Thursday, October 29, 2015

Halloween Horrors: Greenlee Gazette's Guide to the Scream Franchise

More from the vaults, my take on the Scream movie series. Not the TV series, which I've yet to watch, but the original four films.


News has come out recently that Wes Craven's and Kevin Williamson's Scream movie franchise is coming to the small screen as an MTV series. Questions about why MTV has become what it has aside, that's good news if they manage to keep it in the same vein. The series influenced nearly every horror movie that has come since, if not within the films themselves, at least in the movie posters and DVD/Blu-ray box art. That lineup of attractive stars in front of a splashy logo, some drippy, bloody and/or torn looking graphic? Scream did that first. It spawned I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend and countless other imitators, many (including Scream itself) with a string of sequels.

What set Scream apart from earlier slasher movies was a subversion of horror movie cliches, a winking "genre savvy"-ness by characters within the film, a writer that was raised on  pop culture (hell, he created Dawson's Creek), a mixture of humor and horror, and the biggest thing of all: known stars. In the old days, horror movies--especially the slasher type--might have a marginally known character actor (Hope Lange, John Saxon, Betsy Palmer), but were mostly stocked with a bunch of unknowns. Your Kevin Bacons and Johnny Depps became well known of course, but nobody knew them when they starred in the first Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, respectively. Scream started the trend of stocking a horror movie with a roster of up-and-coming young (typically very attractive) actors, often from hit teen TV shows. And all of this new stuff was put into the hands of the very capable Craven, creator of Nightmare and several other standout horror classics.

But Scream was a long time ago now. All of that novelty has been absorbed and trodden and retreaded to death by now. We've segued through (and passed?) torture porn like Hostel and the endless Saw series. Scream--often thought of as something of a horror parody itself--was parodied in the first of the also endless Scary Movie (which curiously was the working title of Scream) films. Indirectly, Scream is responsible for the horrible stream of parody "Movie" movies that came after. So the movie that started all of that, and its sequels, are now part of nostalgia, with a patina of prestige and respect. But, how do they hold up?

 [Here there may be minor spoilers]

Scream (1996) starts the ball rolling in a seemingly novel (but cribbed from Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic Psycho) way, by killing off the seeming star of the flick early on. Neve Campbell turns out to be the central figure (the last girl, in slasher-speak), and she is aided by bitchy newswoman Courtney Cox and goofy cop, David Arquette. This sets up a sort of triad of stars that runs through all of the films, including the new one.  As in many old 80s slasher pics, the new murders happen one year after another terrible event. Not surprisingly, the events are related in obvious and not so obvious ways. The movie misdirects you into thinking several people could potentially be the killer, and also plainly directs you to doubt yourself. Along the way, several characters comment on the events as though they know that they are in a horror movie. They mostly die anyway. Nothing about the movie hints that there is an inevitible sequel.

Scream 2 (1997) picks up a couple of years later, with Neve's character now in college. Her genre savvy pal (Jamie Kennedy) is there with her, being one of the few to survive the first movie. Neve's got a hotty boyfriend (Jerry O'Connell) and new friends, and she's a budding actress in the college play. And then, suddenly people start dying again, seemingly at the hand of the same ghost-faced killer from the original story. The problem is, the original killer(s) died. Of course, in a horror movie, dead doesn't always mean really dead. Is it the same guy(s)? Is it the new boyfriend? The surviving pal? Goofy cop Dewey? Bitchy reporter Gale? Cotton (Liev Schrieber), the guy who almost got executed when Neve's Sydney character misidentified him? Or someone else? The answer(s) feel a little out of left field, or at least they did on my first viewing. But today, in context with just having watched the first movie, it didn't feel like such a bad fit. Not as good as part one, but pretty good.

Scream 3 (2000) looks and feels different, and indeed it is largely written by a different person. The setting has also changed from small town America to Hollywood. The movie-within-a-movie idea began in part 2, with Stab, a slasher picture based on Courtney Cox's character's tell-all book. Here, Stab 3 is in production, and much of the action takes place at the movie studio, which has rebuilt the original small town on a set. Movie in-jokes abound, such as "Jennifer Jolie" playing a version of Cox's reporter, and being told "sorry it didn't work out with Brad Pitt."  There are new characters, an old character that comes back (sort of) even though he's dead. And the killer still looks the same, but is a different person, that manages to tie in to the rest of the story.  By itself, Scream 3 is an enjoyable movie. But it suffers in comparison to the first two.  Also, Neve Campbell is at best a supporting player in this one, with Arquette and Cox (the latter with an atrocious hairdo) doing the heavy lifting.

Overall, they did a commendable job of tying the three films together. It stretches credulity a little, that the killer in the third movie motivated the killers of the first. Much like Back to the Future Part III, where they managed to create back story that worked, and Saw (from part 2 forward) where it got too convoluted, Scream 3 uses story elements from the first movie, and substantially rewrites what really happened, without contradicting anything. One thing I have to wonder though, is if they ever considered casting Neve's brother, Christian Campbell for the role that Scott Foley played? It would have been a very good fit, but might have given away the ending too easily.

Scream 4 (2011) - I'll confess that "SCRE4M" doesn't stay with you as well as the first three, maybe because I haven't had repeated watchings over years. But here are my impressions: it manages to keep the same flavor of the first three while bringing it into the modern day. It develops some new characters should there be further sequels (unless the series makes that all moot). And it manages to surprise and delight, very much like the first one did. I think it accomplished what it set out to do, but was just a little bit underwhelming. It's certainly worth a view, and a must if you liked the first three.

Scream: highly recommended
Scream 2: highly recommended
Scream 3: if you liked the first two
Scream 4: a must if you liked what came before

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