Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Modern Classic Horror Review: Scream

This is the natural closing to my personal journey because it was released during winter break of my first year in college. So I was at the beginning stages of becoming a full-fledged adult and being finished with things like getting scared by horror movies. That said, this was a cinematic experience that genuinely frightened me. This was a slasher film to put a cap on a generation's worth of slasher films that relied heavily on certain conventions. I still think it's a fantastic horror movie, but its effect has certainly worn off and been done to death in the intervening years.

Click here for a list of other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

By the end of 1996 it had been so long since a genuinely scary horror movie had been in wide release that it seemed like the genre might be dead forever. Our old friends Freddy, Jason, and Michael had been flogged into oblivion and people were well attuned to the genre conventions resulting in audiences that were a lot smarter than those going to see slasher films 15 and 20 years earlier. These conventions included things like the couple that has sex getting killed; the drug users getting killed; dumb female characters always making the wrong decisions and getting dead as a result; idiot police officers; revenge motives rooted in a complicated back story; obvious suspects as red herrings; and on and on. Kevin Williamson was an aspiring screenwriter when he wrote Scream and eventually sold it, after which legendary horror director Wes Craven was hired to direct.


The pairing of these two minds turned out to be a serendipitous match with the young Williamson providing a story that retained relevancy with younger audiences and Craven bringing experience as a successful horror director to turn up the chills and scares. The critical and box office success of Scream was probably very largely an accident of timing. A few years earlier and it might not have worked. Some years later someone less skilled might have attempted a similar film that might have failed and killed the genre for another decade. Instead it ended up being an incredible success (I saw it in the theater two additional times just to recapture the electric energy of being in an audience full of frightened people I felt the first time) and re-launched a genre that was on its death bed.

What always stuck in my mind most about Scream and the thing that really sells it as a fantastic horror film is the opening ten minutes. Drew Barrymore (rather incredibly playing a high school student) is home alone and receives a phone call from someone who starts an innocuous conversation about horror films and then starts turning creepy. The scene builds layer upon layer of tension until she’s been stabbed, gutted and strung up from a tree for her parents to find her. Craven must have known he was walking a tightrope with this scene. The risk of losing the audience was high: too gory and they’d be turned off; too hokey and the movie becomes a joke; not scary enough and you’ve lost them. I remember being genuinely scare and then shell-shocked at the end of the scene. Because the biggest movie star in the film was killed off in the first ten minutes, the audience had to expect that anything might happen. It establishes a deadly serious tone that swept my feet from under me after advertising that suggested the film was a fun poke at horror movies.

The opening is really just a teaser, both within the story itself and beyond the fourth wall. It sets up the audience for what’s to come while also preparing the fictional town of Woodsboro for a bloodbath, getting the student body nervous and dredging up bad memories of a murder that occurred a year ago. That victim was Sydney Prescott’s mother. Sydney (Neve Campbell) is the star of the movie and also the star of the show that the killer is putting on for the town. Her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich, calling to mind Johnny Depp, who debuted in Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street) is one of the prime suspects after he turns up at Sydney’s house immediately following a near deadly attack.

Courtney Cox attempted to cast off her good girl reputation she acquired from the TV sitcom “Friends” by playing sleazy tabloid journalist Gale Weathers, who literally wrote the book on Sydney’s deceased mother. She believes Cotton Weary (a blink and you’ll miss him Live Shreiber), the man in prison for that crime is innocent. Sydney’s other school friends include Rose McGowan as the busty blonde, Matthew Lillard as the bonehead who says consistently stupid things, and Jamie Kennedy as the knowledgeable horror film buff who warns about the rules of surviving a horror film. David Arquette also stars as Deputy Dewey, the town reject who may have been the recipient of charity when they made him a police officer.

Craven strikes a great balance of both satirizing the conventions of the genre while fully embracing them at the same time. His directorial touch allows the audience to receive knowing winks from the characters, who are as wise we are watching, while scaring the hell out of us the next moment even though we should know full well what’s coming. Even Marco Beltrami’s musical score manages to be familiar and fresh simultaneously. Though I can’t recall its melody now, I thought while watching that it was eerily perfect.

Though this time around the film didn’t have the power to frighten me, principally because I’d seen it three times before and because once the masked specter of a killer is revealed to be a human being, some of the luster fades. Regardless, it remains to this day a horror film to be admired for its guts and its near perfect execution. It’s so good we can even forgive the fact that it ushered in a new era of crummy horror films.

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