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

Friday the 13th (1980)

★★★

Friday the 13th PosterDirector: Sean S. Cunningham

Release Date: May 9th, 1980 (US)

Genre: Horror

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Adrienne King, Peter Brouwer

It would go on to spawn nine awkwardly named sequels, a cash driven remake and horror’s first modern crossover but Friday the 13th’s greatest influence has always been contained within the lore of the genre itself. Part of a thriving gore group with strands etched through the seventies and early eighties, Sean S. Cunningham’s outing is fairly camp by today’s standards (no pun intended) but also an entirely palatable effort. Should we be thanking the director for his contribution to an occasionally riveting genre, or cursing him for his ‘how to’ guide on making a easy buck? Probably a bit of both in truth, but we definitely shouldn’t be ignorant.

You probably all know the story by now. In 1957, a young boy drowned in Crystal Lake. In 1958, two camp residents were brutally murdered. Twenty one years have passed and the summer retreat location is re-opening, its renovation being undertaken by owner Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) and a bunch of other counsellors. Of course, a blade-wielding killer has decided to pitch up for the night too.

Clichés are abound in Friday the 13th, but given the film was made so long ago a degree of slack-cutting ought to be implemented. It’s true that we can namecheck all of the hackneyed genre norms even before the end of the prologue, a trend that remains throughout and — looking back many years later via eyes worn out by forest chases, old creaky barns and loved up teens — is ultimately a bit disengaging. Then again, who’s watching a thirty-four year old slasher romp with a view to criticise when the local loony shows up? We’ve seen it all before, yes, but there is still stupidity fuelled fun to be had.

Such is the general nature of the slasher brand, the film isn’t all that frightening. The formula on display dictates what winds up being a fairly kooky tone; having settled on the joke-making, characters find themselves separated from the group — either through lust, sheer idiocy, or both — and are picked off innocuously. That’s not to say creepy moments are completely benched. On the off chance we do get see some post-death imagery that is quite unsettling, though by and large the kill scenes themselves are silly. (And, to be fair, quite admirably executed given the tiny budget).

The same plot would see the light of day a few years later, this time under of the guise of Sleepaway Camp, and Friday the 13th could have made use of that film’s shocking conclusion. At ninety minutes long, Victor Miller’s screenplay really does begin to feel the weight of repetition, particularly as it approaches its final act. More time should be filled with scary suspense, and absolutely would be in a more serious affair. The comedic underbelly (one that has no doubt felt the effects of age) taints any tension and, despite serving up the occasional moment of light relief, sticks the knife anything attempting to divert away from light froth — a silly interaction with a snake effectively sums up this quandary, especially as the pay-off gag is funny.

The cast, comprised of good looking kids you might see in a Pepsi commercial, are nothing more than genre pawns resistant to backstories and peeled straight off the slasher victim conveyor belt. These days they’d most certainly be chopped to pieces by the force of modern critical consumption. (Rich coming from a film blogger, admittedly). There is no central character, nobody who is distinguished outwith the cloak of ‘last person standing’, and it is therefore difficult to care. A youthful Kevin Bacon shows up looking peculiar in his iffy speedos, though he’s not the worst offender. Peter Brouwer plays camp owner Steve Christy, a guy I’d have been scared away by upon arrival at Crystal Lake — topless, moustached, prone to face stroking… he is the definition of a dodgy customer. A wary truck driver sums the characters up rather efficiently: “Dumb kids, heads full of rocks”.

Having said all that, the film should be acknowledged for its role in inspiring an often lively genre and it is here through which the franchise as a whole thrives. Part of the Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street crop, Friday the 13th is a significant contributor to a pack that would go on to influence a new form of popular mainstream cinema, a whole new genre in essence. Director Sean S. Cunningham shifts from a conventional shooting framework to one with flavours of today’s abundantly utilised found footage style. It works too: we collaborate with the killer’s point of view, adding a more primal dimension.

Other moments usher in previous genres knowledges, such as Hitchcockian shadows, Janet Leigh-esque screeches and Carrie-like drenched gowns, suggesting a semblance of directorial nous. The piece is also an introduction to one of cinemas most recognisable baddies in Jason Voorhees, though here his form is somewhat diminished. Moral issues such as revenge are timidly hinted at but not worth their inclusion.

Indeed, Friday the 13th couldn’t be cornier if it was on a cob. Characterisation — or the lack thereof — is at an unfathomable premium and the horror outing isn’t really all that spooky. But it’s not really horror. Three decades ago the picture was one of the first in a less weighty, more dainty subgenre whose cleaver would end up spurring on the likes of Scream, one of the 90s’ best and a favourite of mine.

For my money, that’s pretty good going.

Friday the 13th - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

★★★

Director: Robert Hiltzik

Release Date: November 18th, 1983 (US)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields, Christopher Collet

Sleepaway Camp is certainly a half accurate title in that Robert Hiltzik’s early 1980s slasher debacle has its fair share of camp, and in a way is a little confused as to what it wants to be. Although entertaining enough, it would appear that much of the film has lost a great deal of its edge over the past 30 years, making it come across as a tad goofy in the present day. However, the harrowing and shocking ending Sleepaway Camp unleashes goes a long way to reclaiming that lost tension.

Set during summer camp at Camp Arawak, the film follows a group of campers who fall victim to a series of seemingly unprovoked, random murders at the hands of an unknown assailant. In particular, events zone in on the experiences of Angela, a slightly disturbed and mysterious girl who lost her father and brother in a boating accident eight years prior.

Sleepaway Camp has garnered a distinct cult following since its release, much of which is a product of the film’s alarming ending. Without a doubt, the final scene is completely left-field and gives Sleepaway Camp a much-needed shot in the arm, as much of what comes before is a tad underwhelming. It is difficult to decipher which direction Robert Hiltzik intended to take the film, and how he wanted it to be perceived back in 1983, but thirty years south of its release it certainly veers closer to camp than creepy. That is not to say that it is a bad film, but for around seventy of its 88 minutes on-screen, it does not exceed the passable mark.

To its credit, Sleepaway Camp is fairly inventive when it comes to the murderer’s methods of killing, without bumbling over towards silly. The film was making its way into cinemas just as the slasher horror genre was entering a period of down-time — between the likes of John Carpenter’s masterful Halloween in the late-1970s and the slasher re-emergence through genre pioneers such as Scream in the mid-1990s. Sleepaway Camp does well, therefore, in its attempts to be creative at a time when many of the products the genre was producing were uninspired. However, it is unable to avoid some of the usual potential genre pitfalls. The dialogue is often rash and lacking in any efficiency, often taking a back-seat to the narrative itself and seemingly driven by unwarranted and lazy bouts of profanity. The production values are also inconsistent, with some of the visuals looking especially disgusting (in a good way), whereas others go overboard on the goofiness — another example of the film being confused as to whether it wants to be treated in a serious manner or whether it’s not taking itself too seriously.

None of the cast in particular stand out and, as previously mentioned, they are not given the greatest script to relay and exchange with one another, meaning many of the performances are forgettable. With that being said, Mike Kellin, who has a supporting role as the camp overseer, is eccentric and at times vaguely humorous in his role. Felissa Rose, who plays the main character Angela, is not given an awful lot to do, and as a result does not offer a lot more than a lifeless performance for much of the film — this has more to do with her character being poorly written than her actual performance in all fairness. However, she is the central figure of the best and most unnerving scene in the entire piece. Other than that, the nice characters are nice enough and the nasty ones are nasty enough, generating a bog-standard, clichéd feeling amongst the group of campers.

Even though much of the film is vaguely enjoyable, with some nifty character disposals for its time, a significant percentage of the goings-on are nothing more than just okay. It should be noted though that the main selling point of Sleepaway Camp (which, incidentally is an unjustified title) is the ending which it boasts, and it is true the finale gives the output a dose of essential last-minute energy to make the overall film a worthwhile watch.

Credit: Live Mall Movies
Credit: Live Mall Movies