Scream (1996)

★★★★★

Scream PosterDirector: Wes Craven

Release Date: December 20th, 1996 (US); May 2nd, 1997 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Mystery

Starring: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette

Within minutes, it asks us to consider our “favourite scary movie”. Characters relentlessly quote or refer to other characters from other films, such Pyscho’s Norman Bates or Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees. Wes Craven’s Scream is both a love letter to horror cinema and a skilfully rammed knife in the genre’s back. It is vibrant and arrogant and brash. Kevin Williamson pens a screenplay that inverts commonality, and does so for two reasons: to offer fans something new, and to prove that you still can offer fans something new.

Take the bloody prologue as an example. One of the greatest bait and switch openings to ever grace the silver screen, it suddenly manoeuvres from harmless small talk between Drew Barrymore’s unsuspecting teen and an anonymous caller, to effervescent morbidity. “Turn on the patio lights,” orders the unidentified voice, and from then convention is flipped: our proverbial heroine dies in an instant, despite almost escaping, almost alerting her parents, almost relaying the correct answer. You need to know your horror history or else bad things will happen. If that’s not an advert for the genre, what is?

Scream’s role in revitalising the slasher genre ought to be celebrated. Diverting tonally from the superbly mean-spirited Texas Chain Saw Massacres and Exorcists of the 1970s, this embraced the madness and subsequently recaptured the imagination of viewers with self-reflective normalisation. Whereas earlier audiences sought out squeals and yelps (as seen in this recording of a 70s Halloween screening), cinemagoers in the 90s were clearly after something different. Craven obliged, combining wit with exhilarating chills to create an atmosphere that encouraged knowledgeable grins.

More recently, Final Destination and Saw have built entire franchises atop Scream’s perceptive hallmarks, and filmmakers such as Ti West and Adam Wingard likely fostered their own brand of creative horror having gazed upon Craven’s work. Edgar Wright published a touching tribute to the late director, noting the visceral influence Craven’s portfolio had on him in his younger years, an influence that once again reared during the production of Shaun of the Dead (you can read that tribute here).

The story is straightforward: a rampaging killer is loose in Woodsboro, a small Californian community seemingly dominated by obnoxious teens and roving reporters. Still living with the demons brought on by her mother’s murder, Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell, who wholly endears) unwittingly gets caught up in the knife-wielding drama. Knowing the killer’s identity before seeing the film doesn’t undo its value, which is sort of the point; though guessing is part of the fun, horror doesn’t have to be about who is under the hood. The preceding thrill is worth its weight in gold.

Speaking of said killer, the villain here is a maniacal conglomeration of humour and fear. The way Ghostface runs is both funny and scary, as is the way his/her mask droops. Ghostface appears anywhere and everywhere: reflected in the eye of a deceased victim; scampering through neighbourhood forests; hiding behind school closets. It could be anybody under the black cloak and as such a prevailing air of bubbling uncertainty exists (“There’s a formula to it, a very simple formula. Everybody’s a suspect!”). Characters act erratically around each other, but no more erratically than normal teenagers act, which helps to harnesses any disengaging silliness.

Famous for breaking the fourth wall and openly discussing the rules of horror, Scream’s meta ambience still holds up almost two decades on. Perhaps this is indicative of a lack of evolution in the genre, or perhaps it is simply because Wes Craven had a penchant for predicting and challenging the future Zeitgeist. Regarding scary movies, Sydney lays it out for us: “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.” And normally it is insulting, but not this time.

Patrick Lussier’s snappy editing feeds the edgy (and also comedic) aura, as do Marco Beltrami’s brassy convulsions. Mark Irwin’s camera often shows us what Sydney does not see — for example, the killer’s feet and costume descending into view beneath a bathroom stall door that our protagonist checked only moments prior. Scream is not, incidentally, an out-and-out comedy. We laugh when the film acknowledges absurdity, a trait familiar to the genre that is often ignored in favour of a more serious approach.

At one point the song lyrics “say a prayer for the youth of America” ring out before the view instantly cuts to a house party. The insinuation could be anything. That youngsters lack focus and are too materialistic. That the teens in this film are in grave danger. It could even be a nod towards the social plight of kids in the real world — 1996, after all, continued to play host to the consumerist, ratings-gorging MTV Generation.

The outing even manages to appraise the media in between its scary movie satire. It is tough on said industry, embodied by journalist Gale Weathers’ constant need to invade the teens’ privacy as well as her less than admirable moral motivations (“Do you know what that could do for my book sales?”). But there is a blunt nod towards the media’s role in serving justice too.

It all culminates in an intense, enjoyable and smartly executed wild goose chase with so many well-earned twists and turns. And, like in all great horror flicks, you really want the innocent lot to make it through the bloodbath unscathed. Well, maybe a little scathed. Those are the rules after all.

Scream - Ghostface

Images credit: IMP AwardsPopcorn Horror

Images copyright (©): Dimension Films

Oculus (2014)

★★★

Oculus PosterDirector: Mike Flanagan

Release Date: June 14th, 2014

Genre: Horror

Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaties

Perhaps the most commendable thing about Mike Flanagan’s Oculus is that, for the most part, it refrains from divulging the usual genre conventions. In an era where horror isn’t just for Halloween and franchises reign handily over standalone outings, a scary movie that deviates from the Final Destination school of fright is a welcome sight. It’s a shame that the film’s increasingly choppy narrative slips from the grasp of its director and his co-writer Jeff Howard, but there is a lot to admire here.

We jump between two timelines throughout: in the present day Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and her younger brother Tim (Breton Thwaites) return to their childhood home in order to confront and “kill” a spirit emanating from an antiquated mirror. Kaylie believes the mirror is haunted, that it infiltrated their parents’ minds and subsequently caused their deaths — events retold in the other timeline.

Tim isn’t as convinced. At the beginning of the film he is in the process of being discharged from a psychiatric hospital having come to the conclusion that the aforementioned tragedy was non-supernatural. An underlying darkness is already in full flow when we meet the characters; Tim would rather avoid speaking about the past whereas Kaylie is noticeably desperate to face her demons head on. “I know you’ll never understand that part of my life,” she tells her fiancé (who is otherwise surplus to requirements) and you get the sense she has been plotting glass-shattering comeuppance for years.

Actually, it’s more than a sense. In a scintillating ten minute scene, Kaylie meticulously describes and explains the bleak history of the mirror, the just-as-bleak history of her family and how she plans to prove that the artefact is engaged in dark arts. Its function could be construed as lazy storytelling — getting one character to spout exposition rather than conjuring up something more inventive — and it does raise a few outdated genre tropes (smashing mirrors is bad luck, apparently). However, Gillan’s superb form elevates the scene high above its promise. She is determined, her emotion buried beneath a precise exterior. The Scot is arguably the best thing on screen, despite her deep homegrown accent occasionally escaping off the ends of sentences.

Kaylie’s tenacious exterior isn’t instantly appealing, nor is it off-putting, but her doggedness is compelling. She seems pleased when the mirror exhibits an array of unusual reflections, including a sheet-covered mannequin that doesn’t actually exist, and treats the object like a living creature. The film’s immediate mystique owes much to The Newton Brothers’ slightly bulging score too. As the tension mounts it resembles the echo of a pulsating heartbeat. Michael Fimognari’s cinematography is steady and likes to linger, particularly during the first half of Oculus.

Alternating between two different timelines is a premise that bears significant intrigue. The television show Lost expertly utilised the flashback technique, and films such as The Usual Suspects and — to a lesser degree — Sinister have successfully dabbled in the method too. For a while it is effective here, bolstering the taut atmosphere as events in the past add more emotional verve to events in the present.

The estate, where most of the film takes place, is put to proficient use as memories fade back into reality with technical dexterity. It is like something out of a modern Guillermo del Toro flick: grand with wooden floorboards that undoubtedly croak at night, and full of mystery and immaculate character. Yet, in a neat contrast, the unsavoury mirror looks out of place, like something more suited to del Toro’s classically-set brand of filmmaking.

We’re left to wonder if there is actually anything going on beyond the horror — does Oculus present a slant on the effects of ill mental health, or the tribulations of a dysfunctional family? Kaylie shouts with joy when she realises she isn’t making it all up, that it’s all spookily true. Tim has been psychologically ‘healed’ so to speak, though we know from the get-go that he has always been sane (this is a horror film after all). The mirror encourages a rift between Kaylie and Tim’s parents by manifesting as an intrusive female stranger. If anything, the piece touches upon these subjects without really investigating them.

Unfortunately, the constant jumping between timelines becomes increasingly frequent, meaning proceedings in both the past and present invariably lose momentum. Sticking primarily in the contemporary space would have been more interesting because the characters’ past is more obvious. Flanagan’s swift editing is technically well executed, but annoyingly misguided. The point is to smartly fill in biographical gaps and for Kaylie and Tim to encounter a growing sense of alienation. We are supposed to feel unsettled, not confused.

The past is awash with a Kubrick-lite aura, as if the writers co-wrote the screenplay with The Shining on in the background. As dad Alan, Rory Cochrane adopts Jack Nicholson’s wavering sanity, while Katee Sackhoff’s Marie takes up Shelley Duvall’s fearful paranoia. A historical bathtub death even finds its way on board, hinting at that disgusting scene with the old woman in Kubrick’s film. Both Cochrane and Sackhoff are creepy enough in their respective roles.

In the end, Oculus doesn’t quite amount to the sum of its parts. But it does break tradition — the protagonists run straight towards evil as opposed to it chasing them — and Karen Gillan is a consistently excellent screen presence. For about an hour this is really enticing, imaginative stuff. A sequel doesn’t sound so scary after all.

Oculus - Gillen & Thwaites

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Relativity Media