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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 32: Scream (1996)

screamDirector: Wes Craven

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:

  1. Never have sex.
  2. Never drink or do drugs.
  3. 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.

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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 17: The Exorcist (1973)

exorcistDirector: William Friedkin

Writer: William Peter Blatty, based on his novel

Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jason Miller, Mercedes McCambridge

Plot: In Washington, DC, we meet Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), whose faith beginning to crumble as his mother lies dying. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress who in town to make a movie. Her marriage is dissolving, but she’s clinging to her young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). Regan begins to exhibit strange behavior, beginning with disrupting a dinner party by announcing to one of the guests, “You’re going to die up there,” and urinating on the carpet. Later that night, her bed begins thrashing wildly, terrifying girl and mother alike. Although Chris initially seeks out a medical explanation for Regan’s odd behavior, the horrible events persist, increasing to violent outbursts, exclamations of profanity and blasphemy, and even levitation. Meanwhile, the local church has been desecrated, and the director of Chris’s movie dies in an apparent accident, assuming one can “accidentally” turn his head around 180 degrees.

Believing Regan’s symptoms to be psychosomatic, a psychiatrist suggests an exorcism, reasoning that if she believes she is possessed by a demon, she may be cured by making her believe she is freed. Chris turns to Karras, a psychiatrist as well as a priest. When he sees how desperate Chris has grown, he agrees to examine the girl. Karras splashes Regan with Holy Water and records the strange words she howls in pain. He later reveals to Chris that he lied – the water was unblessed, which supports the case that everything is in Regan’s mind. When he later plays the tape backwards, though, he hears Regan speaking clearly, threateningly, menacingly… in English.

When Karras turns to his superiors to request an exorcism, they summon Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow). Merrin and Karras begin the ritual of exorcism. As they pray, the demon inside Regan assaults them, first verbally, then physically by hurling things around the room, cracking the ceiling, and finally striking Karras from behind. Karras leaves the room, returning to find Merrin seemingly dead. He attacks Regan, viciously striking her and commanding the demon to take him instead. It leaps from Regan into Karras, and he hurls himself from the window, falling to his death on the steps below. In an epilogue, Chris and Regan leave town, Regan having no memory of her ordeal, hoping the demons of all kinds stay behind them.

Thoughts: This one was a lock as soon as I decided to try this little project. The Exorcist has turned up on just about every “scariest of all time” list I’ve ever seen, and with good reason. The scenes of Regan’s slow deterioration are expertly staged and performed. Linda Blair begins as a charming, gregarious child, transforming stage by stage into a real monster in innocent form. Blair also is very effective as a physical actress, going through her terrible convulsions, flapping her tongue menacingly at the priests, and thrashing about like a madwoman.

The special effects are rather impressive for 1973 as well – the scene where Regan’s head turns backwards is still creepy as hell today. The classic scene with the projective-vomit pea soup is a little cheesy by today’s measure, but you fall right back into fright just moments later when you see Regan, caked in her demon makeup, soup dripping from her chin, and a look of utter hatred and madness in her unnaturally green eyes. And of course, Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” remains one of the all-time great horror movie scores. Those haunting chimes, even today, are enough to give anyone who has seen the movie a chill.

However, coming back to the film for the first time in several years, it’s interesting just how different it is from modern horror films. The first real supernatural occurrence – the shaking of Regan’s bed – doesn’t happen until 40 minutes into this 122-minute film! Blatty spends nearly a third of his running time on exposition and character before he actually gets into the meat of the storyline, a technique that a modern movie studio would consider absolute poison. It’s another full 35 minutes before Chris and Karras meet for the first time, and Karras doesn’t see Regan for the first time (in heavy make-up and strapped into a bed that has been heavily padded – in a very effective visual) until the movie hits the 80-minute mark. Merrin himself – the titular exorcist – doesn’t really factor into the story in any substantive way until the final 30 minutes. It’s also hard to imagine a movie today ending without little Regan engaging both priests personally, physically, hand-to-hand, with lots of overdone CGI, instead of allowing her demonic powers to do the work for her. And let’s not forget the most horrific thing in this film that would never, never turn up even in the most soulless, horrific perversion of cinema in 2011: the scene where the doctor lights up a cigarette in his own waiting room.

Terrors.

Speaking of the doctor, the film also continues the proud cinematic tradition of having people in authority be absolute idiots. “She’s thrashing wildly, throat is bulging, eyeballs turn white… oh, and her entire bed is levitating. It must be psychosomatic.” Sure, there’s an effort to justify their disbelief by cooking up the old stories about tiny women lifting up cars in times of stress, but that really feels like quick lip service to get us past the perfunctory need for these characters to exist.

Like all great horror films, it works because it taps into genuine fears of the time. The idea of the devil is nothing new, nor is the idea of possession. This movie – and the novel it’s based on – hit just when people were ready to fear these classic horrors again. Besides the religious implications, the film works because it taps into the fear that comes with changing the familiar into something unfamiliar. Taking a child – particularly a little girl, perhaps the most innocent form of human life one can imagine – and turning her into an object of terror is a very effective way to gut the audience. If it didn’t speak to something primal in the human psyche, it wouldn’t have done so well, nor given birth to so many imitators. In terms of influence, this film kind of kicked off a rash of movies about children possessed by (or embodying) the supernatural: The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, Poltergeist, and Children of the Corn all come to mind. Each of those, and many others, bear the fingerprints of this tale in one way or another.

Once again, we see the fears of America shifting from the supernatural to the demons within. Tomorrow we tousle with the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.