Thursday, October 30, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 29 - Scream

#2 (Tie) - 15 Votes

It's hard to explain what the initial impact of Scream was like to people who were too young to see it when it was released (back then, popcorn cost a dime, we had to walk five miles through the snow to get to the nickelodeon, and so forth). Released with little fanfare during the holiday season alongside several higher-profile movies, the movie's opening weekend was small, and while the reviews were generally positive, nobody was predicting it would be the start of a blockbuster franchise. A few TV spots and a review in the Boston Globe comparing the movie to Halloween had me intrigued, so I convinced my older brother to take us. The audience was far from packed, but as the movie began, we were almost immediately on the edge of our seats. There are always anecdotal stories about audiences screaming and talking back to the screen at horror movies, but Scream was one of the few times I personally experienced anything like that.

The famous opening sequence is so crucial to the success of the rest of the movie because it raises the stakes to such a severe degree that, no matter how jokey and self-referential the movie gets, the gruesome image of a disemboweled Drew Barrymore hanging from a tree lingers in our recent memories. The opening introduces the premise of horror movie victims (and killers) who are well versed in horror movie tropes, but though the killer name-drops Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, there's no sense of ironic detachment in how Craven stages the stalking and murder of Barrymore's character, Casey. From the cold open on Casey answering the phone, the way Craven constructs the sequence is not quite like anything we'd seen from him before; he was always a very intelligent filmmaker, but never quite as stylistically precise. Much of this was likely built into Kevin Williamson's script, with doorbells, Jiffy Pop and the ringing of Casey's phone punctuating the scene and keeping us on edge. But the scene might be Craven's strongest work as a director; as the killer flirts with, then taunts and eventually chases after Casey, the eerily smooth Steadicam shots tracking her around and outside the house do a fantastic job of tightening the screws. And between Barrymore's excellent, visibly shaken performance and the great, tragic moment where Casey's parents arrive moments too late, it's the rare slasher movie scene with pathos and a palpable sense of loss.

The tone of the rest of the movie is considerably lighter; with the brutal opening sequence hanging over everything, it doesn't have to get as grisly to keep us on edge. The premise is well-known by now, and Scream was far from the first horror movie to feature cinema-literate characters and call attention to itself as a movie. What made it feel fresh was not just that the teenagers in the movie had seen scary movies, but that they had a very '90s, very teenage sense of irony and cynicism. When movie geek Randy is lecturing a room full of people with the rules to survive a scary movie, it doesn't matter that the rules immediately remind of a long list of exceptions (Jamie Lee Curtis doesn't have sex in Halloween, but she does smoke a joint while listening to Blue Oyster Cult). What matters is that this media-literate smartass thinks that being able to identify horror cliché somehow protects him from real-life horror (it doesn't). Underneath the clever pop culture references, the darker existential irony of Scream is that these characters can know they're victims and joke about it, but most of them are still going to die. While some aspects of the movie are distinctly of their time (remember when Skeet Ulrich was a thing?), it's that funny/queasy central joke that makes the movie hold up today.

Scream was released by Dimension films, the genre-based division of Miramax, whose founders, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, had produced The Burning, one of the first wave of slashers, fifteen years earlier. Dimension was their attempt to mimic the success New Line had seen with the Nightmare on Elm Street series, which mostly resulted in crappy sequels to Hellraiser and Children of the Corn. Scream was Dimension's first big success, and it led to a brief period when Kevin Williamson was a mini-industry, as well as a slew of Scream-influenced self-referential horror movies with casts handpicked from the WB. In the three years after Scream's release, Scream 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty, Halloween H20, Disturbing BehaviorUrban Legend and Teaching Mrs. Tingle were all made from the template of Craven's movie with varying degrees of shamelessness. To trace Scream's influence, do an image search on any of these movies and you'll see they all have the same poster - a glossy shot with the star in the center, flanked on both sides by the other young, photogenic members of the cast. Still, as easy as it is to begrudge Scream for its influence, it really was a breath of fresh air for a genre that had grown very stale in 1996. Also, anyone who knows Wes Craven's body of work had to take some perverse enjoyment out of the fact that the director of Last House on the Left made a blockbuster that was beloved by 12-year-old girls. 

U.S. Release Date: December 20, 1996 (Also released that day: Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, One Fine Day, My Fellow Americans, Ghosts of Mississippi, Marvin's Room, The Whole Wide World, In Love and War)

What critics said at the time:

"Director Wes Craven is on familiar turf with his latest thriller, 'Scream.' The setting is a small town, the protagonists are teens, and there’s a psychotic killer on the prowl. But he may have gone to the trough once too often, attempting an uneasy balance of genre convention and sophisticated parody. The pic’s chills are top-notch, but its underlying mockish tone won’t please die-hard fans. That adds up to no more than modest commercial returns and fast theatrical playoff." - Leonard Klady, Variety

" [...] Craven and Williamson turn 'Scream' into a self-reflexive romp that owes as much to the experimental fiction of Borges and Calvino as the seminal work of John Carpenter ('Halloween') and Sean S. Cunningham ('Friday the 13th'). With Courteney Cox as a tabloid TV reporter, David Arquette as the town's bumbling deputy and Drew Barrymore as a special guest victim, 'Scream' builds to a splattering finale that should leave genre fans highly satisfied. Here's to one of the year's better thrillers, just in time for Christmas." - Dave Kehr, New York Daily News

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