Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Horror movie fans are sharpening their knives this week, in anticipation of SCREAM 4. Uncle Lancifer over at Kindertrauma does a good job of setting the stage by outlining the evolution of the genre geek’s feelings toward the original SCREAM, which single-handedly dragged the ailing horror genre out of the cinematic doldrums… if only so that it could rot in the sun for the remainder of the millennium. Fifteen years later (now there’s a sobering phrase…), it’s easy to forget how invigorating the original film was.

I saw SCREAM on opening day, because I was a die-hard Wes Craven fan. (Hell, I even saw VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN on opening weekend… That’s devotion.) It was a matinee show and there were only fifteen or twenty people in the theater, but we were all hooked from the moment Drew Barrymore’s phone rang. When the killer started quizzing her on horror movie trivia (“Who was the killer in FRIDAY THE 13TH”?), I thought: This movie was made for geeks like me. I knew it was a trick question, and I also knew that Drew was way too cute to realize that it was a trick question. (Cute teenage girls don’t spend their time watching horror movies… or, at least, they didn’t before SCREAM came out.) The following scenes were chock full of “insider” references to the holy trinity of slasher movies that inspired Kevin Williamson’s script (HALLOWEEN, F13, ELM STREET).

Despite what most critics said at the time, that kind of reflexivity was nothing new in horror movies. Joe Dante and John Sayles did the same thing in THE HOWLING, Tobe Hooper and Lawrence Block did it in THE FUNHOUSE, and Tom McLoughlin did it in JASON LIVES! All of those films were made at least ten years earlier. What made SCREAM work was not it’s “hip” self-awareness (which only served the horror geeks… a marginal part of the audience that made the film a sleeper hit), but good storytelling – pure and simple. SCREAM works for some of the same reasons that A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET works: The milieu and the characters (played by some of Hollywood’s most talented young actors) are believable, which makes the threat seem real.

The suburban high school in SCREAM is instantly recognizable to anyone who wasn’t homeschooled – it’s sunny on the surface but dark underneath. The campus is picture-perfect, but the principal (Henry Winkler, riffing on his HAPPY DAYS fame) has some anger issues and the school janitor (Wes Craven in a familiar red and green sweater) seems a little sketchy. And the kids (led by PARTY OF FIVE’s perpetually anxious Neve Campbell) are dealing with that whole serial killer thing.

In 1996, it was not at all difficult to imagine a real serial killer preying on suburban teenagers, and it was even less difficult to imagine that those teenagers would respond by creating a community-wide party atmosphere. At first that seems like the cynical thing to do (celebrate the brutal murder of a classmate with a kegger), but it’s also a practical response. In a town where everyone is afraid to be alone after dark, why shouldn’t the potential victims gather everyone under one roof? Safety in numbers is a reasonable way of facing fear, and alcohol is a welcome distraction. The catch, of course, is that they’re potentially inviting the unknown killer to the party…

It’s the old Agatha Christie scenario that’s informed so many slasher movies. The characters know that any one of them could be the killer and therefore any one of them could be the next victim. Everyone is adrenalized not just by the hormone-fest that’s sprung up as a lucky byproduct of tragedy, but also by the possibility (however remote) that they or the person next to them might not be alive to see the sunrise. Likewise, we (the audience) know instinctively that not all of these “ten little Indians” will make it through the night. Like the best horror movies, SCREAM humanizes all of the potential victims, so that we will share their exhilaration and their fear. That’s what gives SCREAM the “lovely tragic element” that Uncle Lancifer notes on his blog.

One of my favorite shots in the entire film is the very last shot, which encapsulates the wary tone of the entire movie. With a single image, set to Moby’s elegiac “First Cool Hive” (a sharp contrast to Marco Belatrami’s pulsing score and Nick Cave’s brooding anthem “Red Right Hand”), Craven’s camera captures the morning after. The shot was actually taken at sunset (rather than sunrise) in idyllic Sonoma Valley… and maybe that’s why it works so well. Instead of suggesting that the day has come to vanquish the horrors of the night, the image subtly suggests that another nightfall is inevitable. Craven’s career-defining theme bleeds through: “Don’t sleep!” There, again, is that lovely tragic element that makes the film genuinely cathartic.

That first showing of SCREAM was, for me, a fantastic rollercoaster ride. Afterwards, all I wanted to do was get back in line and ride again. The next time I saw the movie, I went with a group of friends... male and female. Before SCREAM, I can’t remember ever seeing a horror movie in the theater with female friends. The 90s, if you’ll remember, were a pretty lousy decade for horror movies and it was no easy task trying to convince girls to go see flicks like VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN or THE MANGLER or HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE. They were too smart for that. But SCREAM provided the theatrical moviegoing experience that I’d always wanted: It was a horror “date movie” that had a chance of ending reasonably well for the people who weren’t on the screen.

Bonus points if you can identify the scenes shot at any of the following filming locations from the film...

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