Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

For a film referred to by many as a modern horror classic, the original Scream doesn't get much love from the horror community. Fans of the slasher sub-genre are an especially rabid bunch but they just don't have room in their hearts for Scream. Go to any horror convention and try to find anyone sporting a Scream T-shirt. You'll see plenty of fans proudly wearing their Halloween T's and even third-tier slashers like The Prowler and The Burning are represented but Scream? Forget it. I just wonder how well Scream would rank with horror fans had it never become such a hit. I'll wager a guess that we'd be hearing a lot of "man, people just didn't get that movie - you had to be a horror fan to really understand it!" whenever Scream was talked about.

But of course they can't say that because Scream was an enormous hit - a great word of mouth success that introduced a new legion of fans to the genre. Everyone has their own "gateway drug" that got them into horror and for many, Scream served that purpose. But is it a good movie unfairly dismissed by hardcore horror buffs or just a painfully overrated exercise in smartassedness? A little of both but ultimately I'd say more towards the former than the later.

The worst thing about Scream is the aspect that brought it the most critical acclaim and notoriety - its self-referential, film-savvy dialogue. Critics (who, by and large, hate horror films) latched onto this aspect of Scream and used it to intellectually justify their enjoyment of what would otherwise be just another slasher film. But scripter Kevin Williamson, using the character of film nerd/video store clerk Randy (Jamie Kennedy) as his mouthpiece to explain the "rules" for surviving a horror movie, shows himself to be a lazy study of the genre.

Among the several rules that Randy tries to educate his peers about, the much-touted "virgin" rule holds no water. It's a myth that needs to be put to rest. I know that many have read John Carpenter's Halloween as some kind of essay on puritanical values with Jamie Lee Curtis' virginal babysitter Laurie Strode surviving where her more ho-ish friends did not. However, while one could perceive an underlying irony to the fact that Laurie is a repressed character who aggressively attacks her assailant with phallic instruments, it's a stretch to say it's anything more than a plot convenience to have Michael's victims preoccupied with fucking or with planning to fuck and it sure as hell didn't create some kind of hardline "rule" for subsequent slasher movies.

Even Friday the 13th, the other big flag bearer for the "have sex and die" school of thought, doesn't adhere to that rule. Laurie Bartram as Marcie was way more of a "good girl" in that film than Adrienne King's Alice was. Hell, Marcie was in bed by herself reading a book when Mrs. Voorhees lured her out for the kill. And come on, Ned's death alone immediately torpedoes the virgin rule. And Shelly in Friday the 13th Part 3? That guy got no action and he still ended up stone cold dead. One might argue that there's a sub-clause to the virgin rule reserved for practical jokers but Scream fails to address that possibility.

And before we move away from this topic altogether, let's just say that it's unconfirmed that Jamie Lee Curtis always played the virgin in slasher films. Not to be lewd about it but I'd argue that her characters in Prom Night, Terror Train and Road Games were far from being the same sort of virginal wallflower that Laurie Strode represented. So Scream's biggest convention-smashing moment, where Sidney (Neve Campbell) gives it up for Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and thereby makes herself into a potential victim, can't be considered to be a radical reinvention of slasher cinema or a liberating blow for Final Girls wherein they can now be sexually active but still achieve survivor status. I mean, fifteen years before Scream, Ginny (Amy Steel) in Friday the 13th Part 2 not only slept with her boyfriend but went out and got tanked at a local bar and still lived to tell the tale so it's annoying to read interviews with Williamson where he pats himself on the back for breaking the rules of the slasher genre. You can fool critics about this shit but not real horror nerds, man.

It's my feeling that Williamson should've really boned up on his slasher films before writing Scream - you know, bothered to take the time to give himself a little refresher course - but as Scream made him rich and famous and the toast of the town and all that, maybe it wasn't so important.

As a send-up or deconstruction of slasher cliches, I think Scream is a big bust. However, it gets other things right. For one, Wes Craven's direction is at the top of his game. This was the first film he shot in widescreen and he utilized the framing to excellent effect.

His direction feels energized here and one almost wishes that this could have been his farewell to the genre as it's a real high note to his career with the murders of Casey (Drew Barrymore) and Tatum (Rose McGowan) being classic set-pieces.

The cast is also outstanding. In past slasher films, there'd be a breakout performer or two that stood out as someone to take note of but Scream's cast is filled with sharp actors - Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Rose McGowan, Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette. I may find some of the characters grating (particularly the morose Sidney, with her perpetually pinched expression) but I couldn't argue that the performances were lacking (although it could be said that Arquette's comic tendencies should've been reined in some as they throw off the mood of the film on more than one occasion).

As for Williamson's script, while it gets a lot wrong in observing the genre, it succeeds on other fronts. Historically the bane of slasher films was always how to fill the time between kills. The answer to that was usually "have them do whatever." So as characters would wait for their turn to get slaughtered, if they weren't getting laid or getting high they'd be shown engaging in everything from Strip Monopoly, doing their laundry, skinny-dipping, or watching movie marathons on TV. Scream did away with that kind of wheel-spinning by adopting a more soap opera-ish approach - supplying Sidney with a tragic backstory involving her slain mother, thereby giving the characters a lot of plot information to convey and a ready antagonist in the form of tabloid TV journalist Gale Weathers. Sidney wasn't just an unassuming teenage girl like most slasher heroines - she was already the center of a media firestorm.

Unlike most slasher films of the past whose running times often felt padded, Scream truly moves. After the intense charge of the lengthy opening scene, the movie barely lets up and by the one hour mark, the characters have already arrived at Stu's house where the climax of the movie takes place. Essentially what follows is a forty-minute finale where the stakes are raised right off the bat with the murder of Sidney's BFF Tatum - a move that reminds the audience that no one is safe in this film - and then events quickly roll toward the final face-off between Sid and Ghostface and the resolution of the film's mystery.

The revelation of the killer's ID's is what really makes Scream. Not just the novelty factor of having the killer actually be two killers working together (a twist that let it be plausible that the killer could appear anywhere at anytime) but the fact that it was two peers of the characters and that their motivations were so purely sociopathic.

In past slasher films, the killer was either a figure of pure evil (like Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger) or else their rampages were rooted in some personal humiliation or injustice (Mrs. Voorhees and Jason, or the killers in The Burning, Terror Train, Prom Night, or The Funhouse). Also, you had the occasional sweaty loner - as seen in Don't Go In The House, He Knows You're Alone, Eyes of a Stranger, Maniac, and Visiting Hours. Scream was different from all other slasher films in that its killers were directly from the protagonist's own immediate social circle and that they were so devoid of empathy and humanity.

One might say that killing is killing and that it's all evil but while that's true there's a difference between a character that's depicted as being the Boogeyman and someone who's supposed to have a real world motivation. And on that other level, there's a difference between a character like Terror Train's Kenny Hampson and Scream's Billy Loomis and Stu Macher. Characters like Kenny and the other "wronged" slasher villains have a kernel of humanity to them. They commit heinous, unforgivable acts but on some level we're invited to understand their position as victims of some kind of abuse. Mrs. Voorhees is a nut but she's also avenging her dead child. Cropsy of The Burning is a murderous psycho but some snot-nosed kids burned him into a misshapen lump so he's understandably got issues. Prom Night's Alex Hammond witnessed his beloved sister's senseless death so his killing spree seems pretty justified. But Billy and Stu...not so much. These two are not outsiders. In fact, they're part of the popular crowd. They both have attractive girlfriends. They come from well-to-do families. They've suffered no special traumas. Billy might be bummed about his parent's divorce but in the end, life is pretty good for him. And from what we see of Stu's life - it all looks like gravy. I mean, look at the friggin' house he lives in:

And yet these privileged kids have no qualms about murdering their friends.

Billy and Stu are chilling characters and Ulrich and Kennedy tear it up once the masks come off. Some might say that Lillard shamelessly overacts but I love his performance - especially as it escalates in Scream's final act. He's seldom given enough credit as being one of the great screen psychos. He's scary and pathetic all at once. There's something that rings appallingly true about the way he's capable of coldly butchering - or at the least, being an accomplice in butchering - people that he's known for years but snivels when wounded himself and whines at the thought of his crimes being exposed to his parents. Stu can't conceive of the pain of others, no matter how great, but is acutely sensitive to his own suffering, no matter how minor. That's a true sociopath and Billy has the same dead soul to match.

Finally, Craven and co. hit gold when they discovered the Ghostface mask.

Just as Halloween wouldn't have been the same had Tommy Lee Wallace not pimped out a William Shatner mask, Scream wouldn't have succeeded if that Ghostface mask not been found at one of the film's locations - left behind by the grandchildren of the home's owners. Even after it's been parodied in the Scary Movie satires, I still find that mask to be incredibly creepy. As slasher disguises go, I consider it second only to Michael Myers' mask in being able to conjure an instant feeling of unease.

For some horror fans, Scream will always be disdained. It revitalized the genre but that failed to earn it much gratitude. It's too clueless about the horror and slasher conventions it seeks to knowingly tweak to be a great film in my book but it does kick a little ass here and there. If nothing else, it's miles better than Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), a post-modern slasher film so inane makes Scream positively shine in comparison. Horror fans like Behind the Mask a lot because, you know, it seems to be made just for them but in this case, I'll side with all the teenage girls who go for Scream.


Wings1295 said...

I agree with you that Scream gets some sort of horror-fan backlash, maybe for being so appealing to non-horror fans. Those non-fans look at it as a true horror film, and hardcore horror fans feel like they need to rebel, I guess, against that idea.

But it is a good film, a good scary movie.

And with Randy and his rules, I think it is more apt to say those are the rules NON-horror fans think apply to ALL horror movies, mainly cause they watch one here and there and then forget, so things become a "lump" in their brain and they generalize. But truly, those rules aren't 'followed' by anyone, they just are things that maybe happen more than once and are memorable.

Hope that run on comment makes sense! :)

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, but I guess that's what irks me about Scream's self-awareness towards the genre. The "rules" that are talked about in the film are easily debunked by anyone familiar with slasher films and yet I think Kevin Williamson believed that he had really peeled back the layers of the slasher genre. Kind of annoying - but in most other ways, I find Scream to be entertaining.

Wings1295 said...

Yeah, I get what you are saying. Williamson does think he nailed it all when he really just hit some highlights or coincidences.

Unknown said...

Well said.

It's my belief that Scream's reputation takes a beating based on the films that came out in its wake: I Know What You Did Last Summer and the teen slashers that followed (some with varying degrees of success) including the fun but not quite as good Scream 2 and the misstep that is Scream 3.

I love the first film. I said this in my own review-it's a film like Rocky, TCM, The Godfather in that I can break it out once a year and not get bored of it.

One things Williamson does get right is he revival of the 'whodunit' nature of the classic early 80 slashers: HBtM, MBV, etc. Ironically, Lillard went on to play Shaggy in the Scooby Doo films.

Unknown said...

Excellent post! You really nailed how I feel about this film (and its sequels) also. As for SCREAM's self-awareness towards the genre, I always felt that Craven nailed it much better and was way more clever about it with NEW NIGHTMARE. That and John Carpenter's IN MOUTH OF MADNESS do much more with commenting on the genre and being meta than SCREAM and its sequels put together, IMO.

Jeff Allard said...

Mike, I liked the return of the 'whodunnit' style of slasher. As much as I love Halloween, the murder mystery slashers like Friday the 13th, Prom Night, etc., are the ones I dig the most.

And yeah, it's funny that Lillard went on to play Shaggy in the feature films. He still does the voice for Shaggy on the new Scooby-Doo cartoons, which are actually pretty good.

J.D., I'm with you all the way in holding up New Nightmare and ITMOM as being better 'meta' horror films than Scream. Hell, I'd even say that Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives was a more entertaining wink at slasher cliches than Scream but that's just me.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Jeff. Incredible post and a great piece of writing. This gets my vote for one of the best posts of 2011.

Now excuse me, I need to go out and buy Scream on BluRay.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks Cortez, glad you liked the post. Have fun revisiting Scream!