Friday, May 23, 2014

Scream (1996)

USA, 111 minutes
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Photography: Mark Irwin
Music: Marco Beltrami
Editor: Patrick Lussier
Cast: Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Courteney Cox, Rose McGowan, David Arquette, Henry Winkler

It's easy enough to knock Scream for attempting to have its cake and eat it too, make a scary movie and at the same time be all smug and ironical about it. Certainly the entire franchise played out that way—is still playing out, with the late-arriving fourth installment from 2011 (which I haven't seen). Many, many such exercises have followed—The Cabin in the Woods, for example, is only one of the better ones. More broadly, the whole decade of the '90s is often dismissed as an especially poor time for horror, and Scream tends to be assigned the face of that, turning horror into little twee comedy skits with occasional shock cuts and gore, until finally Saw, Hostel, the zombie apocalypse, and a lurching army of reboots reintroduced us to the experience of actually being scared by movies again (if rather unpleasantly so, but being scared is always unpleasant after all).

Still, the first 13 minutes of Scream are so good I really think we might need to back up a little here. Wes Craven may be uneven before he is anything else, but the confidence and pure verve are unmistakable. The details are just right: a teen girl alone at home at night in a big comfortable suburban mansion, Jiffy Pop on the stovetop, and someone with a funny voice who keeps calling on the cordless and asking weird questions. "Do you like scary movies?" he says. Drew Barrymore is a perfect choice to play the victim, and even better (shades of Janet Leigh in Psycho) she's gone from the movie practically before it's begun. The strokes of development are swift—from flirtatious joking with the strange caller to outright terror as he suddenly seems to be close by, and seriously malevolent too—and finally you just have to accept the premise. It forces you to, even as the action grows more outlandish and convenient. This opener has some air of the showoff stunt, but no one is about to get up and walk out after that, even as the movie quickly settles into the snide and, yes, very witty nonsense that follows.

In a kind of horror movie twofer, Neve Campbell, already on her way to becoming a horror movie icon, succeeds Drew Barrymore as the chief potential female victim of interest. Campbell plays Sidney Prescott, whose mother was brutally slain a year to the day before the events of Scream. Of course there are always one-year anniversaries of slain parents in these movies. There is also more overt attention than usual paid to virgin and non-virgin status, but as it turns out that has much more to do with the meta side of the picture. In a late scene a video store clerk outlines "the rules of horror movies" in detail. Altogether too much thought was put into them.

In fact, after the first scene, the picture plays a good deal more like classic '80s teen comedy than horror—I suppose it's no coincidence the slasher subgenre that Scream formally parodies emerged out of the same time period, the early '80s, that also produced Fast Times at Ridgemont High and everything that came in its wake. The principals in Scream are mostly high school students, the scene is often the high school interior and grounds, and the preoccupations tend toward the usual cliques, sociological value judgments, and partying, not necessarily in that order. There is some noticeably lesser degree of interest in sex, which mostly just contributes, in abstracted fashion, to explaining the predicament in which our gang of heroes find themselves.

That's because the other genre type that Scream borrows liberally from is the mystery story, cozy Agatha Christie division, in which people are way more preoccupied with "solving the case"—that is, using logical processes of elimination to figure out the identity of the slayer, who we see roaming and skittering about in a long black robe and the now-familiar iconic white mask. This is on a notably different track from blind terrorizing forces of evil and somewhat silly in the context—again, twee skits. Red herrings and elaborate clues abound, and at points someone sitting in an overstuffed armchair wearing a deerstalker cap, smoking a meerschaum, and making amazing points of deductive reasoning would not be altogether out of place.

The whole thing is a mess and a dated mess now too. There is way too much '90s music on the soundtrack—Nick Cave, Moby, an acoustic version of "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Gus—and too much of that is well, you know, smug and ironical. And yet I'm willing to forgive the excesses and weaknesses of Scream. Movies after Pulp Fiction were marred by a lot of this business for a few years there, that's one excuse. But it's nice to see flashes of Wes Craven the consummate horror filmmaker, and it's nice to see him working with a cast that brings a lot of good energy and is obviously having a ball. I don't even knock the franchise at large—I liked Scream 2 a good deal, and I even liked the Scary Movie franchise too, built directly off Scream. But the only thing that's essential in all this is the first scene of the first movie. All the rest is marginally entertaining hokum played for laughs.

1 comment:

  1. Minor trivia: Carol J. Clover was on my dissertation committee.