Director: Peter Jackson
Writer: Peter Jackson & Frank Walsh
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy, R. Lee Ermey, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Danny Elfman
Plot: Paranormal investigator Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has a good racket going. His ghostly assistants Stuart (Jim Fyfe), Cyrus (Chi McBride) and the Judge (John Astin) “haunt” a house, and he goes in to “exterminate” them for a healthy fee. After the mysterious death of a recent client, Ray, (Peter Dobson), Frank learns of a rash of sudden deaths that appear to be heart attacks, but whose victims were in perfect health. Ray’s wife, Lucy (Trini Alvarado) turns to Frank for comfort, made a bit awkward by the fact that Ray’s ghost is right there. Frank witnesses a shrouded figure (a “Grim Reaper,” according to the Judge) murdering a man, whose spirit takes the light-filled corridor to the afterlife – a choice Ray and Frank’s ghosts failed to make when given the opportunity.
FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) is brought in to investigate Frank, now a suspect in the strange deaths. Dammers has suspected Frank for some time, ever since the mysterious death of Frank’s wife. She was found with the number 13 carved into her forehead – something that resonates with Frank, who saw 37 and 38 on the two most recent victims. When 39 is killed in the museum, Frank rushes in to investigate, and the Reaper cuts the Judge’s spirit in two. Frank tries to protect #40 – newspaper editor Magda (Elizabeth Hawthorne), but the Reaper gets her as well, and Frank is arrested.
Lucy’s investigation of the situation leads her to Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace), who as a teenager was accused of being an accomplice of executed serial killer Johnny Charles Bartlett (Jake Busey). When she visits Frank in jail, “41” appears on Lucy’s forehead. Frank and the ghosts narrowly save her from the Reaper, but Stuart and Cyrus are “killed” as they escape. Frank believes he can stop the Reaper by killing himself, but Lucy instead places him in a hypothermic coma, freeing his spirit to roam. Dammers, meanwhile, abducts Lucy and takes her to a cemetery. Frank saves her from the Reaper, who turns out to be the ghost of Johnny Bartlett. He’s been collaborating with Patricia, trying to top the high scores of history’s worst serial killers.
Frank awakens and, with Lucy, finds Barlett’s ashes, hoping to use them in the hospital where he committed his murders to condemn his soul to Hell. Dammers is in the hospital too, still obsessed with Frank, and Patricia is running through the halls with a shotgun. She kills Dammers and chokes Frank to death. As the corridor to the afterlife appears, Frank rips Patricia’s soul from her body, and Bartlett chases the two of them. He and Patricia are taken to Hell as Cyrus and Stuart reappear to reunite Frank with his wife. It’s a brief reunion, though, as his friends tell him it’s not his time yet, and send him back to Earth and Lucy… who now can see the ghosts too.
Thoughts: Early in his career, Peter Jackson made gooey gorefests like Dead Alive. Today he’s known for the visual effects and epic scale of Lord of the Rings. This film, made in-between those two eras, actually serves very nicely as a bridge between them. The sensibility of the movie feels similar to his early work: funny, while still carrying a sense of the macabre, like Ghostbusters with a more cynical edge. However, here he’s beginning to step aside from the practical effects of his earlier films towards the more high-tech visuals of today. This was 1996, of course, before it was virtually a requirement that every element of a film be soaked in CGI, back when actors had to literally appear on a set together, and Jackson at this early stage actually strikes a very nice balance between the two.
The plot isn’t particularly original – the serial killer coming back as an agent of death has been done before, and since, and better, and worse. And in fact, I think the stuff with the numbers is even a bit of a cheat. If Bartlett cared numbers into victims’ foreheads when he was alive, it seems to me that people would remember that little tidbit. Frank clearly knows who Barlett is the moment he sees his face, but he didn’t know enough about his killings to know about the numbers? I call foul on that one.
That said, the execution of the story is good. Michael J. Fox isn’t quite the slick wisecracker he is in a lot of his performances. He’s wounded and somewhat cold, still struggling with his wife’s death and trying to keep Lucy at a distance despite his attraction to her. His snark is mostly kept to a minimum, and even though he’s technically a con man, he doesn’t put forth the air of a snake oil salesman one would usually associate with that kind of a role. It’s always fun to see John Astin, but it’s kind of a shame that – of the three main ghosts – he was almost completely hidden under makeup. Without his distinctive voice, it’s unlikely that anyone would have recognized him.
The final confrontation, more than any other part of the movie, really shows the filmmaker Peter Jackson was going to become. The fight in the Bradley house, with Barlett leaping through walls and paintings, has a lot of real style to it. It’s CGI, yes, and you know it’s CGI, but it’s not such blatant CGI that it rips you out of the movie, like a lot of movies come across today. Once the action moves to the hospital, the tension is ratcheted up less by the ghosts and more by the two still-living antagonists, who seem in some ways to be even more dangerous. Maybe it’s because he’s a ghost or maybe it’s because he’s Jake Busey, but somehow Barlett’s deranged behavior isn’t nearly as disturbing as that of Dammers or Patricia.
On the sliding scale of horror and comedy, this film definitely leans more heavily on the horror side than Ghostbusters, and even more than Jackson’s own Dead Alive (although it is considerably less grotesque than the earlier movie). The ghosts feel like they came from a less wacky version of Beetlejuice. Combs, meanwhile, is impossible to separate from his character in the Re-Animator series, hamming it up similarly while playing a very different role in this film than those others.
This is a movie that’s been on my “to-watch” list for a very long time, a product of my appreciation for Peter Jackson and my love for Michael J. Fox. This month, I suspect, is going to be great for scratching movies like that off my list. It didn’t disappoint me at all.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Cast: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Liev Schreiber, Henry Winkler, Roger L. Jackson, W. Earl Brown
Plot: At home alone, a girl named Casey (Drew Barrymore) gets phone calls from a mysterious stranger (voiced by Roger L. Jackson). Although friendly and flirtatious at first, the caller starts to get angry and violent, finally revealing that he’s outside her house and he’s got her boyfriend taped to a chair. He forces her to play a sadistic horror movie trivia game for her boyfriend’s life, but she gets a question wrong (it’s a question that you, dear reader, should be able to answer correctly if you’ve been paying attention to this little experiment) and Steve is slashed. Casey tries to run, but is caught by a cloaked figure in a Ghost-faced mask who stabs her and leaves her dangling in the trees for her parents to find.
The next day we encounter Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), one of Casey’s classmates, who is having trouble dealing with the upcoming one-year anniversary of her mother’s death at the hands of a man named Cotton Weary (Live Schrieber). At school the next day, Sidney’s friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) tells her about the murders, and the media descends upon the campus. Sidney and Tatum’s boyfriends, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) are overly enthused about the killings, while their film buff buddy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) mocks their cavalier attitude. That night, the killer calls Sidney, claiming to be outside her house. She is saved when Billy arrives, but when he drops a cell phone, she thinks he’s the killer (remember, kids, this was before every person on the planet had four phones in their pants). Tatum’s brother Dewey (David Arquette), a police deputy, arrives and arrests Billy. As Sidney leaves the police station, she is accosted by Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox), a TV reporter who built her career with a hurtful expose about the murder of Sidney’s mother. Sidney punches Gail and goes to Tatum’s house for the night, since her father is out of town. (What is it with horror movie parents who leave town when their kids are being stalked by murderers? Craven pulled this in Nightmare on Elm Street as well.) The next day, Gail and Sidney are confronted again, Gail espousing her theory that Cotton is innocent of Maureen Prescott’s murder, and further suggesting the new killer is related to her case. Billy, meanwhile, is released from jail when an examination of his phone records proves he didn’t call Sidney that night. As she broods, the killer attacks her at school. She escapes, but Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler) cancels all classes until further notice. Unfortunately, Ghostface doesn’t obey school hours – Himbry is his next victim.
Gleeful over the school cancellations, Stu throws a horror movie party at his house. Just about everybody is there, including Gail and Dewey, watching the place in the news van through a camera they hid in the living room. Tatum goes to the garage for more beer, and winds up encountering – and being killed by – Ghostface. Billy and Sid retreat to Stu’s parents room (again, where are the parents?) and she confesses she’s terrified of turning into a “bad seed” like her mother, who was having an affair with Cotton. As they “make up,” downstairs Randy schools the crowd (and the audience) on the rules of surviving a horror movie:
- Never have sex.
- Never drink or do drugs.
- Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances say, “I’ll be right back.”
Naturally, all the rules are being broken all over the place.
The party empties out as the kids discover Himbry’s death, and Randy is left alone. Upstairs, the killer strikes, stabbing Billy and coming after Sid. She tries to run, but he seems to be everywhere, and she winds up climbing onto the roof and falling to the ground. She flees to the news van, where she and Gail’s cameraman (W. Earl Brown) watch the killer creep up on Randy… then run when he hears Sid screaming 30 seconds earlier. The camera is on a delay – one that turns out deadly for the Kenny the Cameraman. Sidney returns to the house, where Dewey staggers out, a knife in his back. Randy and Stu appear, both accusing the other of being the killer, and Sid locks them out of the house, where Billy is staggering around, bloody but alive. He opens the door, lets Randy in, tosses out a Psycho quote and shoots the film geek. Stu comes in through the side entrance with a voice-changer, and Sid finally realizes the game: Billy and Stu have both been killing, taking turns slaughtering their friends. Billy admits it’s all been a revenge game – Sid’s mother had an affair with Billy’s father, which is why Billy murdered Maureen and framed Cotton, and why he’s targeting Sid now. Stu produces Sidney’s father, tied up, who they’re planning to frame for their crimes, leaving the two of them as the heroic survivors, but they’ve got to injure each other first to make it convincing. Billy stabs Stu too deep, though, and he begins dying of blood loss. Gail arrives with a gun, but she’s forgotten to turn the safety off, allowing Billy to disarm her and knock her out. While the killers are distracted, Sid vanishes. She leaps out wearing the mask, stabs Billy with an umbrella, and then battles Stu, finally smashing his head with a TV showing the finale of Halloween. Gail, Randy and Dewey turn out to be alive, but Billy pops up and attacks again. Gail takes him down, though. This time, she remembers to turn the safety off.
Thoughts: Believe it or not, this is the first film on this entire list that I saw when it was actually a new movie. Like I said waaaaaaaay back in the introduction, I never really watched scary movies when I was a kid. In college, my buddy Jason got me to give them a try, and this was one of the earliest. As such, I didn’t quite know all of the tropes and jokes this film is crammed with. But it shows you just how powerful these elements of storytelling have become that I still got enough of them to not only understand this movie, but really enjoy it.
Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven really did usher in a new era of movies here. After Scream, cinemas were deluged with a new wave of teen horror films and slasher flicks that tried to imitate the rapid fire dialogue and self-referential nature of the movie while completely missing the heart. What they didn’t seem to get is that the filmmakers were doing the greatest kind of parody: the kind made by people who genuinely love that which they lampoon and, at the same time, create a masterful example. The film is full of references to other horror movies (including Wes Craven’s own back catalogue), and contains a now-legendary discussion about the “rules of horror movies” that we’ve been discussing in this project all along. Whether it was Craven or Williamson who’s responsible, the movie is packed with comments about Nightmare on Elm Street, including a Wes Craven cameo wearing a Freddy Krueger mask. Then of course, there’s the greatest Nightmare reference of all: Skeet Ulrich really looks like a young Johnny Depp in this flick.
Craven doesn’t flinch from acknowledging the works of other horror masters, though – the key question in the first scene is a Friday the 13th reference, and The Exorcist’s Linda Blair makes an uncredited cameo as a reporter. We also see numerous Halloween references, including the kids watching that movie on the night of the party, Ghostface giving Sidney a “head tilt” oddly reminiscent of that Michael Myers gives one of his victims in the original film, naming Billy Loomis after Dr. Sam Loomis (who, in turn, was named after a character in Psycho – it’s the circle of life, people) and the highly metatextual exchange when Randy (played, remember, by Jamie Kennedy) yells at Jamie Lee Curtis that the killer is behind her… while the killer is behind him.
Randy, by the way, is a fantastic character. He’s smart, terribly funny, and full of self-referential humor before lesser filmmakers overused it to the point where it’s gotten tedious. Jamie Kennedy was great in this part – what the hell happened to him?
Anyway, back to other horror movies. The problem was, too many of the imitators took Randy’s “rules” as some sort of iron clad set of commandments, and any creativity they may have displayed evaporated. Scream, instead, used those rules as a framework, then layered a particularly clever and rich mystery on top of them. It was a really long time since a horror film succeeded by causing the audience to question whothe killer was or which characters they could trust. This film works as a horror movie that brings in a nice element of comedy as well, but I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves for bringing real mystery back to horror. The fear at the end of the film, during the four-way standoff with Sidney, Randy, Billy and Stu, comes from the fact that Sidney has no idea which of these three boys she can trust (and the totally innocent Randy almost pays for it with his life).
While the body count isn’t enormous in this movie, especially compared to other slashers and gorefests like the Saw films, the kills are really very memorable. Casey’s death was shocking, as the movie was heavily promoted as a Drew Barrymore film and nobody expected her to die in the opening scene, and Tatum’s murder via garage door opener is pretty darn clever. It really makes you want to be careful never to get Kevin Williamson or Wes Craven mad at you.
Ghostface, as a character, is a great addition to the pantheon of horror movie killers. Even though seven different characters have worn the mask in four different movies (as of this writing), it’s almost as if they’re wearing a single character’s entire persona. No matter who Ghostface is, his style of attack is the same, the way he can pop out of anywhere like a damn ninja, the way he takes legitimate damage when his victims fight back but he keeps coming anyway. And the way he never talks in person makes it all the creepier, because unlike Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, you know he can talk. Get him on a phone with a voice changer and he chatters away like a talk show host. But in person, he’s the strong, silent, stabby type.
This film really has one of the great horror movie finales. Lots of movies have a sort of battle of wits in the end between the murderer and the Survivor Girl, but Halloween and Friday the 13th eliminated the pool of potential victims far too early. The great thing about this finale is that once the killer shows up at the party, there are still plenty of people around, and any one of them could be a victim or a murderer. In fact, the only thing that exonerates some of them from being a suspect is getting killed themselves. This, of course, wasn’t the case for Billy Loomis. It’s also notable that the film has a lot more survivors than we’re used to in horror movies. Not only are there two killers, but Survivor Girl Sidney is joined by survivors Gail, Dewey, and Randy. In fact, except for Randy (killed off in memorable fashion in Scream 2, not in a cheap “get ‘em in the first reel” way like I’ve said so many times I hate so much) all of the survivors of this movie have made it four movies into the franchise. That’s got to be some kind of record.
As great a movie as it is, the fact that it was so cutting edge at the time leaves it looking a little dated now. The fact that Billy even had a cell phone was enough to make him a suspect at this point. And of course, the stacks of videotapes (and the fact that Randy works in a video store) both seem kind of quaint already. Plus, y’know… landlines. Phones with cords. Wow. How did we ever live?
Tomorrow we’re going to head overseas for one more trip this month. It was a Japanese film that not only launched an American remake, but a host of imitators and a host of American remakes of imitators. Let’s take a look at Ringu.