the derailment a distance from the site of the accident. It’s now clear that Mrs Hathaway cannot and will not leave for Michigan. This reveals Hathaway’s first confrontation with the Zombie to be a false victory and sets up the events that follow as Tests that he must go through leading up to the final Climax.
The viewer learns that all of the passengers on the train were killed and we see a man in the distance. Hathaway calls out to the man and he turns around to reveal that he is a Zombie. Hathaway doesn’t hesitate to defend his wife by gunning down the Zombie.
Because we infer that the man was a train passenger, this scene plants the idea that a bite is no longer the sole means of becoming infected. We cross the dramedy line again here when the viewer notices that this Zombie and the one from the Building 47 scene is played by the same actor.
Act 2 Scene 4: Another phonecall
Hathaway is at home, dictating notes into an audio recorder. We learn that two weeks have gone by and that he is no closer to resolving the situation. The town and his marriage are under threat and the strain has driven him to alcohol.
The phone rings and Hathaway is summoned to another location.
Act 2 Scene 5: A new lead
A former colleague of Hathaway’s is a member of the Military Police unit investigating the death of a former Airforceman. The MP reveals that the man committed suicide because of his guilty conscience.
Hathaway picks up a lead in the form of the deceased man’s employer, Dr Peter Bracken. This represents a course correction for Hathaway as he’s now broken the stalemate he has been in for the last two weeks.
Act 2 Scene 6: The Zombie plague revealed
Hathaway pays a visit to Dr Bracken’s lab. We find out that Dr Bracken worked with Romero Chemical to create the compound that has turned people into Zombies. Bracken reveals that the result of his involvement weighs on him. He acts as a Helper to Hathaway. Dr Bracken has created an Elixir in the form of a single dose of antidote before he is turned into a zombie himself.
The Zombie actor reprises his role here – dramedy line – and dies for the third time as Hathaway guns him and the Zombie Dr Bracken down. Hathaway takes Flight with the Elixir. This is the second act plot point propelling the story into the final act.
By now we see that Hathaway is a hardened Zombie killing machine as he shoots Dr Bracken quickly, instead of treating him with the Elixir.
Act 3 Scene 1: The horror at home
Here Hathaway crosses back across the threshold when he returns home. He finds that his worst fears have come true. Mrs Hathaway has turned into a Zombie.
There is internal conflict here because Hathaway manages to overpower his wife and administer the Elixir instead of killing her, however there is a moment of tension when Hathaway believes that the Elixir hasn’t worked.
He is on the verge of shooting her when she regains consciousness – the Elixir worked and she is human again. They reunite as the Climax of the story shows how Hathaway has overcome his biggest fear, the loss of his wife.
The Epilogue: Director’s cut
The “director”, Charles Kaznyk, addresses the viewer directly before being attacked by Mrs Hathaway. As a surprise ending, this device has been used in many horror films as a take-away from the film. It is the final fright that the audience experiences once they believe that the danger has passed.