Big horror fans know that Wes Craven’s Scream, released in 1996, is the final real slasher film. A parody of all the excesses and absurdities of the genre, it is about a serial killer obsessed with slasher movies, a masked murderer who kills his victims while making reference to Scream’s predecessors, unable to differentiate between film and reality. But a generation of teenagers, unaware of the history, adopted it as their own, making the film a big hit but totally missing the joke. As such, it revitalized the very sub-genre it destroys, spawning two sequels, numerous rip offs (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, etc), reboots of long dead series (Jason X, Seed of Chucky, the Psycho remake, etc.), merchandised Scream costumes at Halloween parties across the country, and, in a pinnacle of only-in-Hollywood total absurdity, a franchise of parody films (Scary Movie), or rather parody-parodies. And now, eleven years after Scream 3, our new-idea averse Hollywood is blessing us with Scream 4, and in the build up rereleasing all three original films on Blu-ray.
All of which is even more of a shame because Scream is so great. It as at once a successful horror movie with deeply frightening moments, an often laugh-out-loud black comedy, and a history of and commentary on the slasher film. The movie is filled with references to slasher movies both subtle (a shot of the killer reflected in the dead victim’s eye mirroring the same shot from Psycho, a quick shot of a janitor in a Freddy Krueger sweater, etc.), and obvious (the film name drops over 20 slasher films, from the big ones like Texas Chainaw Massacre and Halloween to the incredibly obscure like Prom Night 2 and The Town That Dreaded Sundown). In fact, if you wanted to watch all of the great slasher films, along with some of the campiest cult classics, you could do worse than use a list of the movies referenced in Scream for your syllabus.
The film opens with high school student Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore), making popcorn so she can watch Halloween, receiving a phone call from a creepy guy who famously asks: “What’s your favorite scary movie?” They have a brief hilarious discussion of horror movies: (at one point he tells her: “You should never say ‘who’s there’, don’t you watch scary movies? You might as well come outside and investigate a loud noise.”), after which Ghostface (the name of the masked killer in the franchise) appears to stalk her through the house and brutally murder her. The film’s (and the killer’s) focus then switch to virginal Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), haunted by the brutal murder of her mother, one year previous, and her friends and boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich).
It continues as a slasher movie would, with bodies piling up and the violence spinning out of control. Reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) appears on the scene, and immediately makes everyone dislike her story grubbing ways, while bumbling young cop Dewey Riley (David Arquette) tries to solve the case. It’s a convincing whodunnit, and if you haven’t seen it before, the twist ending is effective and the film’s final scenes pretty terrifying. But what makes the film more than just a good, funny, violent slasher is the constant running commentary it makes on itself, particularly through the dialogue of horror film buff Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy).
“There’s a formula to it, a very simple formula” Meeks reminds everyone. He lays out a genre critique and history not unlike that found in Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws, the definitive book on the slasher film (I wrote a thesis on horror movies, you’ll have to forgive my inner academic here). As Meeks puts it in his lecture on the rules to surviving a horror movie: “Rule number one: you can never have sex. Sex= death, ok?” But in this film, what protects Sidney, the “final girl” as Clover prefigures it, is that she isn’t swayed by horror movies. She lays down the harshest critique of the slasher on the phone with the killer: “What’s the point? They’re all the same, some stupid killer stalking some big breasted girl who can’t act running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.” Minutes later, as Ghostface appears in her house, the front door is stuck shut, and Sidney flees up the stairs. It’s a joke, a critique, and a frightening moment, all rolled into one.
Scream is an essay on genre form as much as it is a horror movie, and it is successful as both. Scream 2 is more interested in talking about the nature of sequels, and the role of the audience, but it doesn’t have the same energy or wit, although it still has its moments. The film opens with Maureen (Jada Pinkett) and Phil (Omar Epps) on a date at the opening of “Stab”, the movie based on the book written by Gale Weathers on the events of the first film. They have a conversation about the dismissive roles of African Americans in horror movies, and then are quickly dispatched by the killer. The image of Jada Pinkett, on stage, with a remake of Scream’s first scene projected onto her, dying and crying for help to an overwhelmingly white, cheering audience, is incredible, and is with good reason the most famous scene from the film.
Although it can be strong, particularly in emphasizing how it is really the same movie as Scream with a higher body count, and it can be scary, it never quite reaches the level of horror, comedy or persuasive critique achieved by the first (after that first scene, that is.) Sidney is at college now, with new friends, just getting over the trauma of high school when murders start happening on campus again. And, in critiquing itself (one of the first scenes involves a film class where they discuss how sequels always suck) it actually successfully proves its point that sequels are less good--by being less good. The repetition of the plot, and the fact that the surviving characters have to be shoehorned in with new victims makes the whole thing feel less fresh. There’s just less urgency, less at stake. Still, it’s quite fun, and is better than the majority of the slasher films that precede it.
Scream 3 is just mediocre. The tank is outta gas. It takes place in Hollywood, on the set of “Stab 3”, and the whole self-reflexive commentary has outrun the very thing the original film was talking about. It’s just a movie talking about itself, and though it tries to parody how Hollywood is destructive to creativity and film is commercialized and stupefied, it largely fails, because that critique has been done and because at this point who cares? Except when actress Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey), who plays Gale Weathers in “Stab 3” follows Courteney Cox around mimicking her playing that character, the film is mostly devoid of charms.
Since the films were all directed by Wes Craven, they have stylistic continuity and a high level of production quality. And the acting is quite good for a horror series, although this is helped by awesome ensemble casts. Seriously, on top of all the stars named above, the films also feature Matthew Lillard, Henry Winkler, Liev Schreiber, Timothy Olyphant, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jerry O’Connell, Rose McGowan, Jenny McCarthy, Luke Wilson and Portia de Rossi, many of them at the very beginnings of their careers. I don’t know if the Scream films just launched them, or if they had the most prescient casting director of all time, but it really is satisfying to see them all together on the screen.
The Scream series opens up some serious questions. Can a film critique something while being that thing at the same time in any meaningful way? The reaction (and sequels, and rip offs, etc.) seem to indicate the answer is no, although Scream is such a successfully, sassy little picture that it points in the right direction. All the films have a pretty solid critique of the narrative, which was so dominant in the nineties, though not so much now, that violent media produces violence (summed up in eloquently in Scream: “Horror movies don’t create psychos, horror movies make psychos more creative”.) The sequels challenge the relationship between an audience, film production, and meaning when it comes to a popular franchise, although they fail to answer it satisfactorily. What the films do make, as a whole, is a convincing defense of horror: that through its very repetition and exploitation it can become a venue for serious ideas, not just cheap entertainment.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Pretty thorough. Good commentaries on all three, some decent making-of vignettes, interviews, original trailers, etc. If you’re interested in owning the films, you’ll definitely get what you pay for when it comes to special features.
"Scream, Scream 2 & Scream 3" is on sale March 29, 2011 and is rated R. Horror. Directed by Wes Craven. Written by Kevin Williamson, Ehren Kruger. Starring Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Drew Barrymore, Henry Winkler, Jada Pinket Smith, Jamie Kennedy, Jenny McCarthy, Jerry Oconnell, Liev Schreiber, Matthew Lillard, Neve Campbell, Omar Epps, Parker Posey, Portia De Rossi, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Timothy Olyphant.