Friday, October 19, 2012

October Fright Nights #3 - Scream

Looking back 16 years after its original release, it's interesting to think of whether Wes Craven/Kevin Williamson's Scream succeeded more for it's parodying of the worn down slasher genre or for it's ability to be a more than competent new entry into it? Maybe a bit of both back then?

Today, in 2012, the self referential dialogue feels a bit tired and worn (especially after four entries into this franchise alone). One must, in accepting it, realize that the appeal was that in 1996, save for Wes Craven's New Nightmare 2 years prior, no one else was doing anything like this (which is certainly what landed it the number 20 spot on my Movies that Made Going to the Movies suck list).

Back then it was uncharacteristic to have characters in a horror film who had watched and discussed the same horror movies that we had watched and discussed ourselves. This played as a sort of tongue-in-cheek reverse criticism. It already knew all the logical problems of the genre, becoming its own joke before the critics could make it theirs.

But today, as I wrote in my review of the already forgotten Drew Barrymore/Justin Long romcom Going the Distance " There was once upon a time, before Scream, when movie characters didn’t talk like they knew things that happened in the outside world. Now it seems as though movies feel that if they aren’t referencing the times they aren’t part of them." Couldn't have said it better myself.

So, what's surprising about Scream and what, I suspect, makes it hold up, is how well it embodied the slasher genre on it's own terms even before the need to make fun of itself. Look at the extended epilogue that opens the film as Drew Barrymore receives a mysterious call that begins with humor and character before it effortlessly, but not rushingly, descends into terror and then violence in exactly that order. The whole film is structured this way: character scenes slowly build into the unsuspecting bursts or terror and violence required to continue deepening the mystery.

The screenplay by Williamson is well plotted and never gives any indication of who the killer could be up until the big final reveal. Williamson was smart in that he offered the possibility that anyone could be the killer and didn't cheat in logic once the whole picture became clear. Watch especially the subtle way he gets (spoiler's) Matthew Lillard's character off screen prior to any killings happening.

It is, after all, the key to any big surprise ending that we are able to trace our steps back and have everything check out logically. Although the film has it's fair share of the generic, you never really see the mechanics of the plot openly grinding away in plain view.

And then there's Craven, an intelligent man already considered a master of horror two or three times removed from this film, and who has always been attracted to projects just one or two steps left of genre transgression. You can see as Craven and his cinematographer ring suspense out of every little detail: mysterious canted angles, subtle shifts in focus, long takes, and a score that underlines the suspense but doesn't substitute for it. This is, after all, the man who's debut feature film was a remake of an Ingmar Bergman classic.

And let's not forget Neve Campbell in the leading role: smart, driven, and strong willed. Campbell never reduces the character to dumb teen horror movie cliche. You feel her terror, her torment and her physical pain all along the way. That's not to mention the presence of Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette and Courtney Cox who all play characters that, when knives aren't slashing and blood isn't flowing, create a compelling human narrative, which is, at the end of the day, the ultimate success here. You feel you're part of this town, this group of friends and these ghastly murders. That's all any good slasher movie, at the most basic level, really needs to do.

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