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Scream (1996)

"There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to survive a horror movie. Number one: you can never have sex. Big no-no! Big no-no! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. The sin factor! It’s a sin! It’s an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever, under any circumstances say, "I’ll be right back"…."

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Director: Wes Craven

Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Henry Winkler, W. Earl Brown

Screenplay: Kevin Williamson

Synopsis: As Woodsboro teenager Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) is preparing for a night on the couch watching scary movies she receives a series of phonecalls from a strange man. Initially prepared to take the calls as a joke, Casey becomes terrified when she discovers that her caller is outside her house, and that he is holding her boyfriend captive. The caller offers to spare their lives if Casey can answer his horror movie trivia questions. Unfortunately for both Casey and her boyfriend, she gets the answers wrong…. Meanwhile, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is startled when her boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), suddenly climbs in her bedroom window. Billy complains gently about the stagnant state of their relationship. Sidney allows him some brief necking, but stops him before too long and insists he leaves. At school the next day, Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan) tells Sidney about Casey and her boyfriend. The school is swarming with police and reporters. As are Casey’s other friends, Sidney is questioned by the police, including Deputy Dwight "Dewey" Riley (David Arquette), who is Tatum’s brother. Between classes, Sidney and Billy, Tatum and her boyfriend, Stu (Matthew Lillard), and another friend, Randy (Jamie Kennedy), discuss the killings. Sidney is disturbed by the callousness the others show. After school, worried about being alone in the house while her father is away on business, Sidney asks Tatum if she can spend the weekend at her house. Tatum agrees, saying she will pick Sidney up at seven. Sidney watches TV, but all the stations are covering the murders. Finally, Sidney catches a report by tabloid journalist Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), who recalls another Woodsboro tragedy: the rape and murder of Sidney’s mother a year earlier. Sidney dozes on the couch. The phone rings: it is Tatum apologising for being late. The phone rings again. This time it isn’t Tatum…. Initially puzzled and faintly amused by her caller, Sidney goes to hang up. The response is an outpouring of rage, and a reference to the killing of Sidney’s mother. Sidney tries to lock herself in but the killer is already in the house: a knife-wielding, black-robed figure wearing a mask based on Munch’s "The Scream". Attacked, Sidney fights desperately to free herself, and manages to take refuge in her bedroom. As the killer tries to force his way in, Sidney calls the police. The killer vanishes…. The next minute, Billy Loomis appears at Sidney’s window. Sidney embraces him in relief, but then flees from him in sudden terror when a cellular phone drops from his pocket….

Comments: After finally getting around to seeing Friday The 13th, it seemed appropriate to also get around to seeing Scream, the most successful horror film released in recent years, claimed by many to be the film that "saved the genre" – assuming it needed saving. I went into the film with high hopes that, unfortunately, went largely unfulfilled. This it not to say that the film is totally without merit. As an entertainment, even as a slasher film, Scream works beautifully. Parts of it, indeed, are close to perfect. The opening sequence is an extraordinary piece of film-making and, as has been rightly observed, would work wonderfully as a self-contained short film. Built around Drew Barrymore’s sterling performance as the unfortunate Casey Becker, whose weakness in horror movie trivia results in her being strung up by her own intestines, this section of the film takes the audience on a hair-raising, seat-clutching ride from humour to terror to bloody, violent death. The problem with this opening is that it sets a standard that the rest of the film never lives up to. The only later scene that matches it is the one towards the end when Randy, totally fixated by Halloween, bellows, "Behind you!" at Jamie Lee Curtis, unaware that the real killer is at that moment behind him – and that the cameraman keeping him under surveillance is also bellowing "Behind you!" This scene is brilliantly executed, playing simultaneously on the audience’s knowledge and its fears. Along with the opening sequence, it gives a crystal clear indication of what Scream could have, should have been. However, although the rest of the film doesn’t quite equal the effectiveness of these sequences, it does have quite a number of positive aspects. The image of Scream’s killer is a marvellous one. There are a couple of memorably gruesome deaths; some clever touches like the reflection of the killer in a dying victim’s eye; and micro-cameos from Linda Blair and Wes Craven himself. Most of the performances are also good. Neve Campbell is sympathetic as the beleaguered Sidney. Jamie Kennedy as Randy and Rose McGowan as Tatum both create likeable characters (although sadly for the latter, she has the misfortune to be a big-breasted blonde in a slasher movie). Matthew Lillard’s Stu, on the other hand, is so completely repulsive that the only expression I can think of using to describe him is "Carrey-esque". Overall, David Arquette probably comes off best as the well-meaning but dim-witted Dewey; his double act with now-wife Courtney Cox is fun to watch. For all this, however, the film just doesn’t come off, being hampered by too much straightfaced violence, a ridiculously protracted, senseless ending, and most of all by a script that thinks it’s infinitely cleverer than it actually is.

For something so often called a "spoof", I have to say that I didn’t find Scream particularly funny. The problem here is that so much of the "humour" derives from the characters’ reactions to violence and death. Slasher films are very often populated by unlikeable characters, and Scream is no exception – except that we’re clearly meant to like them. But how can you like people whose response to the horrendous death of a friend is to make jokes, and who greet the news that their principal has been "gutted and hung from the goalposts" by laughing and cheering and rushing off to see the body? I’m sure this callousness is supposed to be hysterically funny, but frankly, I just think it’s sick. (Of course, I complained about Lake Placid for exactly the same reason; and to be perfectly honest, I’ve recently started to worry that my inability to see anything inherently funny in pain and violence and death might be the first true sign of encroaching middle-age…. But this kind of thing isn’t funny – it’s just plain nasty. In fact, I am forcibly reminded by it of John Waters’ dictum about good bad taste and bad bad taste. It seems to me that there are a lot of screenwriters out there who don’t know the difference.) Scream is a lot more successful when it comes to its almost endless horror movie allusions: horror watchers of all kinds can amuse themselves throughout by playing "What’s That Reference?" On the whole, though, most of the allusions do tend to serve as an indication that this film was pitched at a mainstream audience, not a specialist horror one. Let’s face it, the main films referenced are Halloween, The Exorcist, A Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The 13th – films that have entered the collective unconscious to such a degree that even non-horror watchers can "get it". There are subtler moments throughout, but at times they beg the question of whether the audience is meant to get them or not (for instance, are we supposed to know how heavily the opening sequence draws from Black Christmas and When A Stranger Calls?). Kevin Williamson’s script is the absolute apotheosis (or nadir) of nineties pop-culture self-reflexiveness (self-reflexive being the term of choice, since no-one gets more references than Wes Craven himself). It features characters who cannot speak without making reference to something media-related – most often, of course, to horror movies. As the spokesperson of horror, the completely obsessed Randy gets most of the film’s best lines, and consequently most of its real laughs. (I must say, though, Randy’s very lucky to have such tolerant friends: when I start pontificating on movies like that, I can clear a room in twenty seconds flat.) The pivotal point in the movie comes when Randy pauses his video of Halloween (the TV screen showing a raised knife) and delivers what is now one of modern filmdom’s most famous speeches: the rules by which one can survive a horror movie. These "rules" are supposed to form the basis for the parody of horror films that all of Scream’s publicity assured the world it was – and this is where the film as a whole begins to fall apart.

The point of a parody, I always thought, was to subvert the thing being parodied; to highlight its foibles in such a manner that the target of the parody can no longer be looked at in quite the same way. Certainly, the slasher film is something that cries out to be parodied, and Scream was supposed to be it – but something didn’t go quite right. Done with finesse, an accurate satire should, if not killed the genre off completely, at least have put a major dent in it. Instead, Scream revived the slasher film, its success leading directly to I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legends, The Faculty, and probably Halloween: H2O, as well, among others. The makers of those films looked at Scream and saw just what I saw: that the slasher film was alive and well and living in Woodsboro. For instead of subverting the rules of horror, Scream ends up being an affirmation of them. The only rule that is violated (and I’ll have more to say on this subject later) is the "have sex and die" rule, since in the course of the film Sidney decides to lose her virginity. (By the way, how odd that a film that gives us a "Casey" and a Final Girl named "Sidney" makes no mention of the Androgynous Name Rule when spelling out its manifesto!?) We see the teenagers drinking, if not doing drugs; some of them die. We hear people leave the room while saying "I’ll be right back" and they too die. When the killer first contacts Sidney, she dismisses "scary movies" as all being the same: about "a stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who’s always running upstairs when she should be going out the front door". And of course, when the killer does attack Sidney, what does she do but run upstairs? Proving – what exactly? That moderately-breasted girls are just as dumb as big-breasted ones? Who knows? At any rate, I don’t see how any of this can be called a parody. Rather, what we have here is a point by point reinforcement of the rules that long-time horror-watchers have had drummed into them for the past twenty years. When Scream is over, not much has changed within the horror movie world – which, as the experienced would tell you, is actually a pretty conservative place. If anyone doubts that Scream falls into this category, they only need consider the film’s attitude towards sex.

Much has been made of the fact that Sidney Prescott has sex in the course of the film without suffering a hideously violent death as a direct consequence. That, I suppose, is what you call progress. Before that point, Sidney spends considerable time agonising over whether to Do It or not. Feeling guilty for having kept her boyfriend at arm’s length for as long as she has (or being "sexually anorexic", as it’s phrased. Given that this film was pitched at a young audience, the message delivered here is particularly irresponsible: that teenage girls have an obligation to put out, and if they don’t do it within a certain fixed time frame, they can expect to be dumped for someone who will), Sidney is nevertheless beset by emotional problems stemming from the death of her mother – a plotline that warrants a closer inspection. Before praising Scream for its "progressive" sexual attitudes, it would be well to consider the story surrounding Sidney’s mother. At the film’s opening, it is a year since the rape and murder of Maureen Prescott. We soon learn, however, that the rape may not have happened; that Maureen had had at least one adulterous affair, possibly more; and that this behaviour was the direct motive for her being murdered. Thus, while Sidney might escape with her life despite having sex (she gives no sign of having enjoyed the experience, which might be why), her mother is not so fortunate. Rather, she has been brutally punished for what is considered to be inappropriate sexual conduct - just like all those other women in all those other "non-progressive" slasher films. And there is something else even more distasteful about the handling of the Maureen Prescott subplot. Initially, Sidney is, naturally enough, thoroughly traumatised by her mother’s fate. It is when she finds out that Maureen wasn’t raped, that she had been having affairs, that she starts getting over it. The inference here seems to be that, since Maureen was "bad", the fact that she was tortured and killed isn’t such a big deal - not as big as it would be if she’s been "good" or "pure" - and therefore it isn’t something that Sidney needs to go on being so upset about. That Sidney reacts to the knowledge of her mother’s infidelities by deciding to have sex herself strikes me as a little odd; even odder is that when she prefaces the act by admitting that she’s "so scared of being just like her" she means she scared of being a slut; not of ending up a mutilated corpse which, under the circumstances, would seem the more likely outcome. The other thing about Scream that bothers me is its colour-coding of its victims. Along with the have-sex-and-don’t-die bit, the other thing the film was praised for was allowing its female characters to fight back good and hard when they’re attacked (gee, women who fight back when their lives are threatened! Fancy!). The people making these remarks apparently haven’t noticed that fighting back only works if you’re a brunette; if you’re a blonde, you might as well just do the old cringe and whimper. Scream’s bloodiest and most spectacular deaths - the ones everyone came away talking about - are inflicted on the film’s two blondes.

The ending of Scream is extremely problematical. I would dearly love to go into this in some detail, but since I imagine that there are people out there who are still planning on seeing this film, and since I can’t say what I’d like to without giving away the identity of the killer, I suppose in good conscience I can’t do it. Suffice it to say, then, that the final sequence again seems more of a recapitulation of the genre clichés than a parody of them. It’s full of dead people who aren’t dead, much threatening of the Final Girl, and the kind of psycho-sexual "motivation" that goes back to, well, Psycho.

If Scream had presented itself as just another slasher film, I’d’ve taken it on those terms, and probably been nowhere near as hard on it; but the film’s obvious belief in its own superiority made a serious analysis imperative. Ultimately, the main problem I have with Scream is that the film as a whole strikes me as being rather dishonest - or, to put it bluntly, that it spends a lot of time trying to cover its arse. By claiming that despite its knife-wielding psycho, its bloodshed and its body-count it’s "just a spoof", Scream seems primarily concerned with dissociating itself from "real" horror films and thus escaping the kind of criticism those films attract. As we know, there are some people who genuinely believe that the exposure of young people to violent films is responsible for a large proportion of society’s ills - everything from small children having nightmares to older children taking up guns and killing their classmates. The theory that movies "create" killers is largely wishful thinking: ban such-and-such a film, and this tragedy or that will never be repeated. If only it were that simple. The bottom line is that horror movies upset people not just because they depict scenes of violence and terror, but because they tell unpalatable truths: that the good guys don’t always win, that endings are sometimes unhappy, that the world can be a dark and unjust place. They dare to think the worst and, sadly, they’re very often right. It is this very tendency towards confrontation that gives the genre its value. My objection to Scream is that it seeks, not to disturb, but to placate. What we have here, in fact, is a horror film that agrees with the critics of horror films. It has a character who, alone of her friends, doesn’t like horror films – even dismisses them as "shit" – and who thus turns out to be Final Girl. Then it has its resident horror expert deliver a very studied insult by remarking of the movie’s plot "if it gets too complicated, you lose your target audience." It even goes so far as to include the line that "movies don’t create psychos, they just make them more creative" (an argument I believe has a reasonable amount of truth in it, by the way), then puts those words into the mouth of its killer. "Don’t blame the movies, Sid," says the killer - but Scream does just that. Yes, it says, horror movies are dangerous, they do desensitise, they do create killers. Ah, but not this horror movie, of course, because this one is just a joke - just a spoof. By simultaneously exploiting and condemning the genre conventions, Scream is finally offensively hypocritical. Watching it, it is impossible to conclude anything but that, sometime over the past thirty years, Wes Craven lost his nerve. It’s hard to believe that this piece of vacillation is the work of the man who made The Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes; films that, whatever their flaws, at least had the courage to tackle the human capacity for violence head on. It seems time that someone suggested to Wes that if he can’t stand the heat, he should get out of the kitchen. Or to put it another way: if you’re going to make a horror film, Wes, then damn well make one. Don’t apologise for it! Otherwise, stick to Music Of The Heart.