Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Do You Like Scary Movies? A SCREAM Retrospective

What constitutes a rip off? Same themes or genres? Maybe a similar plot device? We all know there’s no such thing as an original story. Now, don’t get sad. There hasn’t been anything original for some time. All media, literature and the like fall under just a few categories of story; Man vs. man, man vs. himself or man vs. nature. There’s no new permutation of plot and character that cannot be boiled down to one of these three categories. It’s sad when you first realize its true… but then it becomes freeing. Knowing that the story you are about to see has already been told enables the viewer to enjoy the ride and judge a piece on its merit, be it acting, writing or direction.

"Never say "who's there?" Don't you watch scary movies? It's a death wish. You might as well come out to investigate a strange noise or something." - Ghostface

Noting one of the better examples of using this reality to its advantage takes us back to 1996 and the now unjustly maligned Scream, written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven. By taking the very clichés and tropes of the slasher genre and cleverly using them against the audience, the film is at once an homage, inside joke and genuine celebration of everything stab-y.

The first scene is still chilling in its raw effectiveness. What starts as a flirtatious conversation becomes harrowing for an above the title actress. The tightly scripted dialogue makes this scene so revelatory. Like a horror-geek infused Aaron Sorkin, Williamson displays his knowledge (or research of) the genre's history. His words inform the audience of where they’re about to be taken, while simultaneously relating the current events of the scene to our heroine's increasingly tense plight. Craven ratchets up that tension with his collected knowledge of what an audience expects. In less capable hands the constant popping of popcorn and startling ringing of a phone could be gimmicky.

Before a drop of blood (or in this case, entrails) is spilled, we're already on the edge of our seats, taken in by the moment. What makes this special? They told us what they were doing, while it was happening, and it still worked!

"It's the millennium, motives are incidental." - Randy

The movie doesn't stop it's frenetic pace, layering in its structure with familiar caricatures and settings. A virginal heroine, a bad boy boyfriend, the slutty best friend and so on. They're even noted as such by our inside man, the at times annoying character of Randy. Randy explains to the uninitiated what you should be looking for while also making sure the rest of us know he's in on the joke. It's novel now, but at the time, a structure that all but breaks the fourth wall was a breath of fresh air. What's even more impressive is in establishing these characters' knowledge of events, there's a false sense of security throughout much of the proceedings. That is, until the proverbial shit hits the fan. Scream is a self aware satire that succeeds at being as tense and scary as its predecessors.

"Life is like a movie. Only you can't pick your genre." - Billy

Over the last decade, the Scream franchise has become something of ridicule in many circles. Partly due to the sub-par sequels and largely due to the fact that it ushered in a sub-genre of teen slasher movies, boasting young casts and hit pop songs. Ironically, an endeavor that highlighted the genre's clichés with humor and tact ushered in so many offensive copy cats. Like a snake eating its own tale, a popular effort to elevate the genre became a feeding frenzy of shoddy, cheaply produced and poorly scripted clones. As soon as the marketing machine got a hold of it all, we were seeing entities like MTV co-finance genre films for young audiences. At that point, all hope seemed to be lost. Disturbing Behavior, anyone?

"...don't you blame the movies, movies don't create psychos, movies make psychos more creative!" - Billy

With the arrival of a third sequel, we're forced to question if this franchise has any juice left. What was once a welcome breeze has become a point of contention for what was wrong with horror in the millennium's first decade. From the influx of Japanese remakes to the plethora of Saw wannabes, for better or worse, it started in 1996. A modicum of respect is due and was hopefully restored this past weekend.

Did you see it? What did you think?

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