Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Scenes #10: Scream: "Scary" Movies

The opening of Scream is without a doubt one of the most iconic scenes in horror. It's a sequence that embodies and to a large extent makes up for, much of the series. It does so by running directly counter to much of what the series does as a whole.

First off the sequence plays long. Probably longer than you remember. Certainly longer than I remembered (when I wincingly calculated how much of my image memory this post would devour). The first three minutes of this could play out as almost a straight romantic comedy. It takes it's time before tipping its hand to horror, making it all the more effective when the hammer drops.

Secondly you like her.

It’s always shocking to me just how far out of their way some horror filmmakers will go to make their characters unlikeable guilt free fodder. Sure the vapid bros who populate say The Friday The 13th Nu Metal Remake don't "deserve" their grisly deaths by any real world measure. But by movie morality Jason is nothing less than the swift hand of justice. They may as well have filmed the mandals wearing crew barbecuing puppies.

When you consider just how much more effective it makes a horror film to care about the characters the lazyness is even more unfathomable. When you actually do get a likable horror protagonist (ala Alison Lohman in Drag Me To Hell) it’s almost a shock. It’s all the more surprising as Drew’s part shows here how easy it is to do. She's not playing a particularly well drawn or deep character, just a deeply and instinctively sympathetic one. Underneath it all is the lie that if you’re bad bad things will happen to you and if you’re good vica versa. This is especially damning because this is exactly the opposite of what the great horror films tap into. The power of the random to strike you any time anywhere, that shadow on your lungs in the X-ray, that Vodka fueled driver crossing the center line. Nice person? Kind to animals? Good to your kids? Fate really couldn’t give a fuck.

I love that little pan. The all important first real note of discord in the horror movie. That swing evocative with just the right amount of dread. A horror movie pillow shot?

A nice little callback to Halloween with the butcher block even before Barrymore underlines it.

And God look at those beautiful beautiful VHS. A nice moment of nostalgia for the viewer while Craven get's to participate in a nice little bit of self congratulation "Was that the guy with knives for fingers? I liked that movie it was scary."

"Yeah too bad the sequels blew."

Uh huh...

"I want to know who I'm looking at." We're almost four minutes into the sequence at this point. It's a wonderfully creepy moment.

Arguably no horror film has gotten better use of the architecture of suburbia since Halloween. The warm modernist prairie home design, meant to be inviting also gives an almost unlimited amount of foreground and background for the killer to be lurking in.

"Hang up the phone again and I'll gut you." This is an ugly real moment. Meant to hurt and terrify.

And it works. What makes the sequence so effective is that Barrymore acts like a real person. She's scared and desperate I'm reminded of what King writes in the new introduction to Danse Macabre (Talking about the new The Last House On The Left) "-we know it's really going to happen, we are filled with rage and sorrow (and if there's an emotion more foreign to a Friday The 13th movie than sorrow, I don't know what is)". Scream if only in this scene is that rare horror movie acquainted with sorrow. The focus is not on the excitement on wondering what the next gore shot is going to look like. Or even the terror of the moment. It's on just how pitiful it is. On what a sad, lonely and undeserving way this is to go.

This is also the first time that the "rules" are mentioned. But note how they're used to mock and hurt. Not as an opportunity for a clever reference.

I'm reminded of The Outlaw Vern's comment on Smoking Aces, about how he was surprised to see the characters get sad when people they cared about started to die. Instead of the blaise reactions to death that had become the raison d'etre in crime films of the era. Here it's a similar reaction. Barrymore doesn't know she's in a horror movie. Up until ten minutes ago she was in a romantic comedy. As a result she is acting with actual horror. It should be remembered that the ultimate source of horror is the subversion of the norm. The unraveling of things. Most clumsy modern horror never even bothers to establish a norm to subvert.

Now for years film fans have been using the Scream films as an oppurtunity to prove just how much cooler and well versed they are in horror cinema than the imaginary people who populate the film (Witness the shit fits thrown about The Peeping Tom reference in Scream 4). Yeah! Fuck you fictional characters!!! (This dubious enterprise may have reached its nadir last night in a review that I will not name but to which I must just say, "Wow".) Ignoring the inherent insecurity in such a reaction, let me just take a minute to point out that ninety percent of the audience is likely to have less of a background in horror than you. And aren't you glad about that? I mean if you put all this time an effort into loving horror, aren't you glad that you know a bit more than the average joe? Does that mean the average filmgoer shouldn't get to watch the movie? I mean if they're not well versed enough to get Lamberto Bava or Jacques Tourneur trivia then fuck em right?

The whole point of the trivia segements is to put the viewer in the victims place. For that to work you have to ask a question that they could plausibly answer. Or more importantly in the case of this rather obvious Friday The 13th question, plausibly get wrong. Remember, this is 1996. The last Friday had come out only three years before. Jason was still very much in the cultural lexicon at this point. Mrs. Voorhees not so much. While it is unlikely that the average Teenager would have seen Friday The 13th "Twenty Goddamn times" she would have seen it. And Jason would have been the first thing to pop into her head.

This is an effective moment but it’s also a bit of a cheat. The classic rule of the slasher (one not exposited by Randy) is that if the camera cannot see the killer then neither can the characters. No matter how visible the killer would be in the victim’s field of vision the killer reserves the right to jump in to the foreground and background at will with the stealth of damn ninja. Here it’s the same rule reversed. We hear the kill before we see it, which is how it’s excused. But The Killer would still need Speedy Gonzales like speed to evade detection, by Barrymore as the lights are off for only about five seconds. But the camera cannot see him thus he is invisible.

"Guess which door I'm at." The nastiest part of this is that knowing what we know about Billy and Stu there is no correct answer for poor Barrymore to give. Say what you will about Williamson's script but Scream is the rare horror movie that is built to hold up in hindsight.

The knife, the smoke, Barrymore going from victim to Final Girl. Part of what makes the sequence so effective is that it feels much more like the end of a horror film than the beginning of one.

Our first glimpse of Ghost Face comes nearly nine minutes into the sequence. It’s another neat inversion on the old slasher trope. The fear of slashers traditionally comes from their omnipresence. No matter how hard you run, Jason and Michael will keep pace with you without so much as breaking into a power walk, The Strangers will lurk in the background no matter where you go. Ghostface in most of his incarnations takes the exact opposite tack. Even when he’s in pursuit you’re never sure where.

Oh that is a bitch. Another surprisingly lazy thing about much of horror writing is how it treats the character's deaths as forgone conclusions. A little hope can go a long way.

Let us now praise famous Ghostfaces. Say what you will about 80's horror but there was no shortage of memorable monsters from the era. If you mark the beginning of modern horror with Scream, Ghostface remains really the only truly memorable creation. Jigsaw is the only modern monster who can claim similar iconicism and ubiquity. Though it is a bit of a stretch to put those two ghouls in the same genus. Sadako from the Ring is another contender. But technically I consider her more of a trope and she's not American. The only other iconic monsters I can think of are The Firefly Clan and let's face it they're pretty ghettoized in horror fandom. You show a picture Otis Driftwood to a normal they're not going to know who the fuck he is. Most of the Scream copy cats were content to put the killer in a black slicker and have them chase the nubile.

Ghostface is another matter. Like all of the great monsters he's simple enough to pray on your sub-conscience, yet iconic enough to be instantly recognizable add that to the way his appearance subtly mocks his victims...

Yeah that's a great design.

I've written some unkind things about Craven in the past. But only because I've meant them.

One thing I will give to Craven is that his horror across the board has a physicality to it. There is never death without struggle in a Craven film, when he's at his best, it feels real.

The fact that Ghostface has to look and line up his knife before plunging it in, gives this moment the clumsy, unglamorized look that pushes it into the bounds of true horror.

Once again this isn't glamorous, this isn't fun, this isn't cool. No one would think to grin and call this a great kill. This is pathetic, lonely, cruel and sad.

And prolonged and desperate...

That last shot of Barrymore, desperately trying to call for her mother, without even the strength to get it through her brutalized throat, is one of the most purely horrifying images I know of.

In the last moment Barrymore pulls off Ghostface's mask. And reveals something much more terrifying then whatever continuity ignoring reveal the makeup men on the latest Friday The 13th cooked up. It synchs up with the moment that Barrymore wounds Ghostface in the window scene. From the very beginning it is shown that he is not the implacable, invulnerable, supernatural slasher of yesteryear. The face she reveals is a human face. That is terror, not just horror.

Her parents listening to their daughter die is the last underlier that this is a sequence about suffering. Not Fear. It's like something from a Gialli without the distancing effect of theatricality.

And there's the punchline for you. Scream? I believe I will.

Of course after the credits, Scream becomes an entirely different movie. Not a bad movie, as I insisted for awhile (After all I did mark another moment from the film as one of my scariest moments). But just another slasher, albeit a well written and directed one. Ironic for a movie (rightfully) labeled the post modern horror film that Scream should start with sequence of such unabashed reality. That was what Scream promised, a horror movie played real. It could have been great, it settled for good.

Of course a film played entirely at that level could well be unbearable. Think Funny Games but without the comforting distance of being an intellectual exercise. And it certainly wouldn't have sold enough popcorn to guarantee a fourth installment. But I can't help but watch this sequence with the mixture of terror and pity it arouses in me and wonder what might have been had Craven and Williamson had the balls to follow through on the courage of their convictions.


le0pard13 said...

Bravo scene exposition, Bryce. I agree this is one of the iconic scenes in modern horror cinema. Thanks.

AK said...

Just-wow, Bryce. Awesome.
Earlier today before I even turned on the computer, I was hanging out with one of my best friends (420, you know)and we were talking about this very subject--that horror movies often make the victims seem like assholes,as if they then somehow DESERVE to die? Twisted movie logic, which this scene completely upends. Casey's a total sweetheart and,as brilliant as this scene is,I find it almost un-watchable (usually pick up a book and turn down the sound during this part when it's on TNT, like it was the other night).
Conflicting feelings in that, if violence is going to be shown, don't throw it out to the morons who live for that stuff, instead make it real, make me uncomfortable.
But then again, it's just too real, this scene-I can't bear it.(Really)
The closest runner up I can come up with is Tina's death in the original NOES: She has some seriously absentee parenting going on, and it's clear her background isn't loaded w/money.She's a nice normal girl with more than her share of problems... And some psycho weirdo in her dreams is stalking her.
So...I don't know. I'll probably see Scre4m pretty soon (however it's spelled),because I saw the first two in the theater with some of my best friends and we had a great time,but from what I've read, it's even more grisly than the original, and I guess it's all starting to seem a bit...distasteful. Still, who doesn't love Sidney? Here's hoping she kicks the killer's ass!
Thanks for another killer post!

Neil Fulwood said...

A pertinent reminder here, Bryce, that Craven can direct the hell out of scene when he wants to. Such a shame, then, that much of his work bears the stamp of laziness and disinterest.

deadlydolls said...

Love this post! I'll never forget being 14 and sitting in a theater, falling in love with this movie in five minutes. I also have a lot of beef with Craven, but he nails it with that opening scene.

Unknown said...

Top notch dissection of what makes this scene so great and why it still holds up after all these years. Ditto this film which is easily the best entry in the franchise (SCREAM 2 is excellent also. I think that Craven gets a lot of mileage from how inately likable Drew Barrymore is. You just instantly like her and really don't want to see her killed, esp. in the gruesome way that happens in this sequence. You really nailed what makes this scene work oh so well.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Leopard 13: Thanks Leopard: One of the few left that everyone knows.

@ Rob: Thanks man. Excellent point linking NOES with Scream wouldn't have thought of it. But you're right. Man Craven goes gunning for those innocents doesn't he?

I actually really liked Scream 4, much more than either of the sequels. I didn't think it was that bad as far as gore goes. I mean it's definitely R, but there's nothing as upsetting as this scene.

@ Neil: Yeah Craven really is a profoundly lazy filmmaker. When he's not engaged. And even when he is engaged he is occasionally just plain crazy.

@ Emily: Yeah I remember talking my dad into letting me rent this when my Mom was out of town. Scream was a gateway drug for a lot of people our age that is for sure.

@ JD: Many thanks sir. I don't know, I've never enjoyed Scream 2, though it has a killer opening sequence as well.

We need to send a memo to horror filmmakers. Note to self: Write characters so audience want them to live.

Vern said...

Great breakdown of a great scene. Makes me want to watch it again. In those screengrabs the mask even looks scary again.

I sure hope the "wow" review you refer to wasn't mine. I know it's a minor point. I just think the world has changed to where the trivia could be slightly more challenging now. Those kids know how to use Google on their smart phones.

Bryce Wilson said...

Believe me Vern that comment WAS NOT DIRECTED TOWARDS YOU.

Honest and for true. I actually really enjoyed your review (as always) even if I thought the movie worked a bit better than you gave it credit for.

Thank you for the kind words and as always it was a pleasure to have you stop by.

Rachel said...

Great breakdown of an opening scene I'll never forget.

I loved SCREAM the first time I saw it in the theatre and I still love it to this day. I don't have any critical insights into the horror genre (and the only other horror movie I've watched since then that I really liked was THE RING - it scared me) and I probably won't acquire any but a movie that surprises is always welcome to me and I think SCREAM served up a lot of moments that were unexpected.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Rachel: Very true it knew the formula well enough to juke it.