35mm: Four Nights of Scream
When a character asks, “How much more meta can you get?” as they do in Scream 4, they’ve answered their own question. While the Scream movies have always thrived on their self-awareness, the question is whether audiences can stomach more of the horror-movie-within-a-horror-movie-mimicking-a-horror-movie-within-a-horror-movie meta shtick.
“I’m sick of this post-modern meta shit,” one character declares. But we know they don’t mean it.
But are we sick of it? Does it still work? All important questions. But the real question, the one at the center of today’s Feature Column, is: Can I stomach Four Nights of Scream?
I’ve taken pains to make this a NO SPOILER column. If you haven’t seen Scream or Scream 2 yet, I might ruin a few scenes for you, but nothing you won’t forgive me for.
There’s a particular scene in Scream 2 when Sidney is trapped in a police car with the unconscious Ghostface Killer. In order to get out of the car, she has to climb over the killer and out his window. “I hate this shit,” she says. And that sort of sums up the way movies like Scream make me feel. A big tense, uncomfortable adrenaline rush. The last horror movie I dragged myself to see was Drag Me to Hell, which was worth it, but it re-enforced my conviction: I like roller coasters, I like mysteries and thrillers, but horror films make me feel too damn uncomfortable. The good ones. If they’re really good, they’re worth it. Not all of the Scream movies are worth it. The truth is: if it wasn’t for Scream 4, I probably never would have gone back and watched the originals.
I’d seen the whole trilogy as a kid. I loved the writer Kevin Williamson–creator of Dawson’s Creek, still the intellectual and creative crowning achievement of teenage television trash–and I’d devoured more Wes Craven films than I could imagine subjecting myself to at this age. I had been almost old enough to see Scream 3 in theaters. Almost. But not quite. I schemed like mad to get into that movie. No one could quite figure out why I wanted to see it so bad. My mom, I know, felt sorry for me, but not enough to sit through Scream 3 with me. Some older friends agreed to accompany me before the film left theaters, but it never materialized. I could have snuck in. But I just a little too young and afraid to try that at my local theater.
So yes. There was no question I was going to see Scream 4 on opening day. And, it seemed like a worthy effort to rewatch the original trilogy. I forced my girlfriend join me, and watching the films with her gave me some unique insights.
So, uh, let’s get started.
TUESDAY NIGHT: SCREAM (1996)
What a trip down memory lane. Watching the now classic opening scene with someone who didn’t know Drew Barrymore was about to die was great. Drew Barrymore–being the only real star in the movie at the time–was put front and center on most of the posters and promotional material. I would have loved to sit with a shocked audience in 1996 watching as she’s hacked open and gutted in the first 15 minutes. I realize I sound sick and depraved right now. But we’re talking about the Scream movies here.
Of all the films, this ending is probably the best. It’s a great answer to the mystery of who the killer is, and the motive is, well, just more believable than any of the subsequent films. A true horror classic. I was uncomforable the whole time I was watching it, but I’m glad I saw it again.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT: SCREAM 2 (1997)
Scream 2 was conceived while Williamson was still writing the original. It went into production just 6 months after the first one came out and was released, astonishingly, just under a year after the first one.
While Scream was a film about horror genre conventions, Scream 2, not shockingly, was about the conventions of a horror sequel. To do this, Williamson devised a story mechanism that could allow him to not only keep all of the surviving characters and meta-humor from the first one, but to crank up the meta even more. The device Williamson came up with was STAB, a fake horror film based on the fake book Gail Weathers wrote about the fake events in the first movie. Stab becomes the stand-in for Scream in Scream 2. The series makes a pivotal turn here, one that cements the original Scream as “a classic” and allows the characters to not just wax about the genre in general, but about the actual movies they’re in.
Williamson has fun with this in Scream 2, and even more so in Scream 4. But Scream 2 is actually a pretty good sequel. It doesn’t really compare to the original, but it’s good. College is subbing in for Woodsboro high school, which gives it less of a claustrophobic vibe. Sidney suddenly wants to be an actor, which feels fake–or at least meh–but allows for the writer and filmmaker to have fun with the themes of theatrics, performances, and paves the way for a farily disturbing, Black Swan-esque sequence on stage. It also features every teen actor from the late 90′s. It’s fun to watch many of them die.
My girlfriend Megan points out that while Scream is terrifying, Scream 2 is more of a mystery. But still pretty scary.
THURSDAY NIGHT: SCREAM 3 (2000)
From my diary Thursday night:
Dear God kill me. That was terrible. That was so bad, I can’t believe I didn’t remember it. That wasn’t even the same genre as the first Scream. That was a cheeky Hollywood mystery, complete with cheezy sets, wacky characters, contrived scenarios, forced meta-humor, and a deep disrespect for all things righteous and good. That was boring and painful to sit through. That was an admission of deep defeat on the part of all people involved with it. Dear God.
If you need to know how bad Scream 3 was, or if you need a reminder– there’s a scene where Randy–the film geek played by Jamie Kennedy–appears in a post-humous home recording. The VHS tape is delivered by his heretofore unseen sister. Apparently, he recorded right before dying in Scream 2. In it, he explains the ‘rules’ of a trilogy.’ He explains that he’s doing this for the main cast’s benefit, in case he didn’t make it through the sequel.
Wes Craven almost saved this film by abandoning the idea of a terrifying serial killer altogether. Sort of almost. But all the trap doors, spooky mansions, and false scares–with cast members appearing suddenly and everyone screaming comically, over and over–couldn’t save the sinking ship of a shit fest that was Scream 3. It’s late, and I should go to bed. But I’m too shaken up. That was by far the scariest film in the trilogy, by sheer virtue of the fact that someone approved the script. That multiple people approved the script. Hell, maybe no one read the script. It’s Hollywood after all.
Don’t ask me why I have such high hopes for #4. Maybe it’s because Kevin Williamson is back writing it. Kind of.
Went to Variety. Looked at the review synopsis. It reads: “Overblown, overlong and overstuffed with genre self-referentialism.” Don’t have the heart to read that one. Go to Hollywood Reporter. Their review is called “‘Scream 4′ More of the Same Old; Hardcore Fans Won’t Mind” with the synopsis: “The latest in Wes Craven’s horror franchise works in a new generational mix of actors, but Neve Campbell too often seems stranded with little to do until the climax.” There. I can live with that. Genre self-referentialism I expect, after all. It’s what made the first one unique, what was kind of flubbed in the second one, and what was utterly butchered in the third one, no doubt in the hands of over a dozen writers (I can only hope it was idiocy-by-committee for the sake of credited writer Ehren Kruger).
FRIDAY NIGHT: SCREAM 4 (2011)
A wise man once said you can judge a Scream movie based on its opening murder sequence. Well, It has now been three nights since we watched Scream 3 and I already cannot remember the opening sequence. Let me rack my brain here. Umm… Something about Stab 3… I don’t know. Not memorable. Not a good movie.
Scream 4′s opening sequence, by contrast, is quite memorable. More funny than scary, it pokes fun at the series and comes dangerously close to taking the movie-within-a-movie bit too far. But not quite. It pulls it off and launches us right into the movie. In this film, someone is trying to remake the original Stab movie in real life on the 15th anniversary of the Woodsboro murders. A whole new round of suspects, some forgettable. Some gruesome deaths– arguably more graphic than any of the previous films. But not to excess. Well. It’s a slasher film. It’s founded upon excess. But the excess doesn’t feel strained. It feels right.
It’s not perfect. And I won’t try to guess how much of the film’s faults were caused by the Screamius behind Scream 3, Ehren Kruger, who was brought on after Williamson “bailed mid-production because of Weinstein meddling,” according to Nikki Finke. I’ll just say that I’m happy it was as good as it was. Many critics blasted the film. Some genuinely enjoyed it. But anyone who saw Scream 3 the night before will agree that there’s plenty to be thankful for.
What most surprised me about rewatching the Scream movies is that they’re all, at their core, mysteries, good old fashioned whodunnits, covered in blood. Another great thing about the franchise is the killer. Ghostface remains an almost supernatural enigma, a consistent character who’s inhabited by different perpetrators each time around. Every time Ghostface–still voiced by Roger “Mr. Mucinex” Jackson–calls Sidney at the beginning of the second act, he speaks as if he’s the same killer, back from the dead. Every time, Sidney reacts as if it were a monster back from the dead, and so do we, the audience.
Ghostface is the eternal villain who can be only killed off temporarily. When the killer or killers finally take off their masks in the third act, they become the new, defeatable antagonist. When they die, the episode is over, but we all know Ghostface will rise again. It’s as if the killers were possessed by a demon. To battle with them is to battle the demon, but to defeat them is only to exorcise it. The demasking of Ghostface has to happen of course, and Williamson usually holds it off as long as possible. Because he knows it’s all downhill from there.
Will poor Sidney finally die? Who has ressurected the Ghostface killer? What has become of the Stab movie franchise in the last eleven years? If you’re remotely curious about any of those questions, Scream 4 is a good time. But, it seems opening weekend audiences weren’t that interested at all. According to Sunday morning estimates, Scream 4 only pulled in about 19.2 million dollars. Globally, it made 49.2 million, which isn’t terrible. Domestically, it came in at number 2, behind Rio.
I have a strong feeling that Scream 4 will have legs. I won’t make the, “kids have finals, it’s a bad release date,” argument. Because it’s equally likely that, after eleven years and a tragically bad third installment, seeing Scream 4 opening weekend wasn’t a top priority for a lot of people. But word of mouth should carry this film well past $100 million. Then again maybe not. Maybe I’m just rooting for it because I liked it. We’ll see, and I’ll be keeping you posted. Check back soon for more features and news from the world of film and showbusiness.
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