Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Scream trilogy

The horror film was in a moribund state in the mid-90s. The stalk ‘n’ slash genre had reached not so much its apogee (it never really had one) but a point of saturation the previous decade, endless ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ sequels and equally innumerable micro-budget imitators adding up to a graveyard of stock characters and shopworn clichés.

Then along came Kevin Williamson and a whip-smart script loaded with post-modern irony which managed to have its cake and eat it by effortlessly operating within the very generic conventions it so satirically sent up. That script was entitled ‘Scary Movie’ (a titled later hijacked by for increasingly unfunny franchise of puerile comedies founded on spoofing a film that was itself a spoof … only in Hollywood!), and it found its way to Wes Craven.

Craven had the horror genre in his blood – he made his directorial debut with ‘Last House on the Left’, made the original, gut-wrenchingly tense ‘Hills Have Eyes’ and scored a massive hit with the first ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’. He revisited the franchise six films down the line with the much underrated ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’, something of a precursor to ‘Scream’ in its self-reflexive approach to genre material.

‘New Nightmare’ failed to find an audience, however, and his follow-up ‘Vampire in Brooklyn’ fared no better. ‘Scream’ changed all that, giving Craven a career renaissance which only faltered with ‘Cursed’ as well as paving the way for a stalk ‘n’ slash revival headed by Jim Gillespie’s ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (from a script by Williamson that jettisoned the ironies of ‘Scream’ and played the whole thing straight), which snowballed into the “torture porn” movement epitomised by Eli Roth’s ‘Hostel’ and saw virtually every key horror movie of the ’70s remade and eagerly gobbled up by a new generation of gore hounds (although not, and the power Christ compels Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production from ever getting their mitts on it, ‘The Exorcist’).

‘Scream’ tips its hat to Craven’s most iconic creation, with the director himself appearing, in Freddy sweater and hat, as a school janitor (elsewhere, one of the high school students name-checks ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ as their favourite scary movie, adding “the sequels sucked, though”), as well as slyly evoking a panoply of classic creepfests. You’ve got the white picket fences of ‘Blue Velvet’, the tree-lined avenues of ‘Halloween’, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from ‘Exorcist’ star Linda Blair, and more video-store movie geek references than you can shake a knife at.

Better still, ‘Scream’ pays lip service to the interchangeable victims of so many slashers by having a smart and snarky cast – resilient survivor Sidney (Neve Campbell), sassy best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan), wiseass film nerd Randy (Jamie Kennedy), hardass reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and affable but hapless Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) – happily mock them even as the body count piles up.

The little matter of the killer’s identity (or did I put that apostrophe in the wrong place?) is almost beside the point. Plot mechanics, sleight of hand and a working knowledge of the genre are Craven and Williamson’s touchstones here. ‘Scream’ is a movie movie and as self-consciously cool as anything in Tarantino’s ouvre.

A sequel was inevitable. Let’s face it, which even moderately success horror film hasn’t spawned at least a couple of sequels if not a bona fide franchise? “By definition alone, sequels are inferior films,” Randy pontificates, setting off a film class debate as to whether ‘Aliens’ outclasses its predecessor or ‘House II: The Second Story’ represents the pinnacle of that particular saga. Later, he succinctly lays out the rules of the sequel: higher body count (check: it’s double the first film) and more elaborate death scenes.

A friend of mine believes that the slow start and theatrical denouement are deliberate ploys by Craven to pitch ‘Scream 2’ as a slightly less satisfying film than the original – a bravura decision if it that was the case. In my opinion, though, ‘Scream 2’ is the better film: the high water mark of the trilogy. And it works so well because of its theatricality.

Craven has stated that ‘Scream 2’ was specifically conceived as a sequel about sequels. But it goes a lot further than that. The plot has Sidney trying to forge a new life for herself and integrate into university (her drama teacher – David Warner in an effective cameo – encourages her to use art as catharsis by taking on the role of Cassandra in a student production of the Greek tragedy) while shadows from the past continue to plague her, not least Gale Weathers’ sensationalist book ‘The Woodboro Murders’ and its unsubtly-titled movie adaptation ‘Stab!’

‘Scream 2’ opens with a double murder at the ‘Stab!’ premier, the killings intercut with footage from the film which basically replays the opening sequence of ‘Scream’ (but done in deliberately naff exploitative fashion). Heather Graham essays the Drew Barrymore role and – later – we see Tori Spelling interviewed about her role as Sidney (a nifty in-joke, Dewey commenting in the first film that “a young Meg Ryan” would be ideal to play Sidney in the inevitable movie only for Sidney to muse that “knowing my luck they’d cast Tori Spelling”).

Sidney, then, is dealing with a kind of warped celebrity – one she doesn’t want. Cotton Weary (Liev Schrieber), exonerated after a year in prison for the killing of Sidney’s mother, wants the limelight: clearing his name is not enough – he views celebrity and the financial rewards that go with it as compensation for the year of his life lost to incarceration.

The killer wants their fifteen minutes of fame (or rather infamy): “I got my whole defense planned out. I'm gonna blame the movies ... This [the spate of murders] is just the beginning, a prelude to the trial … These days it’s all about the trial. Can you see it? The effects of cinema violence on society. I’ll get Dershowitz or Cochran to represent me. Bob Dole on the witness stand in my defence. Hell, the Christian Coalition’ll pay my legal fees.”

This, for me, is what kicks ‘Scream 2’ up a notch. If ‘Scream’ is a skit on the conventions of genre movies with the odd sideswipe at the media, then ‘Scream 2’ not only sends up sequels but raises questions about the media in all of its forms – reporting, publishing, cinema, theatre, the cult of celebrity – and how it disseminates horror as entertainment, as well as the audiences who lap it up, ie. us. That the killer delivers the rationale quoted above against the backdrop of the ‘Cassandra’ stage production makes it all the juicier.

‘Scream 3’, then, had a lot to live up to. Craven returned to the fold, but with Williamson busy on other projects scripting duties went to Ehren Kruger, working from notes sketched out by Williamson. With a name like that, he was pretty much destined to work with Craven. And while his continuation of the series is thematically in keeping with the previous instalments, it’s nonetheless disappointing that the whole trilogy couldn’t have been a unified writer/director collaboration.

Kruger’s set-up takes its cue from the film-within-a-film of ‘Scream 2’ and has the set of the in-production ‘Stab 3’ as backdrop to, yup, another spate of murders. Sidney takes something of a backseat, spending the first half of the film living in seclusion while dealing with memories/hallucinations of her mother. Meanwhile, Dewey and Gale are drawn into the escalating tensions on set, Dewey working as an ‘advisor’ on the production and dating the star of ‘Stab 3’, Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey). Jennifer is playing Gale, and relations prove fractious when Gale herself turns up at the studio in pursuit of a story.

With the self-reflexive inclusion of ‘Stab’ already used to its fullest in ‘Scream 2’, and the under-use of Sidney leaving the film curiously devoid of a protagonist (the script never really settles on Dewey or Gale or any of the new characters as the focus of the narrative), ‘Scream 3’ doesn’t engage or cohere as effectively as its predecessors. There are a couple of effective set pieces and the Gale/Jennifer interplay makes for some spiky comedy, but none of this can disguise the fact that the series had simply run out of ideas by this point.

Sadly, it seemed to mark a downturn in the fortunes of its creative team. Craven and Williamson reteamed for the disastrous ‘Cursed’, which Craven followed up with the formulaic thriller ‘Red Eye’. Williamson’s directorial debut ‘Teaching Mrs Tingle’ (the original title, ‘Killing Mrs Tingle’, was subject to a hasty rethink post-Columbine) flopped. Much of his work as writer has since been for TV.

With ‘Scream 4’ in the offing, is there anything to be excited about – even with Williamson scripting again – or will the biggest scream be that of the flogged horse just as it expires? I fear part three has already proved that they tried to go an irony too far.


J.D. said...

Excellent overview/assessment of this trilogy! I couldn't agree more with your conclusions, esp. where SCREAM 3 is concerned. It certainly did feel that the filmmakers had run out of ideas and the absence of Williamson was obvious. I seem to recall that Neve Campbell wasn't crazy about being in the third one hence her reduced screen time. I can't see her coming back for another film but who knows?

I actually liked RED EYE for what it was -- a no-nonsense thriller with a nice turn by Cillian Murphy. A good time waster. But you're about CURSED. Yikes. What a hopeless flawed film and it could have been a great one but the script was definitely weak.

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