Friday, 2 November 2012

Scream (1996)

Most great slasher movies are not especially good slasher movies. Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street... they're justifiably iconic, but they're also ill-acted, ill-written and largely ill-conceived. It might be fair to say that most slasher masterpieces (slasherpieces?) are brilliant in spite of themselves.

And then there's Scream.

Scream (Wes Craven, natch; 1996) is scary. Scream is funny. Scream is so tightly written, directed and edited that you barely notice two hours go by. Best of all, Scream shamelessly panders to the horror buffs in the audience. It pays twisted homage to the great-not-good slashers of yore while thumbing its nose at the genre's cliches. At times, Scream is less a horror film than a love letter to its predecessors, and yet it's often better than the films it pretends to rip off.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.
High schooler Sidney Prescott (90s roll call: Neve Campbell) is having a rough year. The anniversary of her mother's murder is fast approaching, and someone's marked the occasion by offing Sidney's English-lit classmate Casey Becker (90s roll call: Drew Barrymore). Sidney's friends and peers are assholes who loudly speculate with a total lack of empathy as to who could have committed the murder(s); her boyfriend Billy (90s roll call: Skeet Ulrich) wishes she would get over her mother's death and let him go to third base already; and Gale Weather (90s roll call: Courteney Cox), a cheesy tabloid reporter wearing April O'Neil's hand-me-downs, is writing a tell-all book about how Sidney fingered the wrong guy in her mother's murder. As Sidney's bad week gets worse, more locals are gutted, and a party thrown by Sidney's buddy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) is crashed by the murderer and summarily blood-soaked. Sidney and Gale are forced to take matters into their own hands, slaying the killer and saving the day. Traumatized Sidney may be, but she'll have something unique to write about in her college admissions essay.

There's not a lot I don't love about Scream, but there are aspects that I find bemusing. Principally, the killer -- retroactively dubbed Ghostface -- seems to be a bit of a misfit in ye olde slasher canon. Most horror villains derive their staying power from their utter inscrutability: picture the blank and silent Michael and Jason, or the lumbering Leatherface. Ghostface is more in the flamboyant Freddy Krueger vein, but he's neither as grimy nor as grotesque as Krueger. Characterized by flirtatious pre-slaying crank calls, the ritualistic cleaning of his blade, and an odd tendency to get kicked in the balls, Ghostface veers uncertainly between glamor and effeminacy. It makes a little more sense when his true identity is revealed, but Ghostface is still an odd anomaly in a film that purports to follow the splatter bible by rote.

In intention and execution Scream is quite similar to 2012's The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard). Despite its being released over 15 years earlier, I think Scream is the more successful of the two films. Its big finale is certainly truer to its humble splatter-flick roots: Scream reinvents its conventions where Cabin in the Woods in content to merely bulldoze them. The scene in which Sidney assumes Ghostface's mantle to terrorize the killer beneath, for instance, redefines the much-maligned "Final Girl" stereotype. What's that Nietzsche quote? "Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you." I'm aware that I'm  babbling nonsense, so I'm just going to insert a picture of Rose McGowan here and get on with the review.

Scream is set in California, except for this one scene which apparently takes place at the North Pole.
SCENE STEALER: Sidney's best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) is a simpering, lollipop-slobbering, pigtail-twirling pop tart -- until Ghostface makes his move. Then she turns into a biting, kicking harpy who comes closer to besting her killer than any other victim. Tatum's death -- trapped as she tries to crawl out the pet flap in the garage door and electrocuted by the door-open mechanism -- is probably unique in cinema history (and real life, for that matter). It also lends itself almost too well to a feminist analysis of the slutty blonde's role in the horror genre. Isn't it true that Tatum, although infantilized and objectified by the other characters, perishes only when she becomes willing to objectify herself by crawling out an exit intended for a lower form of life (the family cat)? Or should I just put down the Camille Paglia and go take a long walk in the fresh air?

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