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Non-Review Review: Scream

Today, we’re reviewing the entire Scream trilogy. Sadly, I’ll have to wait to get a look at the latest instalment, but reviews of the first three will be going on-line throughout the day.

It’s hard to really look back at Scream in context these days. It was released in the mid-nineties, a period where the slasher movie had all but died off, after series after series produced weaker and weaker instalments. Audiences had been sort of numbed to the impact of the slasher film as a genre, expecting the bland stock scares, the stereotypical mumbo-jumbo, the teen angst, the sexual politics and even the unstoppable killer. It’s not too much of a stretch to believe that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson intended the movie as something of an epilogue for the genre, a not-too-fond farewell to the type of films that had been churned out since the seventies, with never a hint of growth and development.

A dead line?

In contrast, the movie had an immediate impact, but quite different from what one might have expected from a film in a long-ignored genre. It grabbed the public’s attention. With its smart writing, clever concept and smooth direction, the film caught on with people who were honestly quite tired of the routine of slasher films. And, of course, like anywhere else where there’s money to be made, Hollywood was quick to capitalise. Not only were sequels released, but a whole host of new hip and modern slashers were released with a sensibility aimed squarely at the modern audience.

This onslaught of films inspired by the original has the consequence of diluting the impact of the film. It’s somewhat easy to grow jaded or indifferent towards the film, based solely on the large volume of crap that it ended up inspiring. I think that’s a bit unfair. Because, whether taken on its own merits, or as part of the larger slasher horror genre, it’s still a wonderful piece of cinema.

Was Scream intended to murder the genre?

Of course, Scream isn’t the first post-modern horror film. In fact, it’s not even Wes Craven’s first post-modern horror film. To anybody especially interested in the genre, I highly recommend seeking out Wes Craven’s “final” instalment to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. It has some great ideas, even if it’s ultimately a quite conventional film in form (if not execution). However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as films of this particular type go. So perhaps “original” is the wrong word to use to describe Scream.

That said, I do think it stood at the time (and, to be frank, probably still stands) as one of the strongest and smartest examples of post-modern horror. It’s fun, and it’s clever – but not so clever that it’s alienating, or coldly academic (after all, as the movie’s film buff suggests, “if it gets too complicated, you lose your target audience”). It happens to be a solid example of the genre it’s picking apart, but with the commentary layered densely on top, like a layer of the richest chocolate icing you have ever tasted. However, as smart as all this is, it would be for nothing if it wasn’t a well-made film.

Thank god he wears black, because the splatter would just go everywhere...

If you want evidence that the movie is a classic, you need look no further than the opening sequence. I think that everyone remembers that wonderful intro, even if they’ve never seen the movie. “Do you like scary movies?” is a line that is incredibly creepy based solely on that conversation. It helps that Drew Barrymore was at the time (and still is) the biggest name in the movie, and features on all the publicity – a brilliant misdirection that Barrymore herself suggested (initially she was considered for the main character, Sidney).

And it isn’t even just the clever meta stuff we’re watching, although there’s an element of that (as Ghostface talks her through surviving a scary movie). The opening to the next film in the series gets even more bonus points for playing a movie version of this opening in the background of its own opening – I’m disappointed the third didn’t take it one step deeper, opening with the opening of the second film in the background, with the opening of the first film in the background. Hell, I’m just disappointed with the third film. But there’s a whole review for that.

Deputy Dew Right?

I think part of the appeal of the scene is just the fact that the dialogue is strong, the cast are good, and Craven is a skilled director. It’s just a very well-handled scene, from the way the conversation between Casey and the anonymous voice begins relatively flirty and grows very sinister very quickly through to the way Craven uses the popping of the popcorn as a sort of metronome to pace the scene, the pops becoming louder and more frequent as the tension ratchets up. From the first real hint things are slightly messed up – “I want to know who I’m looking at” – down to point at which they escalate to the genuinely terrifying – “hang up on me again and I’ll gut you like a fish!” – the scene is perfectly handled, with Craven’s direction knocking it out of the park.

Ghostface’s voice undoubtedly plays a large role. At the time, it was a radical departure from the conventions of the slasher film. Sure, Freddie Krueger punned and joked, but most serial killers (like Jason and Michael Myers) were stoic and silent murdering machines. All of a sudden, the killer has a personality – one that would remain consistent no matter who was behind the mask (that said, one imagines mass-murdering psychopaths share similar personality quirks). So Ghostface’s conversation with Casey is creepy and uncomfortable because it seems so unfamiliar to us – as he talks her through a scary movie, we’ve never seen anything quite like it. Roger L. Jackson’s voice has a creepy sophistication to it. The movies wouldn’t be the same without him – with killer delivery of lines like “the question isn’t ‘who am I?’, it’s ‘where am I?'”

There's going to be bloody murder when the owners get home...

Then there’s just the cheeky sense of fun which permeates the film. It’s a pop culture stew, firmly aimed at a generation who grew up with decades of popular culture as their childhood reading material – people who can rhyme off the names of fictional serial killers, or quote Star Trek in their sleep, or spot an old television face in a small cameo. There are such delights as Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz) declaring two young students as “uncool” (the ultimate rebuke for any child who grew up watching Happy Days) or Randy (played by Jamie Kennedy) watching Halloween and begging the lead actress to look behind her, while the killer creeps up behind him. “Jamie,” he shouts, “look behind you!”

There is something wonderfully cheeky about the mode of dispatch of one of the killers, who is crushed by a television screening a horror movie. They always wanted to be in a horror movie, after all, so having the screen crack over their head seems like something of a fitting fate, doesn’t it? There are tonnes of other nice touches, including Wes Craven’s cameo as “Freddie”, the school’s janitor.

Who's there?

Consider, for example, the long-standing rule that a girl must escape with her virginity intact. “The sin factor!” Jamie declares, outlining the rules to survive a horror film. “It’s a sin.” It’s very clearly a none-too-subtle jab at the somewhat sexist theme of slasher movies, that female sexuality is something to be feared and punished – that a woman who indulges in sex somehow, at least in the eyes of the film and its audience, deserves to be punished. It’s a valid criticism, and it’s to writer Kevin Williamson’s credit the film calls the establishment on this outdated misogynistic subtext.

Which is part of the reason it’s so disturbing that the third film returns to brand Maureen Prescott’s sexuality as “evil” – the suggestion that her infidelity is somehow to blame for murders that occur over the course of the entire trilogy. While the first and second films do explore the theme, having the killers in question suggest that she somehow deserved to be punished for her behaviour, in those cases it’s very clearly the rambling of a psychotic. In the third film, it feels strange that the heroine (and the film itself) seem to accept the idea that Maureen having sex made people evil. It seems to ignore the central point of the first film – that female sexuality is not something to be scared of. It’s exactly the sort of vacuous pop psychology 101 that the two girls in the bathroom are spouting about Sidney being the daughter of a tramp.

Screaming bloody murder...

Here, the movie toys with the expectation, implying (for example) that the very male Randy survived because he was a virgin (“I never thought I’d be so happy to be a virgin,” Randy exclaims surviving a brutal assault), subverting the idea that virgins only survive when they are girls (because movies aren’t interested in male virginity, except to lose it). In contrast, a large part of the movie’s suspense concerns whether Sidney will remain a virgin, and how her decision will impact her survival.

The movie also makes some well-observed points about violence on film, dismissing the idea that violent movies inspire otherwise decent people to commit horrible actions. “Now Sid,” the killer teases, “don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!” The second film would explore the relationship between horror movies and their viewers in more depth, but it’s nice that it’s hinted at here. Similarly, it’s interesting to hear Billy Loomis and Sidney discuss their relationship in terms of MPAA ratings or Tatum discussing catching Tom Cruise’s penis or “the Richard Gere gerbil story”, hinting at the extent to which our generation defines their lives through popular culture.

Scream queen?

There’s also a sense that the movie is about a generation living in fear of its children. It captures the zeitgeist perfectly, as the late nineties saw a host of school shootings, the introduction of ASBOS and the general idea that children and teenagers could be just as dangerous as adults (the media certainly didn’t help, as teenage serial killers were hardly a new thing – look at Starkweather, for example). An early scene has a principal chastising two of his students as “heartless, desensitised little sh!ts” Indeed, the only adult suspect is, to quote Randy, “an obvious red herring”, so it seems early on that the person stalking the teen is a teen themselves. Considering the options, the police chief observes that he never could have suspected a kid twenty years ago, but times have changed. I think Scream captured that sentiment perfectly, that moment when we realised that soemtimes kids have to worry about other kids. It also wonders if we’re desensitised to violence on a cultural level – the murder spree leads to a spike in video rentals, after all, and inspires kids to run around in the slasher’s outfit. Are we numb?

In fairness to the film, it doesn’t necessarily leap to conclusions. As personified by Gale Weathers, the media is intentionally stirring up a sensationalist storm about all this. Despite his heavy-handed moralising, the principal does try on the scary mask in front of the mirror and have a bit of fun. And, of course, the teens prove perfectly able to handle the situation on their own (even saving a few of the adults directly involved. So I’d argue that the kids are actually pretty okay.

Very big on the garage scene...

All of this is handled in a top-notch manner by a strong cast. As seems to be the case with the series, it’s actually the supporting performances who outshine the leads. It’s really weird to see Rose McGowan play a supporting role, but it’s also pretty cool. Jamie Kennedy has never been better than he is here as Randy – something I discovered after seeking out some of his other work, based off the charm of this performance. Matthew Lilliard is great as Stu. And Skeet Ulrich seems cast in the role of Sidney’s boyfriend purely to remind us of Johnny Depp in the original Nightmare on Elm Street.

Craven’s direction tends to get overshadowed quite a bit by discussions over how awesome the script is, but Craven proves perfectly able to handle the material. The thriller element of the story is handled especially well, and Craven crafts a genuine sense of dread, with the killer popping of from impossible places, and the audience often realising how horribly screwed the characters were. As much as the film is a deconstruction of many of the core tropes of the slasher genre, it wouldn’t work if Craven wasn’t able to handle it as one of the finest examples of it. And, to be honest, I don’t think he gets enough credit for his touch here – that is never too light or too heavy.

A killer film?

Scream is a classic piece of horror cinema. Unfortunately somewhat overshadowed by the slew of rip-offs which somehow missed the central point of the work (picking apart the standard slasher film, rather than putting it back together). Still, it holds together very well today and – although I have a soft spot for the direct sequel – it’s probably the strongest entry in the series.

You might be interested in our reviews of the films in the Scream series:

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