Sunday, April 10, 2011

A look back at the Scream franchise part I. Scream: still entertaining, but with a genuine learning curve.

It remains to be seen whether or Scream 4 can become the first breakout mega-smash of 2011, drawing in nostalgic 20-somethings and 30-somethings while bringing along the next generation who grew up watching the first three films on DVD over the last decade. I was invited to Tuesday night's press screening but had to decline due to not being allowed to bring guests (IE - my wife). But in the meantime, let us take a moment to both reflect on the original trilogy as well as discuss how well these films have held up over the years. These will hopefully run on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, leading up to a review of Scream 4 either Friday or Saturday night, depending on when we can get a sitter (we offered to drop Allison off at Rio while mom and dad were across the hall, but she demanded that we come with her... so clingy!). Needless to say, if you have not seen the first three Scream films, there will be complete and total spoilage in. Consider yourself warned... First up, obviously, is the original Scream.

Scream (1996): I'm pretty sure that the Wes Craven slasher-film homage still has the smallest wide-release opening weekend ($6.3 million) for a film that eventually reached $100 million. For all intents and purposes, Scream was released in Christmas weekend 1996 and got clobbered by Beavis and Butthead Do America. But the film's winking acknowledgement of its own cliches, plus a hot young cast and a genuinely classic opening sequence kept the film alive throughout the end of 1996 and the beginning of 1997. But, aside from its status as a cinematic groundbreaker, how does it still hold up as a movie? Not as wonderful as you remember. First of all, let's be clear, the first Scream picture is still a fun and entertaining piece of high-gloss B-horror. But aside from the opening sequence, it's not particularly scary, not even all that violent, and not quite as clever as it thinks it is.

The prologue, in which Drew Barrymore's Casey Becker is menaced over the phone by a creepy-voiced and movie-obsessed stalker, remains a brutally terrifying and stunningly violent sequence. In an era where most slasher-film deaths were quick and painless, the climax stood out by highlighting the mental anguish and physical suffering that most slasher films shuffled under the carpet. Young Casey Becker doesn't get a clean spear through the chest or arrow through the head. She is stabbed through the chest and remains alive and crying as she is dragged to the tree where she will be disemboweled and hanged. The grisly details of her slow murder, as well as the painful sight of Casey's parents arriving just too late and hearing their daughter's death cries over the open phone line: the opening scene remains a rebuke to an entire generation that had grown up 'enjoying' the senseless murders of young teenagers.

But the first Scream never gets that real again. The rest of the picture is a jokey, almost campy affair, where violence is fun and no one mourns the dead. Part of this is the very structure of the picture. While Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is pretty aware that she is in some kind of danger, the rest of the kids remain oblivious right up to the final revelations. There is no sense of dread or menace in the air. And the allegedly groundbreaking 'here's how a horror movie works' material now feels forced and shoehorned into the narrative for the sake of meaningless comic relief. Besides, there's actually very little of it. Other than Jamie Kennedy's big speech at the climactic party about the 'rules to survive a horror film', Scream basically plays like a straight-up 1980s slasher picture. What once perhaps played as knowing self-awareness now feels like jarring out-of-left field comic relief to distract from a relatively generic narrative.

Most of the performers in the first Scream were relative unknowns, and it shows. Arguably the most famous of the bunch, Courtney Cox, tries way too hard to play a generic uber-bitch, as if she's unsure that audiences will accept Monica Gellar as cold-hearted reporter Gale Weathers. Campbell is fine, but most of the rest of the young cast overacts and mugs whether its called for or not. And, for a Wes Craven film, there is remarkably little violence. After the initial double murder that opens the picture, we have only the relatively tame stabbing death of Henry Winkler, the gruesome but comically-staged garage door-death of Rose McGowen, and the blink-and-you-miss it throat slashing of the cameraman. Yes, the killers meet their violent demises (their self-inflicted injuries are mostly offscreen), but if you edit around the first scene of the picture (and trim the language), it could almost get a PG-13. And the film loses major points for a climax containing no less than FOUR fake-out death scenes (Dewey's stabbing, Billy Loomis's staged murder, Gale's car accident demise, and Randy's not-so-mortal gunshot wound).

What makes it work in the end is the actual revelation of who the killers are and why they have decided to shed blood. Matthew Lillard's rambling psycho is entertaining and gets the film's very best line ("My mom and dad are going to be SO mad at me!"), but the revelation of Billy Loomis's genuinely plausible motive gives a real-world grimness to the proceedings (although I never bought Skeet Ulrich suddenly becoming a horror film expert). This isn't about ghosts from the grave or ancient prophecies or escaped mental patients, it's all because one suburban mother cheated with another suburban father and caused the latter family to break up. Ironically, the one thing that makes the movie matter is the one thing that gets ret-conned in Scream 3, but we'll discuss that later. Just over fifteen years later, Wes Craven's original Scream still holds up as solid entertainment, but it remains an awkward, weightless, and overly campy affair.

Fortunately, the best was yet to come...

Scott Mendelson

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails