Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: Scream (1996)

Nothing decent came out last weekend? Just a crappy Jennifer Lopez erotic thriller and a "comedy" that, if the world is just, ought to kill Johnny Depp's career? Well then, let me throw on something I know is at least decent, then see if Project Almanac is any good.

Scream (1996)

Rated R for strong graphic horror violence and gore, and for language

I don't have a doubt in my mind that Scream is the greatest horror film of the '90s. I'm sure an argument could be made for some film out there being slightly better, but none of them had a greater impact. The Silence of the Lambs, maybe, but that was more a thriller than a horror film despite its grisly subject matter, and most of the films that followed in its footsteps were also thrillers -- otherwise, we'd be calling Ashley Judd a scream queen. The Blair Witch Project, maybe, but despite its success, it wasn't for another decade until found-footage horror movies really got popular. For the '70s and the '80s, you could make an argument for several horror films being the greatest of the decade, but when it comes to the '90s, no single film even comes close to matching the impact that Scream had. Perhaps that says more about the '90s (which were, before 1996, a very dry decade for good horror movies) than about Scream, but that doesn't change the fact that Scream is a classic. It started a series, spawned countless imitators, and became a pop culture touchstone quoted and rewatched by many, something that no other '90s horror film can say. And it deserved it, too. It still holds up as a spectacularly well-made and intelligent slasher film, possessing a great sense of humor and wit about itself and the genre it's in while still remembering what it is, delivering a terrifying yet human killer, buckets of blood, intense chase sequences (the opening with Drew Barrymore has rightfully gone down as a classic), and one of the best heroines in horror movie history.

The film starts with a killer dressed in a Halloween costume breaking into the home of high school student Casey Becker and violently murdering her and her boyfriend Steven Orth. The crime shocks the northern California community of Woodsboro, not least because it's almost the one-year anniversary of another grisly murder: that of Maureen Prescott, which had brought a media circus to the town for the ensuing trial. The timing is not a coincidence. Soon, Maureen's daughter Sidney finds herself targeted by the killer, along with her fellow classmates: her boyfriend Billy Loomis, her best friend Tatum Riley, Tatum's boyfriend Stu Macher, and movie geek Randy Meeks. They, the young police deputy (and Tatum's brother) Dewey Riley, and the sleazy tabloid journalist Gale Weathers must survive the killer's rampage and unmask him -- or her -- before the body count spirals out of control. But who is it? Is it Billy, jealous that his girlfriend won't sleep with him? Is it Sidney's father Neil, having snapped as a result of the anniversary of his wife's death? Is it Randy, having seen way too many horror movies? Could Sidney herself be doing it?

I won't say who or why, though going in with the answers to both did nothing to hurt my enjoyment of this film. Even watching this midday, knowing by heart virtually every beat, I still found myself getting chills, a testament to the power of Wes Craven's direction and Kevin Williamson's writing here. They succeeded where many lesser horror films, including many of the films that followed this one, failed, and that was create an entire cast of likable, relatable, and realistic characters both teenaged and adult who I wanted to watch even when nothing overtly scary was happening on screen -- which meant that, when they were in peril, I wanted them to pull through that much more. This film's characters are its greatest asset, and I could spend a paragraph on each of them detailing why I love them. On the surface, they are your stock teen horror movie archetypes, yet they're all fleshed out enough to avoid becoming caricatures. Rose McGowan's Tatum is sassier and sexier than Sidney, but she's not a catty bimbo -- she treats Sidney like a genuine friend rather than a frenemy. Jamie Kennedy gets some of the best lines in the movie as Randy, who realizes right from the start that the situation he and his friends are in is something straight out of the horror movies that he loves; his often-hilarious analysis of the genre is a key part of this film's heart and soul. Matthew Lillard's Stu came very close to crossing the line into straight-out annoying, but always pulled back before I could wish he'd get off the screen, and when the ending came around, my opinion of his performance shot up dramatically. Courteney Cox as Gale, a '90s version of Nancy Grace, is the polar opposite of what she was on Friends (it's hard for me to look at the sweet Monica Gellar without seeing the tabloid hack Gale underneath), yet she too is human beneath her ruthless, slimy exterior, falling for the local cop Dewey, a man who is her polar opposite in every sense. Skeet Ulrich's Billy has so many "this guy's the killer" signs pointing to him, yet the way it plays out... well, I won't spoil. Henry "The Fonz" Winkler gets only two scenes as the principal, but steals the show in both of them. And finally, Drew Barrymore, in the space of just ten minutes (it's no spoiler at this point to say that she dies), created a character far more interesting than the entire cast of Bloody Homecoming or Sorority Party Massacre. If these same characters were in an ABC Family teen drama with no horror elements, I'd probably still watch that show.

And of course, no discussion of the characters in Scream is complete without Sidney Prescott. Both Neve Campbell and the writing did amazing work bringing Sidney to life, making her just the right mix of tough yet vulnerable, sweet yet smart. She's the "good girl", and therefore the character destined to survive the film, but she too is human rather than a pearl-clutching prude, standing conflicted over whether or not to have sex with Billy. She has a troubled past that drives the plot, but it doesn't define her character. And when push comes to shove, she is hard-hitting and resourceful, always looking for a way to fight back, escape, or call for help rather than just screaming in petrified terror. You have to feel bad for the killer who has to fight Sidney, as she's easily among the best "final girls" I've ever seen in a horror movie. Rooney Mara? Brittany Snow? You should've been taking notes from Julia from Party of Five in how to play a horror heroine right.

The quality writing hardly stops at the characters. While Wes Craven's done this sort of thing before in New Nightmare, in this film he and Williamson went whole-hog with post-modernism. It's odd nowadays to think that a horror movie in which the main characters are aware of the existence of horror movies was ever revolutionary, but just twenty years ago, it was. And they didn't just ride on the novelty of it like so many of their lesser imitators would, but actually used it creatively, the "rules" that Randy lays down for surviving a horror movie being just the tip of the iceberg. The minute people start dying, reporters like Gale swarm the scene like vultures, pestering people who are trying to grieve for their lost friends and loved ones. (One of them, played by Linda Blair in a cameo, actually asks Sidney, "how does it feel to be almost brutally murdered?") Never saw that in Halloween II or Friday the 13th Part 2, did you? In one scene, Sidney makes a dismissive remark about how horror movies are nothing but "some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who's always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door" -- and then, not five minutes later, she finds herself running up the stairs because she locked the front door not realizing that the killer was already inside. Then we get Randy sitting on the couch watching Halloween, telling Jamie Lee Curtis to look behind her so she can see Michael Myers, not realizing that the killer is standing behind him, ready to strike -- while Sidney and the cameraman Kenny are in the news van watching from a hidden camera, yelling at Randy to look behind him, only the video is on a thirty-second delay so they can't do anything, just as Randy can't do anything to help Jamie and we can't help Randy. (And who's Randy played by again? Yep, Jamie Kennedy.)

It's not quite as incisive as, say, The Cabin in the Woods, but it adds a whole extra layer of subtext and humor to the film. The characters, victims and killer alike, know the "rules" of a horror movie and all the dumb mistakes that people make in such films, and they exploit this knowledge against each other, whether it's the killer mocking a victim for asking "who's there?" in response to the doorbell ringing ("you might as well come out here to investigate a strange noise or something!"), or Randy anticipating that the seemingly dead killer always gets up for one last scare. Some people feel that this sort of attitude ruined American horror movies, but again, context is key: in 1996, American horror had long ago suffocated under a tide of cookie-cutter slasher sequels and ripoffs, and something needed to take out the trash if people were going to be able to enjoy horror movies unironically again. In my useless opinion, Scream didn't "ruin" horror any more than Night of the Living Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did a few decades prior. I guarantee, back in the '70s there were many old-school fans of Universal and Hammer horror bemoaning how "grindhouse" horror movies like those were nothing but blood and guts with no idea of suspense, mystery, or class. And hell, a lot of fans of Scream are among the first to bemoan the remake, torture porn, found footage, and supernatural trends of the last ten years. Horror fandom is like any fandom: tribal, squabbling, and prone to flame wars.

Anyway, back to the movie. I believe I was talking about the killer, and for a guy who gets beat up a lot over the course of the movie, he's actually pretty damn awesome. Known as Ghostface (originally by fans; the series started calling him that in the sequels), he wears a store-bought Halloween costume with a black robe and a "screaming ghost" mask, wields a big-ass hunting knife, and carries a cell phone and a voice changer that allow him to spook the living daylights out of his targets before moving in for the kill. Roger Jackson provides the voice that Ghostface's victims hear on the phone, and he is amazing at it, often starting out seemingly normal but quickly moving into creeper territory, then getting downright menacing in a hurry once he starts threatening to gut you like a fish just like he did to your mother. In a film that's otherwise known for its sense of humor, Jackson consistently plays it completely straight, and even when Ghostface is nowhere near the characters, the phone calls that he sends out to them dug under my skin in a way not seen in a slasher villain since the glory days of Freddy Krueger. When he comes out of the shadows and starts swinging his knife, I'll be honest, that mask of his is terrifying, and so is his speed -- he doesn't lumber around like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, he runs at his targets, and even with only one weapon at his disposal, he delivers some graphic, quality kills with it. He's also a very human killer, one who takes blows and gets knocked down almost as much as the victims, but always gets right back up rather than staying down for the count. While the "official" body count is fairly low, the characters who survive still get put through hell by Ghostface. He's not nearly as imposing as those other guys I mentioned, but he feels a lot closer to home, especially once we find out who it is -- without spoiling anything, the killer's attitude reminded me greatly of the Columbine killers, a few years before it actually happened.

Last but certainly not least, we get to the bow that ties this great package together: the direction and the pacing. Scream is a long movie -- not nearly as long as something like Rosemary's Baby, but at an hour and fifty minutes, it's about twenty to thirty minutes longer than the average slasher. However, it uses that time wisely and never feels long. Not only does it take the time to develop its characters, something that a lot more horror movies ought to learn how to do, but it also takes the time to build tension and provide ample thrills without even having many bloody scenes outside the opening and the climax. It maintains a constant rhythm of "characters talking, Ghostface shows up, repeat until the finale" that works, while also remembering that not every scene has to be filled with jump scares. Long stretches of the film just have the main characters talking to one another, with no indication that Ghostface is waiting to jump out at them. It finds ways to creep the viewer out with more than just knives, masks, and gore, by having the characters discuss the ramifications of what's going on around them and realize the trouble they're in. One of the scariest scenes in the film comes towards the end, when Sidney starts to figure out just who the killer is, and that that person is standing right in front of her. No knife, no Ghostface mask, but the sudden realization and look on her face was enough. Rest assured, though, it's still regularly punctuated with violence, as Ghostface strikes frequently enough that his presence always hangs over the film even in the long stretches where we never see him.

Even the cinematography and music are of a far higher caliber than I normally see in a slasher flick. This movie was filmed in California's Wine Country, and it makes the place look downright gorgeous, almost like Tuscany, while still maintaining a sense of all-American familiarity. Marco Beltrami's orchestral score, meanwhile, sounds almost operatic at times, making the "holy shit" moments hit that much harder. This is stylish, glossy Hollywood horror done absolutely right, going big rather than going home, at times looking and sounding almost as inventive and stunning as a Dario Argento film. It's what happens when a horror film is given lavish production values with talented filmmakers set loose on it rather than the quick-'n'-dirty approach of hack houses like Platinum Dunes, producing a film that, on a technical level alone, is amazing to watch. Say what you will about how tense and gritty a low-budget film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Evil Dead may be, but they rarely look and feel this good.

Score: 5 out of 5

Scream revitalized horror movies for a damn good reason. Its two greatest strengths, its well-written characters and its affectionate dismantling of the horror tropes it utilizes, alone make it a classic, but even underneath them, there's still a rock-solid slasher thrill ride here. If you love horror movies, you'll love it, and even if you hate horror movies, you'll get plenty of enjoyment out of this film's take on them.

No comments:

Post a Comment