Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Still Screaming After All These Years

On the heels of my post about the movie adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, I offer this, however unenthusiastically: We will someday see Scream 4. By which I mean that we may someday see commercials and billboards promoting it and likely bearing the text “Scream 4.” Whether any of us will go see the actual film is another matter altogether.

An allegedly credible source recently leaked the news that director Wes Craven (whose filmography includes the previous Scream movies, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the poorly conceived but hilariously named Shocker) and screenwriter Kevin Williamson (Scream and Dawson’s Creek, both of which he departed from before their conclusions) may retream for another round of self-referential horror comedy, this one, of course, involving a newer, younger set of potential body bag-fillers. Whether the rumor even approaches the truth remains to be seen, of course, but the possibility of Scream 4 ever hitting theaters prompted me to reflect on the original movie.

image from new york post

Looking at this blog as a gauge of what has grabbed my attention over the past few years, a reader could hardly tell that the first Scream played a major role in my teenage years and, now that I think about it, helped me love movies in general. I haven’t written much about Scream here, perhaps because the passage of team has strengthened my critical eye and perhaps because I eventually realized that the people who rave about slasher movies are, in general, weirdos.

Whatever the reason, the three Scream movies now represent a part of my life that feels longer ago than it actually was: high school. And rightly so — the movies basically framed my high school years, with the first coming out at the start of my freshman year and the third in the winter of my senior year. A relic of my former life though these movies may no be, they nonetheless made an impact on me — and pop culture in general.

In short, this: The mantra of the frightened movie-goer who is trying to mentally escape the dread of being slashed to death on the spot by a cinematic psychokiller is “It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie,” or so we’re told. When it comes to Scream, however, I’m willing to argue that it’s not only a movie.

image from

Outside the context of my life, I think it’s interesting to look at Scream in the context of the flood of that particular type of self-aware, teenage-centered TV shows and movies that followed and which were released between the time I was 14 and 18 years old. Many owed a debt to Scream in some way. Think about it: Scream put Williamson on the map. Following its success in 1996, we had Dawson’s Creek, which Williamson created; the “true” TV series incarnation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which mixed teenaged angst, pop culture references and horror in a way that it may not have been able to do successfully were it not for Scream; and movies like She’s All That, which starred an astounding number of alumni from previous Kevin Williamson efforts. And She’s All That was released in 1999 — only three years after Scream hit theaters — which goes to show how quickly Williamson built a small teenspoitation empire. Even today, anytime a twentysomething actor playing a Billy Everyteen spouts a pop culture reference to emphasize a point, I think of Williamson, the guy who once turned a conversation about an edited-for-TV broadcast of The Exorcist into a PG-13-appropriate booty call.

Independent of the pop culture continuum, Scream resonated with me personally because, to put it simply, I was the perfect person to watch it. The 14-year-old version of me who wandered into the theater to watch Scream literally knew nothing about it save for the fact that the girl from E.T. was in it. Seriously. That’s it. I didn’t even know that Drew Barrymore’s character died in the first ten minutes much less that she would do so in a particularly gruesome manner. (“Her insides on the outside,” as the late Tatum Riley put it so succinctly.) Beyond that, I hadn’t seen horror movies before Scream. I’d read about them — allowing me to understand a lot of the film’s in-jokes — and had always been to type to scan the backs of the VHS boxes in the video store horror section until would make me stop. But I’d never actually sat and watched anything that would have actually scared me. (Okay, I had technically seen Halloween 5 at a fifth grade birthday party sleep over, but — and this is full disclosure here — I hid my eyes for most of it. Also, the movie sucked, I realize now, and seeing it without knowing who Michael Myers was or what had transpired in the previous films made it more confusing than anything else.) While I sat watching Scream, all these factors combined to create a perfect storm: I sat in my seat completely engrossed, my leg shaking with anticipation and my body involuntarily jumping at the kind of scare scenes a horror movie veteran would have seen coming a hundred miles away.

Immediately after, I went home and did my homework, using this new thing called “the inter-net” to read about how the movie came to be and the various sources it drew upon. As a result, I rented Halloween. I rented Suspiria. I even rented “that werewolf movie with E.T.’s mom in it.” I started reading movie reviews — of Scream specifically, but soon whatever happened to be out. I bought movie magazines. I suddenly had some idea what was coming to a theater near me before it actually did. I had a passion.

It helped, of course, that the movie was actually good. I’ll still argue in its favor today, perhaps less wholeheartedly than I might have when I was still a teenager but with reasonable vigor nonetheless. Scream was funny and scary, I thought, and that’s not an easy combination to pull off. (Case in point: The Frighteners, directed by a pre-Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson.) It had some great lines, among them, “Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative.” And, finally, it was far better acted that just about every slasher movie in history. I honestly think Barrymore has seldom acted so convincingly outside the opening “Jiffy Pop” sequence.

One review of Scream — in Entertainment Weekly, if I remember correctly — called it the first movie to ever merit comparison to both Clueless and Psycho. I agree with this claim. It probably was, and this fact helps demonstrate the final reason why I think Scream deserves to be remembered as more than just a scary movie that managed to make money: It embodied the late 90s in one glaring, unfortunate way, what with its creation of a media-saturated teenaged world that would be repeatedly punctured by violence. Keep in mind that all those teenybopper movies and TV shows I mentioned took on the world during the years when the post office shooting spree trend gave way to the school shooting spree trend. In the way that school shootings unnerved those of us who went to school those small towns where nothing bad ever happens, the students of Scream’s Woodsboro High had to fear being struck down in their adolescent prime, likely for no reason, likely at the hands of someone they knew and had previously trusted not to kill them. I can’t realistically compare the grief that school shooting survivors suffered to the phony dread of slasher movies, but the fact that Scream had revived the genre to the point that its peak coincided with the Columbine High School massacre seems noteworthy, though not for the alleged cause-and-effect relationship that some claimed at the time.

All the preceding arguments may not win over those who never bothered with Scream or did and left the theater unmoved, I suppose, but they represent my reasons why those people perhaps should have bothered or might want to reevaluate their stance on the film. These reasons also encapsulate my motivations for doubting the motivations behind making Scream 4. As Ain’t It Cool News noted about the news of the purported sequel, “It seems possible that Wes Craven could be persuaded to come back to direct. Why? I’m told he's a big fan of the money.”

Indeed, I do assume that greed is a motivating factor here, and not some belief that some aspect of the Scream saga needs to be told again or some desire to once more parody the slasher films of the 80s. After all, those movies — with their photogenic, talentless serial killer fodder — aren’t even the dominant off-shoot of the horror genre anymore: It’s now Hostel-style gore flicks and bloodless remakes of Asian fright flicks. (The latter of which became a profitable type of movie only in the wake of The Ring, the script for which was written by Ehren Krueger, who took over the writing duties for Scream 3 after Williamson bailed to work Wasteland, his short-lived TV series follow up to Dawson’s Creek. And the torture porn and J-horror retreads already get mocked by the Scary Movie series, which itself began as a parody of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and even takes its name from the Scream’s working title.

As most do, the Scream series deteriorated with each sequel, but not by much, at least, with Scream 2. Scream 3 did not fare as well, but even at the hands of a less talented screenwriter less familiar with the series, it still managed to offer some neat ideas, including some novel takes on the series-spanning theme of life and death interacting with the their representations in Hollywood. But though it ended the series with a series with more of a whimper than was deserved by the gasp of air that was the first movie.

No, the Scream series doesn’t need to extend into the new millennium, for the reasons I just mentioned — greed shouldn’t extend the life of movie franchises, the target of the series’ humor has been pretty well staked, the world may have moved to far beyond the point where a pop culture-saturated horror seems necessary — but also for my own indefensible, personal reason: I want to keep the 90s where they belong. For me, Scream was and is this particular time period in such away that I don’t look forward to watching some latter-day, tacked-on sequel try and absorb the pop culture that we now have ten years down the line. It can try, of course, and it might even succeed, but I’d much prefer to leave Scream, Scream 2 and Scream 3 in the same time period that allowed the bands appearing on their soundtracks to be popular. (Take a look at them, if you have a chance, and get a refresher in recently forgotten bands: Sugar Ray, Tonic, Less Than Jake, Orgy, System of a Down, Fuel even Creed, for god’s sake. Scary indeed.) Really, if there’s ever any hope for “smart” horror movies, one of the few to actually fit in that category should know better than to slowly let the life drain out of it over the course of endless sequels.


  1. you forgot that scream gave us the gift of matthew lillard, who, of course, continues to delight us with his performances today, and is very well known and well respected.

  2. Good point on that one.

    I forgot to mention the strange cross-section of actors and actresses who appeared in the various Scream movies. It's odd looking at the careers of the people in the first Scream. Depsite some promise ten years ago, the careers of Matthew Lillard, Skeet Ulrich, David Arquette and Jamie Kennedy have mostly fizzled. Courtney Cox is actually about in the same place she was back then, as far as her film career goes. Her TV career is only what's changed. I feel like Neve Campbell almost willingly fell off the map. Drew Barrymore is doing okay. And Rose McGowan seems to be enjoying a revival, of sorts, even if it's with her version 2.0 face.

    Bit players have fared better. Who would have expected so much from Portia de Rossi after seeing her tiny part as the only sorority sister
    ever cursed with the name "Murphy" in Scream 2? And who would have guessed that Kelly Rutherford — the first one killed in Scream 3 —
    would have found as much fame as she now has on Gossip Girl? Scream 3 actually featured a few people who found success in its wake. Patrick Dempsey is doing about as well as he ever has. Everyone still loves Parker Posey. And Emily Mortimer — whose performance in Scream 3 helped her shed her status as a actress who only appears in British period pieces — is maybe doing best of all.

  3. One more thing: Speaking of Scream 3, I have to point out the strangeness of Parker Posey's character: Jennifer Jolie. A lot of the characters in Scream 3 have names that seem like they come from a combination of names from real-life celebrities. Matt Keesler's leading man-type character is Tom Prinze, which is pretty obviously Tom Cruise and Freddie Prinze — the latter of whom, I'll remind you, was still famous the year Scream 3 came out. And Emily Mortimer's ingenue character is Angelina Tyler, which seems like it should come from Liv Tyler and Angelina Jolie. Angelina would seem to be used again with the Parker Posie character, and I'm willing to bet her first name comes from Jennifer Aniston, who at the time was still Courtney Cox's costar on Friends and who was already the brunt of a joke in Scream 2. In Scream 3, one of the characters even mentions that Jennifer Jolie used to be on a show on "Must See TV." So it seems pretty probable, then, that Jennifer Jolie represents some unholy union of Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie smashed into one body — which wouldn't be notable at all if those two actresses weren't the immediately former and current loves of Brad Pitt, respectively.

    Odd how that happened.

  4. So, I don't know if you remember making me a bunch of data CD's when my hard drive crashed a few year's back. In order to access the music on them, I had to enter your iTunes password, which you so kindly gave me. I tried to ask the meaning of your password, but you deferred.

    Now I know. It wasn't from "Paper Moon." It was "Scream."

  5. Eep. Don't go squealing now, ladypants.

  6. nice post.
    as usual.

    scream was a major point in my life.
    i was a little younger...

    middle school, if i'm not mistaken.

    i remember actually loving the first two films for more than the horror aspect of it all.

    and people were always like: yeah,'s just a scary movie.

    i'm glad, for once, someone articulated for me that it's not "just a scary movie".

    until next time