"Scream 4" is opening this weekend, and oddly enough, I’m looking forward to it. The burnout I had from dotcom era excess and self-referential teen horror is apparently gone.
Those were fun and weird and empty days, the late 90’s, full of partying and aimless late-twenties misdirection. I’m not sure I’m more “directed” now, but regardless, part of aimless misdirection is watching any movie you want, whenever you want. This in turn led to the incessant consumption of many of the movies in the new wave of horror inspired by “Scream .”
We all know about the ‘self-referential’ part of the Scream franchise. All the genre tropes that the character of Randy deconstructs so cleverly set the stage for a late 90’s horror renaissance that ran with knowing winks, a glut of then-WB stars, and a lack of serious gothic supernatural elements. It managed to infect the long-standing trashy franchises of the genre from which it drew (Halloween H20 anyone?). And then there’s Kevin Williamson’s high-school fetish, which might be a future post here.
I can’t do a recap or a review to save my life. But I can point out what struck me upon repeated viewings of the films. Particularly one overarching thread of the trilogy: the Maureen Prescott, the mother of Neve Campbell’s character, Sidney Prescott. If you look at horror films as a blueprint for social control, the plot thread of Maureen begins to stand out.
There are plenty of good reasons this film became a sensation. The non-horror fans found humor, eye candy, credible suspense, and a star from the era’s most beloved sitcom. The horror fan found justification and payoff for every moment of their life they spent watching awful slashers.
Setting aside the deconstruction and winking reference that made it unique, the thing to remember about the first Scream is that like the best of horror films, it did its job well by providing the thrill and pleasure of a tense mystery. Yes, there’s bloody kills too, but Williamson, Craven and crew took care to build a strong story and memorable characters that if you don’t necessarily love (and I did), you also don’t cheer for them to be exterminated gruesomely by weedwhacker or hacksaw. Please don’t think me a sadist, but when watching a paper-thin slasher, one tends to root for the killer to violently silence the annoying, obnoxious teen stock characters. Okay, yes, I’m a sadist.
There’s something relaxing and invigorating in small town horror, isn’t there? A crisp chill breath of fresh fall air, old colonial houses, murder afoot, mystery to relieve the doldrums. A killer who follows you around in his weird mask during the day while you’re inside a small grocery store. Why call the cops? They can’t help you. Doesn’t the whole thing make you feel more…alive?
But then, beyond that, we’re introduced to the story of Maureen Prescott and her illicit affair with Liev Schreiber’s character, Cotton Weary. An absentee mother for the highly beleaguered Final Girl. The reason a killer had to do what he did.
Cranking the mayhem to 12 and taking it to college, "Scream 2 " was a highly entertaining movie, if more of the same. The thrills were there, if set aside for more gore. And over the top campy melodrama was all over this one. Sidney’s college thespian ambitions were a little laughable, even if the sequence with the Greek chorus was spooky. How about Jada Pinkett Smith’s ‘I Am Dying, Egypt!’ histrionics?
The most important thing to note about this movie was the killer, a killer in a great but underused tradition not seen since the very first Friday the 13th. And again, who is implicit in Sidney’s tortured life? Who made a killer do what a killer’s gotta do?
That’s right, Sidney’s mom. A killer here wants some Old Testament vengeance for Maureen Prescott’s actions.
Another sidebar - I can’t watch Sarah Michelle Gellar in a horror film without expecting her to kick some ass. But that’s entirely my problem.
"Scream 3" was an awful film that was simply going through rushed and tired motions in order to wrap up a story and milk a dying trend. I could be wrong, but I think by then, "The Blair Witch Project" had debuted and the focus was back on serious, high supernatural horror. Carrie Fisher was in it, so was Dr. McDreamy, and there was a lot of speechifying about personal responsibility and “once again the media made me do it!”
One thing is of note, even if it didn’t make the film any better. There’s a slight backstory about a depraved Hollywood Babylon to make Roman Polanski blush. At the center of it all, once again, the trilogy’s much maligned Hester Prynne, Sidney’s mother Maureen Prescott. A woman whose shamefully adulterous and sordid past led to her doom and cursed her family. Nathaniel Hawthorne could very well have written this.
Sidney’s mom was apparently in some movies in the 70’s, with fantastic sounding grindhouse titles. “Amazombies”? I want to see that!
Will Scream 4 continue or address this Puritanical slut shaming? Neve Campbell’s Sidney is a powerful Final Girl who elicits nothing but hearty “you go GIRL!”s from the audience. She survived the loss of her virginity, typically a slasher-film guarantee that you’re dead. So much is made about her triumphing and surviving and living her life without fear.
So why is she perpetually paying for her mom’s sexual sins?
(below: my lame MSPaint attempt at a Warhol, to show the grip Scream had on pop culture in the 90’s)
UPDATE: SCREAM 4
I just got back from the film. I very much enjoyed the meta-commentary in this one, which deals with remakes. There's a clever string of opening sequences before the opening sequence - one which wants to have you believe that attractive young blonde teenagers become avid horror geeks.
The movie itself is thinner in the character and scares department - a few good thrills here and there, better than "Scream 3", but lacking an engaging story. A shout out to Haydn Panettiere. Her character was the only who showed any sort of a personality.
While it was nice to have the original three stars back (Campbell, Arquette and Cox) they didn't shine, and Sidney regressed rather than evolved.